Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), PlayStation 4, PC

It’s clear after only a few minutes with Remnant: From the Ashes that developer Gunfire Games had a lot of different ideas it wanted to throw into the proverbial blender. Remnant wears its Dark Souls inspirations on its sleeve to be sure, but it’s so much more than just another Souls-like game. It’s also a third-person shooter that feels akin to more tactical games like Ubisoft’s The Division or The Coalition’s Gears of War, and its rust-colored post-apocalyptic world feels like DOOM smashed together with Mad Max.

Suffice it to say that there’s really no other game that feels quite like Remnant: From the Ashes. It may borrow inspiration from other games and genres, but make no mistake, Gunfire Games’ latest is very much its own beast. And while it’s also a bit rough around the edges, Remnant is definitely worth checking out if you enjoy Dark Souls, tactical shooters, or both, especially if you have a couple friends to play with.

The Root of All Evil

Remnant’s  initial world-building efforts are somewhat uneven and they don’t make the greatest first impression. After being thrust immediately into the game’s character creation suite, the player views a brief intro where their custom character unsuccessfully attempts to brave a storm at sea and washes up on the shore of a mysterious island. A playable tutorial teaches the basics of movement and melee combat, and soon the player ends up in an underground bunker called Ward 13 (Remnant’s version of Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine).

The NPC’s who inhabit Ward 13 explain how a malevolent force known as the Root has corrupted the island’s denizens, driving them insane and in most cases transforming them into horrifying monsters. A few more tutorials follow and soon the player gets to pick from one of three starting character archetypes: Hunter, Ex-Cultist, or Scrapper. Each archetype’s starting weapon and armor loadout is tied to a specific combat range (long, medium, or close), but the player can eventually purchase the other archetypes’ weapons and armor if they don’t like their initial choice.

No matter their chosen archetype, players will need to utilize both firearms and melee weapons if they want to survive their encounters with the island’s Root-infested monsters. It’s this seamless interchanging of long and close-range combat that makes Remnant stand out the most since it provides a number of tactical options depending on which enemies a player is fighting.

Shoot First, Stab Second

For my Remnant playthrough I went with the Hunter archetype, a long-range specialist who can also utilize some light stealth capabilities. The Hunter’s default loadout includes a single-shot rifle, a quick-firing pistol, and a scrapper’s sword cobbled together from bits of repurposed metal. By crouching and moving slowly, players can avoid detection from enemies, and that’s essentially how the Hunter is meant to function, as a long-range ambusher.

The single-shot rifle can fire off several quick rounds before reloading, which meant I could often eliminate distant foes before they had time to react. In closer quarters, I could soften up enemies with a few bursts from my pistol before finishing them off with my sword.

Weapons and armor can be upgraded by Ward 13’s resident blacksmith, and a number of different unlockable and/or craftable weapon mods add more functionality and versatility to a player’s preferred combat style. Depending on whether you’re playing alone or with friends (Remnant supports solo offline play or online co-op for up to three players), certain mods can help you support your teammates or simply add to your own survivability.

Mods can only be equipped to firearms, not melee weapons, but since you can have two firearms equipped at once you can essentially benefit from two mods simultaneously. I would often roll with a mod that laid down a helpful aura of healing energy, but I also enjoyed using other mods such as one that granted me temporary flaming bullets or reflected any melee damage I received. You have to build up damage with a mod’s associated weapon before you can activate the mod itself, but when the chips are down mods can be real life-savers.

Upping Your Game

While weapon mods grant periodic benefits and combat bonuses, players also earn permanent character upgrades called Traits. Slaying enemies and completing quests grants XP, and every time a player levels up or finds a rare ‘Tome of Knowledge’ item out in the wild, they gain a Trait Point which can be placed in one of several Trait categories.

This Trait system essentially functions as a more simplified version of Dark Souls’ character stats, with the initial two universal Traits determining a character’s total health pool and combat stamina. Each of the three character archetypes also has a third Trait category that’s unique to them (Hunters, for example, have a Trait that makes it harder for distant enemies to spot them). Finding certain rare items and reaching specific parts of the story unlocks additional Trait categories, offering some variance in how players build up their character.

Over time, the player can also find new weapons and armor pieces which allow them to further experiment with their chosen character build and combat methods. For example, the sniper rifle can dish out massive amounts of long-range damage at the cost of speed. The sub-machine gun, meanwhile, is an absolute monster up-close, but its effectiveness diminishes quickly at-range. Later on, you can find some truly zany weapons and mods such as an alien-tech beam rifle or a mod that allows you to summon black holes.

