It was April 2013 when I read an update on the PlayStation Blog.
As a college student in the last quarter of his first year of college, I was very excited to be so close to relaxing during my summer break and to head home to see my friends and family again. Now, as a college student who liked to game on his PlayStation 3, I loved the PlayStation Plus service and the free games they added on a monthly service.
This is why I had no qualms downloading this game called Demon’s Souls that I had never heard of but sounded suspiciously similar to the Dark Souls series of games.
If my prior ignorance surprises you, that’s my bad. I was well aware of the Dark Souls series but I hadn’t played it or even looked much into it beyond a few videos on the internet. And yet I would still manage to be introduced to the series through its predecessor.
The Successor to King’s Field and Predecessor to Dark Souls
Demon’s Souls was a pretty unique game. Looking back, it’s very easy to compare it to the famous Souls games that came after it. And I don’t just mean because they’re both tough as nails games that will result in a lot of deaths.
Your custom-made character travels through widely different areas and collects souls from enemies. These souls and whatever loot you can scavenge are what will help you as you advance to fighting harder enemies. A stamina meter provides a deeper layer to the game, requiring you to strategize with your attacks and dodges instead of spamming attacks like a hack-and-slash game.
Multiplayer mechanics can also be compared easily enough. Those familiar with Dark Souls will be familiar with the concept of getting a second chance to pick up any souls lost after a death, which is separated into “Body Form” and “Soul Form” in this game. The mechanic of summoning other players and being invaded by them is also present here, going by “Blue Phantoms” and “Black Phantoms” respectively.
And playing online means you’ll find plenty of pre-set messages left by other players that may or may not help you out.
Beyond the gameplay, the environments also seem pretty similar. Although enemies and some bosses can be directly compared, everything culminates to create a gloomy world different from any others. There just wasn’t anything else like this back then.
That is unless you were familiar with the King’s Field series. Another series from FromSoftware and in fact their very first title, King’s Field is a first-person dungeon crawl RPG series. Although it looks incredibly dated now, the first game debuted on the PlayStation console in 1994 and was innovative for bringing the RPG experience to 3D.
King’s Field would go on to have three main series sequels throughout the PlayStation line with King’s Field IV debuting on the PlayStation 2 console. Two additional side games would be released on the PlayStation Portable, although they’d be exclusive to Japan.
While Demon’s Souls would be a third-person game, the exploration and equipment system in later King’s Field games do seem like less refined aspects that the former improved on. An even strong similarity would be the dark and eerie atmosphere. Even with its old muddy textures, it still manages to exude a creepy ambiance that never crosses the line into horror.
And arguably, like all the other aspects, Demon’s Souls manages to be an improvement. The method of timing your attacks in relation to when it’s safe to and your stamina allows it feels even more crucial. While the Dark Souls-related games would have a more aloof story where a lot could be learned in the background, Demon’s Souls and everything before it were a lot more upfront in what was happening.
There are obvious parallels between the earliest FromSoftware titles and their more recent ones. Demon’s Souls is the one that links them all. But that does beg the question of why the game isn’t as well known or available like the Dark Souls series is.
A PlayStation 3 Exclusive Like No Other
Demon’s Souls was a PlayStation 3 exclusive game. This isn’t too surprising since a lot of FromSoftware’s games launched on the PlayStation line. But that also meant that it was available to a smaller audience.
On top of that, the game was initially only released in Japan. A playable demo was shown at Tokyo Game Show and its difficulty didn’t sit well with those that played it. This and other negative reactions to it led to the uncertainty of it succeeding in the West. The game was only localized in North America thanks to “third party publishers” with Atlus USA.
Not only was the game received well in North America, but it was also received far better than it was in Japan. It was met with high praise for its innovative online components and challenging difficulty that harkened back to older games.
Deadly Bosses, Hopeless Characters, and A Desolate World
The game hooked me as soon as I saw the opening cinematic. Any uncertainty I had was washed away after I brought my custom-made character into the game. Both the world and the story were just so bleak and I found that really refreshing.
Soon after I was introduced to the first boss. Expecting a challenge, but confident that I could beat this boss, I carefully approached, dodged his first attack, and swung my weapon! And then he swung his and I died!
Thankfully it’s meant to happen. You can actually defeat the boss, but you’ll just adventure a bit more before watching a cinematic of a “Dragon God” killing you with a punch. Either way, your character dies in the end.
From there you’re taken to the Nexus, which acts as the hub world of the game. Five Archstones can take you to separate worlds/parts of the land called Boletaria. Each packs an onslaught of enemies and very challenging bosses as you’d expect there to be.
While I remember each world and their bosses very fondly, what stuck with me the most was the NPCs I found. The world and the enemies do a wonderful job providing the gloomy atmosphere of the game, but it’s the NPCs and the writing and dialogue that comes with each that exponentially convey that atmosphere.
