I cherish every RPG From Software game: the Souls series, Bloodborne, Sekiro. They’re not the simplest to understand, there can be extremely unfair difficulty spikes, the stories might toe the line between “mysterious” and “too vague”, but they are far and away some of the best games I’ve ever played.
There’s a common saying among Souls fans: once you play a Souls game, it’s hard to go back to non-Souls games. (Except for you, Nick.)
Demon’s Souls, released in 2009 for the PS3, is the first of these games. It’s the game that really brought developer From Software into the international light, and its success created Dark Souls. There’s a lot to appreciate about Demon’s Souls.
But, it’s also the first Souls games. Which means it’s a somewhat bumpy road for mechanics that get smoothed out in later games.
I think it’s important to examine the gaming landscape at the time of Demon’s Souls. 2009 was an extremely different time for games. Indie games were just starting to gain some fame – like Fez, Braid, and Castle Crashers. Halo was still dominating with its third entry releasing just 2 years ago, and Halo: Reach on the way. Playstation wasn’t nearly the Xbox stomper it is today. The games coming out on PS3 weren’t bad, but they weren’t the system selling blockbusters we see today. Uncharted 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4 were really the only two system sellers. Otherwise, things were fairly homogenized. I was in middle school during this year, and I remember my friends all having the same console (Xbox) so they could play with each other. Crossplay was unthinkable back then.
Innovation was also at a bit of a lull, aside from Nintendo, but they were doing their own thing with the Wii. Between the Xbox 360 and PS3, you had boring looking shooters all trying their best to copy the success of Halo. Some succeeded, others failed. That’s not to say there weren’t some good games in the early days of the Xbox 360 / PS3: there certainly were. But, at least to me, the games everyone was talking about were very homogenous.
Demon’s Souls didn’t really break up the structure at all. It came out quietly, but many of those that played it loved it. It would be a repeated pattern with the initial days of 2011’s Dark Souls.
And Demon’s Souls is still a really niche game. I think people coming off of the most recent Souls games: Dark Souls III, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice might be disappointed with this game. I’ll explain why in a bit.
MY BACKGROUND WITH DEMON’S SOULS
I’ve covered my Dark Souls history pretty extensively throughout previous posts, but I’ll recap briefly: I was 16, deep in my “rebel” days (whatever that means). My friend recommended I play this “Dark Souls” game. With his guidance throughout my playthrough, I crawled through the game. It was tough. It was bleak. And there are many, many things that annoy me with that game, but the overall experience was positive. Better than positive. Life-changing. At least, my gaming life.
Like I said: once you’re hooked, it’s hard to go back to games that aren’t Dark Souls. So I didn’t. I played through Dark Souls a few more times, then tapped into Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin. Dark Souls III was about a year out at this point, so I borrowed my other friend’s PS3 and booted up Demon’s Souls.
My impression wasn’t…strong. The original Demon’s Souls hasn’t aged badly, per se, but compared to the near masterpiece that is Dark Souls, it’s pretty forgettable. Before this game got a big resurgence with the reveal of the Demon’s Souls Remake trailer, I would have struggled to recall five different moments in the game.
WHAT IS DEMON’S SOULS?
Demon’s Souls, actually, has a pretty straightforward and clear story for a Souls game. A King makes a deal with an eldritch being called “The Old One” in exchange for power. But, uh oh, that causes demons to basically take over the area, slowly spreading out. You play as a deceased knight, and your soul goes through the levels in the game to capture demon’s souls to basically catch the Old One’s attention. Then, you kill the King and either lull the Old One back to sleep, or embrace the power of the Old One. It’s easy to see how the story of Dark Souls evolved from that and got way more complicated.
The combat is extremely simple, and relies heavily on a rhythm of knowing when to attack and enemy, and when to block its attack / roll away from it. Souls combat is elevated by interesting enemies and the level design giving you different context for enemies. Sure, attacking one archer is pretty easy. But what about when there’s a swordwielder with it? Suddenly you have to prioritize. Either rush the archer to try and kill it before the swordwielder can attack you, or attack the swordwielder while dodging arrows. And it only gets more complex from here.
There’s a variety of weapons and attacks as well. Light attacks, heavy attacks, backstabs, ripostes, two-handed attacks, pushes – you’ve got several tools at your disposal in how to attack an enemy. Light attacks are quicker, but less powerful. Heavy attacks are the opposite, and they can leave you vulnerable.
