‘Dark Souls’ on an iPhone? ‘Pascal’s Wager’ shows it’s not as crazy as it sounds

The “Crazy Ascetic” boss killed me during my first battle with him, and you know what? I was glad. It showed that Pascal’s Wager—coming January 16 to iOS—has some real cred as a viable Dark Souls stand-in on the iPhone. And here’s the kicker: I was glad I died. I got cocky and not because of any failing on the game’s behalf. That’s proper Souls.

I’ve played virtually all of FromSoftware’s brutally difficult “Souls” games from 2009’s Demon’s Souls to last year’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and so I came prepared for the punishment TipsWorks’ upcoming game threw at me in a preview build for around two of its roughly 20 hours. I waited out the rhythm of the ascetic’s three heavy attacks, and then I rushed in and swiped him a few times with my sword before jumping away. I dodged his followup attacks with carefully timed taps of my PlayStation DualShock 4’s “X” button and guzzled health potions in the rare moments when I had a breather. And considering that Pascal’s Wager borrows liberally from a series that tells you to “Prepare to Die,” I wasn’t all that surprised to find myself crushed when he slammed back to earth after a leap to the skies. So far, so Dark Souls.

[embedded content]

I was surprised, though, that I was doing all this on an iPhone 11 Pro. Even a coworker was sure I was playing a proper Souls game on a service like PlayStation Remote Play. It’s a stretch to put Pascal’s Wager on the level of a proper Souls game like Bloodborne, but it comes closer than I’d ever thought we see in 2020 on an iPhone.

Even Apple is impressed. Tim Cook and friends showcased TipsWorks’ game at the company’s September event to prove the iPhone 11 Pro was capable of running a relatively graphically intensive game at 60 fps, even if the graphics look a little “last-gen”—probably so it’ll run on something other than the latest iPhones.

I’m shocked Apple showed it at all, as Pascal’s Wager is grim ’n’ gory in a way we rarely see on stages hosted by the folks in Cupertino. Within the first hour, a little girl shivved my character. Not long after, I was stabbing women—admittedly very hostile and creepy women—who looked like Russian peasants toting babies. And after two hours of carving up monsters, I’m still not sure what any of this has to do with Pascal’s wager, a 17th-century philosophical concept arguing that we should live as though God exists even though we can’t prove it. Clearly, few of the stabby people in this world buy into that idea.

A soul of its own

Pascal’s Wager might as well be called Pascal’s Souls, so closely does it riff on the creations of From’s Hidetaka Miyazaki. If you can’t see its obvious debts to Dark Souls in the dodging and creepy vibes, you’ll see it in the little flames highlighting lootable objects. You’ll see it in the way save points replenish your health but also revive all the enemies you fought, although Pascal’s Wager at least has the decency to depict these save points as eggs with twisty stone arms rather than Souls’ bonfires. Heck, there’s even a dude in the opening cutscene who looks a lot like the tricorn-hatted chap on the Bloodborne cover art. We’re getting out of the realm of homage here and into something more like what Samsung recently did when it, erm, borrowed Apple’s Face ID icon.

Fortunately, Pascal’s Wager does have a soul of its own. My favorite difference is the way it let you switch between multiple characters in rest zones and then lets you immediately keep fighting with one of the remaining characters after one dies. At first, I was playing with Terrance, a dude who buckles swashes with two swords and looks a lot like Geralt of Rivia (of The Witcher fame). Later I could switch between him and Norwood, a gold-masked, one-armed knight who totes around an iron maiden that doubles as a shield and a morning star.

pascals wager norwood Leif Johnson/IDG

Now that’s metal. 

And yes, Pascal’s Wager should be hard enough to please Souls lovers—but not so hard that I felt I couldn’t handle with it the touchscreen controls. (But seriously, play it with a controller.) It isn’t quite so keen to make you prepare to die. It’s generous with merchants and materials for potions, and it doesn’t plop save points miles away from bosses in the manner of a true Souls game.