Although all forms of entertainment — including games — must be judged on their own merits, when a developer or creator openly acknowledges the influences behind a project it makes talking about it so much easier. There’s no need for cagey, beating-around-the-bush comparisons. In the case of Remnant: From the Ashes, while there are echoes of Darksiders, Hellgate: London and even a little bit of Serious Sam, the primary model is FromSoftware’s Dark Souls franchise. Fans of Dark Souls have seen that game go from being a cult favorite to acknowledged masterpiece to spawning what is essentially a cottage industry for similar action RPGs to the point where it seems like now, it it’s the rare ARPG that isn’t a Soulsborne-copycat. Remnant is very much built on the Dark Souls model, but at least the love’s out in the open. From fog gates shrouding bosses and forward progress in swirling mist, to healing checkpoint bonfires…er, magical stones….to a design philosophy of “hard is good, harder must be better,” Remnant: From the Ashes leans way into Dark Souls and Bloodborne.
All that having been said, Remnant: From the Ashes seeks to take its clear inspiration and iterate on it in hopefully new and engaging ways. It often succeeds. Where it errs is occasionally embracing an unbalanced approach to difficulty.
While some might argue that Dark Souls is both at its best — and worst — when other players are summoned (or invade), all FromSoftware games can be played as solo experiences and the company’s latest offering, Sekiro, is entirely single player. Having played Remnant: From the Ashes alone and in two or three person co-op, it is clear that the game was — as the developers have expressly stated — made to be experienced with others. Although both the quantity and difficulty of enemies scale to the size of the party, there are some encounters and bosses that, while not impossible for a solo player, are maddeningly difficult and are really only weak to weapons that a lonely single player might not posses. With an ideal party of three different classes all with upgraded weapons and a bit of skill, combat in Remnant hits on all cylinders and can be a blast, but what Remnant’s multiplayer fails to carry over from Dark Souls is the relief and feeling of finally mastering a boss that was simply an impenetrable wall alone, because what is difficult solo is scaled to be that much harder in a group. Nor does Remnant offer anything approximating the cryptic and often hilarious communication that From’s games are known for. Absent a headset, group play is only punctuated by the sounds of canned and repetitive, scripted responses. Of course, with worlds being procedurally generated, having persistent player messages would be nearly impossible.
By design, Remnant: From the Ashes is a brutally difficult game for a number of reasons, chief among them the quantity and relative strength of enemies and their annoying tendency to flank or appear behind the player and be single-minded in their desire to kill. They’re not always smart but they’re determined and strong, and they’re lactose intolerant when it comes to cheesing them. Upon death, garden-variety enemies will respawn in slightly different places and configurations making it impossible to memorize locations a la Dark Souls. Levels are large and though largely empty of NPCs they are densely populated with things to kill and multiple runs through the same areas — alone or with comrades — can grow a bit tedious. At least death doesn’t carry with it the loss of acquired loot or experience.
Especially early on, that tedium and repetition also comes from a fairly limited repertoire of approaches to combat, which do grow increasingly more interesting and engaging as new weapons, abilities, perks and other upgrades become available. Like with Dark Souls, the starting archetypes are just that, and players may acquire any weapon along the way and sculpt a unique character. While melee combat never is quite as satisfying — nor as elegant and nuanced — as that in the Souls games or Bloodborne, Remnant eventually gives the player a pretty wide selection of ranged weapons and modifications to play with. In general, melee combat is a chance to save ammo on low-level enemies rather than a go-to preference. While there are treasures and drops aplenty, the quantity is not that of a loot-shooter. Remnant’s combat most succeeds in those stretches when the enemy count is reasonable and varied and there is down time to stop and smell the stench of rotting roots. Often though — and this might be a byproduct of the procedurally generated levels — levels are a little too expansive and repetitive.
In most games that promise unique and infinitely replayable, procedurally generated levels the result is awkward seams and cookie-cutter modules obviously bolted together. To Remnant’s credit, its gameworlds might not feel as perfectly crafted as hand-designed levels but there is almost never the sensation of haphazard, ill-fitting pieces. And the idea of enemy and even boss placement being somewhat randomized means that dropping into someone else’s game will be as challenging as one’s own. It makes YouTube walkthroughs pretty useless, however.
Dark Souls’ characters are often opaque and on the edge of being mysterious archetypes, and its subtly-told stories can feel like profound allegories. They are the stuff of fan fiction and cosplay. In contrast, Remnant: From the Ashes’ characters and near-future, sci-fi apocalyptic evil story feel familiar and a bit mundane. While the story does go broad and deep into its “Root of All Evil” premise, its writing and dialog are often a bit bland or hokey and lack the kind of poetic, mythic mystery that is so often part of Soulsborne games. Its mission/quest design can be frustratingly directionless, and it doesn’t help the storytelling that faces and lip-syncing look technically pretty far behind the curve. Enemy design and environmental textures fare much better, with just enough detail to give each biome character without becoming cluttered. Save for boss encounters, there is little music in Remnant and it seems to be mixed far in the background. Which is not to say the game is silent: the shrieking, gibbering and hair-raising sounds of enemies are a constant reminder of danger.
The mechanics of checkpoints, health, stamina and consumables will all feel familiar to fans of Dark Souls or their many imitators, as will the hub area with its vendor NPCs and quest givers, and some of these are quality-of-life better than in Souls. Remnant: From the Ashes is approachable in ways that FromSoftware’s games are sometimes not, bringing to the genre fast-paced and extremely challenging action/combat tuned to group play, procedurally generated maps that encourage multiple playthroughs, and a near-future setting without a sword or board in sight. When Dark Souls is at its best, it presents challenges that can be made less formidable through skill, mastery, equipment or help from others. In addition to a swarm of pre-release bugs that will hopefully be patched at launch, Remnant: From the Ashes’ biggest misstep is that it sometimes mistakes unrelenting quantity of challenge for a persistent quality of fun.