Steam Cleaning #25: Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin

Dark Souls II has been in my Steam Library for a long time. It was my first Souls-Like experience. I quite disliked it. Three times I tried to play this game, and three times I failed to even reach the first boss.

And yet years later I come crawling back again, thirsting for more Dark Souls after beating DS3 (twice) and Elden Ring. What was my experience like this time? Would I beat the game? How would I come away appreciating the game design after playing more modern successors?

It’s a mixed bag.

Dark Souls II is hard as nails for the first several hours. Even getting to the first boss can be a struggle, compared to Elden Ring and DS3 which hand you a boss battle in the first hour or even minutes of the game. As someone who played Souls games for the boss battles, this rankled me a bit.

The difficulty comes from a few changes to the formula.

Firstly, the player only gets an Estus Flask with one charge at the beginning of the game, and it takes a long time to upgrade it. Instead there are consumable healing items, which provide slow and small bits of health regeneration. Keep that in mind, we’ll come back to it.

Secondly, the player’s maximum health drops with each death, to a maximum of 50% health loss. This can be a harsh punishment for death.

Thirdly, the player starts with garbage broken weapons. Finding better weapons can take a while, and until then, the lowliest soldier is a threat.

I have mixed feelings about all three of these changes. The beginning of the game was frustrating for me after jumping into the latter FromSoft games. But at the same time, overcoming these challenges was rewarding… and anticlimactic. Did I overcome these things with skill? Well…

Once the Estus Flask has enough healing, the healing items carry less weight. But at the same time, with more souls and a place to buy healing items, I always had stock. By the end of the game I was spending excess souls on healing items, to the point that I had 99 in my inventory at all times. Resources were no longer a problem, and it was not due to skill increase… just progress. I only used the flask when I needed health quick.

The maximum health drop is solved by finding a ring that caps the loss at 25%. Between that and the free health reset I could get by assisting another player in a boss fight, I soon didn’t care about this either.

The broken weapons were solved soon enough, and I ended up using a weapon I bought from the starting area (once I unlocked the smith) for a majority of the game.

In short, the frustrating difficulty from the beginning drops away, but I don’t feel like I overcame it.

A part of the game that I appreciated, even though it contributed to the above feeling, was the world design.

Dark Souls III is linear. Elden Ring is a true open world with tons to explore. Dark Souls I is a labyrinth of interconnected levels that make intuitive sense.

Dark Souls II is none of these things. There are instead four paths that branch out from the starting area, and each path leads its own way to a Primal Bonfire. The paths can be taken in parallel, and when frustrated with one, I found myself jumping to another. The method of progression is not always straightforward, but I always had somewhere to go and something to do. While the world made no logical sense, with impossible vistas rising just beyond a bland cave wall, I loved every distinct area I found. Exploring the world became more important to me than in Dark Souls III (which is a good thing, for reasons I’ll get to later).

The downside is that since I had four parallel paths, the difficulty hit a plateau for a good 60% of the game. This combined with my above issues made the latter two-thirds of DS2 a breeze, but for the penultimate boss. I loved the world design and freedom and areas, but the difficulty curve struggled to deal with any of the parts that make this game unique.

Now for the bosses. I fought and defeated 27 of the 32 bosses available in the game. Many of them I defeated on my first try.

On paper, these bosses seem like they would be exactly my thing. I love bosses that are duels, mano y mano fights. Many of these bosses were, and they were good fights! The gameplay is a good bit slower than DS3 onward, and no bosses have big multi-hit combos to avoid, it’s just a good old-fashioned fight.

And yet, not a single boss made my jaw drop. Take Dark Souls III. Vordt. The Abyss Watchers. Sulyvahn. Dancer. Lothric. Nameless King. Soul of Cinder. There are less bosses in DS3 than DS2, but I know I’ll remember the ones from DS3 more. This is a difference in style, a difference in gameplay, and I know part of the difference is that I had infinite healing by the time I reached some later bosses. If DS3’s bosses are a 10/10 (which I know some would dispute), then the bosses here were a 7 or 8. Better than many or most games out there, but short of my expectations.

To sum all this up, Dark Souls II can be a great time depending on how it is approached. Apparently I needed to level up Adaptability to get a reasonable number of invulnerability frames on my dodge roll, which feels like a really dumb design choice. If I had not done that, I might have continued to hate this game.

As of now, I have mixed feelings, but I’m glad I played the game. I loved the lore, the scenic world, the feeling of progression from broken soldier to unstoppable force, and the world design. I liked the boss duels and the oppressive darkness, the inventive environs and the Throne Watcher/Throne Defender fight. No spoilers, but the places I was able to visit in the endgame were the most amazing, and something I never thought I’d see in this game series.

Verdict: Beat the game after years of attempts. Steam Cleaning might end up being delayed, just as everything else on this blog has been.

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