Everyone knows that the two things guaranteed in this life are death and taxes. I’d like to add a third thing to this list: the difficulty of Dark Souls games.
First released back in 2011, the original Dark Souls from From Software sparked off a gaming revolution and garnered an almost cult like following. Even today, attempts are still being made to beat the speed run record for Dark Souls (it currently stands at a scarcely believable 25 minutes and 17 seconds) and people still stream the original game via Backwards Compatibility. Now though, From Software have remastered the original Dark Souls, and depending on the version of Xbox One you have, will run at either 1080p and 60FPS (Xbox One) or 4K resolution and 60FPS on the Xbox One X. Normally, I’m not one of those people who likes to engage in virtual willy waving about resolution and stuff, but the switch to 60FPS is big news for the game, for reasons I’ll go into later on. So, having never managed to complete the original back on the Xbox 360, I dived into the new experience with a passion.
On first firing Dark Souls up, you have to create a character. You can choose their name, sex, body type, even their hair colour and style. Of course, these things don’t have very much bearing on the game, except that a larger character offers a larger target! Sadly, Dwarf is not one of the choices of body type. Much more important to your passage through hell is the type of character you choose to be. Melee or magic? Ranged fighter or all up in the enemies’ faces, smashing them about with a sword?
There are ten archetypes to choose from: Warrior, Knight, Wanderer, Thief, Bandit, Hunter, Sorcerer, Cleric, Deprived and Pyromancer. Warrior and Knight make good choices for beginners, as they have a good balance between defence and offence, but the Thief, Sorcerer and Pyromancer can be a little harder, as they are a lot more fragile in the early stages, and require more skill to use. The Deprived class is a bit of an enigma: they come equipped only with a plank shield and club; no armour to speak of. If you really want a challenge, trying to take down enemies while naked with a stick makes Darks Souls a lot harder than normal. The last thing to choose when setting up your character is a “gift” – an item that can make life easier. My personal favourite is the Master Key, which will open a lot of doors in the early stages of the game. Other items include firebombs, Pendants and even Binoculars.
For those of you who have never played the Dark Souls series of games, the brief synopsis is this: you are dead. Or rather, undead and going Hollow. When the residents of the world become Undead, they are shipped off to the Undead Asylum and forgotten about. This is where things begin, as you wake up locked in a cell in the Asylum, as a friendly looking Warrior drops a dead body down to you. From here, the game resolutely refuses to hold your hand or explain what is going on, short of a few scribbled messages on the floor. These give pointers as to what the various buttons do, and little hints and tips on how to progress.
Working through the Asylum, we are introduced to two vital facets of the Dark Souls gameplay. The first is an Estus Flask, which acts as a healing item when you drink from it. As a default, it holds five “swigs”, but as you progress, the Flask itself can be upgraded, allowing it to heal you more for each swig. The second thing is the Bonfire. These act almost as checkpoints in the Dark Souls universe, allowing you to rest, heal and refill your Estus Flask. The flame of the bonfire can also be kindled by offering your Humanity, which will put ten swigs into your Estus Flask. Clear so far? Good!
Bonfires do have a downside, however, as you’d expect in this game. As well as healing you, resting at a bonfire allows most of the enemies in the area to respawn, with the exception of bosses and some of the larger, nastier enemies, like the Black Knights. So after all your hard work, exploring and sneaking about, you have to rest at a bonfire and the rooms or areas you have just cleared are now populated again. On the plus side, this does allow for a certain amount of farming of enemies, in so far as that’s possible in such a hard game. Without a word of a lie, one mistake fighting an enemy you’ve killed a hundred times before can still lead to your ignominious demise.
Fighting in Dark Souls is an art form, as well as a science. You’ll notice, underneath your health bar, a second, green bar. This is your stamina. Each action that you take, be it blocking with a shield, swinging a weapon or dodging, reduces this bar. If you make no actions for a moment, it will refill, but blocking with a shield will reduce the recharge rate, so you have to drop your guard if you want to be able to attack. The risk/reward mechanic was pretty much defined by Dark Souls, and now in the Remastered version it’s just as true. Locking on to an enemy, hitting them and trying to skite around while your stamina recovers soon becomes second nature, as does trying to circle behind for a highly damaging backstab. Dodging is often a good tactic as if you try to block a heavy hit, it can destroy your stamina bar, and if you try to block while its empty, the attack will smash your shield aside, leaving you wide open. Part of the challenge of the game is learning the attack patterns of the various enemies, and knowing whether to block or dodge.
There is a third way, parrying, which can be used to stagger an enemy, leaving them vulnerable to a swift riposte. The timing on the parry is absolutely critical, and even a delay of half a second will see you miss the parry and be nailed by a crunching attack. Different shields give different windows of timing, and shields that are good at parrying tend to be bad at taking hits, and vice versa. This is really only scratching the surface, but it is very hard to describe the combat in a Dark Souls game without using the words “punishing”, “rewarding” and “crying”, just like I did this very morning when I got almost all the way to the top of Sens Fortress and managed to die without finding a bonfire, and had to start from the beginning again. I’m now the proud owner of an Xbox One controller with a pronounced bend in it.
All this fighting does come with an upside, in that every enemy you defeat gives you souls, which can be used to upgrade your character when you rest at the bonfires. You can upgrade various attributes, such as vitality which gives you more HP, dexterity which allows you to wield more advanced weapons than a stick with nails in, and things like faith and intelligence, which are used to govern the magics you can wield. There is no set way to upgrade your character, so you could sink everything into health and strength to make a tank character, which can be helped by using heavy armour, or put points into dexterity and endurance, allowing you to have a lot of stamina and become a kind of hit and run character. Part of the charm is making your character work the way you like to fight, and it is very rewarding to see your squishy avatar become an enemy mincing machine.