Even ignoring the fact that some of them can travel to the Nexus afterward and act as a place of shops or upgrades for you, I found myself wanting to speak with each one to enthrall myself more with the world.
Something I especially loved was that not all of these NPCs were “good people”. That speaks for quite a few in fact since it truly is a bleak world. But, there are those that could be considered objectively evil.
Unique Events and “World Tendency”
There’s one famous example (slight spoilers) with an NPC you can find in one of the worlds. You find him locked in a cage, and he simply asks you to free him so he can help you kill demons. I wasn’t sure if I had a choice since he looked really cool, he said he’d help me out, and I’d seen him on the loading screens which surely meant that he was an important character!
The bleakness of the world certainly made me suspicious as to why he was locked in a cage in the first place, but my mother taught me not to judge people on their situation so I of course let him out. And all he did was walk out of his cage and thank me. Any other game and this would have been the moment where he reveals that he’s a villain and attacks me. Instead, this cool-looking guy really was just a cool-looking guy in a cage.
Imagine my surprise when I went out and would return to the Nexus to find two random dead bodies. I was out there killing bosses (after they killed me 5 times each) and then I returned to find dead bodies in the previously assumed “free of danger” hub world. Conveniently, I also found this new NPC chilling in the Nexus. He didn’t offer me anything and seemed a bit mysterious, but I assumed that he’d help me out at a later time
At the time I would fail to put two and two together, and I thought it was the result of me failing to do something in one of the worlds or perhaps a build-up to a big bad I would soon meet. I ventured back into the world and was set on discovering all there was. I’d return after beating a boss to upgrade some stuff and discover that now an NPC that taught me magic spells was dead. An actually helpful NPC was dead.
In combination with my own suspicions and notes left by other players, I was pretty confident that this NPC was not to be trusted. He didn’t admit to anything, but he certainly sounded villainous. I sat there for a bit weighing my options. Without 100% confirmation and uncertainty of what else he was capable of, I was left with a lot of unease.
I would end up deciding to attack him and he would mention the name “Mephistopheles” which is never a good name, so I felt better about my decision. Nevertheless, it’s just one of the bigger and more obvious examples of morality that the game challenges you with. And it still sits with me for putting me in a unique position that other games that employ direct choices have failed to do.
A much less obvious but extremely important example of morality in the game is the World Tendency and Character Tendency systems. Neither system is explicitly linked and range from White to Black. The game doesn’t actively explain what these systems are besides a one-off menu that’s a bit cryptic.
World Tendency is specific to each world. Killing bosses and Primeval Demons will lead you to a White World Tendency, while dying in Body form will lead you to Black World Tendency.
The former will result in weaker enemies that drop fewer upgrade items, while the latter will throw both stronger and more enemies at you, but they’ll drop more souls and rare items for you if you defeat them. Reaching the extreme level of each tendency (commonly called “Pure”) will open new areas and introduce you to new NPCs.
Character Tendency is specific to your character. Killing invaders will push you towards White while killing friendly NPCs and killing a player as an invader will lead you towards Black. Your Character Tendency will change your max HP in Soul form and at a Pure level can introduce new NPCs.
A Remaster on PS4, PS5, or Any Other Platform (PC Please?)
The Dark Souls series has certainly seen its own successes, leaving its spiritual predecessor left behind. As this is what started it all, I do agree with people that want to see more! Especially since it was exclusive to the PlayStation 3 console while the Dark Souls series has been open to any platform and has been ported and remastered to others after the fact. The game’s servers were kept online for nine years which I think says quite a lot for the love that players had for it.
Besides the later criticisms that could be made when comparing it to later Souls games that improved on so many aspects, the only mechanic that people were mixed on was the World and Character Tendency systems. Many thought it was too complicated and difficult to gauge since what affects it isn’t overt by any means. Others appreciated the take on a morality system and the changes it could bring in a playthrough.
Rumors have swirled around for a while now that we might see a remaster or remake of the game. The common rumor points to Bluepoint for heading up a remaster. Seeing their previous work, I’m confident the game would be brought back to perfect standards if they were in fact working on something related to Demon’s Souls.
A remaster would be a wonderful chance for the game to be exposed to other platforms. And as someone who doesn’t have any modern consoles besides a Nintendo Switch and instead mostly plays on PC, I would really love to see the game come to more platforms. Playing Demon’s Souls in 60 (or dare I hope even more) frames sounds incredible.
This is a game that I had a lot of fun with. Even when compared to what came after it, Demon’s Souls was a unique experience to play through. Even though FromSoftware has seemingly moved on past the Dark Souls games with titles like Bloodbourne and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I think Demon’s Souls deserves another chance in the spotlight.
It’s a precursor to the “Souls-like” genre that’s been coined by fans and the link that bridges all of FromSoftware’s titles together. This game is an important part of history for both the company and video games in general. It still manages to stand out from other titles and a remaster that improves the game overall would be a wonderful way to honor its legacy.