Every so often a game sneaks up on you with practically no warning. No fanfare, no bombastic media campaign; one day it’s just there, lurking in the periphery. You hear whispers and rumors, but the things people say are almost too hard to believe. But, if the rumors were true… they would be impossible to ignore. So finally, one night you venture out to discover for yourself what’s going on. You have to know, is the hype actually this real? Sometimes, the answer is simply “no, it’s not.” Often, games fail to actually deliver on the promise of their early impressions. And then, there’s Remnant: From the Ashes. No matter what you’ve heard about what Remnant has in store for you, I promise you are not ready for the journey that it takes you on. Remnant is a game that not only delivers on its promises, but takes you far beyond and keeps surprising you over and over again.
Things kick off with a familiar trope; your character is your society’s chosen one sent on a journey, and you spend the introductory period getting your bearings with the world you’re thrust into: an alternate-reality vision of Earth, overrun by mysterious evil plant life called The Root, where the last pockets of humanity are eking out a living in underground shelters called Wards. Things are grim, and a picture of a post-apocalyptic world quickly begins to paint itself. The weapons you’re given and the technology in the ward are relics of generations past, yet they’re far more advanced than anything your character, a mysterious outsider, has presumably ever seen. The city outside is large and intricate. It’s unclear exactly what era the world was in when things went bad, but the more you look around and explore, the more comfortable you become.
Then Remnant pulls the rug out from underneath you, rips up the floorboards, punches a hole in the dirt through the fabric of the universe and tosses you in headfirst.
Everything New is New
It will be exceedingly difficult to talk about Remnant without mentioning some specific details, so be forewarned; there are minor spoilers ahead.
That whole bit above about Remnant pulling the rug out from underneath you isn’t just a cute turn of phrase. One of the game’s greatest strengths is its willingness to change everything up every time you start to feel marginally comfortable with your surroundings. You will spend a few hours on Earth fighting some very rude tree folk who sprout up from the ground and come after you relentlessly, some of whom also inexplicably carry guns. Right around the time you know them well enough to fall into a routine during combat, the game throws a burled, arboreal dragon at you (a delightfully impossible creature of flame and bark) and then quite literally shoves you through a portal into another dimension. Suddenly you’re in an entirely different landscape with a whole new set of wild-ass enemies to deal with and you feel in many ways as though you’re starting over from square one.
I found my expectations being subverted repeatedly as I made my way through the campaign, on nearly every level. Initial impressions from the tutorial mission make the game feel like yet another action title, but very quickly it layers on more systems and pours on the lore, and it feels more like you’ve chanced upon a rare gem. The world design can be unexpectedly breathtaking, full of interesting details and awe-inspiring locations; there were multiple times when I would turn a corner or enter a new zone and feel my jaw hit the floor at the sight of an immense spire looming above me, or a lush crystalline forest, or a giant fetid root husk in the middle of a sewer. It’s full of little moments that will make gasp with excitement and glee on the regular, surprising you with new things you would never have expected to see in the same game.
This same sense of wonder and freshness extends into the weapons and the weapon mod systems. You start off with some fairly generic gear based on what class you choose (a pistol and a hunting rifle if you go with the Hunter like me), but as you work through the game you get access to some exciting and varied weapons that feel plucked straight out of Quake or Unreal Tournament. Weapon mods will grant your gun with unique special abilities like a healing aura, a fancy wall-hack, a tree pal that will take aggro for a short period, or enemy-seeking radiation “bugs” that will really mess up your unfortunate target. Each mod gives your gun a new look when applied, too, giving you a further sense of customization.
There are also unique guns you can craft using materials dropped by the game’s bosses, each with its own locked weapon mod. One of my favorites is the Particle Accelerator, a rail gun with a sweet gravity bomb ability, which I love largely because it feels so drastically different from many of the game’s more traditional weapons. The net result is one of the most unique sets of weapons I’ve seen in a shooter in years.
All Your Favorites Are Here
Part of why Remnant is able to so successfully play on your expectations is because it makes clever use familiar mechanics from many other games. If you’ve heard only one thing about Remnant, it’s likely something along the lines of “Dark Souls but with guns.” This isn’t an unfair comparison to make, but it’s also not a thorough or interesting one. It would be more accurate to say that Remnant borrows some ideas from the Dark Souls games, like physical checkpoints that respawn all of the monsters when you heal at them. It has similar, though less complicated, weapon and armor upgrade systems. Also it straight up has fog gates leading to boss encounters, which I was so excited to see the first time and is a technique I honestly think more games could stand to make use of.
What it doesn’t take from Souls is the crushing difficulty and the easily loseable currency that doubles as experience points for your character. There’s really no penalty for death at all aside from being tossed back to your last checkpoint stone. Character builds are handled in a completely different way, in which you dump points you receive at each level into “Traits” that grant you bonuses. Traits are unlocked simply by playing the game and carrying out specific actions, but there’s no skill tree here. You can dump points into any trait you’ve unlocked any time you have them to spend, so the potential for really dialing in your character around a specific build is pretty significant.
Happily, Remnant sports some of the best-feeling shooting in the genre, which is essential for the success of a shooter that is trying to do so many different things. Guns feel responsive, shots go where they should, and aiming in general just feels extremely well tuned. Gunplay as a whole seems dialed in to make you feel like you’re a master of your weapons rather than struggling to make them work with you.
