|Sony Interactive Entertainment
|November 12, 2020
I was late to the PS3 party, purchasing mine in 2010 when I could buy God of War 3 and the God of War Collection and play through the entire franchise within a few short weeks. Because I was so far behind, I managed to snag several of the console’s greatest hits at bargain prices: Tekken 6, the first two Uncharted games, and Heavenly Sword were among my acquisitions. I cannot remember when Demon’s Souls caught my attention. Yet if I were compelled to fabricate how I ascertained its knowledge of its existence, I likely caught wind that it was fashioned after the excruciating difficulty of classic western CRPGs like Gothic.
In my own old-man-yells-at-cloud kind of way, over the years I have resisted comparing games to its multiplatform sequel, Dark Souls, because Demon’s Souls came first. It was a PlayStation exclusive, and thus far remains as such. Now, alongside Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a remake of the PS3 classic takes its place as a PS5 launch title. Those unfamiliar with the original are in for a treat.
I played Demon’s Souls for the first time on PS3 when I was still in my militant newly-Christian phase, all hellfire and brimstone, thumping the book of Romans in my Bible. I felt some kind of way while playing a game with the word “demons” in it. Since then, I have matured significantly in my faith, discovering that Jesus is greater than the things that men fear.
Not everyone reading this shares my theological worldview. Those individuals would want to know that slaying demons and absorbing their souls to increase in power is fundamental to Demon’s Souls’ gameplay cycle. The realm of Boletaria is a fantasy setting, so players should prepare for dungeons and dragons. Forreal—mind flayers are a formidable foe who cast AOE paralysis spells on their victims before snacking on their prey’s brains, while the dragon revealed in the opening cinematic appears as a “boss.” Those who are wary of casting spells may choose to cast miracles instead, a benefit of pumping stat points into faith.
As those acquainted with this franchise know, the player-character will die many, many, many times. Players can experience immolation, impalement, brutal backstabs, or good old-fashioned death by falling from elevation. Blood is actually minimal, contrary to what the game’s M-rating might suggest. The sound effects from bludgeoning enemies with blunt instruments or slashing them with blades signify porous quantities of blood, but the red stuff appears principally in drips. In fact, the largest pools of blood generate only to indicate where the player or another has previously died.
I would argue that the M rating for Demon’s Souls is the equivalent of the R rating for The Matrix. Well, except that this game lacks profanity of any kind. There is not even so much as a kiss!
More than the difficulty, what frustrated me most during my PS3 Demon’s Souls playthrough was the abstract method in which the game delivered its story. The 2020 remake makes no changes in this regard. Fortunately, I have the benefit of a comprehensive wiki page to make heads from tails. A creature of immense power called the Old One was once sealed away by entities called Monumentals, who remind me of the Golden Child. They then divided the realms so that they could only be accessed via Archstone from a suspended dimension called the Nexus. To bring prosperity to his lands, a foolish king bargains with this Old One. Instead, it brings forth doom in the shape of a fog; with it comes a demonic invasion. Of course, the player takes up the task of vanquishing this evil.
True to its predecessor, Demon’s Souls remake delivers its story abstractly. NPCs offer a cryptic sentence here, a mysterious line there. If it were not for my prior knowledge of a mechanic like World Tendency, I might have missed several items, events, and encounters. Therefore, the game reprises its disdain for hand-holding.
To an extent, this approach works due to the game’s linearity. However, Demon’s Souls’ infamous difficulty works against both its linearity and its reticence to provide hints. Yes, getting blown up during the first, second, third…umpteenth encounter with a new enemy or boss is part of the core experience in a Souls game; likewise is basking in the satisfaction from conquering these obstacles and successfully carrying a horde of souls to the Maiden in Black in exchange for RPG-like stat upgrades, with the cost of each point increasing the requisite number of souls.
Yet, getting blown up for the umpteeth time is not necessarily fun. “Git Gud” has become a meme slogan for the Souls fandom, but as I have matured in my theology since I played Demon’s Souls on the PS3, so, too, has the gaming industry evolved in what defines gameplay balance between difficulty and rewarding gameplay. Over the past decade, “soulslike” has become its own sub-genre, and its contenders have been providing faster, tighter moment-to-moment gameplay, and incremental rewards for successful runs and failures alike. Dark Devotion, Death’s Gambit, Salt and Sanctuary, Dead Cells, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice are just a few examples.
