DARK SOULS REMASTERED Game Review: The Comforting Familiarity Of Despair

Time to revisit (or visit) a modern classic.

Video games age differently to movies. While the fundamental process of capturing images on film has changed little over the past fifty years, video games are in constant technological flux. Out of necessity, this means that remasters of old titles must be built in a different fashion as well.

A remaster of a movie cleans up and presents the original elements in higher quality (to grossly simplify the remastering process), but a video game remaster can't work like that. The “original elements” of video games date far worse than movies: the graphics of even ten or fifteen years ago look ancient today, sometimes not even running at all on modern hardware, and today’s graphics will probably look ancient ten years from now. The same goes for game mechanics, in some instances. So when it comes to remastering old games, developers frequently must replace texture or model assets with higher-resolution versions, tweak mechanics, or even remake entire games from the ground up.

Dark Souls Remastered isn’t one of those remasters. For the most part, it’s exactly the same game From Software released in 2011. It now runs at full 1080p and 60 frames per second (even in the dreaded Blighttown area that notoriously slowed down frame rates in the original), with a few subtle new lighting and environmental effects here and there. But these are the same models, the same textures, the same sound effects - and though the art direction is still fantastic, technically speaking it’s behind the times in 2018. Put it this way: Dark Souls Remastered may technically look slightly better than Dark Souls, but it probably looks exactly the way you remember it looking. That’s just the way memories of video games work.

As far as gameplay adjustments, they are few and far between. The original game was patched and expanded several times, and Remastered represents the final result of those alterations: a finely-tuned game with all its DLC included. A few tweaks have been added: online play now supports more concurrent players, you can use multiple instances of an item at once, Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3’s password-matching system is in place for online matchmaking. But unlike Dark Souls 2’s Scholar of the First Sin edition - which, in addition to a minor visual touchup, completely remixed enemy placements and added to the game’s lore - Dark Souls Remastered is, enemy for enemy, item for item, identical to the original Dark Souls.

Which basically leaves us with Dark Souls. And, for my part, a kind of embarrassing admission:

I’ve never played Dark Souls before now.

The first Souls game I ever played was Dark Souls 2, which I initially despaired against but ended up playing through multiple times. Bloodborne rocked my damn socks off, and Dark Souls 3 proved at least as enjoyable as its direct predecessor. But beyond dabbling around the opening areas, I never got into the first Dark Souls (let alone Demon’s Souls, which I have never owned a machine capable of playing). It was always a bit too clunky, refusing to run properly on my PC and lacking the streamlining of its sequels. So with a newfound ability to physically play the game, I committed myself to diving into the allegedly best-in-series title.

Turns out: Dark Souls’ reputation didn’t come from nowhere.

A sprawling RPG that's light on narrative but heavy on foreboding atmosphere, inscrutable lore, and uncompromising combat, Dark Souls shouldn't be my cup of tea - and yet, it is. Its core gameplay loop - explore a crumbling kingdom, die repeatedly, painstakingly retrace your path to recover your lost souls, maybe eke out a tiny bit of progress - is punishing yet compulsive. Its melee combat, all timing and manoeuvring and stamina management, is so good I've never even dabbled in the wide array of magic options the game provides. Its oft-imitated multiplayer can be frustrating when you're invaded at a crucial choke point, but so rewarding when you engage in its vaunted “jolly co-operation.” And its world of Lordran, decayed yet beautiful, full of hollow knights and bizarre monsters, is a stunning place to do it all.

Even when you die and lose thousands of souls (the game's equivalent of both currency and XP) permanently, it’s infuriating - but ultimately, it’s an unburdening. Dark Souls constantly pushes you to places where you’ve got less and less to lose. It’s a cruel master - deliciously, ingeniously cruel - but never an unfair one. Like Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, you learn to get back up and do it again. There's a certain comfort to this particular brand of despair: it's only a game, and you can only improve. For those prone to despair, like me, it can be a grim reminder of your reality - or an empowering emotional salve.

Dark Souls’ systems and design have been written about ad nauseam by this point. Books have been written on it. But my favourite thing about the franchise is the personal stories that emerge through play. Stories like, “I finally killed this one bastard mage only to immediately get flattened by a boulder.” Or “I got the boss down to a tiny sliver of health, then stupidly rolled off the edge of a cliff.” Or “I spent literally an hour in Blighttown falling off a particularly tricky tree branch, painstakingly retracing my steps to retrieve my souls, then dying again at the exact same spot.” Most of these stories involve death. It’s that kind of game.

Coming from a place of familiarity with only Dark Souls' sequels and Bloodborne, it’s interesting to see what elements From altered in later productions. Beyond the obvious graphical and engine improvements, the series’ gameplay design has changed significantly. Dark Souls is much more deliberate than its successors - even its immediate successor, which added emphasis on nailbiting group encounters. Arcane mechanics like humanity, gear upgrades, kindling, and covenants were either removed or streamlined in later games, while rolling mobility and equip slots were improved and expanded, respectively. These are all quality-of-life improvements that, for the most part, don’t significantly impact gameplay.

What did impact gameplay, though - to an extent I’m only discovering now - is the difference in world and level design between Dark Souls and its sequels (I’ll let Bloodborne off the hook, as it’s a different beast entirely). The interconnectedness of Dark Souls’ realm of Lordran is so legendary even many non-fans are aware of it, but I didn’t realise just how intricate and layered it was until I actually played it. Not only are Lordran’s various areas connected to each other through an ingenious vertically-oriented layout; those areas themselves are often compact and dense with shortcuts, acting as smaller-scale mirrors of the larger world. There’s barely any wasted space in Dark Souls; it’s a clean, often breathtaking exercise in level design that would work just as well without its beautiful art direction. And without the ability to warp between bonfires (a convenience granted mid-game here, but enabled from the outset in every other Souls game), it’s also an exercise in anxiety and release: every bit of progress takes you further from safety, until a shortcut back to a bonfire brings almost tear-inducing relief. The way Dark Souls’ mechanics and design conjure emotions and illustrate themes is virtually unmatched in this regard.

Who is Dark Souls Remastered for? If you’ve already played Dark Souls, after all, you aren’t going to find anything new in this version. It’s just another, slightly smoother playthrough - which may well be enough to warrant a purchase for die-hard fans of the franchise. It's just that beloved.

Rather, Dark Souls Remastered seems best geared towards people who never played the game upon its initial release. Maybe they didn’t play it because of its notorious difficulty. Maybe it was its low-key release and the slow growth of its cult following. Maybe, like me, they just didn’t have anything to play it on. In 2011, Dark Souls was a weird, complicated niche RPG; nowadays, it’s so well-known and influential it’s used as a comparison point when talking about combat, level design, or difficulty. The remaster is a great opportunity for new players (or players familiar only with the sequels) to dive into a true classic.

Good luck, praise the Sun, and don't be ashamed to look at wiki guides if you get lost. Because you will get lost. That's just Dark Souls