The Nintendo Switch has played host to countless ports in the relatively brief 18 months it’s been on the market, but every so often one comes along that brings with it all the prestige and reverence that made it such a touchstone elsewhere. Last year, that game was arguably The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, a port that was made all the more enchanting by the fact that it was its first foray into handheld territory.
And so it’s rather fitting that one of the next pieces of lauded software to join the ranks on Switch should be the other seminal action-RPG that launched in 2011, FromSoftware’s sublime Dark Souls. Much like Bethesda’s highly influential instalment in The Elder Scrolls saga, the original (and, let's be honest, best) instalment in the Japanese-made series is elevated by its support for handheld play - but that’s not the only reason you should be returning to Lordran, or making the pilgrimage for the very first time, for that matter.
Dark Souls - and, by extension, the impressively faithful polish-up job that is Dark Souls: Remastered - is a masterclass in video game design. If you're already a convert to its macabre charms, then expect to have your choir preached to here, but if you are new to the series, then forget all those stories you’ve heard about Souls being some impenetrable 'boys club' that revels in the difficulty of its mechanics. Granted, this is a game that will punish you countless times over, but every death you’ll endure at the hands of Lordran’s monstrous inhabitants will hurt a less if you’re willing to learn from it.
You’ll start with a character you’ve briefly created, but even then you’ll begin to suspect this is a game that has no desire to hold your hand or stroke your ego; the character classes you can choose from appear relatively obtuse in their definitions. Then you begin your adventure, locked inside a prison cell within the Undead Asylum. As you slowly emerge and follow its labyrinthine corridors, a series of bloodstains will gradually drip feed you nuggets of information. This is how you roll. This how you make a light and heavy attack. This how you dodge. Simple mechanics, and ones you’ve no doubt used plenty of times before.
You encounter the safe glow of a bonfire, then push open an imposing set of doors and enter a barren hall. You’ve got this, you tell yourself - only for a giant Asylum Demon to crash to the floor, a seemingly impossibly-sized creature with a mace practically dripping with malice. Do you run? Do you fight it? Can you even fight something that big? And why are you having to face a boss a few minutes into a game? If you do get away you’ll potentially find a sword, a shield and perhaps even a way to help even the odds.
Learn its attack patterns and the distance of its movements and it’s possible to beat it without taking a single hit. But even if you do die, you’ll know why you did. And you’ll rise again once more at the bonfire outside, ready to return to battle. When you finally vanquish it, you’ll be rewarded with a sense of hard-earned elation few other games can generate as you open a new set of doors and begin your journey into Lordran itself.
Few tutorials leave as much of an impact as this one, but that’s entirely intentional. Dark Souls is refreshingly spartan in its approach to all aspects of its gameplay. From the dark fantasy of its setting to the principles of its levelling up system, its uncomplicated nature doesn’t over-encumber you with new abilities and powers. Instead, it gives you a small repertoire of moves, ushers you through its doors and says, “Off you go,” with a knowing smirk.
This isn’t a world full of smaller enemies that serve as fodder to keep you entertained before each inevitable boss fight. Every encounter is designed to test you, to evoke the muscle memory that’s been engrained in blood, sweat and tears. Even something as simple as a shambling skeleton armed with a rusty sword and shield can be your undoing. There’s no gradual build-up to its roster of creatures, either. From undead archers to towering knights with an agility that defies their size, every battle is its own boss fight; a constant crucible that tests you with extreme prejudice.
Thanks to all the graphical improvements and technical overhauls to performance, Dark Souls: Remastered now resides on Nintendo’s hybrid platform in the best shape of its life (outside of the PC version, at least). The game’s purposefully obtuse lore may reveal a world that’s fallen into a spiralling state of entropy, but the game itself holds up remarkably well. Much of that is down to the cast iron rules of its world, where you don’t have to break these principles to beat the most imposing of enemies, but simply use them to your advantage. There are patterns to learn and methods to master, but each one will make you earn your victories in blood.
Having addressed many of the design issues that made its predecessor Demon’s Souls a little rough around the edges, Dark Souls was a breath of fresh air at the time, but after seven years it’s gradually starting to show its age. Textures have been cleaned up for the most part, and environments feature a little more detail. Framerate performance has been improved the most, with some of the game’s most notoriously broken sections - such as Blightown’s infamous framerate crashes - now running smoothly, but many of the game’s other bugs and exploitable flaws remain.
These blemishes are part of Dark Souls’ character, and it’s here you see that port studio Virtuos hasn’t attempted to ‘fix’ too much in favour of simply improving performance and visual fidelity in the name of console optimisation. It hasn’t addressed the inconsistency in difficulty found in its latter bosses, or how its focus on backtracking and shortcut creation is discarded in the second half of the game as you’re whisked off to multiple new locations. In that way, Dark Souls: Remastered is a time capsule that has simply had its exterior polished; Dark Souls 2 and Dark Souls 3 arguably solve some of these issues, even if they're perhaps not as good as the original as a whole.
As a port, Dark Souls: Remastered is another fine example of how a game should be brought to Switch. As we’ve mentioned, the framerate is consistent in both docked and handheld modes, with almost no slowdown, even when battling some of the game’s larger and more intricate bosses. Sure, it’s not the buttery smooth 60fps found on the PS4 and Xbox One versions, but 30fps (running at 720p in handheld) does the job considering the restrictions imposed by Nintendo’s hardware.
There’s support for amiibo, thanks to that brilliant Solaire of Astora model (which lets you use the ‘Praise the Sun’ gesture from the beginning of the game), as well as the ability to use motion controls to make gestures to communicate wordlessly with another player when playing co-operatively. Online play is, of course, supported on Switch and it benefits from all the much-needed adjustments Virtuos has made, including improving matchmaking, removing healing items from PvP (and limiting Estus Flasks) and much more.
The approach to menus is, to say the least, a little unintuitive in this version, with '+' opening an in-game inventory system that doesn't suspend the game while you're playing. Since it's running in a small window, it's often easy to try and control your character while not realising part of the menu is still open. Hitting the 'Home' button doesn't suspend the software either, which does take a little bit of the shine off its portability. The buttons are also partially reversed on Switch, with 'B' to confirm selections and 'A' to return. Expect to get them confused quite a bit, especially if you're new to the series and more used to the typical Nintendo layout.
While we’ve had to wait a little longer than those playing on PS4 and Xbox One, the wait has been more than worth it. Dark Souls: Remastered is a faithful remaster of a touchstone in video game design that improves overall performance while preserving all of the character traits that made the original such a memorable experience. While it’s no less forgiving - and its menus are a little fiddly - this slick Nintendo Switch iteration offers the only way to experience Lordran’s ultra-challenging odyssey in true handheld form. Praise the Sun, indeed.