Dark Souls is more deserving than most games of a remaster. But how does a developer handle the weight of that responsibility? The original Dark Souls managed to be one of the greatest of all time, despite a fair number of performance issues, precisely because its every gameplay element is so blisteringly well engineered and honed. Few games are so acutely the product of their exact design.
Fortunately, having now played through the first hour of Dark Souls Remastered - which delivers a 1080p / 60 frames per second upgrade on PS4 and Xbox One, upscaled 4K on Pro and X, and 1080p / 60 on Switch TV mode - it’s clear that From Software is taking the right approach. Clean up the performance, beef up the visuals, add the DLC, and then otherwise change nothing. Trust me, this is a good thing. Tinkering with one iota of the Dark Souls make-up beyond that would be sacrilege. Doing things the right way ensures that this remaster will matter to everyone, whether series old-hand or interested - but intimidated - beginner. Let me explain.
It feels like you *think* Dark Souls did
For veterans, this is very important. It’s deeply true that the best video game remasters deliver their efforts invisibly, in order to present their games like your stupid, nostalgia-tinted brain remembers them being rather than how they actually were. Your nostalgia-brain is always wrong, which is why remasters are more necessary in games than in any other medium. It’s far too easy to lose the joy of a beloved old game by simply playing again and realising what a clunky-ass mess it is underneath all the warm, loving memories. And while the original Dark Souls is hardly Big Rigs, it is seven years old. And it wasn’t always the best optimised game at the time of its release. Blighttown. F***ing Blighttown.
Playing the remaster though, is just like playing through your idiotically positive perception of things. In fact it’s even better, for reasons I’ll get onto in the next entry. This is really important for returning Chosen Undead, because Dark Souls, with its eight billion levels of New Game+, is a game designed to be replayed and reiterated upon, over, and over again. The Dark Souls community has never stopped doing that on PS3 and Xbox 360, but now, with this new and improved - but entirely authentic - version, everyone can begin the process all over again, knowing that there’s years of life in this smooth, polished, refined, and very 2018-standard edition. Dark Souls, truly, need never die. Ironically.
It's easier to enjoy the nuances of combat straight off the bat
Dark Souls is often, wrongly, referred to as ‘a grown-up Zelda’. What’s so inaccurate about comparing the two sword-duelling, loot collecting, bomb-throwing, medieval adventures? The simple matter of focus. Zelda is all about exploration and puzzles, whereas Dark Souls is almost pure combat. And while Nintendo’s series mostly dictates your (fairly straightforward) battle options through linear gear collecting - or in Breath of the Wild, mixes things up but makes everything disposable - Dark Souls has the deepest, most hardcore action-RPG combat around, and gives you all the tools to design your own, personalised approach to learn and evolve over the course of hundreds of hours. It might be a role-player, but at its heart, Dark Souls has the complex purity of a fighting game.
That’s why the boost to 60 frames per second is such a revelation. If we’re being charitable, the original game sometimes ‘aspired’ to 30, and it’s testament to the robust, finely honed design of Dark Souls’ combat systems that it attained clear masterpiece status despite performance issues. In Dark Souls Remastered though, the quality of that design is laid bare. Every strike, every evasion, every parry, every carefully observed (and exploited) enemy tell animation… The full detail of Dark Souls’ immaculately crafted battle systems is now clear from the off, running as smoothly and transparently as can be. And that makes it more accessible. You’ll still get your arsed kicked, but you’ll understand why you’re getting your arse kicked a lot faster now, and learn to improve more quickly. And that process, after all, is the whole point of Dark Souls.
It’s now obvious how beautiful Dark Souls always was
Dark Souls was always grim and brutal in its looks, but at the same time, it was always a stunner. It took a while for the maudlin beauty of Lordran’s environments to show through, amid those early hours of being sad, confused, terrified, and generally quite sad, but things are much clearer now. Every starkly arresting vista, every intricately grotesque monster, every gleaming, detailed armour piece, and every warmly reassuring bonfire is now more clear and tangible than it ever has been. Dark Souls has always been one of the most visually distinct and carefully drawn RPG worlds, but in the original release it takes time and experience to realise that. Now, you can appreciate and embrace the uniquely bleak beauty right from the off.
The mood is amplified
With clearer visuals comes amped-up atmosphere. Again, while Dark Souls always traded well on subtly impactful shifts in the tone of its morose, isolated journey, the results of that craft are now all the more clearly affecting. Just playing through the first hour of the game, it’s obvious. The slow, steady transition from the cold claustrophobia of the Undead Asylum, to the windswept, November beauty of the cliffside, to the desperate, fleeting sanctuary of the Firelink Shrine was always a quietly powerful opening sequence. In Dark Souls Remastered, it hits even harder, whether you’re a first timer or experiencing it for the first time all over again.
The environments are easier to read, in all the important ways
Dark Souls delights in setting traps in plain sight. And it tends to succeed. The reason you don’t notice its brutal, almost comically executed snares? They tend to be the size of whole environments. That bridge looks totally innocent, until you notice the bomb-flinging zombie on that nearby tower, but you probably won’t notice him until you’re exactly halfway across, entirely exposed, and fully on fire. That long, wide, well-paved street appears entirely civilised, and its sword-wielding denizens not too threatening at all, until you realise that the upper walls are covered in archers, including two you just turned your back on as you marched naively past.
Dark Souls has always been as much multilayered, strategic puzzle game as action-RPG, presenting stacks of different, wide-ranging concerns to wrangle at any given time. The bump to 1080p and 60 frames per second doesn’t exactly make Dark Souls easy - Heaven forbid - nor is it likely to spare first-timers from any of those hilariously brutal ‘Surprise! F**k you!’ moments, but it does make appraising and strategising the bigger picture a fair bit more clear and accessible.
Plus, you’ll likely notice all those trademark, environmental storytelling clues just that bit easier in the remaster. It will still take novices about 100 hours to piece together what’s going on, mind. But hey, Dark Souls.
The boss fights feel even more personal
They’ve always been the most intimate, intimidating, testing, and triumphant moments in Dark Souls, but now that the individual personalities, purposes, and meanings of the none-better bosses are clearer via the visual upgrade, the game’s climactic battles have even more weight.
Even if you will realise that the Taurus Demon has a far cuter face than you thought he did. In truth, he’s somewhere between a Wampa and an Ewok. Though admittedly, you’ll only notice that as you’re plunging fast toward his mug with a downward-pointing blade. Because endearing or not he needs to die. And so he will.
Dark Souls Remastered is out on May 25th 2018 and available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch.