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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Review: Demon's Souls (Sony PlayStation 5)


Review by Matt S. 

I liked the Souls games before they were cool. In fact, I loved them before they were even Souls games. Way back on the PlayStation 2 (and earlier) FromSoftware had a series called King's Field. It wasn't particularly popular, because it was brutally difficult (the PlayStation 2 Kings Field IV had a trap that could kill you, quite literally, two steps after the game started), but the darkly gothic atmosphere as well as the labyrinthine level design provided an aesthetic and structure that I loved unconditionally. I distinctly remember, years before it came out, getting excited that FromSoftware was working on a "spiritual sequel" for the King's Field series, called Demon's Souls. Then the game did finally came out and the rest, as they say, is history.

Demon's Souls was nowhere near as refined as the later Dark Souls would be, but I have long felt that it was the more "pure" project, offering a kind of grim intensity that was refined out of Dark Souls. It's often subtle and a matter of perception, but nonetheless, it's there. As noted in an essay on the gothic at The Tutor Team: "The setting is always an important, if not crucial, element of a Gothic novel. The isolated house, the spooky castle, dense woods, a graveyard, or wild moorland have powerful associations with isolation, loneliness and being cut off from potential avenues of help and support. We, the readers, know that if something awful happens (and in Gothic novels we can be sure that something awful will happen), the characters will struggle to get help. Help, we know, will be slow in arriving or may not come at all. So the suspense and tension begin to build."

In Dark Souls, there was always the promise of the bonfire, either at a point close enough ahead (if you could just survive that long), or a short retreat behind. Mechanically, Demon's Souls has the same thing in its little teleportation sports that allow you to return to an extraplanar Nexus where, for most of the game, you're safe and have a chance to regroup, level up, and repair equipment. This is exactly the reprieve that Dark Souls' bonfires offered, but as I noted above, it's a matter of perception; thematically there was something potent about removing the "safe spots" from within the spaces that you were currently exploring. While you inch your way through decrepit castles, sprint across dragon-infested bridges, and hold your breath as you step through a wall of fog to face down a boss, you know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the world that you're currently inhabiting is relentlessly hostile. The one-second inconvenience of a fog-shrouded loading screen back to the Nexus makes all the difference to the thematic integrity of Demon's Souls.


There was also something appealing about how primitive Demon's Souls was in terms of presentation. Everything, from the level of detail in the environments to the AI and design of the bosses, was objectively improved with the bigger budgets and prior design experience that the developers enjoyed when making Dark Souls. And yet there was a purity to Demon's Souls that, again, we can see voiced in that Tutor Team essay: "Pay attention to how the writer uses setting to create an atmosphere of trepidation, threat or decay. Consider the language they are using, see if they are employing metaphor or simile to make comparisons with horrible things. Here is an extract from The Little Stranger. This is towards the beginning of the book, before anything scary has happened. See how Waters uses language choices to warn us about the house within which the plot will play out.

‘What horrified me were the signs of decay. Sections of the lovely weathered edgings seemed to have fallen completely away, so that the house’s uncertain Georgian outline was even more tentative than before. Ivy had spread, then patchily died, and hung like tangled rat’s-tail hair. The steps leading up to the broad front door were cracked, with weeds growing lushly up through the seams.’"


Everything about Demon's Souls builds on that notion of decay that characterises good gothic storytelling. Dark Souls, by contrast, had the crumbling ruins and skeletal enemies as an aesthetic, but it was also more beautiful about it. That beauty assuredly helped it sell to a wider audience and earn two sequels, but for the purity of vision, I have, over the many years since, remained something of a Demon's Souls purist. The low budget and creative freedom of experimenting with an all-new idea liberated the team at FromSoftware, and they leaned into a hard dark gothic, unlike anything they've done since. 


With all the above as context, I was concerned about Demon's Souls on the PlayStation 5. This is a game that Sony was relying on heavily to sell the new console, being one of the few genuine exclusives on it. It was also being handled by a developer that, talented as it is (having previously done a magnificent job with a HD remaster of Shadow of the Colossus) did not include the original creative team. The big question was that in trying to make the remake of Demon's Souls something to sell a new generation of hardware, would this team lose sight of what makes Demon's Souls so special? Would they fight the inclination to make creative "fixes" to bring the game more in-line with what Dark Souls has since established as "best practice?"

