Deep into the Darkness: A Demon’s Souls Retrospective

March 2, 2013

Demon’s Souls. For some the name instils fear, conjuring up repressed memories of demonic terrors and soul crushing brutality. But for others, Demon’s Souls is more a ‘title’, one that resonates with the qualities originality, confidence, and bold direction. Irrespective of which side of the fence you sit, one thing is certain: perhaps no game this generation is better deserving of the title “cult classic” than Demon’s Souls.

Though no strangers to original game design, it was Demon’s Souls that arguably put Japanese developer From Software in the spotlight, especially here in the English speaking world. It might have taken almost a year to hit the United States, and almost a year and a half before a local Australian release, but from the moment it was available the gaming community could not stop talking. Sure, the hair raising intensity and relentlessly difficult fights were the common topics of conversation, but it was enduring quality of deeply intelligent game design and emphasis on player agency that had gamers so enthralled with From’s dark gothic horror odyssey. From the simple satisfaction of slowly exploring haunted ruins, to epic endurance battles against towering monstrosities, there seemed to be a certain something to Demon’s Souls that made it nigh impossible to put down.

Earlier this year Sony Computer Entertainment celebrated the Demon’s Souls legacy by re-releasing the game on their digital PlayStation Network service for PlayStation 3, and for the very affordable price of AU$19.99. Though Sony provided us access to the title, we thought “Do we really need another review?”. There’s so many out there already, what’s one more? So instead we looked to the community. We’ve collected your feedback, sapped your memories, and forged a compendium of thoughts and opinions. These are your experiences with Demon’s Souls, and how you remember it.

And to celebrate the series we’ve gone full circle. As you’ve all reflected on the past, resident Rocket Chainsaw writer Tim Norman has provided his own running commentary as a first time Demon’s Souls player, making good use of that digital copy.

Enjoy! And thanks to all for their contributions.

Tim Norman – Rocket Chainsaw Writer

Before I came into the recent PSN release of Demon’s Souls, I had never played the game that so captured the hearts of critics everywhere when it launched in 2009. I went in looking forward to finding out what made the game such a critical darling. As I started playing through the tutorial, I found myself looking forward to getting engrossed in the game’s world. I forced myself to learn the game’s idiosyncratic control scheme, knowing that it would be the key to success later on. I was going to like the shit out of this game.

At some point, however, I realised that something was wrong. I simply wasn’t actually having any fun. As I played further, suffering death after death after stupidly frustrating death, I began to analyse why I wasn’t having fun. Was it the difficulty being too high? I can slice my way through the Ninja Gaiden series without too much trouble, and I have no problems spending an hour or two blasting through any one of Cave’s bullet hell shooters. So it can’t be that.

What about the setting? It’s one of those relentlessly dark fantasy worlds where nothing good ever seems to happen to anyone. As you fight your way through you encounter other characters, but they all seem to look down on you, and never make it feel like you’re anything other than alone in the world. I don’t think this is it either. While it’s certainly no Game of Thrones in terms of setting, I liked the backstory to the game.

Eventually, I figured it out. I wasn’t having fun with Demon’s Souls because the alleged difficulty is really just being used as an excuse for bad design choices. The controls are the worst offender here. There’s nothing wrong with using a different control scheme if it’s going to help your game. In this case, however, all it serves to do is confuse players, who have to unlearn long-standing muscle memory just to swing a sword. There’s no real reason for the setup other than to free up face buttons for functions that should be on the shoulder buttons anyway.

Then there’s the camera, which adds to the game’s difficulty by always picking the right angle in which to best obscure the next enemy that’s otherwise directly in front of you. Moving it around can help, but it still often gets stuck on walls or obstacles, and more than one of my deaths was due to the camera obscuring an enemy that I later had to remember was there.

Demon’s Souls does have on really unique and cool party piece, however. While the game is a single-player game at heart, it uses online features to offer guidance and help to you. As you play, you’ll see shadows of other players around you, taking on invisible enemies or clearing puzzles. There are also glowing notes on the ground, like some kind of fantasy graffiti. While most of these notes are useless (“Help me (please rate)” seemed to be the most common), some (“Look right” at the entrance to a room) can be life-saving. There’s also bloodstains that appear, marking the place where other players came to yet another death. Activating these will replay how that player died so you can, hopefully, avoid their fate.

