Almost a decade ago, rumours began to spread throughout the gaming community. Whispers of a game so brutally punishing, some claimed it was the most difficult they'd ever attempted… Dark, dingy and deadly at every turn. Those who were brave enough to step into the darkness wear the completion of this game like a badge of honour. For there is only one with such a fearsome reputation. Lucky for us, it's recently been revamped for next-generation consoles. We can relive the anguish, frustration and hard-won triumphs all over again in Dark Souls: Remastered.
Through The Fire & The Flames
Created by FromSoftware back in 2011, Dark Souls kicked off the iconic trilogy. It has since been hailed as one of the most challenging video game sagas of all time. Challenging though it may be, the game is also clever, engaging and incredibly addictive. In my opinion, it's certainly worth your time.
The game starts with a cinematically stunning Lord of the Rings-style cut-scene. It briefly explains the history and premise of the world you're about to enter. The most important thing we learn is that the creation of fire brought with it four Lord Souls. These Souls were then claimed by four Lords, three of whom joined forces and used their Souls to take control of the world by ushering in an age of fire. In an effort to prevent the flames from burning out, one of the Lords makes a sacrifice. This unleashes an undead curse on the world. Doomed to roam the land as mindless creatures for all eternity, those who suffer from the undead curse have lost their humanity and are known simply as "hollows".
Learning The Lore
Admittedly, some elements of the storyline are confusing. I believe that's a deliberate choice on behalf of the creators to leave certain things open to the players' interpretation. Having said this, there is definitely no shortage of lore in this game and the history and world-building of the Dark Souls universe is actually incredibly detailed; you just have to look hard enough to discover it!
By listening closely to dialogue and scouring through item descriptions, you'll find hundreds of fascinating fragments throughout the game. All of which help unravel some mysteries. Your part in the story is actually pretty easy to follow. I don't feel that the overall playability and enjoyment aren't hugely affected if you just pay attention to whatever you naturally come across in your play-through.
Welcome To The Fight
So where does your character come into things?
Well, your story as the chosen undead begins in the Undead Asylum where you and your fellow "hollows" are imprisoned. You escape from your cell and come across a knight who is badly wounded. He tells you that he has failed in his quest and begs you to continue on his behalf by travelling to the kingdom of Lordran (AKA the land of Ancient Lords) and ringing the "Bells of Awakening". He gives you an Estus flask (which allows you to heal when your health is damaged) and then sends you on your way.
Of course, things are rarely simple... especially in a Souls game! So expect your journey to be anything but straightforward.
Praise The Sun
From the misty marshes of the Darkroot Basin to the hallowed halls of Anor Londo, players must battle through the harshest of landscapes with only the light of a few precious bonfires to guide them on their way. This is one of the things that makes Dark Souls such a unique and difficult game. The lack of auto-save and the fact that bonfires (often a perilously long distance from one another) are the only "checkpoints" within the game.
Typically, each area has at least two bonfires. Once you reach a certain point in the game, you can warp between most of them and revisit certain areas if you need to. Still, more than once I found myself low on health and completely out of Estus flasks! All the time crossing my fingers as I crept around each corner and pleaded that I would make it to the next bonfire. Think carefully before using a bonfire though. All those enemies you just defeated will respawn as soon as you light the flame. Make sure you've cleared the area of loot and objectives first. Otherwise, you risk putting yourself through the torment all over again. That's part of the fun really... isn't it!?
Look At That View!
The locations themselves are either stunningly beautiful or deliberately dismal. They range from burning hellscapes and beautiful castles, to abandoned medieval towns and poisonous swamps. All in all, there is a huge variety of areas and a vast array of different enemies that inhabit them and this prevents the game from ever becoming stale or feeling too formulaic. Depending on where you find yourself, you'll need to adapt to your surroundings; some areas need you to be fast-moving, others require a slow and steady approach and the particularly nasty ones might also encourage you to be wary of area effects like poison or lava so you always have to remain vigilant.
