I will start this review off by admitting that I didn’t play Dark Souls back when it was originally released on 360/PS3. My first experience with the game has been the Dark Souls remastered edition for the Nintendo Switch which consequently is the subject of this review.
I will always remember 2011 as a sad year. My mother passed away a week or so before Skyrim released. The venerable and highly acclaimed Bethesda title occupied my mind during the depressive months that followed her death. Dark Souls wasn’t on my radar because Skyrim had sucked me into its world for good.
As the years went by I could not ignore the cult following that Dark Souls gathered. Most of the said cult was very vocal about the game’s “control breaking” difficulty, but at the same time even more vocal about the game being the game of the decade and in some cases the greatest game ever.
Needless to say the game entered my coveted “List of games that I must play at some point” and the Switch remaster seemed like a perfect opportunity to experience the game first hand.
Prepare to Die a Lot…But is DS truly a controller breaking experience?
Dark Souls is a difficult game, I died in it with more consistency than I have ever died in any other post N64 era game. That said I have a hard describing the game as the unforgiving classic that many on the internet claim it is. Ninja Gaiden on the original NES was unforgivingly difficult, Sonic 2 was unforgiving (No saving, run out of lives at any stage and you are forced to begin a new), heck Castlevania 64 ( the one game that Dark Souls’ setting reminded me most of) was when all was said and done a more difficult game to beat if you wanted the proper ending.
I believe modern gaming’s tendency to hold the player’s hand through endless tutorials and simplistic level design (in an effort to attract casuals) is the reason why most people found Dark Souls such an unforgivable experience. For those of us used to late 80’s, and 90’s games; Dark Souls presents a challenging yet highly satisfying experience.
It is all about the grind…
Dark Souls is an open world, action RPG, more in the vein of the 2-D Castlevania experiences than it is in Zelda’s, though it shares elements in common with the latter.
In the end DS is a japanese game, so clever world design, and the JRPG penchant for grinding is omnipresent throughout the entirety of the game. DS strikes a perfect balance of you have to “get good” or at least proficiently skilled at blocking and rolling with a combination of you have to “get strong” by means of grinding in order to topple most of the numerous bosses present in the game.
In theory you don’t have to be an ultra skilled player to beat DS, mainly you have to be patient and find the joy (and brilliance) of the game’s grinding requirements.
To start off Dark Souls doesn’t hold your hand, the early tutorial section if it can be called that will pit you against enemies and boss encounters in which you will die…time and time again. The game expects you to beat those early bosses in order to reach Lordran (The games main world area) if you can’t beat these early bosses you simply won’t advance into the real game. It is here were you will get the first taste and lessons into how the Dark Souls universe ticks.
Bonfires are your friend, enemies can kill you at any time even run of the mill ones, you will lose your souls (EXP points ) Every time you die unless you can backtrack to the place where you originally died before dying again. A death will send you to the last bonfire where you rested at, this is both a blessing and curse and it is the foundation for the wonderful machine that is Dark Souls.
Bonfires will re spawn, and fully heal you, will restore your healing flasks, and even serve as the place to level up your stats (provided you have the appropriate amount of souls).
Bonfires will also reset every enemy that is a non boss in the game. Meaning; you could have spent hours clearing out the world and as soon as you died in a boss encounter (or any enemy encounter) you are sent back to a bonfire and every single enemy you killed will be back at its original spot, fully healed.
While this can be extremely annoying if you are trying to quickly make your way back to a boss encounter (or to your lost Souls) this is also a blessing as it is the key to grinding and killing enemies over and over again in order to collect souls (EXP/in-game currency) and level up your stats or simply upgrade your weapons and armor in a smithy with said earned souls.
Once you understand this basic concept (long used by every traditional JRPG in existence), then no task is too large or impossibly difficult in Dark Souls, there is always a way for those who grind and are patient because grinding leads to exploration, and exploration is always ….ALWAYS rewarding in Dark Souls.
The World Design takes from Zelda but expands upon it
Dark Souls throws you into the middle of Lordran a fictional world filled of wondrous dark age structures and sights. A land filled with undead, monsters and mythical beasts at every turn. A land with sparse NPCs that provide some vague lore and if you are lucky even more vague hints about what to do in the game.
Basically you are left to your own devices from the get go, with no clear sense of purpose or direction…you just have to look around and set on a path that will undoubtedly lead to your death…over and over again until you get farther and farther and reach the next bonfire. Progress is usually interrupted (apart from the occasional death by the hands of a run of the mill enemy) by walking through a foggy doorway of light and meeting a boss that kicks your arse.
