The Dark Souls series – and its sister title Bloodborne – have become so influential and acclaimed in the video game world that it often seems like people forget that the Souls series didn’t start with 2011’s Dark Souls, but with Demon’s Souls, released two years prior. Before Dark Souls became the all-encompassing influence on video game design in the 2010s, Demon’s Souls helped cap off the 2000s, opening the door for its spiritual successor to take charge in the new decade.
The video game world is no stranger to spiritual sequels to beloved titles, but its rare that a spiritual sequel completely eclipses its predecessor. Unfortunately for Demon’s Souls, that seems to be the case. Though Demon’s Souls remains a uniquely engaging experience, some of its more aged elements make it apparent why, whenever a game is dubbed “Souls-like,” people are comparing things to its spiritual successor, more so than Demon’s Souls itself.
Now, that’s not to say that Demon’s Souls didn’t have an impact. When it was released in 2009, it received widespread acclaim, and even won its share of Game of the Year awards. Some fans still hail it as the best (or second best) entry in the franchise (although I think that’s a stretch). But comparing Demon’s Souls to its successors is like comparing Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario World. The former may have laid the foundation, proved influential and still holds up in its own right, but it would be incredibly difficult to argue its merits over those of its sequel.
Granted, some might say my current perception of the game is slightly tainted by the fact that Demon’s Souls’ servers shut down in 2018, so there’s no interaction with other players. But during my most recent playthrough of the Switch version of Dark Souls Remastered, I barely summoned anyone to help me (and when I did, it was more out of the sheer surprise of actually seeing a summon sign – which seemed sadly rare in the Switch version – as opposed to requiring the help), and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I ever did. So I don’t think the lack of online features has clouded my judgement too much.
The difficulty of the series is something I’ve come to expect and embrace. But it has to be said that Demon’s Souls – perhaps as a result of being the first entry in the series and thus lacking the hindsight of its successors – lacks polish in a number of areas. While Dark Souls and Bloodborne could get excruciatingly difficult at times, I never felt cheated by them. But there are a couple of instances in Demon’s Souls where it feels like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware simply stacked challenge after challenge on top of each other, without researching whether or not it was fair to the player. No matter how difficult they got, I never felt like the Dark Souls games or Bloodborne were unfair. But I have to admit there were a few instances in Demon’s Souls where I felt my failures were the result of questionable game design, as opposed to my own error.
For a good example of what I mean, the game’s fourth stage – The Shrine of Storms – features flying manta ray enemies that shoot their stingers at you, which hone in on your character, no less. That’s not so bad in and of itself, but many of these manta ray enemies are far enough in the distance that they won’t be in your focus and will be off-screen. When things start tracking players from off-screen is when I start to lose my patience. Still, I could live with it. When this scenario went from difficult to aggravating, however, is when I’m expected to fight skeleton phantoms who can kill me in one hit, all while on a narrow ledge, while dozens of these manta rays are shooting their homing stingers at me from off-screen!
There’s a difference between a steep challenge, and just stacking one obstacle after another over each other to the point that it becomes unreasonable to the player. Dark Souls and Bloodborne would learn this lesson, so I suppose Demon’s Souls was a necessary test run for its follow-ups to improve on those elements. But it doesn’t change the fact that, when replaying Demon’s Souls, moments like this can sometimes kill the fun of the experience.
If I’m starting to sound a bit negative, it’s not because Demon’s Souls is a bad game. It’s just that, relative to its spiritual successors, it does show its age a bit. Again, I compare it to Super Mario Bros. in relation to Super Mario World. That’s hardly the kind of company to be ashamed of being in.
While the core gameplay remains largely the same as it would in future Souls titles (equipable weapons in both hands, light and heavy attack variants, a stamina meter to prevent you from constantly spamming attacks, lots of rolling, etc.), there are some key differences.
The first, and most obvious, would be the lack of an Estus Flask. In Dark Souls, the Estus Flask would serve as your permanent means of healing (starting with only five uses, but you can refill it by resting at a bonfire, and increase the total number of uses by boosting said bonfires). But here in Demon’s Souls, you have more traditional, consumable healing items (grass). This alone feels outdated by comparison. The Estus Flask – one of gaming’s greatest items – tells you exactly how many slip-ups you’re allowed to make before you reach the next bonfire. Its presence makes you able to strategize every section of the game accordingly. It’s the perfect item for the gameplay provided by the series. By comparison, the grass in Demon’s Souls can be a bit of a pain to build up. Sure, enemies will drop it pretty often, but until you make it to New Game+ or have improved your stats enough, they won’t drop it nearly enough to keep up with what most players will need. Yes, there are vendors in the game that can sell you these (and other) items – charging the player’s acquired souls in return (souls work as both experience points and currency, per the norm) – but again, until New Game + hits, these items often cost more souls than you can keep up with. So you’re often caught farming enemies for souls to buy items, only to be killed (often in one hit) while farming, thus losing the souls you’ve gathered thus far. Yes, as would become a staple of the series, you can reclaim your lost souls if you make it back to the spot you died, but if you get killed again on the way, they’re gone for good.
