When Dark Souls Remastered was announced, long time fans of the series were excited that their beloved game might receive a real makeover. However, their enthusiasm was dampened a bit when it became clear that the new release (at least on consoles and PC) would only include some relatively minor graphical/framerate enhancements and quality of life tweaks. Another big part of the Remastered announcement was that Dark Souls was heading to the Switch (albeit many months later), so for the first time fans of the Soulsborne games could play on the go.
While this is not the place to go deep into the mythology and misunderstandings around the supposed difficulty or inscrutability of Dark Souls, it should be noted that it does demand precision, patience and the ability to control the camera and flow of encounters with ease. Essentially, Dark Souls might just be one of the fairest action games ever made, the definition of a “get good” to be successful experience. My question going into the Switch version of Dark Souls was, would the muscle and timing memory developed over hundreds of hours of Dark Souls gameplay translate to the handheld version?
Dark Souls on the Switch is the real deal, a complete and virtually identical port of Remastered, including the Artorias of the Abyss DLC, and many — but not all — of the small UI tweaks (such as the ability to consume multiples of items) that defined the re-release. At 30 fps — both docked and in handheld mode — it lacks the higher framerate of the recent console and PC versions and at 720p it’s a significant step down from the higher resolutions of other Remastered editions. Docked, Dark Souls on the Switch runs at 1080p, though. Anyone who has grown accustomed to the higher framerate will definitely notice the difference.
But playing the game docked is not really the point, because there are already plenty of better versions to be found, and it’s unlikely that Switch owners only have one gaming device. How Dark Souls plays as a handheld game is why we came to the party.
And this is where the water gets cloudy. Although Dark Souls Remastered on the Switch is crisp and clear, and looks at least as good as vanilla Dark Souls did back in the day, the size of the display and claustrophobic visual environment, combined with a less precise camera and the Switch’s small, oddly-assigned and sometimes sluggish controls, all add up to a unique, extra-layer of frustration that has nothing to do with the game’s mechanics. Souls veterans — who know the maps and enemies inside and out — will be dismayed by both some of the button assignments as well as the difficulty of moving the camera and avatar with the kind of grace and precision one has grown accustomed to. In particular, the right thumb stick is maddeningly difficult to control. Although the Remastered version on PC allowed for the ability to resize the HUD, this is not an option on the Switch, so a fairly significant amount of screen space is lost. Some of Dark Souls is notoriously, well, dark. Trying to negotiate Darkroot Garden or Blightown with the glare of any bright light on the Switch screen is nearly impossible and no amount of tweaking the brightness controls helps. On the other hand, the game can be essentially paused by using the Switch’s power button, something not possible on any other version.
Multiplayer in the Soulsborne games is one of the defining characteristics of the experience, whether being invaded, invading other players’ games, or summoning help and playing coop. The Switch port preserves this element, though it remains to be seen what kind of community it develops. Additionally, the net code has been unreliable and crash prone, sometimes at the most inopportune moments.
Frustrations with controls and screen size aside, there is something very cool about playing a teeny-tiny Dark Souls on the go. All the stats and builds that I have come to rely on from dozens of playthroughs work just fine, but some of the more complex boss battles really suffer from the size of the display and capricious, awkward controls. Of course, played in docked mode with a Pro controller many of these issues disappear… but if that’s the way you want to play, go for the higher framerate and graphically more accomplished editions already released.
Dark Souls evolved from being a cult favorite to a recognized and highly influential masterpiece of minimalist game design, often imitated but never matched, even by its two sequels. Is the Switch version of Dark Souls the real deal? Absolutely. The game is all there in its challenging and rewarding glory. Is the Switch version the best way to experience Dark Souls? Probably not, and I can’t imagine new players coming to the game for the first time trying to learn Dark Souls in the handheld mode. My advice for Switch owners who have never played From’s masterpiece: play it docked and on the big screen first. For those Souls veterans who just can’t get enough of their favorite game, be prepared to retrain your muscles, play in a dark room, and be a little amazed that you’re holding the game at all.