Review: Remnant: From the Ashes

Whether it’s safety in a tried-and-tested formula or not, you don’t see many developers as of late trying to carve out their own brand of challenging action RPG…but with guns. Perhaps this is the reason why Gunfire Games’ Remnant: From the Ashes stood out so during this year’s E3. While it gave people [another] reason to brandish the favorited “Souls” comparison, it was neat — least from initial impression — to find a game going against the grain and trying to do something different. Particularly in an age where (optional) co-op shooters seem creatively bankrupt and resorted to mindless slogs of number-increasing and striving for the shiniest loot imaginable, a third-person shooter — with some semblance of that same quest for better weapons/abilities/skills admittedly — that prioritizes that addictive level of challenge is nonetheless refreshing. And if one were to base Remnant: From the Ashes solely on the foundation of its gameplay, and the many mechanics that make up its customizing load outs to suit your play-style, Gunfire clearly have a winning formula.

A formula that is not without its flaws of course and one that will prove to be divisive to those whom expect no manner of hoop to jump through to see things to completion. Remnant does fall short on occasion — sadly at the most crucial of moments artistically and technically — but at the very least, its approach to third-person shooters in a world of grueling boss fights and assessing situations to survive its many ordeals is both enjoyable and engaging. Some bosses may rely a little too much on the gimmick of having lower-level grunts to contest with on top, but even with this potential annoyance alongside, fights manage to pull from most corners of the gimmick department in giving each fight a unique flair and overall air of apprehension that’s sure to incur multiple deaths. But Remnant‘s emphasis on choosing carefully what to take into battle begins even earlier, when deducing what weapons to equip and how to approach things from a strategic standpoint; the game, from the out-set, allowing you to pick one of three prioritized styles: long-range/marksman, regular/assault and close-up/melee. While you can eventually acquire the weapons automatically assigned to each class, your character will automatically start with particular skills and traits buffed.

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The core loop of Remnant, like any action RPG, is of course leveling up your character as well as your desired weapons to better suit the later scenarios and more punishing major boss fights late on in the game’s story. As well as any optional fights you decide to pursue for the sake of similarly-optional extra loot in the form of unique weapons and armor sets. While the manner of upgrading and crafting weapons remains largely the same — certain levels requiring a set number/type of material, or in the case of unique weapons, the remains of a boss you acquire upon beating it — upgrading your player-character simply means killing enough foes to reach the golden 1500 XP mark. While the game starts you off with the to-be-expected attributes like health, stamina, reload speed, etc. players eventually unlock more traits to delve into as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, outside of a few note-worthy additions like resistance to status ailments, a large portion of these extra traits rarely feel beneficial or worth the time to invest in. Even then, such is the small and insignificant upgrade applied — often increasing by only a single percentage point for things like critical hit chance — it’s easy to focus simply on health/stamina upgrades and ignore nearly three-quarters of the total number of traits by the campaign’s end. Most trait categories, again, coming off as simply present for the sake of being present.

Fortunately, the weapon side of customization is a lot more streamlined and ultimately worthwhile. One that puts significant effort in tailoring to all play-styles without feeling necessarily shallow as a result. The inclusion of weapon mods and deciding which temporary perks — that vary between offensive, defensive and support capabilities — to attach, is sure to illicit plenty of trial-and-error in finding that personal, perfect balance. Weapon mods acting, in a way, like super moves that become available once a player has inflicted enough damage with the firearm they’re attached to. Some weapons, usually those acquired by crafting boss parts, automatically having mods attached which can’t be swapped out — adding further to the crucial decision-making one needs to make. Deciding on whether, for example, to focus on strength over fire-rate/magazine size, or vice versa. Fortunately the variety of “boss weapons” (for lack of a better term) are a sufficiently-visual assortment — some weapons worth wielding simply for the reload animation or the pleasant sound they make when firing.

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Some may seem surprised at the lower [than expected] total number of weapons on offer, but one thing must be made clear: Remnant is not a loot-shooter, nor is it one that uses the temptation of cosmetics and rarity tiers, to make up for anything crucial it otherwise lacks in. Because even with a more consigned number of acquirable weapons — boss weapons and all — Remnant nails the satisfaction of firing said arsenal and seeing the impact that causes on your foes. For those who grew either bored or altogether dismayed at how lacking a threat enemies in Destiny or Anthem put up — simply standing in open space, soaking in the number-spewing damage you inflicted — Remnant‘s efforts are thankfully a lot better. Many foes do attempt to incur that same level of offense back at you; ducking, dodging, flanking you from around corners, even taking cover. While the game isn’t entirely immune from enemies coming off like bullet sponges and/or simply soaking in the number-spewing damage you’re inflicting, Remnant makes an effort to make your attacks feel like they have weight (as do the enemy’s own) and that the occasional surprise with its variety of alien/humanoid-like monstrosities you come up against are worth the trek onward.

Most, however, could be neatly slotted into but a handful of categories in terms of attack style/pattern (those that charge you, those that shoot you from a distance, those with status ailments applied) but on an artistic front, Remnant puts the effort in to at least match the trans-planetary voyage its story takes you on. The core gameplay loop throughout in-battle, sufficient enough in its engagement, and frantic enough for the moment-to-moment events to feel satisfying to conquer. Especially when you die and find yourself having to relive that whole grueling route all over again, hopefully with a lesson learned from how particular enemies act and/or who might show up where. There’s even a subtle stealth element at play here — non-aggressive/alerted enemies, being more susceptible to critical hits, even one-hit kills at times — meaning that sprinting in guns-blazing and wanting so desperately to get through that part, though inevitable, may not always be the only (logical) means for accomplishment.