It is here where you will most likely lose your collected Souls as recovering them would require for you to return to the boss encounter which forces you into a kill or be killed scenario and if you are too weak and improperly equipped to face said boss you will most likely keep dying even if you do get progressively better at fighting the boss by memorizing his patterns.
Losing badly to a boss left me with a few choices (and there is always more than one choice or path to take in Dark Souls) I could either return to fight the boss, or level up by grinding in my current location or take a completely different route or simply test my luck against another hopefully easier boss. The last choice was always the most enticing one, as the game encourages it. Different enemies leave different rewards perhaps killing another boss would give me the weapon or ring needed to get that ever small edge in order to topple the boss that originally troubled me.
The game encourages exploration as the game world is filled with locked doors waiting to be unlocked and secret passage ways waiting to be found. The level design is very Japanese, as only the Japanese
could create a game world this big yet so meticulously designed where even the deepest reaches of hell are interconnected with the highest towers of Lordran’s castles.
Think of Zelda’s greatest 3-D dungeons…now picture that type of craftsmanship in level design brought into a world many times larger than any 3-D Zelda game before BotW. DS has a knack for outdoing itself at every corner. Fight through the maze like depths in order to beat a fantastically large boss only to discover, that the humongously large Blighttown lies even deeper than the depths. Fight through the hordes of poisonous enemies in Blighttown in order to go deeper into the underground to fight another terrifically terrifying boss…only to discover that even deeper than that the epic Demon Ruins await.
Dark Souls is huge, and the best part of it is that you can go anywhere at anytime as long as you can survive your way through the world.
The world is open in the truest sense of the word, but its design harkens back to games like Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time. Unlike Skyrim and BotW, You can’t hike your way over mountains or swim across rivers ( though you can drown in them and can walk in shallow water) you simply have to follow the roads and trails that have been set by the developers. There is always more than one way to get to a location and there are plenty of areas with massive open fields to explore. I seldom have had as much fun exploring a virtual game world as I had venturing through Lordran.
The Forgiving Unforgiveness….
DS in comparison to games like Castlevania 64 is actually very Forgiving. The constant autosave feature means that if you kill an important NPC (such as Solaire) you can’t load a previous save and correct the perceived mistake (Killing NPCs has draw backs but also some advantages) you have to live with your decision and move on forwards unless you are willing to start the game from the very beginning again. If you farmed over 30,000 souls (exp/currency) and by mistake went into a nearly impossible boss fight and died twice (thus losing the unrecovered souls) you can’t backtrack. The autosave feature renders every action taken as final and its consequences unavoidable. So yes you can very well lose hours of progress in terms of EXP if you are not careful or just plain unlucky.
However the autosave feature, and bonfire reset cycle also means that unlike Castlevania 64 were reaching Dracula with little healing items meant a near certain death with few if any options at correcting the issue (other than getting really good at fighting Dracula) in Dark Souls the opportunity to take your time to level up and get better gear in order to succeed is ever present. Basically the time you put into DS will determine what you get out of it. You will always get stronger even if it is on a step at a time basis rather than in leaps and bounds. But the game is very Forgiving in this aspect.
The game is not forgiving everywhere else. The bosses even when your character is at a good level can kill you swiftly if you are incompetent. To mention an example that illustrates this issue I will make a reference to the boss at the top of Sen’s Fortress which is a giant knight creature that deals massive damage with his sword. During my first run through the Fortress I was already 40 hours into the game at a fairly high level, but by the time I reached the boss my healing items had been depleted.
Mentally I felt handicapped by this (and DS can mess with your mind a bit) but I went forwards anyways, needless to say my strategy of blocking with my shield didn’t work as a few blocks and my occasional attacks quickly depleted my stamina bar leaving me unprotected for his attacks and consequently this particular boss killed me in less than a minute.
Instead of giving it a second go I went on a 2-3 hour run in the Catacombs, upon clearing the area I had gained a few levels which I used to improve my stamina, I also collected a few resources to update my shield making it more resilient. After that and with prior knowledge of Sen’s Fortress layout I made my way to the top in better shape (healing items wise) and took on the boss again. This time I used the shield and the rolling technique to avoid the sword swings, while carefully picking my attacks. I killed the boss fairly quickly but not before healing a few times and always keeping my shield up responsibly. Success was achieved by a combination of grinding and a near flawless execution of a better strategy. The latter bearing most of the brunt of my success, as I could have killed the boss a few hours earlier if I had used the same strategy, even with out the grinding. On the converse even with the grinding the boss could have killed me if I had fought dumbly.
