We’d died a few times, but the group held together. The three of us sat around a shattered bit of crystal like it was a bonfire, strategizing on how to properly take down the fire breathing dragon on the other side of the fogged doorway. We’d failed a few times by this point, but we always did a little more damage to the dragon, always felt that we were making progress. We had a strategy—I’d focus on incoming Slayers, tree-men with whipping tendrils, while my partners worked the dragon, trying to capture its attention. We stood up, loaded our weapons, and walked through the fog.
After Dark Souls first blew up, comparisons to FromSoft’s punishing action RPG franchise became rote and hollow—there’s even a Twitter account skewering the overused “it’s like Dark Souls, but” shorthand. The risk of that overuse is that when it’s time to actually make a comparison, it lands flat. So, please take me seriously when I say that when Remnant: From the Ashes, the latest from Darksiders 3 developer Gunfire Games, shamelessly cribs from Dark Souls, it does so in all the best ways.
Remnant takes place in a world that’s been overrun by The Root, a malevolent and seemingly alien group of tree monsters. Players form parties of up to three, pick a starting class, and set into the world to end the Root. To take on the (probably) evil trees, you level up, craft new gear and abilities, and explore the world for rare gear.
From Borderlands to Destiny 2, we’ve all played games like this before. But Remnant feels different and special. When you make a new character, the game rolls a procedurally generated world. While the overall structure of the game—which starts you off exploring an abandoned, overgrown town before leading you to more alien environs—remains the same between campaigns, your world will be distinct from that of your teammates, with different quests, different loot, and even different bosses. When you play with your friends, you’re jumping into their world or they’re jumping into yours.
Procedurally generated worlds can be a mixed bag. Sometimes, procgen areas feel cut-and-paste, lacking a feeling of originality. Other times, a random roll of the dice can create levels inconsistent, unbalanced, and even incoherent. But in Remnant, the chaos feels controlled. Instead of a random assortment of pathways, Remnant feels cobbled together from crafted tilesets. It made each run through I did of the game’s opening level feel unique.
In my friend’s world, I encountered a tree that blessed me with an armor bonus I could level up as I played. At the end of the first level, we fought a hulking monster who crashed through walls and summoned waves of exploding gas-filled monsters. Back in my own world, the mystical tree was gone and the level’s boss—a shrouded archer—stalked me through the sewers leading up to the final encounter.
While two players may have different campaigns, each will explore and fight using a set of actions familiar (again) to anyone who has played the Souls series. You heal using estus-flask style dragon hearts, which puts the focus on execution and limits your need to grind. Boundaries of white fog let you know you’ve discovered a boss, making each fight feel momentous and signalling a shift in posture. Resting at a shard will sit characters around it like a bonfire, restoring their health and ammo and also respawning all the monsters in the area. Defeating bosses requires both memorization of a move set and mastery over the controls. An encumbrance system determines how fast you move and how far you roll.
Remnant isn’t satisfied with simply duplicating Dark Souls combat though. The many ways it shifts focus from a (primarily) single player melee game to a multi-player ranged combat experience without diminishing tension makes it something special. Characters carry two weapons and swap between them at will, but ammo is scarce and I ran out of it more than once. Enemies often come in waves and there’s often an excited scramble to pick the right gun and start shooting.The flask-like dragon hearts that you use to heal yourself have a limited use, but they’re also the item you use to revive fallen teammates, leading to some nail biting decisions during rough boss encounters.
Remnant also adds a layer of Destiny-like ability management. Firing the guns builds up the meter on power and those powers are attached to the weapons themselves. I started off as an ex-cultist (one of the starting archetypes) with a healing shotgun. After a few hours in the game, I had a revolver that healed and a shotgun that summoned screaming skeleton heads to harass my enemies. Choosing when and where to deploy these abilities encouraged experimentation and kept me on my toes. The last time we fought the dragon, we all went in with healing equipped.
Perhaps most impressively, the world of Remnant is genuinely mysterious. There’s a story playing out about the end of the world as we know it and a conflict between forces mundane and magical, but most of the details and lore of the world are buried in item descriptions and those items are scarce. In Remnant, it’s easy to make a play straight for the boss, the distances between them aren’t great. But exploring the world is one of the only ways to find new and more powerful weapons, gear, and powers. Those curious about the game’s mysteries will be rewarded.
The last time we walked back through that fog door to face the dragon, we killed him, but just barely. It filled the team with that rare feeling I typically get from video games, and which the Souls games offer so consistently that they’ve turned a feeling into a genre staple. That Remnant: From the Ashes can evoke this at all is impressive. That it can do it while tweaking the formula and making a boss-battling, multiplayer loot shooter, with a strange occult world, and an air of mystery makes it an achievement. It isn’t a game I knew I wanted, but I’m glad Remnant exists.