I fondly remember the fall of 2009 when I was a first year university student. Life was simpler then. I only had to worry about myself and my grades. It was about the halfway point in the semester and I was waiting for the release of a little game known as Demon’s Souls. I didn’t know at the time that this game would launch a series that would dominate the gaming scene over the course of the next seven years. Funnily enough, I cannot remember why I decided to pre-order the game in the first place. In fact, I knew very little about it. However, when I went home, booted the game and ventured into Boletaria for the first time, I was immediately hooked. Since then, From Software’s Soul series has influenced countless other games and been talked about avidly within the industry itself. This is meant to shed more light on Demon’s Souls, the less remembered PS3 exclusive title that began the magic.
At the time Demon’s Souls was overwhelmingly known for its difficulty. It was the sole feature people knew about the game. In all honesty, this was part of the reason I became so wrapped up in it. During the past decade, the gaming industry shifted towards making games more player friendly. Checkpoints became a common feature. A lack of consequences when you died became a common feature. Demon’s Souls bucked these trends. Demon’s Souls opens with a tutorial after you create your character. The tutorial level teaches you some basic combat mechanics. At the end, it thrusts you into a battle against a boss that can wipe you out very easily. You walk into the room and you can die before you have any idea what happened to you. Afterwards, you will find yourself in the Nexus and then the first level in the game. The Nexus is the hub world, your safe zone where you can go to level up, buy items, and access the other levels. The first level is the outside of the castle of Boletaria. If this is your first time playing a Souls games, the mechanics will cause you to die over and over again. When you kill enemies, you obtain souls and these souls act as your currency for all transactions in the game, including levelling your character. When you die, you lose all of the souls you possessed before your death. You do have an opportunity to regain the souls if you can make it make to the spot of your death. Failure to do so will cause them to be lost forever. As you make your way through the beginning of the level, enemies will ambush you. They will use dirty tactics to kill you. As you progress more and more, you learn where an enemy is standing. You learn what tactic to watch out for. You learn a surprising amount of information with every attempt. Demon‘s Souls is a test of patience more than anything else. If you can stay calm and patient in the face of a staggering difficulty, you will eventually emerge victorious. That single feeling after putting in a lot of work is the greatest feeling in the world.
As the Souls series has evolved over time, so has the level design. However, the level design in Demon’s Souls stands out among the others. This is due in part to the other games taking inspiration from ideas first laid out in this game. There are five worlds in Demon’s Souls and as stated earlier, they can be accessed from the hub world, the Nexus. Unlike the first Dark Souls game, the levels are not connected to one another. You can go to the portrait of each world in the Nexus and enter one of its levels from there. The environments range from a demonic prison to a cloudy cliffside inhabited by grim reapers and skeletons. Each world is divided into three levels with a boss at the end of each, except for the first world, Boletaria Palace, that has four levels. Each level not only has its own challenges, but each presents a different visual identity. You truly get the sense you are travelling to a different location each time you click on the area’s portrait. Because Demon’s Souls was the first game, these concepts are being presented for the first time. In the later games in the series, it feels sometimes as if From Software is only borrowing from itself. In those instances, special attention should be paid to the original work which is why the level design in Demon’s Souls really stands out.
The Souls series is well known for many different memorable bosses. An argument will not be made that Demon’s Souls has the best bosses, because I don’t believe that to be the case. With that said, the bosses should certainly be mentioned. Some of the bosses are rather easy, especially in comparison to the difficulty of most of the levels. The phalanx, the boss of 1-1, is a giant toxic lump that is covered in many, many other smaller lumps. The boss can be defeated rather easily using fire, but it can still catch you off guard. Demon’s Souls is a game that rewards you for learning from trial and error. Even the bosses that can be categorized as being on the easier side can defeat you if you are unprepared. The more challenging bosses are truly a treat that should be cherished. They will test skills that you have unknowingly been practicing all along. For example, the final boss in Boletaria Palace is a true test of patience and mental fortitude. You will find yourself running away to dodge certain attacks only to attack at the precise moment in order to deal some amount of damage. It is a grueling battle and he even possesses an attack that can subtract levels from your player character. However as with overcoming a level, being on the side of victory after dying over and over and over to a particular boss will give you that satisfaction you have been craving the entire time. It becomes a drug and once you taste it for the first time, you only want more of it.
Demon’s Souls was the first game where I was so involved in the character interactions. I have played many RPGs in my life, but interactions in Souls games are very interesting. In fact, characters in the Souls series are handled very differently compared to most other games. Demon’s Souls toys with the idea that no one can truly be trusted. It uses unreliable characters. Often times a character will tell you something, only to later learn that is not entirely the case. Furthermore, you are able to attack NPC characters unlike other games. Attacking an NPC character will always have consequences because save points do not exist in Demon’s Souls. The game is constantly saving. Therefore, when you attack someone the aftermath is permanent. It can have beneficial consequences. If there is an armor set you desire that an NPC is wearing, killing said NPC will usually result in being able to loot it off the corpse. There are also situations where killing a particular NPC will give you less headaches later in the game. What I enjoy most though about the NPC interactions are the stories and voice acting. You can learn a lot of about the game’s lore and setting when you talk to different individuals. The voice acting in Souls games is always well done, and the voices behind most characters suit them well. Demon’s Souls paved the way for a different type of character interaction, and I think gaming as a whole is better off for it.
It is ironic that in a series so defined by the difficulty, the combat is often talked about less than the lore and other aspects. The game is fun to play in a nutshell. It is an action RPG with an over the shoulder camera perspective. The action RPG umbrella can encompass many different things. Someone might first think about something akin to Witcher 3 when using the term. However Demon’s Souls has a very deliberate combat system. In Demon’s Souls every action, every step forward matters. There are HP, stamina, and MP bars. The stamina bar in particular is important because all actions outside of spells will expend stamina. When you level up in Demon’s Souls you can choose to put points into one of these pools or you can level another stat such as strength, dexterity, or intelligence. You can attack with the R1 shoulder button on the Playstation 3 controller and you can block with your shield with the L1 button. Mapping the attack and block commands to these buttons makes combat feel more fluid than using the four face buttons. You can equip items to a shortcut menu that can be cycled through with the D-Pad and used by the square button. The circle button is used to roll and dodge attacks and it can be incredibly useful especially against certain bosses. The controller layout and camera perspective in Demon’s Souls resembles western RPGs in its approach. Perhaps that is the reason this game made in Japan feels so refreshing, or felt so refreshing at the time of its release. When you progress through a level and block an enemy attack and then retaliate with a devastating blow with your sword, you feel empowered as a player. Most of the time Demon’s Souls wants to remind you that you are not in control. However, this is the type of game where mistakes are usually your fault, and any way you way you can wrangle back some control from the game makes you appreciate the entire package even more.
I usually associate certain games with a specific time of the year. Demon’s Souls was released in October so it is only fitting that I finished this most recent playthrough this month. It has an aesthetic that will remind you of Halloween. More importantly, Demon’s Souls was the catalyst for a series that has changed the gaming landscape for the better. Yes, it has a difficulty to it that most games would be afraid to stray towards. However, it gets better with time. There is so much good in this game. It has amazing character interactions. It has a haunting soundtrack. The combat feels fluid and is complemented very well by the level design. Demon’s Souls has many other interesting aspects as well such as the multiplayer. If you haven’t played Demon’s Souls before, go check this incredible game out. It will change the way you look at games, and even if it doesn’t, you will be one new experience richer.