Dark Souls Remastered Review
It was 2011 that From Software gave Dark Souls to the world. Marketed as an incredibly challenging game, riffing on the ‘You’ve Died’ game over screen, millions of players decided to visit Lordran to see what all the fuss was about. Of those millions many would fall by the wayside, finding one thing or another a step too far in their gaming skill, or perhaps they’d get lost or run out of patience. Each player who gave up will have a different tale to tell whilst those who persevered because they were compelled to will wax lyrically to this day about what they experienced.
It’s a shame really that the buzz was all about the difficulty. Yes the game is difficult, and playing through it again with the release of Dark Souls Remastered highlights many moments in the early stages which, if you don’t know what you’re doing, seem insurmountable. One example is the first boss, the Asylum Demon, who you encounter very early on in the tutorial. Before you have a proper weapon. He’s a big chap and there is no way you could beat him, is there? Well, you can, but you’re not necessarily meant to. You can run away, explore the rest of the asylum and then attack him later on, from on high with a plunging attack, using your newly acquired proper weapon. Another example is something which utterly floored me when first playing the game myself in 2011. When you get through the first few levels and have yourself a decently specced character who is stronger and better equipped than anything you could have imagined at the start, you find yourself in the Depths. As you make your way gingerly around these sewers and slimy brown, rat-infested, areas you’ll probably miss the open drain in the floor below you, gushing as it is with flowing water. Falling through one of these invariably lands you somewhere close to a Basilisk, a horrible frog-looking beast which on spying you puffs up to an enormous size and releases a large amount of smoke. If this hits you, you’re cursed. What that means is you’ll die, be sent back to the last bonfire you rested at and your health bar will be halved — permanently. There are two ways to restore your health, and at this stage in the game one is largely impossible and the second probably unknown.
These are just two moments which, on playing the game again after a few years have passed, made me remember where people might give up — just like the Crestfallen Warrior, or Oscar of Astora who you might meet in the game and who have given up on their quests — but it’s also still true that every difficulty you encounter and every challenge you face, can be overcome through observing, learning and trying again with a different approach. Ultimately the game isn’t hard anymore, merely a puzzle with multiple facets. When there are moments you can’t work out, or spikes that you’re not well setup to battle against, then there is the opportunity to summon a friendly helper and engage in some jolly cooperation. In Dark Souls Remastered this is via dedicated servers — and works very well in the early days after release, at least as well as the original’s peer-to-peer offering, and in many parts better, especially when partnering with folks from Japan, or similar.
Since the sequels to Dark Souls, and Bloodborne, the way in which online play works has become much more clear and well-known to folks. There’s the asynchronous aspect to it all where you can leave messages for others to read and comment on them, but the main focus is on cooperation or PvP. After a certain point in the early game you can leave your summons sign for others to touch, and invite you into their world to help you out. With a percentage of the Estus (to restore health) that you would have in your world — but without detracting from what you literally do have in your world — you can join this host player and help them with whatever it is they need. This is most often simply a boss run, especially if you’ve left your sign near the boss itself, or the closest bonfire. It might be they want help with something else though, like helping them fight their way through a level, or in taking out a hostile NPC. You don’t know what they want, of course. There is no talking; no messaging. Only through the tools of the game can you converse, and in this the community has developed a kind of language over time which is in use when playing the remaster as well as the original. You’ll see someone bow to you when you join them, normally, or they might just shake their shield in excitement. If you do something they want they’ll jump for joy, another of the gestures you have, either from the start or via meeting an NPC in game. There are other non-verbal communication tropes as well and it’s fun to see them again, or learn them for the first time.
If you do defeat the area boss with your host — something which if they’ve invited a third player to help is nearly always the case — you will be returned to your world victorious. You’ll have gathered souls (in a risk-free way because you don’t lose them if you die in someone else’s game, as you do in your own) and been granted one humanity. Humanity does various things and means all manner of different things too, in Dark Souls. In the context of online play it means something very helpful indeed. At a bonfire you can consume it to reverse your hollowing, making you appear human. In this state, and only this state, you are able to see the summons signs of people in other worlds and can therefore invite them to yours, in order to help you. In the best case scenario you’ll invite someone who knows that area extremely well and can take you on a tour of it to gather all the loot and dispatch the baddies along the way. In the worst case you’ll have someone who can help you with the boss and simplify what is otherwise a very difficult challenge. In my mind online play is a cheat code of sorts, a little bit awkward to initiate but once done, can help you past pretty much any and every part of the game.
