You wait ages for another crack at one of From Software's devilishly difficult video games to come along, and then two show up practically at once. Arriving mere days after Bloodborne turned the gaming press into a squidgy morass of (near-perfect) marks, Metacritic swamped with lines like "a remarkable achievement" (Polygon) and "the PS4's best exclusive game" (GamesRadar+), the "Scholar of the First Sin" edition of 2014's Dark Souls II has parked itself front and center in the attentions of gamers who live for nothing more than dying over and over and over again. For fun.
This release represents the complete package for those who missed Dark Souls II first time around, featuring all downloadable content and making the leap from past-gen platforms to the Xbox One and PlayStation 4—so if you flogged your old console before DSII came out for it, now you get the definitive version, so far as its makers are concerned.
To me, the games From Software has built its reputation on—the fantasy action-RPG Souls series, incorporating 2014's DSII and its 2011 predecessor, plus the foundational Demon's Souls of 2009, widely considered the bastard-hardest of the trio—are a little like records by Radiohead. If you're in the music press, you're supposed to "get" what Thom Yorke and company are doing, even if albums like Kid A and Amnesiac don't mean a thing to you, personally. It's not that they're especially difficult to get into, as such; but there are barriers for progression through each set of experiences, wilfully esoteric tangents of patience-testing singularity. (There are more niche parallels to draw than Radiohead, but let's keep this relatively populist.)
Naturally, listening to Radiohead is a less-stressful way to spend an evening than setting out to harvest souls from a base camp in Majula, but my point is that if you're part of the games press, which I guess I am these days, you're duty bound to acknowledge that From Soft's triad of tolerance-sapping, controller-snapping Souls games are the shit. But, for me, that's just not been true.
I played Dark Souls, for a bit, and hated it. I'm all for tough games, but this one's absence of an engaging early story made connecting with my (constantly getting killed) character impossible. I ultimately didn't care about them, nor the game around them, so after being flattened by the Asylum Demon a few times—Dark Souls' very first significant enemy—I just stopped. Sorry. I know, I could have tried harder, but as your "spare" time in which to enjoy video games becomes shorter, who needs entertainment this masochistic?
And my initial encounter with the sequel went no better: soaked to the bone after being caught in torrential rain en route to publisher Bandai Namco's London HQ, I shivered my way through a few hours of death after death. It was an utterly miserable afternoon, and I walked out while everyone else in attendance for the preview session was getting stuck into the game's first boss, the lanky Last Giant. It was less a walk of shame, more a head-down charge to the nearest boozer to drown my sorrows at being so bloody inept. And damp.
But, when I got a copy of DSII home, I did try again. Something this time around, unlike the first game, had connected. I fought my way through to the Last Giant. The large space the game gives you to battle the stringy, self-dismembering beast allows for plenty of distance between you and it, time enough to strategize and take a slow, methodical approach to bringing it down. Of course, I didn't. Dead. Dead. Dead. I get that I'm shit at these games, which affects my appreciation of them being the shit, but come on. If I'm doing the same bit of any game a dozen times and failing constantly, what's really at fault: my abilities, or the design of the game in question? (That's a rhetorical question, so please don't rush to the comments. Obviously it's me.)
The announcement trailer for the "Scholar of the First Sin" edition
Really, then, the "Scholar of the First Sin" edition's release represents a third crack at Dark Souls II—but it's one I'm taking because, damn it, I am not getting left behind by a game that so many peers considered one of the very best of last year. But, already, I have concerns. It just might be that I'm never going to get along with From's so very celebrated series of action-RPGs. I'm not even at the Last Giant and already I'm having serious doubts about making any substantial headway. Things have changed, and more on that in just a moment.
What I am doing differently this time is referring to a guide, or two, to help me through each new area—and to point me in the direction of difficulty alleviating perks and collectibles. I quickly acquired the blacksmith's key from the old merchant at the Cardinal Tower—I figure having him available will be a blessing later when my gear needs fortifying, or I want a slightly sharper thing to swipe aimlessly at whatever is doing a terrific job of making me dead. I traded some of my souls for a Silver Eagle Kite Shield, as recommended by one walkthrough I've been looking at—and it's helping, definitely. Or at least, it was.