In addition to this, most locations are fairly large. There is often a lot to explore! It's almost impossible to clear everything in one go. For this reason, short-cuts are also an essential and often life-saving part of most locations. They can provide easier routes to boss battles or key areas where you might have to attempt things several times before being successful. From kicking down ladders to unbolting doors, once you've fought your way through the main body of an area at least once, you'll often be rewarded with a faster route. This will cut out large sections of that area in the future. Especially handy when you've just opened up a short-cut to a boss area where it's rare to win the fight in one go!
Hard-Won Victories & Crushing Defeats
Speaking of boss areas, watch out for those infamous fog-gates! There's usually a mini or main boss hiding out behind them. In a game where even the most basic enemies can be deadly, the boss battles are exceptionally difficult and pretty much always require more than one try. They also seem to be exceptionally skilled at defeating players at the last second when you need just one more hit and those defeats (the ones where you were so close!) are undoubtedly the most crushing of all.
Having said this, Dark Souls: Remastered provides a wide range of bosses with a wide variety of movements, attacks and special abilities and they are ALL beatable with varying degrees of difficulty depending on your character build and gameplay style. For this reason, the most important thing you can do in a Dark Souls boss fight is pay attention; this game will take you to school and it expects you to learn while you're there. Identifying attack patterns, damage, movement speed and range will be your saving grace and can help make sure you use the correct tactics to win each battle - even if it takes you a few attempts.
Grinding Through The Gameplay
There are a lot of factors that make the Dark Souls: Remastered gameplay so unique and, ultimately, so challenging. More often than not, you'll find yourself swinging wildly and tapping furiously to kill your enemies before they can kill you. To that end, the game doesn't waste time on elegant movements, slick combos or fancy attack mechanisms. Instead, it focuses on simply giving you the tools you need to get by. In terms of movement, you can walk, jump, run and roll.
For close-quarters melee players like myself, attacks can be either heavy or light and blocking or parrying can be hugely effective (albeit VERY risky if you don't get the timing right). For those who prefer ranged combat via magic, pyromancy, crossbows etc… You have both auto-targeting and manual targeting options which come in handy. As with most games, there is a case for making your character well rounded and therefore being able to use a variety of tactics to make your life easier depending on the situation.
The most frustrating aspect of the Dark Souls Remastered gameplay has to be the realism of stamina, skill and item weight. If you think you can pick up a greatsword and start carving up your enemies straight away; think again! Swords, shields, armour and even crossbows all have weights and requirements attached to them. They will sap your speed and strength with savage consequences if your character isn't levelled appropriately to wield them.
Take It To The Next Level
Levelling up meanwhile requires souls. You collect these by killing enemies. In some ways, your levelling potential is endless. It's definitely worth respawning enemies in some key areas and gathering extra souls to spend. But you can only level up at a bonfire. If you die before using the souls you've collected, you'll lose them! Since levelling up is easier said than done, think very carefully about the kind of player you want to be and what stats you need to level in order to use your items effectively. Even with the correct stats, you can only make a couple of hits with your sword, or take a couple of hits with your shield before stamina is drained and you find yourself defenceless.
A Bloody Warning System
Finally, we need to cover two of the coolest and most amusing elements of Dark Souls; the messaging system and the interactive bloodstains. A unique mechanism for players to share information and experiences which can both help and hinder, you'll find fiery messages and ghostly bloodstains scattered across the floor in pretty much every area. Restricted by a list of pre-written text selections, the messages might contain celebrations of victory, helpful hints to defeat a nearby enemy, or unwelcome tricks to lead you to your demise like the ever-popular; 'try jumping off' which I'd advise being very careful about!
Similarly, the bloodstains tell a ghostly tale of other adventurers who have died in that area. A hazy, red-figure will appear and treat you to a few seconds of footage showing how that player met their doom. Sometimes humorous and sometimes unfortunate, these bloodstains are actually pretty helpful; especially when you're entering an area that doesn't have any obvious enemies or traps. You should never let your guard down when playing a Souls game. Just in case you do, the bloodstains definitely act as a handy reminder!
