When Dark Souls released in 2011, it helped solidify a new genre of action RPG. Since then, players have held onto the game, with fight clubs and massive, yearly revisitations. Dark Souls is more ritual than game at this point, and it was only inevitable that we’d get a remaster. I think I’m okay with that.
Dark Souls remains a remarkably consistent game. The game’s world has fallen into disrepair years after a cabal of gods teamed up to defeat a horde of ancient dragons. Entropy eats at all things until the world is a sea of corpses and mindless beasts. And yet the player persists, facing each new boss again and again in spite of their losses. Dark Souls is ultimately a game about what we do with the knowledge that we will die. Do we fight to keep things going? Do we embrace the coming darkness? The game’s moodiness arises out of painful, resonant questions. The existence of a remastered Dark Souls provides answers these questions by persisting at all costs instead of letting go.
And why not? Dark Souls is a very good game and the remaster shows that. It cleans up the game’s textures and performance, while adding small tweaks to the online experience. Things work now where they didn’t before while the core gameplay experience still resonates. Exploring a level for secrets and adapting to enemy ambushes is a fun mixture of fighting and puzzle solving. Roadblock after roadblock emerges, often seeming unconquerable until you see the minute flaws that allow you to progress. The Souls games are about small victories—finding the path to that item you saw, learning how to parry a dangerous foe, fighting a boss a dozen times until you finally defeat them. Each step forward feels significant in ways that many games can only dream of. The appeal of Dark Souls is the appeal of self-validation. No game, not even Dark Souls’ sequels, has delivered on that fantasy with such power.
Much of this is owed to the game’s world, a towering stack of hamlets, fortresses, swamps, and crypts that interlock into a cohesive whole. There’s a remarkable sense of accomplishment that comes from struggling with an area only to return later and proceed through it with ease. This is bolstered by the game’s combat, a slow, hefty form of hacking and slashing where button presses feel like important commitments. You don’t just cast a magic spell in Dark Souls, you wait until the right window and root yourself in place to summon a geyser of crystalline energy. Years later, these moment-to-moment tactical decisions are still wonderful.
Dark Souls is a hostile game, even out of combat. Weapons hang just out of the reach of statistical requirements and special covenants, their rewards locked off because you didn’t invest in enough Faith points. Questlines ends tragically because players didn’t know—how could they?—that they needed to open a special shortcut and kill a lone maggot that would infect their favorite NPC. Dark Souls’ refusal to explain itself is both frustrating and admirable. While the most deeply felt victories come from defeating tricky bosses, there is a perverse joy to understanding the game’s arcane and baffling progression criteria.
Ignoring its inscrutable logic, Dark Souls’ greatest flaw is structural. This is more evident in retrospect, as the remaster highlights. The initial half of the game is about exploration. Moving from one location to the next often means doubling back and passing through where you came. The world of Dark Souls is a maze that nevertheless becomes familiar. The second half of the game breaks this structure apart with four distinct locations at far-flung parts of the world. These locations are packed with dirty tricks: enemies invulnerable to normal attacks, massive lava lakes that sap your health, and dark catacombs where cheap shots knock you into bottomless pits. These segments are capped off by some of the most underwhelming bosses in the game.
The juxtaposition of quality exploration and haphazard second half combat called my memory of Dark Souls into focus. Dark Souls, intentionally or not, has contrasts built into its world as well as its design. Ultimately, the soaring heights of exploration and demon conquest fade until all there is left is a final boss battle against a wasted king easily defeated by a player who has mastered the parry mechanic. This imperfection, these dipole extremes, imbue the game with undeniable character. It is flawed and often broken, but also inspirational.
Reviving Dark Souls means embracing these imperfections and leaving the majority of them intact. Save for a few glitches like the ability to gain infinite souls, Dark Souls Remastered keeps most of the original game’s flaws rather than significantly revamping or fixing issues with the original. It’s a phantom copy that’s nearly indistinguishable from the source material. For some, this will be disappointing. What’s the purpose of a remaster if you can already boot up your PC copy, replete with mods that fix performance issues? Why pay for something you already have? I have no satisfactory answer other to suggest that if you have a version of Dark Souls that already works well for you, there might not be a reason to pick up the remaster. Dark Souls Remastered feels more like a means to allow new players to experience the game.
The core experience of Dark Souls Remastered sometimes deviates from the original in strange ways. This is most clear in the game’s increased visual fidelity and performance. Refurbished textures and a smooth framerate offer a cleanliness that is welcome but occasionally changes things perhaps too much from the original. The lava of Lost Izalith loses its harsh, bloomed glow in favor of something more understated and less magical. Blighttown, infamous for its performance hogging and stuttering framerate, now runs at a silky 60 frames per second, but the resulting ease of motion turns one of the game’s most infamous areas into a cakewalk. These things are minor, but they do alter the underlying fabric of the game. It robs new players of cultural reference points and shared communal experiences that shaped the original game.
Part of the difficulty of preserving the original Dark Souls rests in a fading community. Multiplayer elements such as PVP or summoning other players for aid in boss fights only function if there are players and servers to support them. Demon’s Souls, FromSoftware’s first foray into their new form of action RPG, disabled its original servers on February 28th. Dark Souls hasn’t reach this point but has faded enough that players organize a yearly return to the game. Dark Souls Remastered is an expensive bit of technical necromancy meant to prolong our time in Lordran a little bit longer. The result is often beautiful; I’ve never heard the Bell of Awakening ring so many times, and there are summon signs in places that were empty on my previous journeys through the original.
At this point Dark Souls is less a game we all play than a thing we, as a collective subculture, do. Its DNA is woven into dozens of games, from the limb-hacking The Surge to the samurai-flavored Nioh. There are plenty of “Souls-like” games out there, aping mechanics and iterating on the original game’s design. But they are not Dark Souls and, like moths attracted to flame, the culture at large returns to the game that started it all once more. Dark Souls Remastered is a close replication of the source material, allowing new players to see what the big deal was and veterans to test their mettle once more. There’s already been a generation of undead warriors who completed their journey and rang the Bells of Awakening. Now it’s time for another.