In many ways, Demon’s Souls is the most revolutionary game of the last console generation.
While most of its contemporaries have been a watered down version of its PC predecessor or an expansion on old concepts from the previous era like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Hitman, & The Elder Scrolls–the Souls games are unique. What makes this franchise special is the way it uses structures and concepts all but abandoned in the NES era and gracefully fuses them with modern sensibilities and production values without making a compromise on either. Then it goes ahead and tells a great story in a way that only a videogame can.
It’s influence is subtler than, say… Half Life, but very strong nonetheless. Around the time Demon’s Souls came out, games were starting to uniformly err on the side of accessibility. The player would not die enough times to be frustrated. The player would be spoon-fed all content at a pace deemed appropriate for the lowest common denominator… and that goes double for story and characterization. The more accessible games still existed after Demon’s Souls, but it proved that there was a market for games that challenged us both as a game and as a piece of art. You won’t find many Souls inspired games on Origin or UPlay, but Steam is stuffed with rogue-likes and retro platformers who took their design philosophy from this monument to masochism.
That being said, legacy alone does not make a good game, and 2009 was a long time ago. Especially when you consider its production values weren’t even that great for the time. So is it still a good game today? How does it compare to all of the games that copied it’s bags of tricks, not to mention its own phenomenal sequels? Does Demon’s Souls still hold up after all this time?
Oh, hell yes.
Demon’s Souls is a bleak and brutal action rpg with an emphasis on cautious, methodical fighting paired with snap decision-making. A stamina bar forces you to economize your attack and defense. The more you just spam the attack button the less you’ll be able to defend yourself from the demons and insane denizens of Boletaria who hit at least as hard as you do.
Sometimes they hit even harder than you do
Adding to this combat is the fact that every one of the dozens of weapons in the game fight a little differently. Maces, morningstars, and clubs all have different speeds, reaches, and stamina costs aside from the obvious damage output. Others do less damage on paper but deal bleeding damage over time, or are particularly effective against a certain foe (such as blunt weapons versus skeletons). Weapons are very much a tool to be thought over, and no one weapon will take you to the end of the game.
This is because enemies and their environments are quite diverse. Very few levels have classic low level mooks to battle and the ones that do always supplement them with difficult terrain or cunning ambushes. In one world, almost all the denizens (called burrowers) are benign and won’t attack you first. There’s always one out of the group that will attack you when you least expect it, however. If you attack the wrong one, all the burrowers will try to kill you, and they can be a rough fight.
In another level, you’re in a prison guarded by octopus-headed wizards that can (if you aren’t very quick) paralyze you and stab their proboscis into your brain, killing you in one hit most times.
I could go on. The point is that Demon’s Souls works very hard to never get old with its encounters, offering a challenge to your problem solving skills as much as your reflexes.
That goes double for its boss fights. Every single boss is an interesting challenge with a unique and striking visual design and, usually, a really clever gimmick akin to Yoshi’s Island or Metal Gear Solid. They’re also the high point of the whole game, with the previous level subtly teaching and preparing you in ways that you may not even realize until you beat it.
One of the best examples is the Tower Knight. He is a knight in full plate with a tower shield and a greatsword… and he’s thirty feet tall. Not helping are the eight or so crossbowmen up on a wall even higher than the knight. At first glance this looks impossible, but you just crossed a bridge guarded by quite a few dragons to get to this point so you know you got this. So you start by climbing the stairs and killing the crosssbowmen one by one. Then you deal with the big guy himself by hacking at his ankles, because that’s all you can really do. Eventually green gas starts coming from his wounds. The gas is highly flammable and will hurt the knight badly, which is great because the game has been (sometimes literally) throwing flammable items at you the whole level. When you burn his feet badly enough he’ll fall over. Then you can stab the knight in his big stupid head for massive damage. Do that enough while avoiding him squashing you like a bug and you did it! You are David killing Goliath. You are the Slayer of Demons and it feels fantastic… right up until you go to the next level and get crushed again. But even then, you know you can win because you’ve done it before.
That’s the beauty of Demon’s Souls’ difficulty curve. Demon’s Souls doesn’t give you more than you can handle, it just makes you think it does. If you’re patient and observant enough to get over the first hurdle (which is admittedly sadistically difficult for someone who hasn’t played a Souls game before. If you’re first starting, don’t feel bad about looking at the strategy guides) the game opens up and becomes nonlinear, meaning you can go to any of the five worlds as you please in a nice, Mega Man/Mario 64 style structure. This way you can hop around the worlds dabbling in whatever you like until you find your rhythm. When that happens, everything just sort of clicks into place. The challenge never goes away, but it becomes manageable and more about the joy of seeing the next crazy thing it throws at you.
Demon’s Souls is also no slouch in the audio/visual department either. Though it has aged poorly from a sense of sheer graphical power, it more than makes up for it in design. The different worlds present biomes as distinct as in any Mario game but tied together with a theme of bleakness and despair. That despair is broken up yet reinforced by by the grotesque and and varied creatures, each a twisted mockery of that land’s former glory.
The mood is helped even further by the first rate voice acting with authentic accents. While well written, no character really tugs at your heartstings like Solaire or Seigmeyer from Dark Souls. They’re well acted enough though (by many of the same actors), with enough pathos and humor that you don’t want any of the bad things that will inevitably happen to them to occur.
Except for Yurt. Screw that guy.
Just as important to the atmosphere, and probably the best thing about the game aside from the gameplay, is the music. It’s used very sparingly, only in the hubworld and the boss fights. The purpose for this is not telling you how to feel when exploring the various ruins, atrocities, and occasional human drama. That’s one likely reason why Souls games have so many different yet thorough interpretations on YouTube. When the boss fight comes, however, exploration time is over and the music goes all out with heavy brass and operatic vocals. More than any videogame, it reminds me of the music of Ennio Morricone (the composer for films like The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly and The Hateful Eight) if he did the soundtrack for Dungeons and Dragons.
The music structure, like the gameplay, and tone is absolutely brilliant and hasn’t aged a day in the ways that are really important. If not for its sequels, Demon’s Souls would still be undisputed as the pinnacle of what it tries to do; challenge the player in every way possible and keep them coming back for more. I can say without hyperbole that Demon’s Souls is one of the greatest videogames ever made.
The only real question is whether it’s better than Dark Souls, and that’s the topic for another whole retrospective article.