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If one was that adamant to make a comparison to the level design, Remnant bears more resemblance to Demon’s Souls; worlds mapped out more like obstacle courses where the main objective is getting from A to B, optional challenges branching off of a central hub where all your upgrading and purchasing of weapons/items mostly takes place. Said optional challenges described as dungeons but still structured in much the same manner — additional paths littered with enemies to clear out in order to get to the next checkpoint of which recuperates lost health/ammo. As a result of this, the potential and opportune moments to invest in Remnant’s environments are relatively limited. While the manner of its narrative can’t be blamed for this, even if events inevitably transpire into a planet-hopping, bordering-on-convoluted name-dropping of “The [Insert Noun]” this and “The [Insert Noun]” that (something fans of Destiny will be all too familiar with), the nature of Remnant’s shooter-focused gameplay means that the game barely allows for more condensed, multi-floor level design. Most of the player’s time spent sprinting through spacious areas and linear corridors that do nothing to masquerade the game’s actual scale and size. A loose and limp plot barely helped by dotted-about logs and hints at lore that generally do little to bolster the allotting of varying environments. The plentiful number of loading screens separating areas too, only working against Remnant’s illusion of a vast “world” (or worlds) — admittedly fun its short-bursts of gun-based gameplay may be.

The semi-procedural nature of the game world may be partially at fault for this, but on the flip-side it means there’s an incentive to re-roll your campaign so as to generate a new sequence of environments and events alike. Re-rolling even increases enemy difficulty to one’s current level plus one, so for those having grown tired of eventually mowing down foes ad nauseam, the opportunity is there for an added challenge again. Even so, this intentional retracting of content will no doubt prove divisive to some players, and there’s an argument to be made that completionists may end up at the mercy of RNG, but Remnant’s approach to rogue-like elements does at least come across as a means rather than an end. In fact one of the things that is rather surprising about the game — something which Gunfire do a good job in convincing this trend in game design still has its merits — is in how this procedural design carries through to co-op. Whether that’s joining someone else’s game or setting your session to non-private (whether that’s friends only or completely public) no one campaign will be exactly the same. You might think that a touch cliche of a statement, but the reality is that jumping into another player’s campaign may end up with your potential troupe of three tackling regions/dungeons you yourself hadn’t seen before. Even coming face to face with entirely different bosses that were absent in your own campaign.

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Naturally the game attempts to scale difficulty so as to compensate for the extra support and while this does simply resort to increased enemy health and even increased numbers to tackle — particularly in boss fights that have certain hordes of regular foes to deal with besides the main big-bad– there’s a certain charm amidst the chaos and madness that are three players so desperately surviving (and dodge-rolling) for the sake of a group victory. In a way it’s reminiscent of the experience shared in a game like Strange Brigade; the senseless, directionless lunacy of frantically staying alive, giving each encounter that same tantalizing edge that translates well enough from solo play. While not as critical or as detrimental to the overall experience, it would’ve been nice if your player-character — custom-made, even if the built-in presets are fairly limited and not exactly Elder Scrolls/Dark Souls levels of flexible — showed a little more variety in reaction to the events unfolding. Other than of course noting “that was rough” in relation to a regular encounter, or that beating a major boss did at least make them “break a sweat” for the umpteenth time. It’s not “caution, the enemy is approaching” levels of grating, but it does shine a not-so-pleasant light on your avatar’s hollow, limited agency with unfolding events.

For a game of this ambition and emphasis on quick reflexes — specifically, players moving about at a frantic pace — it’s inevitable that a few issues do surface during play. And unfortunately, Remnant: From the Ashes does suffer from a fair few game-altering (but not game-breaking) bugs and hits to its general performance. Whether that’s particular boss enemies literally freezing in place or, in the case of the final boss in one’s campaign, not registering defeat (despite successfully depleting all health and even getting the related rewards for doing so) yet locking me out from seeing the end cutscene/credits. Or particular co-op sessions suffering from lag, stutter and overall knocks to the frame-rate — going as low as mid-30s, for a game usually well-apt at performing beyond 1440p/60FPS and not that demanding on hardware — it’s unfortunate that performance hitches like this are not only present, but have shown up in the current build.

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Closing Comments:

In one sense, Gunfire Games have seemingly achieved the impossible in providing us with a shooter-focused RPG whose gameplay loop is validated by its plentiful, challenging encounters. Divisive its procedural approach to a campaign (roughly 15 – 20 hours in length) it may be, Remnant: From the Ashes manages to ride out enough of its issues to remain intently focal on its gameplay — unfortunate it may be that many of its other elements come off sprinkled about, lesser in impact. Given its sparse, loosely-connected, barely-investable level design and satisfactory-if-not-exemplary variety of enemies, while there’s a rich palette with which Gunfire have used to craft their many worlds with, structurally these departments don’t see the same tender care that Remnant‘s gunplay clearly demonstrates. Which, even with these short-comings, remains the real selling point and one players will find immense pleasure in interacting with. Though not immune from a technical mishap here or there, the overall product may come off a little too void — deliberately so in some cases — but on the basis of gameplay above all else, Remnant: From the Ashes shines as a solid, at times wonderful, foundation Gunfire can hopefully build on.