Dark Souls is such a touchstone for the video game industry that journalists’ constant references to the game have become a meme. Word-of-mouth buzz and a marketing campaign led by the tagline “Prepare to Die” saw Dark Souls become an unlikely hit in 2011. Seven years on, the price is still being paid. There have been two sequels, an endless array of merchandise, an army of writers and video-makers dedicated to dissecting the game’s mysteries and now Remaster.
The game is famous for the wrong things. Dark Souls is an inversion of the kind of stories games usually tell. It constructs a meticulous dark fantasy world in which almost everything is trying to kill you. The challenge lies not in conquering it but in surviving it and trying to understand it. It is opaque, even mystical; true comprehension always feels just out of reach.
For those familiar with the game, playing through again is a stark reminder of just how flabby Dark Souls’ imitators, and even its own sequels, have become. The world of Dark Souls is almost one landmass, with few loading screens, and the way it intricately twists around itself is an architectural feat. The spaces are cramped, the enemies placed like chess pieces. No video game world feels quite so solid, so marvellous to unravel and so plausible as Lordran.
A major part of this is the weird and unsettling aesthetic. Lordran is a ruin, an abandoned remnant of what was once the gods’ playground. The bosses can be inscrutable monsters, but more often they are mighty wrecks of eras long gone: a giant wolf guarding her master’s grave; two knights standing guard in the throne room of a desiccated reign. Eventually, you’ll meet the greatest minds, the shapers of this world’s history, all mad and feral.
Dark Souls’ famed difficulty is improved by the online system, unique to the series, that creates transient connections. You can “summon” fellow adventurers to help you by finding their signs on the ground. When the hurdles seem too much, these companions can heave you over them – and once they have helped you fell a once-terrifying enemy, they too dissipate, wavering in and out.
That’s the nice side of online play. On the other, there’s invasions. Most games have multiplayer menus where you choose to pit yourself against others. In Dark Souls, the first you know of an enemy in your world is when they’ve arrived. It is a revolutionary affront.
Such enforced fights are the pinnacle of Dark Souls, as other players throw low cunning and every exploitable trick in your face. I’ve stared at someone across a bridge for full five minutes before making a move. I’ve been slaughtered by gangs and I’ve been in that gang. I’ve been invaded by a player called Mr Troll who disguised themselves as a statue and waited by doorway to the boss’ lair for 10 minutes, then instantly killed me and a companion with a spear.
This remaster has been handled by Polish studio QLOC rather than the original developer, FromSoftware. It fixes technical issues (the infamous Blighttown seems like a new place), but retains what few gameplay flaws were there in the original. Minor changes to the online system allow more people to play together, and invaders to heal themselves. QLOC has worked assiduously on the sound and visual effects: the audio mix is much clearer than the original, with the ambient noise in Dark Souls’ environments bringing the muttering, encroaching atmosphere to new life. For me, however, the improved visual effects lose some of the ethereal qualities of the originals.
Remastered is the version of Dark Souls to get, mainly because it is so active online. This is one of the few video games that saw the medium’s future and tried new things.
If you want to visit Lordran and enjoy a straight-up bash-the-baddies quest, then you’ll find no better collection of bosses than this. If a new kind of adventure appeals, however, one in which quick fingers matter less than brains and human cunning, there’s still nothing like Dark Souls. After seven years its mystery has diminished, but it’s still among the best of the best.
- Dark Souls: Remastered is out now for £29.99. A Nintendo Switch version is forthcoming.
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