Dark Souls: Remastered for the Nintendo Switch made me look forward to a twenty-hour trip. Had me bummed out when my plane was landing. It feels like something that shouldn’t work. That its gloomy halls and shimmering heights should be cheapened in the process of making it portable. They’ve done it, though. Dark Souls: Remastered is a portable delight.
Dark Souls: Remastered marks a welcome return to the game’s striking ruins and tense play. It’s as compelling as it was when it first came out, demanding the player treat each enemy like an important event. Combat cannot be taken lightly, as the most basic of enemies is cunning or powerful enough to send you right back to the nearest bonfire. These aren’t disposable foes to be cut through like many an action RPG would do, but an obstacle to overcome.
The tension that comes from the soul system drags the player in, creating a horror-like atmosphere. Losing all of your souls upon death – souls you’d need to level up or buy equipment – makes each journey a gamble. Do you push forward to find your next goal, or flee back to spend your wealth, making each enemy respawn in the process. It turns the player into a gambler with their life, and loads each new fight with fear. Will this be the one that costs you everything?
You become afraid to move on, but you have to. New enemies create a jolt of anxiousness. Can you learn their patterns quickly enough to live? Do you have enough healing to get through? A constant push and pull goes through your head, even as you work through the nuances of fighting that one enemy. It makes you truly appreciate every little change, every trick, and every blind corner. Any could be your end, and so every game beat is something you pay close attention to.
This hyper-focus on the environments and enemies is rewarded with visuals that stagger. The scope of Anor Londo, a city of towers basking in the shining sun, looming in the distance is a moment few who play this game will ever forget. The quivering teeth of the Gaping Dragon send a flicker of revulsion through you as it creeps toward your character. These places and creatures look incredible, loaded with menace and story in their very looks.
That said, Dark Souls is still seven years old. Dark Souls: Remastered makes the game look smooth on modern systems, but it still doesn’t stand with current gen stuff. That said, this ‘ugliness’ in its remade look that works well for it. Things appear more sinister and strange with this look, distorting the world in ways that make the rot and sickness seem more powerful. This is an ugly place, and the visuals work in its favour, especially in this remake.
One might think this would be a problem for the Switch version of Dark Souls: Remastered, but despite playing the whole game in handheld mode, it looks no less stunning in its gruesome visuals. The game still pops on the smaller screen, and it doesn’t feel like its scope have been lessened by looking at it from this angle. In fact, curling up in a corner with the system makes the journey through Lordran feel even more intimate.
Dark Souls’ powerful mood and tension are enhanced through this kind of intimacy. A beginning player who feels unfamiliar with its world will be tense and frightened, finding every new event, enemy, and place to be a cause for rightful concern. Physically bringing these beings and places closer to you makes that tension all the stronger, with surprise attacks happening right on top of you. Having played the game several times before, this closeness made unexpected moments feel more taxing, the tension deeper. Things felt like they were on top of me, threatening to overwhelm me.
Dark Souls: Remastered also seems to reward the familiar player in this closeness. In holding Lordran in my hands, I felt like my past knowledge let me experience things I had missed. I could breathe and take in the beauty in its battles, beasts, and broken towns, and look at them up close. I knew how to traverse its lands, and could instead appreciate it as I physically brought the land closer.
I expected there to be some sacrifice in exchange for this new visual intimacy. In playing through it for review, though, I experienced very few visual hiccups or slowdown (and only if spells were flying everywhere with big effects). There was no choppiness, with the entire experience flowing smoothly even in the worst hellscapes (cough cough Blighttown). The audio seemed fine as well, offering the same uneasy near-silence that makes each sound cause for alarm. A handful of pieces of music and voice seemed rough, but for the most part, it sounded normal
Handheld mode’s controls feel quite comfortable as well, (although having roll mapped to ‘A’ was a struggle for a while, but it can be remapped if you like). The smaller L and R buttons seemed like they would become cramped or unwieldly after long periods of play, but they’re just as easy to use as the larger buttons of other systems’ controllers.
With this comfort, you’re set free to explore Dark Souls: Remastered. It offers the same feeling of self-improvement and discovery for newcomers and longtime fans alike, allowing players to wander pretty, dangerous places or explore their character and capabilities through customization and choice of weapons. It’s a game that is fundamentally different just based on weapon or armor choice, giving players freedom to find their own meaning and purpose through battle and story.
The Switch release of Dark Souls: Remastered is sublime, offering a daunting, rewarding experience that you can carry anywhere with no losses. That you can play it in such an intimate way only enhances its themes and its best points, becoming, to me, the definitive way to experience Dark Souls.