BOSTON – Dark Souls is hard enough when conditions are absolutely ideal. What happens when you take the beloved (but punishing) action/RPG series and put it on the Nintendo Switch’s small screen? Well, surprisingly, it still works – for the most part. Dark Souls on the Switch’s handheld mode may not be the ideal way to experience the game, but it’s still an eminently (and compulsively) playable adventure.
I went hands-on with Dark Souls: Remastered for the Switch at PAX East 2018, and after a small learning curve, I found that the game played just as smoothly as I remembered. The demo covered the first level in the game (the Undead Asylum), and for returning players, the only real difficulty will be getting used to a small screen. (For new players – good luck. You’ll need it.)
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For those who haven’t played Dark Souls before, or who need a refresher, the game’s first level acts as something of a tutorial. You start off as an undead warrior, armed with only the stub of a sword and some rudimentary armor (depending on the class you choose, anyway). As you progress through a crumbling stone building, you learn the basics of attacking, dodging, talking with other characters, solving environmental puzzles and taking on the game’s massive bosses. You also pick up some better equipment along the way.
The first thing I noticed about Dark Souls: Remastered was that the frame rate was remarkably consistent. A Nintendo representative informed me that the game was running at 30 frames per second at 720p resolution. While those stats are decidedly last-gen, they’re not bad at all for a six-inch, portable screen. (The game should be capable of more impressive visuals when hooked up to a TV.)
However, the six-inch screen comes with some drawbacks as well. Dark Souls relies on small environmental details not only to tell its story, but to clue players into where they need to go next, or where they might find useful hidden treasure. In handheld mode, the targeting retcile was a little tough to see, and the text was extremely small. I got used to it during the course of my demo, but if you haven’t played the game before, it might be difficult to take your first run-through in handheld mode.
The second thing that I had to grapple with was the controls. The controls for Dark Souls: Remastered haven’t changed a bit since the game first debuted on PS3 and Xbox 360 – and that actually makes it feel a little strange on the Switch. The A and B buttons are reversed on the Switch, compared to their Xbox and PlayStation counterparts. But Dark Souls has maintained the “bottom button for confirm, side button for cancel” layout. In practical terms, this means that I often did absolutely nothing while trying to dodge. It’s a good thing that the first level is relatively forgiving.
Beyond that, Dark Souls: Remastered is exactly what it claims to be. It’s a revamped and polished version of the 2011 classic. While the Switch version is not likely to reach the same technical heights as the PC, Xbox One and PS4 variations, it does present itself surprisingly well as a handheld game. Getting to see (or better yet, avoid) the infamous “You Died” screen on the go could be a strong selling point by itself.