Basically Dark Souls combat doesn’t get “easy” because you grind and gain levels, it just becomes more manageable and there is a small increase in the room for error if you have a stronger character. So the game remains challenging throughout but never to the point of frustration.
Control breaking difficulties are (usually) a by product of unfair deaths and at least for my part not one of my uncountable deaths happened cheaply. Each and every death was the result of me messing up and not because of an unfair situation while playing the game.
On truth I found Castlevania 64 the tougher more unforgiving action adventure game. Any one who grew up playing NES to PS1-N64 era games will find Dark Souls a hard and challenging game but not the legendarily hard game the internet has led everyone to believe.
There are flaws…
Not many but there are, some caused by technical issues and others perhaps by design. The camera gets in the way of the action at times, this is not a problem fighting single enemies (mostly) as the Zelda like targeting system does a good job keeping bosses in sight. However getting under some of the bigger bosses in order to strike from below will blind you because the camera sort of just closes in. As you can imagine in a game where combat requires incredible timing and precision being blinded by the camera can result in death.
The issue is also present when fighting more than one enemy, the enemies that aren’t targeted can and will try to get around you to deliver massive critical blows. This is by design, but not being able to see them because of the camera’s placing is a bit annoying.
Aside from camera issues the game’s lack of complete direction (as to where to go or what to do) created some rather interesting scenarios during my play through.
One of these had me accidentally finding a hidden pathway in the Dark Root Forest blocked by a destructible tree. I discovered this secret passage way after more than 10 hours of exploring that very same area (as the forest is an excellent place to grind for souls) because at no point in the game did Dark Souls show me through a previous must do situation that trees could be destroyed depending on the situation.
This is part of what makes exploration in the game so enticing and I wasn’t angry about this in this one particular instance.
But there were other instances were I did find myself a bit lost on what to do ( if not trapped) even if the solution to move forwards was right in front of my face. That’s Dark Souls for you.
Even the DLC which is integrated in to the remastered edition is difficult to access unless you are tipped about it by other players or Google gives you a hand. I feel like deducting a point for some of these issues, but at the same time these issues are what makes the game such an enticing and rewarding experience.
The pretty sights….
For a PS3/360 game with minimal improvements on the far more powerful Switch. Dark Souls Remastered remains a good looking game. The new texture work, flowing grass and foliage and 60fps upgrade seen in the Xbox One and PS4 editions is missing here.
So you get the same game as the last gen players did but with key improvements in resolution and frame rate. The ugly dips in frames of the past generation are gone with a steady 30fps performance at all (or nearly at all times) and the game plays at glorious 1080p while docked though I suspect most people will play the game portably on the Switch.
Metals, water effects and lighting effects are gorgeous and remain competitive with current Switch offerings, especially at 720p on the smaller screen were the older textures still look pleasant to the eye.
The gothic artwork remains impressive today, in fact this is how I always pictured Castlevania looking like in 3 dimensions. The environments are dark when they have to be, and in places like the majestic Anor Londo the gorgeous architecture shines during the ever present sunset. While the game released in the same year as Skyrim the smaller more compact environments allow for greater detail and more complex renders of castles, castle towers and cathedrals than almost anything seen last gen save for a few AAA titles.
The enemies and the bosses remain impressive looking, even if some of the NPCs have begun to show their age (at least in up close inspection). It is hard for me to say that this looks better than BotW, it is not as impressive but it is definitely a grittier and more realistic depiction of a fantasy world.
The Switch Advantage
Portability, portability and portability. The Switch version is overall a superior looking game than its 360/PS3 counterparts. It pales a bit however on the big screen in comparison to its PS4/XB1 brothers. The new textures, lighting and 60fps upgrade is missing on the Switch.
However the Switch offers the one thing that no other system can offer; the Switch allows you to play Dark Souls anywhere, and at anytime thanks to its hybrid nature ( as both a home and portable system). In a game that requires grinding and constant repetition I found this to be an advantage over other systems.
My kid spends his summer days among other things watching cartoons on the TV using the PS4 as his streaming box. While he did this I was able to spend precious hours grinding and doing different tasks in Dark Souls. I was able to simply press a button to send the system into sleep mode while I did other chores and with a press of a button resume my play through whenever I wanted. This feature was a life
saver and a stress reliever in a game that requires hours and hours (80 hours on my first playthrough) of meticulous tinkering.