I felt that I could most accurately discern the quality of the Demon’s Souls remake by reprising Ilkar’s famous faith build—a paladin wielding a blessed meridian hammer, regenerator’s ring, and Adjucator’s Shield, all providing passive HP heals per second. This time, however, I would not prematurely begin new game+ before farming enough faintstone in the Valley of Defilement, which hosts the most difficult first area in Demons’s Souls. Acquiring sufficient faintstone and colorless demon souls to upgrade my Adjucator’s Shield was arduous. By the time I completed my faith build, exhausting all the colorless demon’s souls that I could acquire in a single run, I felt that I may as well have sought a generic warrior build.
I could kill most basic enemies in just a few blows, while enemies that could withstand my offensive volleys, such as a certain Old King, were strong enough such that my passive heal was too small to matter even after all my MacGuffin hunting. Rather than standing and fighting as was my intention, shielding up while waiting for my regeneration to serve its purpose, I was better off taking flight toward a corner to gorge myself with healing grasses before sustaining a fatal blow. Not even the second chance (revival) miracle seemed useful, because it activates without warning, and I would only notice it had been triggered after my character dies, and I notice that the enchantment’s icon in the HUD is absent.
That is my PvE experience. The healing from my faith build seemed more useful in PvP. Indeed, the invasion/invader mechanics have returned, though only once during my entire playthrough did anyone inconvenience me with an intrusion when I was just trying to mind my business. Of course, there are two reasons for this; first, PS5s are, at the time of this writing, still hard to come by, so YMMV in terms of multiplayer shenanigans; second, I spent most of my time playing while hollow so that I could achieve White World Tendency easier (Black World Tendency is easier to maintain: just die a bunch of times with a live body, or go on an NPC-murdering rampage).
For those who wish to roleplay like me, Demon’s Souls still severely penalizes players for wearing heavy armor, so good luck fighting the famous Flamelurker as a fully-armored paladin without being able to roll with celerity. Once again, for him and the “final” boss, I summoned white phantoms for allies. Experimenting as a back phantom, I managed to sabotage a handful of players and their white phantom friends. Trolling players in this way gives me no pleasure; I invaded to test the servers for review purposes, though my teenage son, who enjoys some good schadenfreude, giggled with disconcerting glee as my query once rolled himself from a top a cliff while desperately trying to elude me as his white phantom partners looked on, dumbfounded. We will not discuss what happened when I found someone carrying around an oversized OHKO-type weapon.
The most offensive part of Demon’s Souls, though, is the music. I cannot recall a more egregious violation of a beloved video game’s soundtrack. It is no small secret that the original Demon’s Souls was developed on a shoestring budget, and was not well-received in Japan, but in the West. Shunsuke Kida pulled off a modern miracle with the original soundtrack, creating a masterpiece comprising of a few brilliantly-utilized instruments and synthetic arrangements.
Armed with a much larger budget, Bluepoint remastered the soundtrack with a full, London-based orchestra. But the real cost is Demon’s Souls losing its thematic tone. Bluepoint has replaced the creepy, grotesque, minimalist, and downright weird feel of the original OST with bombastic fanfare. The majority of the new tracks are barely recognizable, mostly stripped of their refrains, which are the most memorable element in a song. It is completely missing from the new version of “Phalnax,” leaving only the bridge for fans to notice from its original. The new “Maiden Astrea” begins promisingly for its first ninety seconds, but then escalates into final boss-style music, betraying what actually happens when players encounter her. Likewise, the modern “Flamelurker” is a complete mood miss compared to its inspiration; admittedly, when the refrain finally does kick in at an excessive one-hundred and forty seconds deep into the song, for a mere twenty-five seconds, it finally delivers a fantastic rendition of its famous leitmotif. Another fan favorite, “Maiden in Black,” takes ninety seconds to begin sounding anything remotely like what fans expect to hear while in the Nexus; gone are the extensive, contemplative pauses between chords that provide an aura of gloom mixed with respite. The best parts of the new version begin at the three-minute mark, but with an incorrect tempo.
This is not to say that the soundtrack is bad. “Fool’s Idol,” “Armor Spider,” and “The One Who Craves Souls” are improvements over their originals, but the most popular songs are just…wrong. If this were Bloodborne or Dark Souls III, it might be appropriate.
The best part about the Demon’s Souls’ remake is its graphics. Players have the option of choosing between 4K mode and a high frame rate mode. I choose high frames, and if the game displayed at a lower resolution on my OLED, I could hardly tell. Smooth animations and a comprehensive facelift of an already iconic art direction await those fortunate enough to secure a PS5. But because of its difficulty, I would recommend that new console owners first try out the exclusive that is enjoyable at all times, rather than most, or some of the time, Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Then, when Harlem has been saved, gamers can double-back to grind through the trip down memory lane that is Demon’s Souls.
The Bottom Line
Demon’s Souls offers a functional replication of the PS3 game classic, featuring more improvements than downgrades.