Each weapon type has distinct timings and attacks that emphasize that time / power ratio. A knife is quick but relatively powerless. A great club smashes the enemy, but it takes about two minutes to wind the attack up.
When you add the option of shielding and rolling, things bump up to the next level. I notice that players who like quick weapons, like me, prefer to roll. A heavier weapon generally needs a higher defense in case you get hit while swinging, so shields are the way to go. Of course, there’s a lot of variation. For my playthrough, I ended up going with a Kaiji, a quick slashing weapon with the ability to give enemies the “bleeding” debuff, where they slowly lose health. But I also had a shield, because I wasn’t 100% confident in my abilities with the game yet. When I replay this, I probably will go with a two-handed weapon and greatly prioritize rolling over blocking.
There are also magic and miracles. I never get too into these in Souls games, because I prefer the reflex-based melee combat to casting spells. However, I did level up my bow a lot in my playthrough, to the point where most bosses I actually took down with a combination of my Kaiji and bow. Some bosses with the bow exclusively. The penultimate boss (cause the final boss is really more of a cutscene), decided to stay away from me and shoot spells at me, so I just picked his health down with my bow. Hey, it was his strategy.
This is the only Souls game that has “levels”, as in: you can’t go from one to another through a connected world. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really make a difference (and might actually save time). Each individual level, at least, is as interconnected as any Souls game, with a mixture of elevators, doors, and shortcuts meaning by the end of each level you can generally run to the beginning in a short time.
The five levels are really distinct, with different atmospheres, enemies types, and mechanics. The first level, Boletaria, is very standard medieval. A castle, with undead knights and dragons. There’s a few hints to the deeper, creepier Souls world, like the Phalanx boss, a mass of black goo that stabs at you with about 40 different spears.
A complete change is the second level: Stonefang Tunnel. You’ll spend a lot of time in cramped tunnels, dodging rock worms and miners who blend in with the rock. The Tower of Latria (my favorite) is a moody, claustrophobic prison that opens up into an assault of a tower in the sky dodging Gargoyles. The Shrine of Storms (my least favorite), starts out strong, with a rain-soaked ruined castle guarded by fierce metal skeletons. But it soons devolves into running across skinny cliff faces dodging a million projectiles. The last, and the one that feels the most “Souls-like”, is the Valley of Defilement, a dank, poisonous swamp. That one’s great.
The best part about this level design is the openness of player choice. Once you beat the first boss in Boletaria, you’re own your own to select how you proceed. Continue in Boletaria, or switch to another. I went to Stonefang Tunnel, but found the enemies had way too much HP for my current level, so I went to the Shrine of Storms, where enemies were harder but took fewer hits. You can skip around in a way that’s very different from Dark Souls. If you got stuck in Blighttown in Dark Souls, you didn’t have any other option. You either got out or you never beat the game. I actually quite like the Dark Souls route, but there’s something nice in getting sick of a level and being able to switch to a totally fresh stage.
But there’s a downside to this. Because you can go anywhere at any point, enemies have to be pretty much on the same level across the board. So whichever level you go into last won’t be too difficult. I went to the Valley of Defilement last and had absolutely no trouble with it. I was in and out in a half hour. It’s the age-old balance of a tailored experience versus player choice. Everyone’s got their preference. Mine leans towards the former.
More than any other Souls game, I think the bosses are the highlight here, mainly because the level design isn’t super strong, and most of the regular enemies don’t give you too much trouble.
However, I would say this is easily the most divisive boss list out of all the Souls game. Because almost every boss is extremely distinct, so every player will likely have varying degrees of challenge. For me, I loved a boss like Flamelurker, a fire demon who gets very in your face and tries to maul you. As someone who focused melee, this boss was perfect. But I hated Dragon God, a giant dragon whose fight plays more like a really crappy Metal Gear Solid game.
Still, almost every boss has their own gimmick, which keeps it fresh. We’ve seen what happens when every boss is a big knight (Dark Souls 2). This is the polar opposite of this. The only knight in Demon’s Souls is 30 feet tall and tries to step on you. But the problem with gimmicky bosses is that some can end up feeling pretty cheap. I had a lot of trouble with Fool’s Idol, who puts invisible circles on the ground that stun you for a few seconds. Or Old Hero, who only fights you if you make noise (he’s blind). There are some really cool ideas here that I’d love to see revisited, but some of the bosses I’m glad to see retired.
