Due out on April 7th, Dark Souls 2 makes its PlayStation 4 and Xbox One debut with Scholar of the First Sin - a new edition that tweaks enemy positions, adds a new thread to its story, and ties together all updates and DLC chapters released so far. Part remix, part remaster, both platforms also boost its visuals and frame-rate to a level we haven't seen before on console. We can expect texture updates and a bump to 1080p of course - but comparisons with last-gen also show some surprising twists elsewhere.
For this analysis we're looking at the gold master PS4 code, letting us form a clear impression of the end product ahead of its release, though the obligatory day one patch could perhaps see minor improvements at launch (with our menu reading version 1.00, calibrations 2.00). Early access at this stage comes with some caveats that fall into line with Bandai Namco's marketing strategy for the title - specifically that we focus on the Forest of Fallen Giants area for now, though it's fair to say it's a sizeable chunk of the game that gives the engine a firm workout.
The early sentiment is this: Dark Souls 2 on PS4 is not entirely flawless in its delivery, but nevertheless, it is the best-looking incarnation of the game to date. A pixel count shows up a perfect 1920x1080 resolution, something we also hope to verify on Xbox One on launch. That's also backed by post-process anti-aliasing that matches the FXAA technique seen on the existing PC release. Compared to last-gen standard, the upgrade in clarity from 720p is considerable.
It's fair to say From Software had this planned ahead of time, stating early on that Dark Souls 2's new engine was built to factor in PS4 and Xbox One architecture. Last year's PS3 and Xbox 360 releases were serviceable, but hardly optimal - buckling in performance when faced with its new physically-based lighting model, Morpheme animation system, and improved Havok physics. Each had bouts of play run at around 20fps, saw flickering ambient occlusion artefacts, and also a degree of pop-in absent from earlier Souls games. It wasn't the ideal state of affairs.
As you can see from our head-to-head video above, this is no longer the case on PS4. The art design of Dark Souls 2's world, compromised on last-gen with low-res textures and sub-native alpha, now attacks in full force. Normal map quality is boosted, and new assets are drawn for mountain-sides around the Forest of Fallen Giants area. From effects to shadows to motion blur, the settings are cranked up on every front - making the upgrade from PS3 very stark indeed.
But it's more than that. Dark Souls 2's lighting is updated for this new edition, creating a more vivid, high-contrast look than any earlier release. Of course, the world is crisper on PS4 by dint of the 1080p push, but outdoors areas are re-lit, in places brighter as a result, and details now pop out more vividly. Those who recall the footage of Dark Souls 2's earlier builds, featuring textures, geometry and lighting not used in the end product, will see a similarity in this release's stronger lighting.
It's a clear improvement, helping with visibility while emboldening the forest area's sharp texture details. For interiors, it has the knock-on effect of creating thicker ambient occlusion outlines around each object, though this shading effect is thankfully more subdued outdoors. Both PS3 and 360 produce a duller image in direct comparison, but where dungeon design is concerned, the PS4 relies on the same geometry as the existing last-gen build.
It's not a copy-paste of the old experience though. Dark Souls 2 on PS4 may not add new areas to Drangleic, but it does remix the enemy layout to help stave off a sense of déjŕ vu among double-dippers. Ogres and foot-soldier positions are rejigged from the very start of the Forest of Fallen Giants, and some changes here caught us off-guard. Not all are adjusted, but the refresh forces existing fans to abandon muscle memory, and once again take caution on each turn.
The PS4's strengths are emphasised here. In two early areas we spot the enemy count ratcheting up much higher than on PS3 and 360. Ironclad soldiers appear in trios where we expected just the one, and - as shown in our performance video below - hollow infantry can rally into a far more sizable mob. To combat this, the new edition adds co-op with up to six players, as opposed to the four maximum on existing versions - though each slot is just as easily filled with marauding invaders.
All of which directs our attention to performance. With its engine tailored at inception for PS4 and Xbox One architecture, it's no surprise to see 60fps as From Software's target for Dark Souls 2. Being an off-line test, there's sadly no accounting for the stress points incurred by invading players, or the mess of bloodstains and soap-stone marks that litter some perilous turns. However, results still indicate the thrust of performance for a disconnected play-through.
To summarise, the game holds at 60fps for a majority of the time on PS4, with v-sync always engaged. The bad news is that this frame-rate isn't an absolute lock; areas with too many destructible pieces lurch to the low 50s, and one explosion in our test kicks that down to 45fps, if only for a moment. We get stutters and blips along smaller paths too, but it's worth stressing that these are exceptions to the prevailing 60fps rule.
As a frame of reference, performance is in the same ballpark as The Last of Us remaster on PS4; a mostly 60fps affair with some rough spots. Dark Souls 2's pledge for 60fps is similar for its regularity of drops, but it's easy to take for granted the stretches of play where there is absolutely no issue. The bottom line is that moving from the PS3's 20fps makes a world of difference to controller response. It's an area that is crucial to mastering the game's combat timings, and once you've upgraded, going back to the sluggish last-gen editions is difficult.
Needless to say it's a bold effort overall. After playing all Souls titles to date at sub-30fps on console, it's great to have a console edition with a 60fps target, even if it's not entirely consistent. On the visual front, Souls series director Hidetaka Miyazaki may well stretch the PS4 further with the Bloodborne project - due for release only a fortnight prior to this - though it's an ambition the team admits will enforce a 30fps cap for the game. What we have in Dark Souls 2 on PS4 is existing quality refined for a new generation, and through its augments made into a definitive release.
While the PS4 version of Dark Souls 2 is now something of a known quantity, many questions remain. Will upgrades like the higher co-op player count and the new lighting make their way across to Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of Scholar of the First Sin? Can Xbox One hit the same level of performance as its PS4 counterpart? There's also the question of just how much of an upgrade the Scholar of the First Sin package is for PC owners, bearing in mind that 1080p60 gameplay is hardly a novelty on that platform. We'll aim to bring you some answers as soon as we can.