If you die, the souls and Humanity you were carrying are lost, and remain at the point of your death. The race is on then to get back to where you were, and if you can get back to the point, you can recover the lost items. Trying not to die while carrying thousands of souls in your pocket becomes genuinely tense, and so nerve wracking that when you finally reach a bonfire safely, it feels like you’ve been put through the wringer! Once you find a Blacksmith, souls can also be spent to upgrade your armour and weapons, making you even stronger, and upgraded weapons can be the difference between success and failure when it comes to the inevitable boss fights!
Another big element of Dark Souls is in the bosses, and they have a well deserved reputation for their “OMG” impact when they appear. Whether it is an optional boss like the Hellkite Dragon, that perches on a bridge, breathing fire down the length as you try to sneak by, to the disgusting sounding Ceaseless Discharge, which can be successfully killed in about five hits, the imagination and design of these bosses is remarkable. Every single one has its own attack patterns to learn, attacks to learn the timings of, and a truly mahoosive health bar to whittle down.
Luckily, there is a multiplayer element to Dark Souls Remastered, which allows other players to lay down a summon sign, and you can can then get them to help you fight the bosses. An element of divide and conquer certainly makes things a lot easier, particularly if you are a melee character and need to fight a ranged boss, such as the Moonlight Butterfly. If you are human instead of hollow, there are also various AI NPCs that can be summoned to assist, but in all honesty, real live people are usually more help than AI helpers, as they are better able to adapt to changing circumstances. You can also lay down your own summon sign to assist others, and if you successfully take down a boss, you can return to your own world with a shiny new Humanity to show for your efforts.
There is another, darker side to the multiplayer though, as with membership of certain covenants, you can invade another players world with the mission to kill the owner of that world. It is possible to turn off these options, but again, the risk/reward between leaving your game open is one you’ll have to work out for yourself. Some of the bosses are truly jaw dropping, either in scale or in emotional content. It does sound weird, but the fight against The Great Grey Wolf, Sif, was very hard to finish. He is a giant wolf, as you might have guessed from his name, and he is guarding the grave of his friend, Artorias. As you approach, he takes up a sword and tries to defend his friends resting place, and for a wolf, he’s a pretty good swordsman! As you whittle his health down, he starts to limp, and by the end of the fight he can barely move, but still tries to fight. Finishing him is a genuinely emotional, bittersweet moment: you know you have to do it, but looking at him, you can’t help but feel pity and sympathy for a creature that a few minutes earlier was trying to kill you.
As I mentioned earlier, the visuals have been completely overhauled for Remastered, and the frame rate has been nailed down at a rock solid 60 FPS. Never once in my time with the game did I notice frame rate drops, even when the screen got busy with various enemies swinging and firing spells at me. And this increase in frame rate has another knock on effect, in that now the animation is noticeably better, and as such enemy attacks can be more easily seen as they telegraph the wind up to big attacks, allowing you to get ready to parry or dodge. I’d go so far as to say that this version is the Dark Souls that should always have been, as it now seems to be a lot fairer than the original, where some of the deaths seemed somewhat arbitrary due to not being able to distinguish the wind up to an unblockable attack. The graphics are also much prettier this time around, with draw distances seemingly measured in miles. There are some lovely vistas to check out now; looking out over the Undead Burg from the top of the towers being particularly breathtaking.
The sound hasn’t been changed from the original though, and the tune that plays when you enter the Firelink Shrine immediately takes you back to the old days of Dark Souls, it is so evocative. Other than tunes, the sound effects are as you might expect – enemies growling, armour jingling and crunching weapon effects. The headshot sound with a bow is very memorable, being a sort of wet squishing noise, and accompanied by the unfortunate enemy staggering back, clutching his head.
The same problems of the original game have however also been ported over. The camera is still somewhat wayward, and tight spaces allow for an unfortunate tendency to get stuck in a wall, leading to some unavoidable deaths. It can also wig out when going through some doorways, and when the stairway on the other side is narrow, as it is on the shortcut to the depths. This can again cause issues. And by issues, I mean deaths!
The other part that is still as frustrating as ever is found in the various platforming bits, where the controls make progress a lot harder than it needs to be. Exploring above the Firelink shrine, there is a part where you have to roll of the edge of a platform to land on a narrow ledge. So far, so easy, right? Well, it took me about 25 attempts to get it bang on – the rest of the time the direction was slightly off, or my character refused to roll, or she rolled but then slipped from the ledge until my pad had teeth marks in. Enemies can also clip through walls or floors, and hit you when you’d swear you were safe. The bosses are a real pain for this, Sif in particular swinging his sword through the gravestone that you retreat behind to try and get a moment to heal. However, even small creatures like the mosquitoes in Blighttown can get stuck in walls, making them invulnerable until they fly out again, usually within attacking range. None of these issues are new, and can be worked around, but not fixing the control issues is a bit of a missed opportunity to improve on the old game. I can see why they’ve done it, as the skills I had learned in the original are immediately useful here in the Remastered version, but a tweak may have improved things.
All in all then, Dark Souls Remastered is a triumph. The game is the same as before, and the way you’ll play it is the same, but it both looks and plays better with the new frame rate chugging along nicely. There are annoyances with the controls and cameras, and clipping enemies is very frustrating, but there is no other game that makes you feel both invincible and crushed. As a gameplay experience, you owe it to yourself to play Dark Souls Remastered – which to my mind is what Dark Souls should have always been.