Quite simply I don’t think I could have logged 80 hours on the PS4 as quickly and as easily as I did on my Switch. I am glad I chose DS remastered for the Switch because quite honestly it is possible that I may not have finished the game other wise.
Dark Souls Remastered includes all of the DLC released for the game in the previous “Prepare to Die” Edition. While Breath of the Wild is a recent Example of pedestrian DLC content added to a Japanese game, it is surprising to see that Dark Souls even though is older has DLC content rivaling that of Western developers.
The DLC features 4 incredibly tough bosses scattered in a completely new and epic sized area that adds at least 20 hours of playtime. The DLC can be assessed with great effort during the first play through, be warned that if you face and defeat the Final boss in the main game you will have to play a New Game + or start all over again in order to see the content. The DLC is tougher than the main game….all four bosses in it are far tougher than anything you will face in the game, especially Artorias. I tackled the DLC when I had three bosses left to fight in the main game … after beating Kalameet (thus killing my final DLC boss) every other boss was a piece of cake by comparison. It was a job well done by From Software to up the difficulty and the stakes in the downloadable content.
Dark Souls Remastered is the best version of the 2011 classic and perhaps the greatest action RPG ever made in the vein of Castlevania. It has aged extremely well and it was joy to play. After BotW it has been the game that I have played the most on my Switch in terms of play time. A must buy for any serious gamer.
GAMEPLAY: 10–Meticulous level design, extremely challenging enemies and bosses that become easier with repetitive play. The game is unexplainably addictive and rewarding. The game is open- world in terms of letting you tackle the game in different ways. No two players will have the same experience while exploring and fighting bosses. The online community can say that there is a specific way to beat a boss for example and during my playthrough I found other ways that were easier for my character build to defeat the boss. The ability to choose between classes when creating your character adds unparalleled customization options when leveling up the stats and choosing a particular set of armor and weapons.
Graphics: 9.0–I doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles of the Xbox one and PS4 versions. While it has a higher resolution and a steadier frame rate in comparison to the original, I feel the Switch is a bit capable of more. That said, Dark Souls remains a masterpiece visually in terms of artwork and the smaller Switch screen does a great job at hiding some of the aging textures. The bosses remain impressive looking even on this generation.
Music: 8.5–The compositions themselves are stellar, the sound effects draw you into the dark world. The Switch version of the remaster actually sounds worse than the OG version in terms of technical quality. I assume this is due to some form of compression used, however Switch carts are capable of
larger storage than 360 DVDs ….so I am puzzled by the drop in quality. The voice acting is pedestrian, but this isn’t a heavy on story game.
Story: 7.0–I didn’t dwell on this category in the main review simply because there isn’t much of a plot to speak off. Lordran feels like an ancient place with history, but much of it has to be inferred by the player from reading item descriptions at the loading screen (Everytime you die) or by talking to the NPCs scattered throughout the land. The NPCs sometimes speak in riddles offering very little in the way of a proper plot. This is all by design, the game wants you to explore and see things in real time. The game wants you to fight and die, so that you can fight and die again. I gets a 7.0 because I do feel the lore breathes life into the game world, and the dark, lonely, almost hopeless tone of the adventure is well set in stone from the moment you wake up in a dungeon cell to start your epic quest. That said, I never felt any attachment to any character, even the silent custom created protagonist. From Software never meant for Dark Souls to be a story a beast, the game is a case of gameplay first, visuals second, and everything else takes a back seat to the former two.
Replayability: 10.0—Dark Souls is addictive…sometimes unexplainably so. The game looks great but it isn’t God of War fantastic especially today in 2019. The game plays fantastically well as far as action RPGs go but it isn’t really superior in that regard to say Zelda. And yet I spent more time playing DS than I did playing God of War or any Zelda not named Ocarina of Time or Breath of the Wild. The game and even managed to hook be for a second play through in the New Game plus mode. A case can actually be made that it is in the more difficult NG+ were the game shines brightest. Constant playthroughs after all are the only way to achieve everything in the game. The fact of the matter is that Dark Souls keeps you glued to the controller (or in my case to the Switch) even when you are not having a good time. In fact not having a good time resumes 90 percent of the experience and yet I couldn’t stop playing for hours on end. Easily a 100+ hour game.
Overall: 9.0—Dark Souls is a classic, it actually nails that old 2-D Castlevania feel in 3 Dimensions. A one of a kind experience that is extremely challenging but also very doable. I feel the Switch adds to the experience by being a portable machine. I am sure some people will be turned off by the difficulty but I am also sure most will be captured by DS challenging and rewarding gameplay design.