My first encounter with Demon’s Souls came when the game was first released in Europe during 2010. I was working a retail job at the time and I’d heard customers waxing lyrically about a new RPG for the PlayStation 3. With its steep learning curve and innovative multiplayer framework, Demon’s Souls didn’t have the mass-market appeal of your typical AAA title. Before anyone knew it though, store shipments of the game – including its limited Black Phantom Edition – were selling out! Even at that early stage I knew; FromSoftware were onto something here.
The company had been on a decent run at the start of the new millennium. Both Lost Kingdoms and Otogi: Myth of Demons were standout titles of theirs that I particularly enjoyed, but when the Xbox 360 hit the market in the mid two-thousands the shine began to fade. Big exclusives such as Enchanted Arms, Chromehounds, and Ninja Blade enjoyed a lukewarm response at best. It seemed that the venerable outfit needed more than just another Armored Core sequel if they were going to capture the spotlight for once. After finally playing it for myself, I can appreciate why Demon’s Souls became that special game and why its many admirers – not least of whom being FromSoftware themselves – cherish it so deeply.
Aurally and stylistically the game holds up well today. The Kingdom of Boletaria is an oppressive realm where humanity is on the edge of extinction. As with most stories in the franchise, its tale is one told through interesting world design, expressive item descriptions, and quirky character asides. The world of Demon’s Souls is well-realized, even if its HD 720p graphics already look pretty dated. Indeed, if PlayStation 3 graphics are what we now consider “dated” then it makes me shudder to think how tomorrow’s gamer will look upon a period like the 32-bit era.
What Demon’s Souls may lack in terms of graphical heft though, it more than makes up for in sheer creativity. Looking back now, it’s easier to appreciate why the game proved to be so influential. Many titles have since copied the communication system whereby online players can leave messages on the ground for others to read. It’s a similar case with its roguelite leanings and the return to a less tutor-centric design.
But what’s good about Demon’s Souls is its variety. After your phantom-like player character awakens in the grandiose hub world called The Nexus, you’ll venture out to one of five different worlds to claim souls from the titular demons. From the underground mining complex of Stonefang Tunnel to the ambush-laden Shrine of Storms, these worlds feel different from one another in terms of gameplay and flavour.
Players can attempt each location in any order they choose, but those expecting to find a connected world will come away disappointed because the areas in Demon’s Souls are independent of each other. This structure can lead to unpleasant difficulty spikes as venturing too far into one realm can leave your character feeling a bit outgunned in the face of tough enemies and traps. Luckily this approach also makes it harder to get lost as each area has its own self-contained path forward.
Demon’s Souls is harsh and unforgiving, though prior experience with the Souls games will go a long way towards easing in you in here. For a series veteran, Demon’s Souls will feel both exciting and familiar whilst at the same time a bit restrictive. The floatier physics will take some getting used to for one and understanding the concepts of world tendency and health-restricted phantoms isn’t exactly intuitive either.
Thankfully the combat still has its trademark tactility and many of the spells and items from later games get their start here too. The lore behind Demon’s Souls is also rich and begins the series’ trademark tendency for telling tragic stories. There are more direct references to religion and God than you’d expect and there are plenty of characters and side plots that you can miss over the course of the game too.
A familiar characteristic to anyone who has played a Souls game, this tendency to miss things can often hurt your impression of what’s going on. I somehow managed to bypass a major NPC who follows you throughout many areas, which was a shame, but it does show the commitment that FromSoftware has in creating layered stories that are atypical to the sort you’d normally find in a AAA video game.
Demon’s Souls shows its age through gameplay though. The moment-to-moment action is still pretty brutal, but bosses are comparatively easy due to the high number of them that prioritize environmental gimmicks over twitch-based skill. The rate that healing items drop from enemies is also generous and it can lead to players carrying heavy stockpiles of restorative herbs. It’s not that much of a problem, but it does grant battles an undue sense of inevitability in the latter stages of the game.
The concept of item burden is much more frustrating though as it restricts the amount of loot you can carry. Considering there are no checkpoints between bosses, this often forces you to discard equipment to make room for key items that you need to pick up. The dearth of checkpoints also leads to long treks back to boss doors and the music accompanying those fights (with a few exceptions) tends to sound a bit crummy in all honesty.
When you also consider the suspect balance of certain spells and weapons (including a sword whose swipes you cannot shield against), it’s possible to label Demon’s Souls as a game that’s been somewhat superseded by its descendants. Fans often talk about the idea of Demon’s Souls being remade and yet its strong influence is already integral to the franchise itself. Dark Souls and Bloodborne pillaged so many innovations from Demon’s Souls that’s it’s worth questioning if the game even needs remaking.
The obligatory poison swamp level, the recurring Patches NPC, the box-art armours, and the countless visual references from future Souls games all form a tapestry of Demon’s Souls‘ revered legacy. I’m not sure if a remake is necessary when you consider this.
It’s stimulating enough to think of this as the undiluted Souls game; one before the trolling and memes had a chance to set in. A cult community where players relished the sharing of secrets, the joy of cooperative boss battles, and the thrill of togetherness before it became widely accepted. It’s a romantic notion I suppose, but one thing Demon’s Souls proved once and for all is that games made for the “hardcore” can still make a difference.