While Demon’s Souls might have been where the Souls-like sub-genre began, it was really Dark Souls that cemented the popularity of the stamina-based action RPG. It dragged FromSoftware into the forefront of the games industry, and added fuel to the fire for those creating ultra-difficult games that really push the player’s skill. Now it’s time for fans to step back to the very beginning with Dark Souls Remastered, when it releases on all current platforms in May.
What’s going to be fascinating is seeing how fans of the genre take this in their stride. Certainly, interest in the series was at its highest around the release of Dark Souls III, and with many people bound to have only joined the series at its conclusion on this generation of console, it could be the first time that they take the opportunity to play the original. It’s often held up as being the most difficult game in the trilogy, but perhaps that was simply the new-ness of it all?
Certainly the level design has been overhauled over the years, the flow of combat has been tweaked and different builds have been changed to cater to more styles of play, but there’s also the fundamental groundwork of this style of action RPG that players will now be more accustomed to. I’ll readily admit that I’m not the best person to discuss this – I’m generally not particularly good at these games – but with the remaster, perhaps those who’ve only played later games in the series will be able to take to it like ducks to water, quacking mockingly at its supposed difficulty as they do so.
The fundamental formula has changed little over the years. Then as now, you’re presented with a sprawling world to explore, full of tight passageways, shortcuts to open and enemies to defeat, and their souls to collect. There’s bonfires at various points, where you’ll respawn when you die, or can sit down for a moment to cash in your collected souls to level up and restore your Estus Flask health charges. Oh, and there’s the now famous manner in which any souls you’ve collected are dropped at the point of your death, should the foes stacked against you prevail, testing your ability to repeat your run and challenging you to go one better each time.
While my time with Bloodborne and Dark Souls III readied me for the bleak environment, the muted palette, the decaying maze of castle passageways, and even Miyazaki-san’s love of surprise dragons, I’d forgotten just how claustrophobic these games can feel. This is especially true early on as you try to break out of the Undead Asylum. There might be torches lining the otherwise dank and dingy corridors, but it’s really your character that symbolically provides light to their surroundings, and you’re struggling to see even a few meters ahead of you. It doesn’t get much better once you manage to get outside and breathe comparatively fresh air; even once you’re whisked away to Lordran and you’re given a much larger environment to explore. There’s always a feeling of the rest of the world being shrouded ever-so-slightly in shadow.
That’s amplified by the way that the original’s visuals have been brought up to the current generation. There’s primarily been a step up in the resolution, with 1080p on base PS4 and Xbox One, while Pro and One X get what Bandai Namco describe as “upscaled 4K” – in other words, something between 1080p and 2160p. The game looks good and textures are filled with grimy detail, even if geometry is rather basic by modern standards and was already a few steps behind the curve at its original release, but it’s a shame that they haven’t gone back and redone the backdrops and skyboxes. Where they might have given the feeling of depth of field to the game last generation, here they just look a bit blurry.
What home console players can absolutely put behind them is a sometimes unsteady 30fps. On PS4 – the version we’ve played – and Xbox One, the game is now at 60fps, making your inputs all the more responsive and dumping even more of the blame for each and every one of your deaths on your shoulders. Those looking forward to the game on Nintendo Switch will have to make do with 30fps, but native 720p when in handheld mode and 1080p when docked. For PC gamers, they can move on from the much maligned Prepare To Die edition of the game, which saw the community step in to patch and fix the game’s woes, from poor optimisation through to a 30fps cap and muddy sub-720p resolution. Now there’s native 4K and 60fps support with the remaster, though a bit of a slap in the face to those who bought the original release and suffered through its disappointing lack of meaningful support.
Another improvement comes in the form of an expanded multiplayer, which jumps from four players to six players inhabiting the same world, increasing the dangers of delving into the game’s mixture of co-operative summons and the potential player invasions that can result from that.
Dark Souls Remastered is an opportunity to step back to (nearly) the beginning of FromSoftware’s rise to prominence. Their brand of action RPG has come to the point of defining a new sub-genre full of imitators and attempts at innovation, but it’s fascinating to see just how solid the foundations that FromSoftware built upon still are some seven years later. Add the ability to play at 1080p or 4K and with a much sturdier frame rate, and a PC version that seemingly has the love and attention it so badly deserved, and there’s no doubting that this is most definitely a remaster that people have been hoping to see.