Mad World

Remnant’s story campaign plays out in a semi-open linear fashion. Environments are procedurally-generated, as are certain boss encounters (two different players might fight entirely different bosses when reaching a specific boss fight room). In fact, you can even “re-roll” your personal campaign if you get stuck on a tough boss or just want a change of scenery (character progress is retained after re-rolling a campaign). Also, while you start out exploring a lot of drab cityscape ruins, you eventually reach more alien locales like a massive desert dominated by an imposing obelisk and a fetid swamp filled with thick vegetation.

The enemies you fight in these locales are varied enough that you’ll always be on your toes, but their combat tactics are rarely more complex than simply trying to bum-rush you out in the open, even if they’re using long-range weapons. That’s not to say they’re always easy to dispatch (a group made up of several different enemy types can quickly overwhelm unprepared players), but once you learn their attack routines a single enemy rarely poses a challenge. However, the same cannot be said of Remnant’s boss encounters, and that’s both a good and a bad thing.

The bosses you’ll encounter in Remnant are suitably imposing, but Gunfire Games used a bit of cheap trick to artificially inflate their difficulty. Virtually every boss (at least all the bosses I encountered) summons waves of lesser enemies which have to be dealt with along with the boss itself. This creates a frustrating dynamic where defeating a boss is less about memorizing their attack patterns and more about hoping you’ll be lucky enough to see the lesser enemy groups coming. It’s annoying when you’re mere seconds from victory only to be whacked from behind and killed before you can even react, especially when it happens multiple times in a row.

Take, for example, the very first boss I fought, a massive brute named Gorefist. On his own, Gorefist offered a decent challenge, as I expected from a game’s first boss encounter. His massive sword could easily cut me to ribbons, and his sprinting lunges could close the distance between us startlingly quick, forcing me to rely on properly timed dodge-rolls and weapon reloads.

But you know what else Gorefist had on his side? Groups of explosive “living mine” enemies who would run up to me and detonate, inflicting heavy damage along with a negative disease status affect. The constant presence of these annoying little guys quickly shot the Gorefist encounter out from the “challenging but fair” realm and straight into the strata of “I hate this fight with the passion of a thousand suns.”

My guess is that Remnant’s boss fights are tuned for groups of 2-3 players, hence the constantly spawning groups of lesser foes. It doesn’t make boss fights entirely unwinnable for solo players, but it’s a noticeable wrench in an otherwise well-oiled machine.

Exacerbating the annoying boss fight encounters is the painfully slow rate at which the player’s character “uses” items. Similar to Dark Souls, activating an item involves several seconds of the player’s character slowly ambling around as they draw the item from their person and then use it. As you can imagine, this leaves them exposed for several precious moments, often more than enough time for an enemy to sprint in and land a hit.

This essentially makes all of Remnant’s active-use items, including the charge-based Dragon Heart healing item (Remnant’s take on Dark Souls’ Estus Flasks), virtually useless in more tightly cramped combat scenarios (as most of the game’s boss fights are).

Fortunately, as far as I could tell after my many hours of playing Remnant, there doesn’t seem to be any serious penalty for dying. You don’t lose any XP or Scrap (Remnant’s shop currency), you don’t drop anything on the spot where you died, in fact all that really happens is you’re kicked back to the last checkpoint you activated. This is a noticeable departure from the established Dark Souls formula, and one I was actually quite appreciative of.

Yes, the lack of death penalties technically means you can “farm” boss encounters for XP and Scrap by dying repeatedly on them, but it also means you never have to worry about losing character progress. Some Dark Souls vets may scoff at this notion, but I’m personally in favor of a system that encourages players to regroup and try different strategies without overtly punishing them for their failures.

Strange Bedfellows

In theory, the pairing of Dark Souls and third-person shooting sounds more than a little strange, but Remnant: From the Ashes proves not only that it’s viable, but that it can also be incredibly fun. Yes, Remnant feels a little unpolished in certain places, most notably in its story, character animations, and voice-acting quality, and yes the game’s boss fights can feel unnecessarily punishing if you’re not playing with a group of other players. However, in essentially every other regard Gunfire Games’ latest strikes just the right balance between challenge and accessibility.

Remnant may not have the hardcore difficulty of a typical Dark Souls game or the in-depth RPG mechanics of a looter-shooter like The Division, but what it does offer is a winning formula that perfectly marries the best of those disparate game genres. Whether you’re alone or playing with a few buddies, you’d do well to give Remnant: From the Ashes a try if you’re at all curious about how a third-person tactical shooting Dark Souls experience might work.