The Best Remastered Game of 2020

Not just another Demon’s Souls article!

Xbox Series S screenshot captured by the author.

e’re in the midst of a rare and exciting time for video game fans: new console launch season. One of the biggest new games is Demon’s Souls on the PS5. I totally get the hype around this re-release of 2009’s seminal PS3 classic…but it’s not my favorite remaster of the year for two very specific reasons.

First, PlayStation 5 availability has been a bit of a nightmare, and as a result I won’t be getting one till next year. Sony announced a specific day for pre-order openings…which most retailers then blithely ignored, instead deciding to open orders immediately. Chaos ensued. Since then, restocks have vanished in the blink of an eye, with many shoppers seeing nothing but crashed web pages or error messages.

Xbox Series S screenshot captured by the author.

Second, Demon’s Souls is more of a full-blown remake than a remaster. Sure, the developers at Bluepoint may have started out by getting the existing game code up and running, and the final gameplay design may be quite similar to the original game, but everything else is wildly different. The renderer is far more modern, the assets are completely new, most of the animations are entirely new, and the audio design is completely re-done. I do like that the original voice actors were called back into the booth to voice their lines again. That’s a brilliant touch that most companies wouldn’t have bothered with.

Still, that love and care makes Demon’s Souls an archival-quality museum restoration, as opposed to the light-to-modest update usually associated with a “remaster.” Gamers are often lucky to get anything more than a simple resolution bump with most remasters, let alone the full years-long redevelopment effort that went into Demon’s Souls.

Xbox Series S screenshot captured by the author.

Fortunately, there’s another game that quietly came out earlier this year which perfectly exemplifies everything a remaster can be. That game is Saints Row The Third Remastered.

This new version of Volition’s breakout 2011 hit was spearheaded by Sperasoft, a contract development house with a long list of art and coding credits to its name. Saints Row The Third had a competent PC version back at release. They could have just ported this over to modern consoles with higher resolution options and called it a day.

The game is now bathed in wonderful screen space reflections. Xbox Series S screenshot captured by the author.

Instead, Sperasoft completely reworked the rendering system, and retouched most of the art assets in the game with higher resolution models and additional texture detail. The result is a game that has identical gameplay, level design, sound work, and animation to the original release from 2011, but rendering effects and visuals more in line with what people expect in 2020.

It’s wonderful to see this game with physically-based rendering and realistic-looking materials still retain the funky semi-cartoon art style and over-the-top gameplay of the 2011 original. The lighting is the standout feature here, bathing the world in sumptuous volumetric ambience during the day, and giving the night an enhanced level of mystery and edge thanks to a much higher contrast. It’s shocking how different and new the game looks.

Xbox Series S screenshot taken by the author.

Although the game doesn’t have a specific enhancement patch for the new consoles, Sperasoft also had the foresight to include an option to remove the 30 FPS cap and go for 60 instead. This didn’t work out too well on my old Xbox, but on the Series S the game runs at a locked smooth framerate in this mode.

Thanks to this beautiful update, Saints Row The Third is just as fun now as it was in 2011, combining competent third person action gameplay with a nonsense story that has some of gaming’s funniest, weirdest moments. The only thing here that doesn’t feel that modern is the overall mission structure. The game repeats Saints Row’s usual trick of locking away main mission progression behind side missions. Further, many of the main missions aren’t actually bespoke designs, but are instead used to introduce basic defense or escort mechanics that are then replicated across several of the side activities.

Xbox Series S screenshot taken by the author.

Still, this is the best game in the Saints Row franchise, and thanks to this remaster, it’s also now the best-looking one…at least until the announced new sequel comes out. In an ideal world, this game will perform well enough that Sperasoft will get to work their magic on the other three entries to remaster the complete tale…but if they had to pick just one, they absolutely picked the right one.

I can only think of a couple other remasters that have attempted this level of upgrade without being full-blown remakes, and I don’t think any of them have been quite as good. BioShock Remastered overhauled the lighting and changed out numerous assets, and while I thought it was fine, it didn’t have the same level of visual majesty as the Saints Row remaster. Batman: Return to Arkham made piecemeal changes to many of the graphical elements, but seemed to lack clear art direction, and it polarized fans as a result.

Xbox Series S screenshot taken by the author.

Saints Row The Third Remastered sets a new standard that all remasters should aspire to. The Xbox Series consoles and PS5 have backwards compatibility modes that essentially accomplish the performance bumps that old remasters used to tout as features. I’m hopeful this will push game companies to try harder than just re-releasing old games in 4k. I’m looking at you with hope, upcoming Mass Effect remaster.

Saints Row clearly had a more modest budget than a full remake like Demon’s Souls, but its visual impact is almost as huge. It’s wonderful to play this madcap game again and have it feel like a new release.

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