There’s also a lack of optional content here. Every other Souls game has at least one hidden away boss, but not Demon’s Souls. You get the full experience. Again, not necessarily bad, just different. Searching levels in these games only get you a few extra items.
This game is knockout gorgeous. People have said it since it came out: it’s the first game that really looks next gen. I honestly don’t think the PS4 could run this one worth a crap. There’s so many nice details in everything. I honestly think we’ve reach a plateau when it comes to textures and polygons. Now it’s all about lighting to make things look as realistic as possible. And Demon’s Souls gets as close as any modern day release that I’ve seen. Souls games haven’t really pushed the graphical envelope, so it’s weird (in a good way) to see the best looking game belong to that same series.
The one thing I don’t love here – thought to be fair it’s something the original Demon’s Souls did – whenever you’re in soul form. You turn into this bleh kinda pale green ghost. And that’s going to be what you see of your character for a majority of the time. I’d love to have some kind of option to toggle this, without changing the other effects of Souls form. Plus, whenever you’re in human form, your footsteps have haptic feedback and play sounds on the controller. Really nice details you won’t get for 90% of the game.
Adaptive triggers play an extremely minimal role in this game. The right trigger only comes into play when you’re shooting a bow. You can pull the trigger halfway to kind of queue up an arrow. I have no idea what the point of this is, since it’s just as fast to draw it back and shoot it. They really missed an opportunity to have your heavy sword swings really feel good. Or have parries become easier with the left trigger at just the right moment. It seems like Bluepoint really dropped the ball here. A small thing, but with the PS5 boasting these adaptive triggers, there’s a shockingly small amount of games that utilize it in any meaningful ways.
Honestly, Bluepoint has created a fantastically faithful remake of Demon’s Souls. And as janky as Demon’s Souls can be sometimes, it’s still a pretty good game. But I’ve listed out a few grievances below.
The Nexus is way too large. The Nexus is the hub where you come between levels to level up and upgrade your hero. You can also take NPCs you find around the levels and use their services – as merchants or spellmakers. And while most of the NPCs stay on the lowest level, some of them hide up in some dark corners. It takes around 5 minutes to search the whole place, and it can be fruitless. The upper levels are completely wasted. I don’t think I found a single NPC or item up there, and staircases led to nothing. I have no clue what the point of all that is. An easy fix? Shrink it down. Cut off some staircases.
Some levels segments are extremely short. Bluepoint definitely could have stretched them out to make them more meaningful.
The push move (R1 + up on the joystick) is way too sensitive. I found that if I was moving forward while attacking, 30% of the time I would push instead, which basically did nothing. It’s not something that cost me any lives or anything, but it was pretty annoying. I don’t remember if this was the case in the original, but man it happened way too much to me in the remake.
Equipment burdens. Basically every item you pick up has a weight. And if you have too much of it, you have to send it back to your storage at the Nexus. I get that equipment weight is a very traditional RPG idea, which is likely why From Software originally put it in. But in a 2020 game, it feels extremely archaic and unnecessary. It does nothing but inconvenience you.
Some of the bosses are just so forgettable. This was really the chance to spice every boss up to an equal level. Instead, you can just sort of bulldoze through some without even dying. It doesn’t feel really like a challenge, just a roadblock.
The healing system is still pretty bad. You have a finite amount of healing grasses, and there are 6 different grasses that heal you different amounts. So you have to keep track of a lot, and use up some valuable quick item slots with 2-3 different types of grasses depending on what you have.
In that same vein, upgrade materials are even worse. There are 14 different stones used to upgrade your weapon, and what each one does is pretty vague. This lead me to just stick to the obvious ones – hardstone (boosts strength) and sharpstone (boosts dexterity). The other 12 were too intimidating for me to want to get into.
All that said, my recommendation for Demon’s Souls is kinda abnormal. I would say if you’re a big Souls fan who never had a chance to play the original, then this one’s for you. However, I would not want this to be your first Souls game. There are many better options, and I would say Demon’s Souls is down there with Dark Souls II as probably the worst intro to the series that there is. As for the remake itself, Bluepoint has done an astonishing job of glowing up the original, but they were so faithful that the flaws of the game weren’t fixed.