Moving into the next stage of my quest to defeat all the games I own, I knew the first game I conquered had to be a statement piece. Something that would make all the other games of this generation, who had been previously watching from the sidelines, quake in fear knowing the unstoppable domination that was coming for them. It was very purposeful that the first game of this generation I chose to target was perhaps the harbinger of a wave of pointedly very difficult games, Demon’s Souls.
I did a bit of research online before diving into this game. From what I understood, the goal of this game was to ‘git gud’. Every single challenge everyone brought up was met with the command from other players to simply git more gud. So by my understanding, as you defeat the challenges throughout the game, you collect more and more gud, and once you collect enough of this ‘gud’, the magic governing this world then transforms your player character into an amazing asshole that posts on the internet without providing anything of value.
Hmm… maybe I’m halfway there already.
Luckily, playing the game, I found that the internet has a very different understanding of the game than what it actually has to offer.
Demon’s Souls is Dark Souls’ somewhat less cool older brother. I love the Souls series’ design philosophy, the idea of building a huge challenge, but having it all centered around the idea that no matter how skilled a player they are, with enough preparation, practice, and patience, anyone can beat any challenge therein. That’s absolutely interesting to me. Things are absolutely tough in Demon’s Souls. At no point is success a given, and there are always true threats available. But everything is made to be overcome. Things are hard, but never overwhelming.
Demon’s Souls also carries with it a very interesting variation in combat design too, one that did carry over to later games. In nearly every combat oriented game out there, offense is key. In most games, your main advantage over AI characters is not that you’re better equipped or innately stronger than they are, although that is often true. It’s that you’re more aggressive than they are. You will launch more attacks per unit of time as one person than they will as a whole horde. You will attack while dodging. You will attack while navigating obstacles. You will attack while maneuvering between cover. You will attack when you wake up, when you eat your breakfast, when you brush your teeth, when you go to work, and every single moment throughout your day, your attacks are key.
Demon’s Souls turns that on its head. You ability to avoid absorbing attacks is absolutely paramount. If you go in on the offense, you will eat it and you will eat it hard. You’ve got a lot of options for defense. Block, parry, dodge, use range, use your environment, shove them before they attack, whatever. Against nearly every appropriately leveled opponent, even after you’ve learned their movesets, you still always need to make sure you have your ability to avoid damage set and know that it’s safe before you can attack without dooming yourself. It ends up being a whole different kind of mental game.
If you’ve been around people waxing philosophical on video games long enough, you may have heard that there’s two elements of a game’s difficulty, challenge (the demands on the players skills in reactions to situations) and punishment (costing the player something in reaction to failure). Usual consensus is that challenge is good, and punishment is bad. The Souls series, starting with Demon’s Souls here, does some interesting things with punishment, however. You have your souls, the combination experience points/money of the game world. If you die, you drop them, and you have to make it at least as far as where you died in your next run to retrieve them. If you die without getting them back, they’re gone forever. Usually when games look at punishment, the punishment is some variety of wasting your time. And that’s the case here, too. You lose your souls, and you have to spend time grinding them back up again for your next level up or whatever you were going to do. Here though, I think it actually adds something to the game. Moreso than in later souls games, even. The challenges before you are almost always consistent each run, so if you’ve made it so far, you have the ability to do so again. And it does change the way you play. It encourages that defensive playstyle, and makes your deaths feel like they have more meaning than they would otherwise. There’s real consequence attached to your failure, but you still have the ability to mitigate it, and I feel that leads to a more attentive and careful play then you’d find in many other games.
The other punishments the game doles out don’t really fare so well, however. Most of your items are consumable, whereas all your enemies repopulate if you fall. You’ll hear a lot of people complain about having difficulty with healing items, but that was never an issue for me. I got enough naturally that I ended the game with 99 of the full heal items and several dozen of the even more powerful healers. This game gets way more heat for this than Bloodborne, whereas I found Bloodborne way more frustrating in that regard. Other items, though, you couldn’t really build a strategy around, because if you were using them, only to fall to a strong boss later on, you basically consumed them for nothing. Having your max HP reduced by half when you died in human form seemed ridiculous, and stung a lot, until you got far enough into the game to realize that it’s actually balanced towards that half HP number, and being in human form was actually a bonus rather than soul form being a debuff. Then there’s the world tendency system, but that’s so esoteric that you’re better off not paying attention to it, especially now that the multiplayer servers are down.