I'm also blundering into areas that I can't fight my way through—areas that aren't quite as advertised. "Visit the Cathedral of Blue," reads one slice of beginner's advice, because there's something amazing there: the Ring of Binding. This little trinket will keep my health at the manageable level of 75 percent on respawning, even after I've been cut down several times. Problem is that there are these massive knight things, loads of them, between Majula and said item's location in Heide's Tower of Flame, and guess what? Dead. Dead. Dead. Sure, I can dance my way around one or two of them, taken individually, and even do them in when it's one on one. But then you manage to piss off three at once, and while you can run for it, you'll soon enough be toast because oh look, there's now a dragon where there wasn't one before. A fire-breathing dragon, protecting the lever you need to activate to acquire the ring. The guides don't work. I repeat: The guides don't work.
Because, you see, this is the new and improved Dark Souls II. There are more ways to die than ever before, areas patrolled by updated groups of death-dealing terrors. There's a gigantic troll stomping in the shallows of the Forest of Fallen Giants' stream—he definitely wasn't there before. Likewise some turtle-shell-backed brute with a big, blunt weapon (sounds almost sexy) who crushes away half my health with a single blow when I'm on the battlements of the Cardinal Tower. He's why I've not reached the Last Giant yet. He's the scourge of my game right now. But believe me, I will beat him. I've only tried twice so, obviously, I'm not giving up.
Unless I do, because, despite my very best intentions, I've fallen victim to distraction already—albeit to another of From Software's acclaimed exercises in player punishment, Bloodborne. The gothic gore-fest is billed as being somewhat easier than the Souls games, and you know, it bloody well is. It's still heartbreakingly hard in places, and losing right when you think you've got its first Big Bad, the shrill-shrieking, bridge-pounding Cleric Beast, licked is just… Uh. The shoulders slump, the pad goes down, you go to make a cuppa and cry into it. Cockiness frequently leads to one's comeuppance, and while it's easy to get the game's cast of grotesque enemies on the back foot, they're quick to turn the tide with their own health-stripping blows if you're not swift with the side steps. It's not uncommon to die when you're right on the edge of delivering a deathblow yourself. It's not unusual to feel like the game is laughing in your stupid face.
It's got its claws in me, though, in a way that Dark Souls has never managed. Again it's feather light on immediate story, but Bloodborne's streamlined presentation of how to level up, what to do in order to keep your gear at its best, and sensibly ordered areas for harvesting currency, makes it a dramatically more approachable game. Even though it's killing me, persistently, I sort of love it. Fuck it, no "sort of" about it. While after a good handful of first-hour deaths I was hearing echoes of Trail of Dead's "A Perfect Teenhood" in my head—this, basically—that tune was slowly replaced by Chuck D barking about how he refuses to lose. Radiohead? Not nearly empowering enough.
Bloodborne was beating me, it is beating me, but I'm bouncing back, familiarising myself with its visceral attacks, gaining greater confidence with each lap around Yharnam. The werewolves that once struck fear in me can now be brushed aside like sick puppies; the brick-thrusting thugs that once cracked my skull into seven pieces aren't shit against a well-timed pistol shot and follow-up strike. Its combat is almost Bayonetta-like in style, with an action/reaction emphasis evident over a stressing to play it cool and a quicker-to-click parry system, which I can get along with more naturally. OK Computer's great and everything, but sometimes you just need The Bends.
In comparison, Dark Souls II has pressed my face down into the dirt, again, and right now I can't promise I'll peel myself from it. I'm sure that if I had endless hours to spend learning its particular, peculiar ropes, I'd eventually grab onto them and tough out its visceral thrills. But I don't, not against the current PlayStation-filling opposition and non-gaming demands on my time, so my second chance at what I understand to be a certifiable classic of its kind has quite probably been undermined by its own makers' outstanding new nightmare. Oh From, you bloody genius idiots, you.
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