I half expected that Bluepoint would do away with the Nexus entirely, for example. Not because the loading times between it and the nightmares worlds that house the demons were a problem, of course. Thanks to the speed and power of the PlayStation 5 the transition screen has likely been slowed down in order to maintain the atmosphere and the result is utterly seamless. No, I thought the developer would do away with the Nexus because, in giving players a hub to jump between levels, it's entirely possible to teleport yourself into hostile environments that you're just not ready for, become creamed by the first enemy you encounter there, and lose heart to play the game entirely. Though you are restricted to one area initially, once you've defeated the first boss, the Nexus opens all its environments up and it can become very difficult to understand which environment is right for you to visit next. The Nexus represents the perfect expression of Demon's Souls goal of making you feel like you're against insurmountable odds, but I really didn't think that Sony was going to be willing to make its big launch title for a 2020 console a game that slaps your hand away, rather than holding it.

In every way, Bluepoint delivered. Every quirk that made Demon's Souls a raw, unpolished gem, has been retained even though they could have looked at Dark Souls to see how to polish it. There are bosses with AI that can be exploited. There are sections that are stupidly cruel thanks to clumsy design that have been left that way. The structure of the Nexus and its active pushback on players looking for some guidance through the game has been left intact. Bluepoint has completely remade the art assets where necessary to take a grimy PlayStataion 3 game and make it appropriate to the PlayStation 5, but they've resisted the urge to make it elegant, like Dark Souls is. Demon's Souls still has an aggressive ugliness to it that is, ironically, so aesthetically pleasing to those of us more in love with the gothic tradition.
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Hell, Bluepoint even preserved the nasty Tendency system, which "rewards" bad play by making the game even harder. There's actually a fair bit of complexity to it, but if you keep dying, harm the rare friendly NPC in each area, and undertake a number of other actions (all of which already disadvantage you), then enemies become progressively harder. The rewards are slightly better in that you get more souls from those demons, but it's hardly a fair tradeoff for any but the most talented Souls player. On the other hand, if you play well, things get considerably easier... but being able to play well in the first place is the big question. It's easy to understand why FromSoftware removed the Tendency system for Dark Souls and later. It's braver than it might seem that Bluepoint kept it.

While Bluepoint has been careful to retain the creative energy that made Demon's Souls such a dark masterpiece, the developer was also careful to make it play like something modern. Demon's Souls struggled with frame rates, and while I hate talking about frame rates in the context of a work of art, since it's a technical element that's about as interesting as the frame that holds the Mona Lisa, the kind of precision that Demon's Souls required make the variable frame rate a genuine playability issue. That's been fixed. The team has also used the haptics features in the PlayStation 5 controller usefully, with the isolated rumble and subtle use of the resistive triggers being enough to add texture to the brutality of the melee combat, and makes drawing that bowstring back feel all the more visceral. The tactility of these features and the ability to isolate them based on the direction that they're occurring in-game lend Demon's Souls a "surround" physical texture, and it's subtle enough that it enhances the experience without screaming out for attention.

Demon's Souls kicked off what has become an exhausting caricature in the games industry. From "git gud" to comparing every halfway difficult game to the Souls series, Demon's Souls is ultimately responsible for that. It wasn't the most commercially successful game in itself, but word of mouth earned it a cult status and was directly responsible for the very mainstream Dark Souls. And now people can re-discover the dark majesty of that series foundation. It's a game that deserves to be elevated beyond the jokes and seen as a genuine piece of video game art. I would be very interested if those who have come to the Souls series later will find the deliberately unpolished elements of this remake to be as appealing, but given that FromSoftware will almost certainly never touch the King's Field series again, for me, personally, this is as good as it's ever going to get. As a PlayStation 5 launch title, it's a fascinating example of something that is both deliberately old and a brilliant use of the console's very new hardware, and brought together, Demon's Souls is reason enough to own the console, all into itself.



- Matt S. 
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb

The critic was provided with a copy of this game for review.

Review: Demon's Souls (Sony PlayStation 5)
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