The release of Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is timely. Bloodborne is currently thrilling PlayStation 4 owners all over the globe, yet like its distant relative Demon's Souls – and unlike its two most recent spiritual forerunners – it's a Sony exclusive. Scholar of the First Sin – which is essentially a remastered version of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 epic, complete with technical improvements and all of the available DLC – therefore represents a vital entry point for those who are new to the PS4, or only have access to an Xbox One. Whatever perspective you approach From Software's legendary title from, you're in for a treat. A painful, often disheartening treat – but a treat all the same.
For those who have yet to play any of the previous Souls titles, a recap is in order. Darks Souls II is an action role-playing game which is famed for its sadistic degree of difficulty and the almost complete absence of hand-holding. Like any other RPG, you equip armour and weapons, consume items and level up your character, but despite the many familiar tropes which run through the game's framework, this is quite unlike any other role-playing title you've ever experienced. Levelling up is done by cashing-in souls, the game's currency which is gained by defeating enemies. You carry these souls around with you as you explore Drangleic's hostile environment, and should you be killed – which, given the potentially deadly nature of even the most lowly foe, is very likely – you drop your amassed souls and respawn at the nearest bonfire. If you are able to fight your way back to where you were slain, you have the opportunity to reclaim those souls – but should you succumb to enemy attack en route, they are lost forever.
There's so much more to Dark Souls II than that, but this "risk and reward" mechanic is a massive part of the game's appeal. Do you keep charging forward in the hope of finding another bonfire to light but at the risk of getting killed and losing your souls – and progress – or, do you double-back to the previous bonfire that you visited to lick your wounds, sacrificing your progress in the name of safety? You'll encounter this dilemma many times during your time with the game, and the fact that death comes with such a high potential cost keeps every encounter tense. It's tempting to delve deeper into what makes Dark Souls II so compelling – the lore, the challenge, the unique online mode which makes friends and foes out of strangers all over the world – but this would merely be repeating what we've already said in our original review.
Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin delivers well over 60 hours of solid gameplay – even more if you intend to fully explore the game and collect every item. This edition adds in the three helpings of downloadable content which appeared last year: Crown of the Sunken King, Crown of the Old Iron King, and Crown of the Ivory King. These are fused into the game from the outset, and offer an expanded game world which is sure to tempt in past players who perhaps moved onto other titles and didn't bother with the DLC on the last-gen version.
The other big change is a visual one; Dark Souls II was, on occasion, quite a rough-looking title on the PS3. The game's dynamic lighting engine was formidable, but clearly came at the expense of other graphical elements. In this next-gen upgrade, everything has been given a welcome lick of paint, and the whole game (generally) moves at a smooth 60 frames-per-second. Lighting is improved, with dim environments looking even more impressive as torches illuminate their depths and lick at dusty cavern walls and battered woodwork. This is a much more handsome game than it was on the PS3, but expectations should be kept in check – it's not the generational leap that Bloodborne represents, as that title was crafted purely with the PS4 in mind, while this is, lest we forget, a last-gen offering which has been given a facelift. Some of the stages in Dark Souls II display their last-gen roots via their simplistic level of architectural detail, although these are mercifully few and far between.
DLC and spruced-up visuals are all well and good, but the most significant update in this package is the way in which From Software has reworked the game to make it a fresh challenge even to those who played the original version to destruction. Enemy and item placement has been altered, meaning that you can't rely on your existing knowledge of Drangleic to keep you alive this time around. Places you remember being a safe haven could now be teeming with enemies, and key items are likely to have been moved entirely, forcing you to rethink your route through each location, and the game in general. This sounds like a simple change, but it very nearly makes this update feel like a totally new game. So much of Dark Souls II is about cataloguing danger and exploring an unforgiving world; with everything effectively reset, the tempo of the experience feels totally fresh – even if the levels and the monsters you face are largely as you remember them.
While the industry's current love of rehashing games that are barely a year old is something that we should all be very suspicious of, Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin is so much more than just a simple clean-up job. A more apt description would be Dark Souls II: The Director's Cut; this is a re-imagining of a classic game which has been given a new lease of life thanks to clever changes in enemy and item placement. As such, it's highly recommended to existing fans as the challenge ahead doesn't feel like retreading old ground, while newcomers will benefit from better graphics, smoother performance, and all of the available DLC in one convenient package. Following on the heels of Bloodborne, Dark Souls II is a further affirmation of From Software's immense talent.