The worst punishment, though, was the checkpoint system. And I feel this has always been a weakness of the Souls series, that once you die, it takes a long time to get yourself back to where you were. Again, punishment by wasting time. And that burned me worse than anything else. I think Demon’s Souls is the worst game in the Souls series for it, too. Starting with Dark Souls, and the more continuous world they built there, maps would constantly loop back towards checkpoints, and unlockable shortcuts were common, so although bonfires weren’t exactly interspersed between levels, once you got far enough, you could in effect start from partway through the area rather than having to go from the beginning every time. Not so in Demon’s Souls. Shortcuts are present but very rare. Every time you die, you are going all the way back to the beginning of the level, set to fight through all the random enemies you could almost do in your sleep for no other reason than just wasting your time as punishment. This was always my least favorite part of the Souls series, and even though they hang on to it so much, even though its a really common feature in their mimickers, even though it’s become emblematic of their style, I feel the Souls games are strong in spite of this rather than because of it.
I had an interesting experience with this game’s challenge. It definitely earns its reputation as a hard game. It’s tough. But most of the time, it’s tough in a way that you have the tools to deal with. It’s very rarely unfair. Again, it has that philosophy that everyone should be able to overcome any challenge. And that comes through in a very lovely manner. But you can also tell this was the first game in the series, and that later games built off of it’s challenge.
Which is to say, I came in with the skills I very publicly honed in Dark Souls, and I crushed this game. I’d say almost half the boss fights, I beat in my first shot. Some of the more infamous ones, such as the Flamelurker, the Maneaters, the Penetrator, they took me a couple goes, but really, it was amazing to see just how far my skills could take me. It didn’t feel like these were easy, I definitely earned those victories, but after the likes of Manus, Artorias, and the Blood-Starved Beast in later games, taking the skills I picked up in battle there back to here carried me a long way. In fact, there were only two bosses I considered potential stopping points; the Armored Spider, as it took me a long while to learn its mechanics, and the grandaddy boss himself, Old King Allant. The later actually did feel like a challenge consistent with some of the ones in the later games, a wall I crashed against several times over, and it was one I particularly enjoyed making my slow headway against. Unfortunately, though, the checkpoint issues reared their head with him, as he was at the end of at least a ten minute trip to get to, and my patience, considerable as it is, didn’t stretch to making that trip the dozens of times over it would have taken me to beat him, the rate I was going. I would have loved to pitch myself in battle against him the way I did against the Dark Souls greats, but because of the checkpoint issues, I used an exploit and just poisoned him to death while he stood there so I wouldn’t have to waste my time anymore. It’s really a shame, that could have been one of the highest moments in the game if it didn’t come with so much of the wasted time punishment.
Demon’s Souls, as the first of the Souls series, is obviously lacking a bit of the polish of later games. There’s some things it tries that later games excised, and some things it doesn’t quite hit on the bullseye that the series has later become known for. One of the latter examples comes in with the game’s storytelling. One of my favorite things about the series is how it always has these deep and intricate backstories and settings, but it’s incredibly opaque, told only in hints and vagueries. They have very interesting backgrounds, but it takes a lot of mental work to put it all together, and that work builds a lot of attachment with the story. In the case of Demon’s Souls… well, it tries. You can see the little bits and pieces there in the area descriptions, a few characters, and the visuals of a handful of bosses, but overall, there’s just not enough hints to the story behind the world we’re playing to make the world feel as alive as Dark Souls and Bloodborne did. It’s like they had the right ideas of how to deliver this part of the experience, they knew they wanted the opaque storytelling, but they went too opaque with it, to the point that there’s just not enough there to connect the strands, to explore, to mental map the story cues. And that’s a shame, but I can understand why they’d need some practice in order to hit it right.
Overall, I did have a really pleasant time with Demon’s Souls. And that’s not something I thought I’d say about a game as brutal as those in the Souls series, but it feels really apt here. Later games did make it obsolete in absolute terms, so if you’re looking to get into the Souls series, this probably isn’t where I’d recommend starting, but it’s still a solid game on its own merits.