Retrospection: Demon’s Souls

                I had a bit of a weird and time-scattered experience with From Software’s 2009 PS3 classic Demon’s Souls. I bought the game alongside my PS3, having heard of its reputation not only for difficulty, but also for innovative multiplayer implementation. I played the first level or so, liked it, but ultimately sort of fell off the wagon in favor of other experiences and let it sit neglected on the shelf until about a month or so ago.

In the intervening period, I played Dark Souls, having been swept up in the ever-swirling cloud of hype and love that surrounds that game amongst its devoted fanbase, and I began to understand what it was about the series that got people so enraptured with it. As the release of Dark Souls II loomed closer, I decided to give the spiritual ancestor a try, either out of hunger for more of the same, or a curiosity as to what was different.

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TIGHTER, BUT MORE CONFINED

In looking back, it’s most interesting to note the ways in which Demon’s Souls differs from its descendants. The core gameplay is mostly the same; well-tuned action combat, with a variety of wildly differing weapon styles, magical spells, and equipment augmentation that combine with your carefully chosen stats in order to produce a character that really feels like the sum of the choices you’ve made as a player. But where Dark Souls placed a heavy emphasis on slow discovery, exploration, and unity in the world, Demon’s Souls takes a different approach.

Demon’s Souls chose the path of designing tightly instead of designing widely, and it shows. Each one of the game’s 16 levels has a very distinct and carefully laid out feel to it that made the entire experience feel very intentional. I felt a tension to every step forward, as there was an unshakeable aura that a developer was looking over my shoulder, chuckling to himself because he knew what I was about to step into.

MORE THAN HALF THE BATTLE

The boss fights were no different. Demon’s Souls is perhaps more cerebral than its spiritual sequel when it comes to combat; both games are largely about knowing your enemy, but in Demon’s Souls, it felt like knowing was a lot more than half the battle. Dark Souls often required a certain level of mechanical execution and skill to the timing in all of its boss fights, but its antecedent is more entirely about figuring out what the trick to the fight is in almost every boss encounter.  The notable exceptions here are the Flamelurker and the False King, who are fairly mechanically demanding fights, but even in those, there’s nothing on the level of Ornstein and Smough or Artorias from Dark Souls.

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Demon’s Souls is more about knowing than doing. It’s about taking what the boss is telling you and really listening to it. There are fewer fights to blunder through, but if you can figure out a fight quick, it can be trivial to smash it to bits. It’s all about thinking on your feet and looking at context clues and tells that the boss is giving you, and in that way, the bosses are an interesting difference from the later game.

Of course, a lot of that probably has to do with the fact that I played all of Dark Souls before really getting into its predecessor. Most of the combat training from Dark Souls stuck with me, and so things that may have been extreme challenges to new players when the game came out weren’t so threatening to me when I saw them, and some of the surprises were things that they’d reused in the sequel. I was already familiar with the multiplayer elements of invasions, signs, and phantoms in general, and I knew about From Software’s penchant for bridge dragons and hiding surprises next to loot. I also knew about the importance of item descriptions, and how the elements of the weapon upgrade system worked. All of these things made Demon’s Souls more a challenge of learning levels than mechanics, and so the experience felt more cerebral and slow paced to me.

There are important differences in tone here, too. Demon’s Souls has a certain bleakness to it, but not on the level of Dark Souls’s inevitable dwindling of the world. Demon’s presents you with a world that can really be saved, and it feels like the characters you encounter along the way are not quite so hopelessly doomed as the ones that populate Lordran.

All said, Demon’s Souls represents an interesting mid-generation touchstone for the last console generation. It’s an eastern company’s taken on a Western style RPG, and it’s a delicate, deliberate, carefully constructed experience which sets itself apart in difficulty, cleverness, and atmosphere. It may lack the cohesively interwoven world and sense of exploration of its spiritual successor, but it makes up for it in the details of the level design. Demon’s Souls is worth looking back at.

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