I get it – you want to wring as much life from your cash cow as possible. Publishers go the whole hog to do this, pumping money into sequels, prequels, DLC, day-one incentives and fancy reboots (with pared-back titles and a more serious milieu to boot).
But publishers have recently sprung a craftier feint, working out how to do the bare minimum with existing code before reselling old games at virtually full price. The “remaster” started off as a genuine stab at digital preservation but has become, from where I’m sitting, an insidious money-making ploy. That you can charge $40 for a game that’s not even seven years old and features no enhancements besides a bump in framerate and a glossier picture is daylight robbery. Remasters make sense if the game in question is actually missed, or old, or broken in some way. But Dark Souls? Really? It was only the other week I was thinking how well it had aged as I finished up my third playthrough using my Xbox 360 disc in my One X. For crying out loud, the ink has barely dried on the DLC for Dark Souls 3. We’re reaching a saturation point with this franchise, and fast. What’s next? Dark Souls: Battle Royale?
It’s often said that corporations turn a profit by either milking their employees or milking their customers. Well, customers are the ones getting fobbed off here. Bless the core fans. When Remastered was first announced forums lit up with thoughtful debate centered on improving an almost perfect game. New gear, new enemy placements, new balancing tweaks would give fans new and old a reason to dive in. What did Bandai Namco go and do? They ignored all that. What energy has been expended – and perhaps the developers finally got to work a 9-5 day in an industry notorious for crunch – has gone into 1) matchmaking tweaks, 2) the option to switch covenants, and 3) a bonfire near Vamos in the catacombs. Oh, and you can change the amount of space that your inventory screen dominates.
While the image has been cleaned up the resolution bump falls short of 4K and many of the core assets are untouched. Put it this way: a Bluepoint remake this is not. The magicians responsible for the Uncharted Collection and Shadow of the Colossus have elevated the remaster to an art form by slaving over the most insignificant details, and yet the biggest changes here are some new smoke effects when you sit down at a bonfire (big puffs of smoke that say, “look at me, look at the work that’s gone into me!”) and a new rippling fog door before boss fights. Some areas actually look worse thanks to a more “realistic” lighting system that robs the world of its high fantasy gleam. And while high-stress areas like Blighttown now run at a buttery smooth 60 frames, it’s almost laughable that an improved frame rate can be considered a selling point in a $40 package, especially when PC gamers have reaped the benefits of a vibrant modding community for years, not to mention a significantly discounted copy for those who already own the Prepare to Die edition on Steam.
That’s not to say the core game isn’t brilliant. It is. It’s still, to my mind, the finest game ever made. It’s just a shame that there’s nothing here to justify the asking price and yet many existing fans will no doubt feel the itch to jump in with both feet if only to surround themselves with other players online. The real treat will be if you’re new to the series entirely. The world of Lordran is the star, a bedeviling medieval city that fits together like a puzzle piece; a 3D Metroidvania anchored to a risk-reward game of cat and mouse. Enemies you kill net you souls, a currency used to buy new gear and level up your character. But leveling up means getting to a bonfire. Die before you make it there and your souls remain at the place you perished. You have one opportunity to nab them before they’re extinguished forever. The formula is brilliant and Dark Souls represents its peak.
Still, I can’t help but ask a simple question. If there was any game to be remastered, why wasn’t it Demon’s Souls, the 2009 classic currently in wedlock with the PS3; a game that is actually at risk of disappearing from the market? Something doesn’t add up. Perhaps, in these new heady times, with money to make in the blink of an eye, Demon’s Souls and its cobwebbed PS3 code represent too much hard work. Why bother? Dark Souls Remastered has brand recognition and it’s an easy fit for the PS4 and Xbox One. Who cares whether a remaster makes sense when there is money to be made. As consumers, as gamers, as supporters of the art-form, the longer we prop up this madness the worse it’ll get. In the end, the joke’s on us.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game, which was provided to us by Bandai Namco.
$40 is a steep price to pay for Dark Souls Remastered on consoles, especially since it doesn't benefit from the new licks of paint.