Editor's note: We're delighted to welcome back Gareth, the editor of the fascinating new zine Heterotopias, for another piece exploring the intersection between architecture and video games. You can find his last piece on Resident Evil's mansion here, and find a copy of the second issue of Heterotopias over here.
From Software's Souls series is notorious for its punishing difficulty. Yet just being hard wasn't enough for some people. They needed to make things extra hard. Do things like completing the entire game without ever levelling up or using a shield. Then other people had to come along and put those already impressive tasks to shame by playing these games with cumbersome guitar or bongo controllers, completing a campaign without getting hit, or figuring out buff concoctions that can fell colossal bosses in one hit.
"No matter how tender, how exquisite, a lie will remain a lie." - Lord Aldia
Dark Souls 2 is a strange game, though its weirdness emanates from just how conventional it is - especially given it's part of a series known for forging new boundaries. Over a year ago I wrote about revisiting Demon's Souls and being delighted to find it the freshest, riskiest and most experimental title in From's recent action-RPG line-up. Dark Souls, despite technically being set in a different universe, superficially does the whole sequel thing - it adds more levels, more monsters, more spells, and more varied environments to an already winning template, but joined the dots in one glorious interconnected world.
What curious - and many would say slightly misguided - timing it is that brings From Software's two most recent games head to head, with the Dark Souls 2 new generation remaster coming out only a week after the developer's PS4 debut Bloodborne. It's also a little unfortunate for Dark Souls 2; Souls fans have been putting Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura's sequel up against Hidetaka Miyazaki's own entries ever since it came out last March, and the results have never really been in Dark Souls 2's favour.
Set to be the definitive console version of Dark Souls 2, Scholar of the Last Sin gets a worthwhile debut on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In line with last-gen releases of this Scholar edition, each bundles in all DLC to date, adding brand new characters and tangents to its plot, with a slew of gameplay tweaks. Meanwhile, upgrades like more complex enemy layouts, improved lighting and superior effects adorn the current-gen releases - though the elusive Xbox One version comes with baggage not seen on PS4.
As a starting point, both consoles get the basics right. There are no drawbacks on the resolution front: this is a true 1920x1080 game on PS4, and a pixel count reveals it's the very same situation on Xbox One, with both backed by FXAA anti-aliasing. It's an interesting result given the console's trend of adopting lower native resolutions than PS4 to secure a smooth frame-rate, or to achieve parity in graphical features. However, Dark Souls 2's lock at 1080p plants it in the upper echelons of multi-format releases so far, at least in terms of visuals.
From a core graphical standpoint, both platforms are also entirely on par. We get a 13GB install on PS4 here, while Xbox One demands a slimmer 12.1GB chunk of HDD space, but the end turnout is the same. Each frame pushed by either console reveals the new lighting model is in play (boosting contrast, while adding light properties to alpha effects) alongside high-quality shadows, while texture assets are matched for quality across the board.
Despite its frame-pacing issues and long load times, Bloodborne is still very much worth the rush of commotion it's receiving this week. The game sits high in the hierarchy of quality PS4 exclusives, its only real competition in the gameplay stakes coming via From Software's very own remaster of Dark Souls 2, due out next week. With a new enemy layout, improved lighting and 1080p60 gameplay, the remaster's bid for relevancy is strong, but does Scholar of the First Sin keep up on technical grounds, or does Sony's exclusive steal the show?
The PlayStation 4 release of Dark Souls 2 is poised to be the best way to revisit Drangleic on console - a true 1080p title adorned with countless visual upgrades over last-gen. However, the Scholar of the First Sin remaster is also due for PC; a DirectX 11 reworking that adds many of the enhancements seen on PS4. With access to more powerful hardware, this could make it the definitive release, but as PC owners already enjoy the current game at 1080p60 and beyond, is the upgrade really necessary?
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.