Ten years and about the length of the current pandemic ago I wrote this about a then new video game from a mostly unknown developer called FromSoft whose one distinguishing characteristic appeared to be punishing difficulty:
Demon’s Souls was the second game to go into the PS3. Here is a game that takes you through a straightforward tutorial and then immediately presents you with a boss who more than likely insta-kills you. This is most definitely not the sort of thing I usually go for.
The best way to describe this game is as a Japanese take on Diablo with a bit of Nethack mixed in. You run through dungeons. You kill monsters. You collect “souls” that you can then use to buy more power. Then you run through the dungeons some more. If you die, no problem! You just run through the dungeon to where you fell over and pick up the souls you lost. Then you start all over again.
In most other games, this repetition would crush your very will to live, but for some reason in this setting with this game, it seems to work. You just have to put yourself into a state of mind where clearing the same enemies from the same spots on the same maps all over again is progress in its own right.
Demon’s Souls enables this by avoiding the narrative weight that many games seem to insist on carrying. There is almost no plot to advance, so not being able to advance it is not as bothersome as it would be if the plot were there. And, thank the gods above there is little or no NPC dialog in the game. This game is the anti-Dragon Age. No endless trees of pseudo-philosophical babble attempting to hide clumsy exposition. No badly written “emotion”. No artificial “moral choices.” The game is delightfully free of the encumbrances of the bad video game story. Instead, the point of the game is simple: you run through dungeons, you kill things, you do it again.
I’m sure I’ll get tired of it after the first few maps.
I actually did quit Demon’s Souls at the second boss I tried. I went into a skinny tunnel with a giant spider at one end. The spider shot a giant fireball at me. I had nowhere to dodge even if I knew how to dodge. I was dead. I took the disk out of the machine and didn’t pick up the game again until many years later when I beat it by cheating with an item duplication exploit.
Of course, FromSoft’s second major release was Dark Souls, and we all know how that went.
Now a remake of Demon’s Souls, built by BluePoint Games, is a launch title on the new PS5. Through a unusual set of circumstance I happened to get one of the new machines pretty close to launch and have spent some time playing through this game again. This time without cheating.
The Big Picture
This a great remake that makes it possible to really get to know this game for real.
Demon’s Souls on the PS3 was characterized by slightly janky gameplay and questionable performance. I never really connected with the game partly because I got one shotted one too many times but also because I could never get a feel for how to navigate the world. This was all made worse by the truly horrendous load times for levels and the floaty disconnected controls.
Demon’s Souls Remake fixes all of these problems. The controls are tight and responsive. Level loads are instantaneous. The new rendering of Boletaria is gorgeous in that decaying end of the world way you want in a Souls title. All of this makes the game feel comfortable to play, for lack of a better way to put it. Sure there are brain suckers, poison swamps, giant demon spiders, deadly creepy prison towers, and zombie knights and soldiers all trying to kill you … but what do you expect? You walked into a Souls game.
The greatest strength of Demon’s Souls was always in atmosphere, tone, and mood, and the remake successfully recaptures these aspects of the original. The floaty ghost-like feel of playing in soul form has been diluted a bit (for example: your footfalls are quiet, but not silent in the remake), but this is a small quibble about a great overall package.
I’d say the only things that are slightly wrong in this new version are the music and some of the sound design decisions. The original Demon’s Souls soundtrack had a distinctly 16-bit lo-fi limited budget feel to it and some of the new stuff, especially the boss music, is just a bit too polished and smooth. I kind of miss the off kilter other-worldly hellish midi soundscape of the original.
Since Dark Souls was my main gateway to FromSoft addiction, for me Demon’s Souls was always a view into the early revisions of all the now classic aspects of the FromSoft style.
Maze-like areas that turn into straight lines when you open the shortcuts: check.
Every area has its own tone and atmosphere: check.
That combat engine. Those backstabs and parries: check.
Byzantine and complicated weapons upgrade systems with materials that are hard to obtain: check.
Roly Poly skeletons: check.
Bad dragon fights: check.
Poisoned swamps: check.
Byzantine and complicated NPC questlines that you can only figure out by reading the wiki: check.
