Dark Souls: Remastered Review
Reviewed on Nintendo SwitchAlso available on Sony PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Xbox One
Dark Souls: Remastered is a game which brings with it quite a lot of baggage. Originally released in 2011, Dark Souls was both heralded as being a true game of the year contender whilst also being notorious for its perceived inaccessibility due to its crushing difficulty. It spawned two sequels, Dark Souls 2 in 2014 and Dark Souls 3 in 2016 and was itself the spiritual sequel to 2009's Demon Souls, technically making it the second instalment in this larger franchise. In May of 2018 Dark Souls: Remastered was released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One so at last fans could play the entire Dark Souls trilogy on one console, before finally being ported onto the little dream machine that could, the Nintendo Switch. And that's where I come in.
I've written before that I love the Switch, not only for its design (read: style and portability) but for its catalogue of ports. I don't care if they're months behind the other consoles of this generation, or even technically ports of remasters of 7 years old titles, such as in this case. If you put them in my hand (literally, as I play the Switch almost exclusively handheld) then I will play them. Games that I had never saw fit to play before for any number of reasons have suddenly become more accessible than ever and so it was with a sense of trepidation I entered the world of Dark Souls.
So much has been written about Dark Souls seeming excessive difficulty over the years that I'm not sure what I could possibly add to the discourse. But I'm going to try. For years I was always a few steps behind the most up to date titles. I played “weird games”, almost always with a strong narrative, and watched on as people played the latest Triple -A title with some bemusement. I watched on as level design and even cinematography was pushed aside as a way to guide you through the game world in favour of dropping a marker on a mini map. I saw friendly NPCs shoot their way through military operations such that the player didn't even have to fire a single round. I saw friends take tank rounds to the face, only for them to crouch behind a rock for 15 seconds before their health completely recovered. “No” I said. “Dark Souls isn't really that hard. It's just that it doesn't hold your hand and walk you through things like most games of the modern era.” That's what I thought going into this game. And I was wrong. Dark Souls is hard.
It's also scary, in a sort of creeping gothic horror sense, with an aesthetic that immediately put me in mind of games like Vagrant Story or Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, which I loved. Combined it means Dark Souls can be really taxing on a person, mentally, hell even spiritually if you let it get to you. But here's the thing, in playing Dark Souls: Remastered, and in getting killed a few times by the opening boss (something I'm sure long time Souls fans will find hilarious) I was put in mind of a quite different game, tonally speaking if not mechanically, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Bare with me, because I am going somewhere with this.
I recalled how I felt starting out in Breath of the Wild, stepping out into that world without so much as a shirt on my back, as I had missed the chest that contained said shirt as it turns out. I remember the sheer dread I felt at the tinkling of those ivories, the musical cue letting me know a Guardian had its eye on me. I remember the terror I felt desperately trying to escape any Lynel whose path I may have been unfortunate enough to come across. But 130+ hours of gameplay later, things are very different. Yes you can increase you maximum health. Yes you can upgrade your clothes and armour to tank that damage. But running round in the post-game that I am, in shorts and a DLC Nintendo Switch t-shirt that's not really a factor. No, what's different is ME. Now when I face a Lynel, I have the skill and more importantly the confidence in my own ability to best it. I know a single hit could take me out, send me rag-dolling down a mountain side, but it's not an issue, because I never let the thing touch me. And Guardians? Don't make me laugh. Tin-plated teddy bears.
Dark Souls: Remastered is the same. The difference in defeating an enemy or getting crushed by it can often be in that split second when its guard is down, meaning you have to get up close and trust in yourself to make that split second count. The only difference here is that Dark Souls: Remastered expects you to do this right from the off, not 100+ hours into the game. That can be intimidating for sure. But the rewards of taking down an enemy that could kill you with a single blow are immeasurable. And I'm not talking about the loot it may drop, I'm talking about the thrill of being a God damned monster killer!
Another way that Dark Souls stands apart from modern games is its use of targeted damage another way in which many may find the game unfairly cruel to the player. Whilst yes, you have a health bar that acts as health bars normally do, if an enemy is able to attack you in a certain way, your health bar becomes somewhat irrelevant. If an enemy is able to parry your attack and stab you right through the chest, you best believe that'll finish you off, or reduce your health so close to zero so as to pretty much be the same thing. Whilst this can be extremely off-putting and frustrating to players being used to taking multiple hits and carrying on playing, I assure you it works both ways, which is where it's all the sweeter. Find the enemy's sweet spot and you can inflict masses of damage to it. Doesn't matter how big the thing is, most creatures tend to be adverse to having a sword thrust into its face. It's just a case of finding the courage and having faith in yourself and your abilities, to get right up in there and stick it to them.
The story of the game for what it's worth is simply enough on the surface. Your own created character (Mine was Rudolph, a name that red-nosed reindeer have perhaps ruined forever) is it seems the "Chosen Undead" destined to ring the Bells of Awakening, at first escaping a cell and venturing through a land slaying monsters and collecting souls, using them to level up your character attributes in a fairly typical RPG set up that also involves upgrading your weapons and armour as you progress. But the lore of Dark Souls is deceptively deep and I'm now beginning to understand why this game has its fans of the fantasy/horror genre and not just the “git gud” kind. My one issue is that some of the games mechanics in how they relate to your character's condition and place within the Dark Souls world isn't explained mechanically but instead through story. Which is fine, Dark Souls being a game of lore and story is one of the things I loved about it, but I can't help but feel it would have been laid out in an instruction manual back in 2011.
I'm already aware of a way that I could have defeated the first boss monster differently and thus earned a new weapon very early on, but must say I'm very happy having clutched and clawed my way through Dark Souls: Remastered, having to reap the ultimate outcome of my choices and my play style. A quick note, God help you if you attack the wrong NPC too early in the game, as they will come after you again and again and restoring your last save won't do a damned thing. Consider it duelling practice. I will definitely be playing Dark Souls: Remastered again, perhaps with the aid of a strategy guide, to ensure I explore every option going. There's definitely depth to this adventure.
Dark Souls Remastered offers an online mode which allows players to leap into each other's game worlds. This is set to be the default upon launching the game but seeing as I don't have a Nintendo Online subscription yet that's not how I was going to be playing. I've since set the default launch to Offline and I can't say I miss the colourful Nintendo Online window popping up as it was slightly jarring seeing Mario's jovial face in a Dark Souls game menu, all gothic horror aesthetic brushed aside for what was essentially a pop-up ad to get me to pay more money. Sorry Nintendo.
Is Dark Souls: Remastered on Switch worth your time? As I'm am new to the series I can't speak to the fidelity of Dark Souls: Remastered to the original or indeed how it holds up within the wider Souls Series, but as a Dark Souls virgin though, it's a resounding yes. Even of you can tell it's an "older game" it's still beautiful (or indeed horrifying) to behold. After the initial headaches, stress, hair pulling & nail biting, after dealing with death after death after death and more than a few jump scares alongside feelings of encroaching dread, you should be able to take a breath and get into a sort of flow that transforms Dark Souls: Remastered from a gothic horror RPG, to a fantasy action epic where YOU are the bringer of death. Then when someone asks you “Is Dark Souls really that hard?” you'll be able to say "Yes. But it's worth it."