Sunday, September 18, 2022

Review: Dark Souls - Remastered [2018]

Note: The original game was Dark Souls: Prepare To Die Edition and released in 2012 by From Software. In 2018 they released a remaster with 4K support and a 60 FPS framerate. The latter version is reviewed here.

"I'm too old for this shit", were words I repeated about 3 dozen times when I started playing this, the 2018 remastered version of the 2012 classic Dark Souls from From Software. Dark Souls like it's spiritual progenitor on PlayStation, Demon's Souls heralded a new RPG sub-genre the "soulslike" which is basically a way of telling people "this is fucking hard".

After trying it out in late 2020, I gave up after a day as it was (a) nigh-on impossible to control with a mouse+keyboard and (b) when I did make some progress, I was killed in seconds. I returned earlier this year in honour of the 10th anniversary of it's original (PC) release and reinstalled it after purchasing a third party Xbox One controller. Armed with the controller I made much more significant headway and was at least able to move and fight far better than using a mouse+keyboard making this the first PC/console game I've ever played that IMHO is only playable with a controller pad. 

Playing a little at a time in order to get used to the controller was a good move, but when I felt like I was actually able to properly hold my own against enemies I would progress a little further only to either miss one parry, or swing and miss at the wrong time and suddenly I was dead again. Bear in mind there is no difficulty modes that you can just turn down to 'normal' or 'easy'. This is permanently 'nightmare' or difficulty that one unlocks only after beating other games on 'hard'. There is no quick save or even a forgiving checkpoint system. When you die, you respawn at the last bonfire/sanctuary you rested at. The bonfire could be as little as 60 seconds or possibly 20 minutes behind you - and to make it worse - anytime you rested to heal, or died and resurrected - every non-boss enemy would also resurrect and you must fight your way through 20 minutes of mobs again! Naturally the more this happened again and again, replaying the same path with the same enemies who were always as deadly as before, wore you down, you start making mistakes and dying even earlier than you progressed before. This was certainly neither fun, nor enjoyable and left me with little sense of accomplishment.

From Software don't do "cheat modes" so there's no console commands to make you a god or even give you any advantage. But the beauty of the PC being the ultimate gaming platform is that no PC game is impervious to glitching, hacking, modding, cheating and or some class of reverse-engineering. Being more than sure that I was certainly not the only player to have issues with the difficulty, I set about researching not a "god mode" as such but more a way of giving me enough of advantage to make more significant progress. I discovered a method of "duping" inventory items which I applied to consumable souls items you pick up from fallen heroes who came before you. Once I applied the dupe I increased my Strength, Dexterity, Vitality etc. to 99 and while I was far from a god, I was able to take more than a few strikes before dying (which I reduced by about 90%) and was able to one-shot most enemies save for bosses or mini-bosses which required a little more attention. At least I was finally able to play the way I wanted.

The plot of Dark Souls is fairly simplistic. You just go in a mostly linear fashion and to do the next thing you've been told to do, be it ring the bells, descend into the abyss or kill some powerful entity. All this is done with the overarching goal of breaking a curse that has befallen the land and allowing the undead to rise again and again and finally give them (and you) peace. It's easy to forget however because you could be playing for days before you meet someone that tells you something, even then NPCs speak cryptically and it's not like you have a quest log or a map.

The lack of map or log makes navigation a pain especially as some areas with very high level enemies are accessible if you take a wrong turn. Of course the UI is also bare bones and there's no indication of a enemies level until you're dead in seconds (even with exploited stats). I had to resort to external guides about which area I should avoid or explore next and needed to watch other players on YouTube to actually see how you get there.

Combat in the game is actually great. So many games have some default attack animation supplemented by a plethora of button-click powers/abilities but Dark Souls combat is very involved with blocking attacks, parrying an attack, rolling out of the way, jumping attacking, heavy attacking and so fourth. It felt great killing a lot of the enemies. Some enemies later employed your tactics to block, parry, riposte etc. and this should lead to very challenging fight - but in this game all the fights are challenging and exhausted my fingers and thumbs up to the point where it was more efficient to boost my health and defence up and use duped health regenerators every 60 seconds or so just to advance in the later game.

I can't speak to the original 2012 version but the remaster looks stunning at 4K High Quality. During my playthrough I switched systems to an Ultrawide 3440x1440 monitor and while the game itself is not HDR enabled - using the Windows 11 HDR renderer to enhance the visuals was a treat. From Software created some of the most unique and grotesque monsters I've ever fought in a video game. Some of them were standard like zombies, ghosts, skeletons and minotaurs but others were not. Treefolk that skewered you with their branches and a Dragon whose entire centre section was a gaping maw with teeth were just two extraordinary designs of note. A lot of game was dark, underground, in crypts or dark forests but occasionally you'd climb to the surface and be met with a beautiful but sadly fleeting vista worth screenshotting.

While the game exhibits little by way of any form of help, assistance or generosity to the player, the inventory system is actually pretty solid. There is no limit to your carrying capacity as I was able to lug around 20+ unique suits of armour of various quality in my bag. As you don't have a central base as such, this makes sense for you to to have access to everything. You can store things in a box that you can access from any bonfire, but I've just realised after finishing the game that I did put things in for safe keeping.... I never took anything out of it, so ultimately I didn't need it.

There was quite a few times when plodding through Dark Souls bleak and depressing but beautifully and expertly crafted world that I questioned continuing because I just wasn't enjoying it. And that is a feeling that I get very rarely in a video game. It wasn't a feeling I had all the time, but it certainly surfaced when I died and had to repeat a tedious section of wandering before getting to the good bit again. However once I researched how many areas I had done , what was left to do, estimating the time it would take to finish and wanting a solid return on investment on my €30 controller I stuck the course and completed the game after 68 hours (according to Steam). Dark Souls: Remastered also contains the substantial Artorias of the Abyss DLC, but at which point of being able to access it, I felt thoroughly done with the game.

Final Verdict: I'm glad I played it, and got through it even if it was somewhat unconventional (hey if the developers didn't want you to dupe they would have patched the exploit in the last 6 years). But despite the awesome creatures and involved combat here it's just too depressing, too difficult, too repetitive if you fail something and too light on plot or characterisation to make me feel like a hero or even connected to the world in any meaningful sense. I don't often know I'll never play something again - but I do this time. It's sequels are another matter... we'll see.

Technicals: Played through Steam on Nvidia 980Ti @ 4k in Windows 10 and on Nvidia 3070Ti @  3440x1440 on Windows 11 with HDR. No crashes or bugs evident.

Dark Souls: Remastered is available from Steam for €39.99 but is occasionally found on sale for €19.99 either on Steam itself or using Fanatical, Humble Bundle or Green Man Gaming. Review copy purchased from Fanatical for €18.39 in March 2020.

Series Timeline:
Dark Souls [2011]
Dark Souls II [2014]

- Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin [2015]
Dark Souls III [2016]
- Dark Souls III: Deluxe Edition [2017]
- Dark Souls: Remastered [2018]

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