It’s not difficult to pick out Remnant: From the Ashes‘ many influences. It mimics the format and grueling difficulty popularised by From Software’s Souls series, pitting you against increasingly complex bosses and teaching you through failure. It mixes up its combat encounters with AI direction similar to Valve’s cooperative shooter Left 4 Dead to make skirmishes exciting and unpredictable. Third-person shooting ties these two ideas together in a surprisingly cohesive way, which makes Remnant: From the Ashes a joyous action-adventure through a far less compelling world.
The world as you know it has been overrun by The Root–a force of sentient fauna with glowing red roots commanded by a single hivemind–driving humanity to the brink of extinction as they search for a miracle to end the nightmare. Washed up on a dark and gloomy island and torn down to the brink of death, you are the hero that one of humanity’s final settlements, Ward 13, has been searching for. You’re let loose on the world overrun by monsters to search for the Ward’s former leader in the hopes that the knowledge lost with him might help expose the core of The Root’s power and give you a fighting chance against the insurmountable foe.
Although its opening moments hold promise initially, Remnant’s world isn’t interesting beyond the surface. Its characters stick too closely to familiar tropes and feature little to no development as you fight their war for them. The distrustful mechanic will happily craft new items for you but never shrugs off her off-putting demeanor, while her partner has nothing deeper to share beyond his initial backstory, for example. Inhabitants in the Ward congratulate you on your actions outside of its walls, but it never feels like you’re progressing your relationships with any of them. This lack of personality makes Remnant’s big revelations fall flat, too, and by the time it starts collecting all of its stray stories into an understandable thread you’ll probably not care enough to take much notice.
The sheer visual variety of its world is more exciting. You visit four main areas outside of Ward 13, with each new one being strikingly different from the last. You start out in the desolate streets of an abandoned cityscape, exploring its dimly lit sewers and engaging in tense firefights on street corners. From there, things get far weirder. You travel to a blistering hot desert with oppressive metal labyrinths underneath just before you cut away the brush of a thick, dark forest illuminated by bright neon fauna. Remnant’s visual themes are all over the place, which doesn’t help its already confusing story. But while disjointed, the visuals are extremely well presented and beautiful to behold.
Remnant’s gameplay is recognizable thanks to its blend of familiar genres and tropes. On paper, the combination of Dark Souls-style high-skill combat with the ranged-focused gameplay of a third-person shooter sounds incompatible, but Remnant brings its own flair to its influences that ties them together in an interesting way. Procedural combat encounters are at the core of this. Enemies don’t have fixed placements in areas, with Remnant instead using a system to dynamically adjust both their positioning and density every time you enter an area to consistently provide a challenging skirmish. The unpredictability adds an enticing layer of tension to each combat encounter, where even small mistakes are punished by quick deaths at the hands of hordes of smaller, weaker enemies.
It’s initially frustrating to not be able to learn enemy placements and patterns, but Remnant’s forgiving approach to death balances this out. Although enemies hit hard and death is just a handful of mistakes away, you don’t lose tangible progress when you die. You don’t drop items or lose experience; instead, you simply respawn at your last checkpoint (large glowing red shrines similar to Dark Souls’ bonfires), with the route ahead re-rolled and changed to present you with a new challenge.
The emphasis on ranged combat changes the pace you might be familiar with from games of this ilk. You’re given the choice to get as up close and personal as you choose with short-range shotguns and submachine guns or remain as far as possible with slow-firing but powerful sniper rifles. Each weapon type makes you consider the encounter they’re best used for, but for the most part Remnant’s combat favors aggression. The number of enemies it throws at you and the cramped design of its dungeons make longer ranges difficult to work with, while highlighting the devastating stopping power of medium- to short-range weapons. This undercuts a lot of the weapons you’re able to purchase and craft, especially when taking into account the grind required for some resources you need to upgrade them. It was easy for me to stick to one loadout for the majority of my playthrough, incrementally improving damage instead of experimenting with new weaponry. Despite the dynamic combat, the stagnant nature of Remnant’s loot works against it.
Weapon mods alleviate this to an extent. Mods give your weapons an alternate firing mode, ranging from simple healing effects to devastating AOE attacks that can inflict a number of status ailments on enemies. Most weapons let you exchange mods freely, allowing you to experiment with a combination across your two equipped weapons to find a synergy that works best for your playstyle. The number of mods you can both find and craft is plentiful, but their variety is what makes them impressive, making experimentation fun. Their effects are even more important when playing Remnant with friends (up to two other players can join your game), where the collective group build is important to counteract the increased difficulty associated with group play.
In both the case of weapons and mods you can craft, boss encounters play the biggest part in providing you with the most exciting options. Each boss drops a unique item that can be used in a recipe for either, bestowing you with either the unique abilities of the foe you just overpowered or a weapon to mark your momentous achievement. Both of these require rarer resources to craft, and even more to upgrade, which makes investing in them a difficult decision to make. But it’s impossible to not curiously venture back to your Ward after each boss encounter to see what new toy awaits, and even more satisfying to take it out into the world and fall in love with the power that was recently used against you.
Bosses also provide the best moments of Remnant’s combat, pushing you into new strategies that can force you to reconsider your current loadout. Some bosses make good use of ranged attacks, sticking as far away as possible and using small tells to telegraph dangerous attacks that can quickly kill you. Others are overwhelmingly aggressive, chasing you down and closing gaps that make it difficult to get shots off in between a flurry of dodging rolls. Although some bosses share some behavioral traits, each of them features unique attack patterns and abilities that make each encounter dangerous to tackle and equally satisfying to overcome. The order in which these bosses populate the world is also randomized, making new playthroughs different to an extent. It’s a confusing choice in practice, though, preventing you from predicting what boss-specific gear you can depend on at certain points during repeat playthroughs.
Confusing accurately describes Remnant: From the Ashes a lot of the time, especially when its combination of established ideas doesn’t mesh. But for the most part, the experiment is a success, resulting in deeply satisfying combat against creative and challenging enemies. Remnant struggles to effectively transfer that success over to an engaging loot system and an interesting story to wrap it all up, but when you’re blasting away foes with weapons crafted from the remains of your latest boss kill, it’s hard not to do so with a wide smile on your face.