Learning throughout the game is a clear need, and purposefully so by From Software. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of Lordran itself. Save for a couple of locations in the main game, and the Artorias of the Abyss DLC (included in the remaster), every location is part of one world, nearly all of which is intertwined. It’s a marvel which to this day has not been bettered. On first entering Lordran you’ll find yourself at Firelink Shrine, a safe haven of sorts with all manner of NPCs to talk to and various happenings, comings and goings across the game as the narrative plays out. Although you might not realise it at first, you can look up from here at significant places you’re yet to visit. As you progress you can also look back at Firelink from places you’ll never have imagined that would be possible. Even if you can’t see an area you can work out where it might be and how to get there by walking through the world’s geography in your head. This is something you’ll find yourself doing absent-mindedly as well as practically — once you’ve beaten that latest boss, what’s the quickest way back to Firelink, or wherever else you need to go? There’s a natural path through the gameworld wherein your level and skills will broadly scale with the challenge and strength of the incumbent enemies. You might well take a different path (hint: if it’s too damned difficult you’ve probably gone the wrong way for now) but whichever you do take, you’ll still need to think about how to get there — learning it as you go the first time — and how to get back most safely, picturing the route in your head before actually travelling it. This backtracking won’t last forever but is an essential part of the game and one which never bores because of the skill with which the world has been built. Paths wind around on top of each other, enabling the opening of shortcuts back to bonfires and safe places once you’ve beaten the main route. The world Miyazaki built is unique to this day and arguably the highlight of the entirety of Dark Souls Remastered.
This game is so layered though that there is much more to marvel at. There is a definite story being told, with key moments in your journey punctuated by cutscenes showing definitive progression. The opening cinematic tells you an awful lot about what’s going on, although for first-time viewers it will likely seem gobbledygook. If time is taken to talk to all NPCs; if secret areas and hidden paths are found through illusory walls and convoluted quests then the lore around Dark Souls becomes quite liberal, if forever shaded in grey. Indeed the main story can go down one of two branches from a certain moment and a choice, leading to different endings. Until you’ve experienced one, or perhaps even both, the big picture isn’t realised in its stark glory.
The character and equipment progression is complicated and something which without significant time, or learning from others, will not be fully understood by new players. What it does though is it allows for the creation of truly different builds and ways of playing the game. Initial choices have negligible impact in the longer term but as you collect souls and use them to level up; as you find titanite and hand it to a blacksmith to upgrade your weapons, you can do wildly different things. You might go for brute strength and end up two-handing an oversized Ultra Greatsword with heavy armour in order to just tank things. Perhaps you’ll choose to build up your dexterity and go for the nimble, light-armour (no armour?) ninja-type approach. Or you could go for magic, sorcery or pyromancy and enhance your ranged strength. Depending how much you level up, or how many cycles of new game plus you go through you could try all of them. If you want to see all the game has to offer, complete each NPC’s quest path and obtain all of the trophies, you’ll have to play the game multiple times. If you get to the end once, it will be an easy choice, and you’ll crack on straight away.
This remaster hasn’t been handled by From Software, who has partnered with Bandai Namco in a publisher role this time around. QLOC has developed it (on PS4, PC and Xbox One) and has a done a sterling job. In terms of the game itself it’s 99% the same as in 2011. There are a few changes which have been done for the right reasons but perhaps take away in some tiny aspect from the original’s mystery. There’s an extra bonfire in one particularly cajoling area and the Dried Finger item is now obtained in a different way, more easily. The latter is needed to allow six players in any one game, compared to four in the original, which is most utilised in PvP battles. Controversially you can now join covenants you have encountered from a bonfire, rather than talking with the appropriate NPC. Each covenant is designed for different purposes, with some focused on co-op and others allowing for PvP and invading others. It makes sense that you can change this more easily now, to fit with your playstyle at the time, but might make experienced hands a little annoyed for a fleeting moment.
Most important for any remaster is the tech upgrade. Here the resolution has been bumped to full HD for the PS4 and Xbox One, with a further increase for the enhanced versions of those consoles. Assets and textures look largely the same as they did in 2011, with lots of browns throughout the early part of the game, and lovely golds, blues and greys later on. Some things in the game look better, or different, the bonfires themselves being something with a pleasing upgrade. Most importantly though we have a framerate boost from the original’s 30fps to 60fps here. Although these are the targets, in the original there was slowdown in some areas to ridiculously low areas. Most notoriously in this regard was Blighttown, a horrible dark and dank location deep underground which could drop to the teens for console players at the time, making a difficult and unforgiving place that much worse. Thankfully this has been fixed and whilst running through the level was still unpleasant, it was at least done so at normal speeds (though 60fps was not locked), in the way intended by the developers.
Playing through Dark Souls once more, in its remastered form was a delightful experience from start to finish. I’m glad that experiencing it again after so many years hasn’t sullied memories at all. In fact given my experience with it I was able to avoid those first twenty hours where I progressed very little and found everything insanely challenging, including the moment where I was cursed, the time when I realised I could hold my shield up whilst moving and when I learnt everything in the game is permanent the hard way, by accidentally killing the Undead Merchant. In comparison I flew through, especially when summoning fellow Chosen Undead to help me through some of the areas and bosses.
What we have here is objectively a masterpiece, even today. Much of what Dark Souls Remastered brings to the table has been done since in other games, but never as well. Be it the fractured storytelling which allows the individual to explore the narrative in their own way, or the combat and weapon upgrade systems. Some things still haven’t been done, not even by From Software themselves, at least not to the same degree of sheer brilliance — specifically Lordran itself. Revisiting the world and all within it for the first time or in the latest of many is a true delight, and perhaps one of a kind. With this version’s technical superiority and populous online world there is no better way — or time — to play Dark Souls, or to try again, this time with patience.