As cool as it is, however, the online features aren’t enough from saving Demon’s Souls for me. While I can understand that it’s an uncompromising and unique game, that isn’t enough to protect it from the fact that it misses out in the execution. Perhaps if the controls were easier to get to grips with, or the camera worked, or it didn’t take two minutes to load anything (seriously, even with the PSN version, the game’s load times are ridiculous), I might have had more fun. If you’re willing to look past some very flawed design, maybe you will have some fun, too.

Demon’s Souls just isn’t the game for me.

grim-one – Technical Admin

Demon’s Souls
Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Dying.

Demon’s Souls is hard, everyone knows it. Any creature will lay you low for the slightest inattention. The environments alone will kill you. You’re open to invasion by players with less than pure intentions. You will die, suddenly and often.

Once you accept dying you will make progress. You lose a few souls in hand, maybe a couple of liquid humanity. So what? You still have your equipment, your stat points. You reset to an earlier point in the level, but you’ll grow familiar.

The game becomes a kind of mantra. You have the gear you need, the perfect stats. You repeat will sections of the game, making your path more efficient. It is about speed. Jumping down this mineshaft means I don’t have to spend minutes trekking through cramped, beetle infested, labyrinthine tunnels. You misjudge a jump and die. But next time you’ll get it.

You will edge your way closer to victory over the Gargoyles and Firelurker. They’ll kill you in one blow, but you learn to roll, dodge and block. Perhaps you find some level geometry that the AI doesn’t quite grasp. It gives you an edge. A sticky bow becomes your best friend. Your tower shield, an impenetrable wall of resolve. Your lightning spear, a trailblazer to your next Soul.

But you will die. And you will like it.

GooberMan – Community Member

Back in my day, with my Pac Mens and my Ghosts ‘n Goblins, death from brutally hard Japanese games was expected. Nay, it was welcome. We would die over and over again, all the while saying, “Thank you sir, may I have another?” And then something strange happened – Doom redefined gaming and popularised the save key. Who needed checkpoints or passwords when you could quickload?

It took almost 18 years for Japanese developers to remind me that we loved the pain. After all, what was the reward for all that pain years ago? New areas. Nothing beats that new area feel after being tortured. And Demon’s Souls is just full of wonderful new areas. New skills. New bosses. New things that would torture you gleefully until you worked out how to kill it. Taking down the dragon was finally worth running to your siblings again to brag.

18 years has passed though, and thanks to online there’s an even better element of torture – internet trolls. Did anyone ever follow the “Jump here” notes I left at the edge of a cliff? Maybe they saw the ghost of someone else doing it. Maybe they had the ever-growing community wikis open on that antiquated laptop thing to see whether they should jump there or not.

Demon’s Souls would be a fantastic achievement in modern video gaming, if it wasn’t for the fact that Dark Souls did everything significantly better. But if you crave more torture, well, start at the Nexus.

MacGyver Speedwagon – Community Member

Brutal and insanely challenging. You are given a brief introduction to the world – then before you start your quest from the Nexus, you are taught the most valuable lesson of all. You are at the bottom of the dog pile… and you will die. I would not consider myself an elite gamer; I fudge my way through most games with little to no real effort. Punt a grenade here. Summon some rats there. And if all else fails. Cheese it. Demon’s Souls presents the player with a gauntlet. It is hard as nails. It is never easy. You will die over… and over… and over again. Eventually you will stop getting exasperated at yourself. You will stop trying to blame game mechanics. And you will have no other option than to actually get good at the game. It’s harsh – but its fair. If you are better than your opponent – you will come out on top. This is not a casual gamers game. You play it because you want to conquer it. And once you do, you will feel a satisfaction rarely felt having completed any other.

Stoneroth – Community Member

I managed to grow up somewhat unscathed from the brutality of video games. I lacked the means to play many games and was also largely ignorant to the medium. Moving forward, time passed and the game industry seemed to start taking a direction towards providing an experience rather than challenging and satisfying gameplay, but why not have both?

Demon’s Souls offered me an experience that I felt I couldn’t find anywhere else. The game’s atmosphere was dark and gritty and filled with only the haunting sounds of ambience, imminent death and tortured NPCs. This combined with the game’s relentless difficulty made exploring Boletaria utterly engrossing. The game killed me over and over yet I would always come back for more.

Progression in Demon’s Souls was also filled with tremendous satisfaction, whether it was discovering information about the world and it’s inhabitants, stumbling upon a secret or shortcut or taking down a boss approximately 10 times my size.

The Souls games are now what I compare other games to, nothing has lived up since.

Denny Markovic – Community Manager

It’s still one of the best things made since the Fleshlight.