Byzantine and complicated world state that you can only figure out by reading the wiki … oh they got rid of this later. Phew.
With these generalities out of the way, we can get down to some specific peaks and valleys.
First recall that Demon’s Souls is organized as a hub called The Nexus and then five main “worlds” to which you can travel from the hub. Each world is then further broken down into sub-areas, each of which has a boss. Thus when we talk about the areas we use the world number plus the sub-area number: e.g. 1-1, 1-2, 1-3, 1-4, 2-1, etc. You are not really meant to play the worlds sequentially. It’s required that you jump out of 1 and do at least some of the rest of the game after 1-2 … it’s actually a good idea to do to 2-1 and 2-2 early (for upgrade stones, and because the boss run in 1-2 is a bit hard). And so on.
With this background, here we go:
Latria (3-1 and 3-2) is still the single most unsettling area that FromSoft has ever created. The place is dark, lonely, supremely creepy, full of weird and deadly enemies and even more full of strange ambient audio. Add to this the multi-level maze-like layout of the tower and its surroundings and you have a tour de force of level design and world building. Until you figure out the layout playing this area of the game almost literally feels like being in prison. Its only failure is in not somehow also managing to have shortcut runs to the boss fights.
I don’t think FromSoft ever did an area as good or better than Latria. There are areas that are clearly inspired by it but they are not as good.
On the other hand, almost all of world 5 (the swamp) is terrible. Blighttown, from Dark Souls, as awful as it is, is clearly this whole place rethought and polished up to be actually usable.
In general the worlds in this game are much more interesting than the boss fights. If you have a good bow there is really only one boss in the whole game that’s either hard or interesting. Here is how the fight with the spider that put me off the game before goes now for example:
Or, if you want the fast version with the bow cheese
And that’s in NG+. Most of the bosses, especially later in the game are very weak to bow cheese. Which is great for me.
Overall I’d say that worlds 1, 2 and 3 are pretty fully realized and have all the hallmarks of the later games. But 4 and 5 seem a bit shorter and more “linear”.
The various weapon upgrade paths are ludicrously annoying, esp. because you have to farm to get the right upgrade rocks. Get a sticky bow and maybe upgrade a giant sword as a strength weapon, but otherwise I say don’t bother.
I have not tried the PVP. I assume I will suck.
Many of the NPCs move their faces and lip sync their dialog now. It’s weird. Luckily since it’s a Souls game there is not too much of this nonsense to deal with.
A lot of optional content and various unique items are hidden behind various “tendency” events that depend on the state of your game world or your character. This is mostly tedious and I feel no real motivation to play with it. Annoyingly the upgrade materials for at least one of the more interesting weapons in the game is behind this unlock.
Backstabs still don’t act quite the same as Dark Souls. That’s OK.
In my previous experience with the game I had only really internalized the maps for World 1. Everywhere else I would run around at random until I found the bosses and then never return. After finishing most of two playthroughs on the remake I think I’ve finally gotten the world maps internalized to almost the same degree as I have with the other games. Even the lower tunnels in 2-2 almost make sense now. This will be handy if I try out building a PVP character, or maybe do some fool thing like an SL1 run.
For the record, the only really hard boss is Flamelurker. He hits kind of hard, gets more and more aggressive as the fight goes on, and picks his moves sort of at random. You can see the proto-origins of a lot of other classic FromSoft bosses in this creature. He’s probably easy with a bow though.
Here is me almost dying to Flamelurker in NG when playing melee with no magic or ranged attacks:
Here is how other bosses go in the game, with a bow. The cloud of leeches monster:
Or the giant “Penetrator” Knight guy, in NG+. I guess normally there is an NPC you use to make this fight a joke. But you don’t really need him. Just dance and shoot.
I am assuming these fights would be even easier with super OP magic builds. But even with not quite the best bow you can make this pleasingly straightforward. The final boss falls the same way.
BluePoint is to be commended for this product. It’s hard enough to build software these days. Software that modernizes existing software and stays faithful to (almost) everything everyone likes while polishing and improving all the warts and rough edges is a whole different level of hard. Bravo, and I’ll see you on the other side of a Soul Level 1 run (maybe).