The combat is carried out in third-person view and it feels and moves in many ways like the third-person shooters of the previous console generation, minus the stop-and-pop cover systems that plagued the era. Some harder enemies are smart and will take cover by crouching or hiding, but there’s no such thing as prolonged engagements of peek-a-boo with columns or barriers. Fights play out quickly and often dynamically, forcing you to stay mobile and aggressive more often than not.
This is especially true in boss fights, which often require a fair bit of trial and error to beat (there’s some Souls creeping back in for you), but are also some of the most mechanically interesting and fun I’ve seen in a modern shooter. Many fights feel like a better, condensed realization of what Destiny tried to do with its raid bosses, sporting unique attack patterns and behaviors that require you not just to dump bullets into big giant bad guys, but to analyze their tactics, find their weaknesses and learn to outplay them. After a few attempts, the jerk that stomped you ten times in a row is suddenly giving you obvious tells you can use to send him packing for good.
Honestly though, two huge parts of what keeps the game feeling so mysterious and exciting throughout are the art design, and, believe it or not, the storytelling. There is so much excellent variation in the design of the game’s different worlds, each of which has been corrupted by The Root and subjected to its own flavor of the apocalypse. At times, it felt as though I had stepped into different games entirely, from the urban decay of Gears to the brutalist science fiction worlds of Quake, to lush druid jungles that would feel right at home in World of Warcraft‘s Azeroth. And while the storytelling isn’t necessarily moving or groundbreaking, the game piles on lore through its dialog and environmental storytelling in a way that’s on par with what you’d find in Myst. The game really does have something for fans of nearly every genre.
Mixing it Up
One of Remnant‘s most interesting features is its procedural campaign generation. Every time you start a new character, the game world is rolled fresh. Key locations remain the same, but the overworld at large will sport a different layout, and you’ll encounter different dungeons, different characters, and potentially a different set of sub-bosses.
This means that more than likely, you won’t see everything Remnant has to offer on a single run through the game. The overall story will be similar, but the areas you’ll visit and the specific encounters you have will vary across runs, and so when you compare notes with friends, you may find they skipped a big scary boss entirely, while instead they found some piece of loot or some character encounter you never had a chance to see.
This also means much of the game’s loot and unlockable Traits may not be available in a single go. There are a ton of different armor sets to find in addition to guns and melee weapons, and there are some thirty Traits in total to unlock. With a limited (albeit generous) number of upgrade materials and Trait points to work with in your first run, the potential of a second playthrough becomes pretty high, especially considering you can earn up to 640 points to spend on Trait upgrades.
And, and, with the game’s new Adventure Mode that lets you re-roll specific areas while you’re mid-campaign, you can even set about to discovering all of the stuff you might not have found right away… right away. You can literally watch the procedural generation system at work and play with how it affects your game whenever you want, which is a really smart and exciting addition.
Better With Friends
Luckily, you don’t have to go it alone. Remnant offers up to three-player online co-op, which you can play with friends or random strangers. This makes it easy to see and experience different versions of the game, or even make different decisions, without having to invest the time into a full second playthrough for yourself.
The co-op system is extremely easy to use; rather than relying on a draconian set of summoning stones that may or may not get your friends into your game, you simply choose which type of session to play in from the main menu and the rest happens automatically. What a time to be alive.
The game scales its difficulty up when you add extra players, but even if your friend who has put twice as much time into the game as you joins up for an evening, enemy stats will be capped at just three levels above your own, so things will stay challenging for you without going too far into “Hurt Me Plenty” territory.
In my experience, the game scales pretty well for three players. Enemies can be tough to take down at first, especially when entering a new zone, but good coordination and communication will make even the hardest fights feel fun and exciting. Boss fights, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. Some of them felt entirely too easy with three players running around, especially before a patch which appropriately reduced the effectiveness of an overpowered weapon mod. Other bosses were extremely tough and required us to work together tightly to defeat, with lots of communication and pre-planning, only claiming victory after a third or fourth (or in one case twelfth) try.
Those hard-won fights are some of my favorite moments from my time with Remnant, evoking memories of struggling with big bosses in Diablo or World of Warcraft. Moreover, the shared experience of all the game’s special moments of amazing world design and unexpected discoveries is all the better with your friends in tow. This is a game clearly designed around group discovery, and I would highly recommend playing with your best mates if at all possible.
Bringing it Home
Remnant is very coy about what it’s holding in store at the outset, and keeps revealing more of itself as you spend more time with it. The more of its secrets you uncover, the more you’ll want to dig in further and see just how many more surprises it has in store for you. It is easily one of the most refreshing and fun games I’ve played this year, and it is truly special for all of the elements it manages to weave together into something that is so much more than just the sum of its parts. Each idea feels carefully considered and custom-tailored to fit the vision for what Remnant could be rather than being carelessly bolted on.
There are only so many ways I can say that I love this game. It has so much to offer and executes so well on all of its ideas, and while it may borrow heavily from some heavy hitters from the last several years, it does so skillfully and respectfully, and it is simply not an experience you can afford to miss. Go, play this game, see for yourself how much fun it is. When you do, just remember to never, ever, ask about mask.
Steam codes were provided by the publisher for review purposes