It's Dangerous To Go Alone
In Dark Souls, it's just as dangerous to go with companions! A helping hand from NPC's or indeed other players certainly couldn't hurt… or could it?
The multiplayer mechanics in the game aren't great. I think in some ways that's a deliberate choice because you're not supposed to "have it easy" by doing everything in teams. In fact, the game has multiple ways of making its multiplayer elements too difficult to use consistently. For one thing, you can only summon NPC's or other players into your world when you have rekindled your humanity. Why is this a problem? Well, as we've established already, it's painfully easy to die in Dark Souls and when you die as a "human" you lose your humanity immediately and return to your hollowed form...
Humanity is not an endless resource in the game which means you don't get an infinite amount of do-overs. Since humanity can only be rekindled at a bonfire, you need to make sure you survive in your human form long enough to get there! Meanwhile, being human also comes with other problems. It makes you a prime target for invasion by enemy players who invariably want to 'PVP' with you at the worst possible times. Just another example of the in-game mechanics which make Dark Souls Remastered so annoying... and so addictive all at the same time.
Sword & Shield At The Ready
In a game as brutal as Dark Souls, making the best use of your limited resources is vitally important. Finding the right gear and using it at the right time is an essential part of the gameplay. Although it's possible to make it through without changing or upgrading your items regularly, it definitely notches the difficulty up another level. Always be on the lookout for loot and make an effort to explore areas thoroughly to seek out difficult to find items (as they are often the most useful).
As ever, the best approach in Dark Souls: Remastered is to be flexible! Thanks to these levelling and upgrade systems, the game can be punishing for anyone who is a jack of all trades and a master of none! With various types of Titanite Shard required to upgrade gear and those precious souls needed to level your character stats, you'll need to match your play style and your item upgrades accordingly. No use maxing out a super heavy greatsword if your character is a fleet-footed sorcerer without the strength to wield it!
Alongside your armour and weapons, additional help comes in the form of single-use items and wearable rings. Granting you buffs on certain statistics, applying special effects such as lightning or poison to your attacks, or indeed protecting and healing you from those effects when enemies use them against you, these items are well worth seeking out and equipping as necessary. Just try making it through BlightTown without Purple Moss Clumps and the Rusted Iron Ring - I dare you! All in all, these extras are a really nice touch and a good demonstration of how the game encourages and requires you to be clever with your approach and flexible your gear if you want to make it through.
To Take Up Arms
If all of this hasn't scared you off, you're probably wondering if it's worth giving Dark Souls: Remastered a try. It definitely is.
Sometimes it takes a while for things to "click" with this game and admittedly when I first played, I didn't really get it for the first couple of hours! I died several times and it just seemed too hard... I couldn't figure out how I was ever going to complete this game when I could barely make it out of the starting area! Luckily a friend of mine was playing the game at the same time and encouraged me to keep going when I threatened to throw in the towel. Eventually, I realised that my normal gaming style (just run in and attack everything) wasn't going to work; instead, I needed to be smart, calculating and, above all, stealthy!
Stay Humble Folks - You Can Do This!
Once I realised that I needed to adapt my playstyle, the rest of the game felt achievable. As long as I was prepared to put in the hours and learn from my mistakes. That's what makes this game so addictive and so clever; It forces you to be strategic about what you are doing. It punishes overconfidence! Once you start 'playing by the rules', the game does become beatable. Believe it or not, it actually becomes fun!
Clever elements like the bloodstains and messages give this game a communal feel. Despite the lacklustre multiplayer elements and the huge variety of locations, enemies and weapons prevent the game from ever becoming boring. With challenges around every corner, this game keeps you on your toes! Once you get into the Dark Souls mindset, you'll be motivated to keep going until you push past even the toughest of foes. What's more, you'll start to relish the challenge of a game that NEVER makes things easy.
There might be tears and tantrums along the way but you can beat Dark Souls: Remastered! Trust me, it's worth doing just for the bragging rights!