Again, this is a feature in Dark Souls and Bloodborne as well. But here in its initial incarnation, the concept isn’t nearly as well executed. Part of that is because the Estus Flask was the perfect companion piece to the way the series is set up. By relying on more traditional consumables, you often get caught in a cycle of farming to try to claim souls for more items, only to get killed before you can get enough souls because you don’t have any items to heal you. It’s true that Bloodborne also featured more traditional healing items, but Bloodborne also learned from Dark Souls’ bonfires (with lanterns being its equivalent), which means there were checkpoints to stop and heal.
That brings us to Demon’s Souls other big gameplay difference: there are no bonfires in Demon’s Souls as there would be in later games. Now, there is something of a predecessor in the form of swords in stones, called “Archestones,” but there are some key differences here that make these stones considerably less useful than Dark Souls’ bonfires or Bloodborne’s lanterns.
For one, the Archestones only appear after boss fights, making them far less frequent than their successors. Second, they don’t automatically heal you when touched, instead merely asking if you want to go back to the game’s hub world (dubbed “The Nexus”). Third, touching the stones does not respawn enemies like the later bonfires would. That may sound like it makes things easier, but it just makes it all more tedious. If you’re trying to get specific items from enemies, or just trying to farm souls, you have to touch an Archestone to go back to the Nexus, wait for the loading screen, then re-select the stage and Archestone of your choice, and sit through the loading screen again, in order to respawn enemies. So if you’re trying to gather specific items to craft a better weapon, you’re going to be at it for a while. Compare that to Dark Souls: You touch a bonfire, and bam, the enemies are back. It sounds like simple stuff, but it’s changes like this that make all the difference in the world.
It’s true, there are items that return you to the Nexus that you can use at any time. But the item you constantly have on you that does this takes you back at the expense of losing all your acquired souls, while the items that send you back without penalty are in short supply. It’s demanding, to say the least.
There are other, smaller differences between Demon’s Souls and its successors that showcase the former’s rough edges. Example: As would become tradition for the series, Demon’s Souls includes a poisonous swamp stage, where trudging through its waters is necessary, but will inevitably poison the player. However, in the later games in the series, a status bar will pop up on screen to show the poison building up until it takes effect. In Demon’s Souls, there is no visual cue. You won’t know when the poison will take effect until you’re poisoned. Similarly, Dark Souls informs the player when their weapon is close to breaking and needing repairs. But again, in Demon’s Souls, you won’t know until it happens. These are small issues, sure, but it does show how small visual and audio cues in games can really go a long way.
The biggest difference between Demon’s Souls and its successors, however, is in the structure of the game world itself. While Dark Souls onward would feature one connected world a la Metroidvania, Demon’s Souls instead has the Nexus serve as a hub, where the player can then access the game’s five proper stages, with each stage being separated into different segments, and each segment being capped off with a boss fight. Stages 2 through 5 have two proper segments, with a third that is mainly just the world boss, while stage 1 has four segments. Thankfully, you don’t have to completely finish a stage before moving onto the next (once the first boss is defeated, the other four stages become available), so there’s still some leeway for player’s to tackle the game at their own pace.
While I love the Metroidvania style adopted by Dark Souls and its kin, I also find myself enjoying Demon’s Souls more Mario 64-esque approach of having a hub world and stages. I honestly would not mind if FromSoftware adopted Demon’s Souls structure for another game, albeit with some of adjustments learned from the later games in the series (again, gotta love those bonfires).
One thing that’s surprising about Demon’s Souls is that, despite being the predecessor of Dark Souls featuring many of the same gameplay elements and a similar dark fantasy world, said fantasy world of Demon’s Souls still manages to feel so distinct from what came later.
The mythology here is that the kingdom of Boletaria has – under the king’s instruction – reawakened an ancient entity known simply as the ‘Old One’ in order to resurrect the “Soul Arts” the creature’s existence provides. The Soul Arts are a great power once known to Boletaria, but they came at a great price. Though the Old One’s presence grants mankind this power, it also unleashes a deep fog that encompasses the world, with soul-hungry demons existing within that fog. As the fog spreads, so too do the demons, who in turn transform humans into mindless monsters upon taking their souls. As you may have guessed, the king’s lust for the Soul Arts and awakening of the Old One has brought the fog back into the world, plunging it into chaos. Thus it’s up to the hero character to slay demons, and acquire ‘Demon Souls’ powerful enough to lull the Old One back into its slumber.
As always, further details of the game’s mythology are sprinkled throughout the level design and descriptions of characters and items. In some ways I may even like this mythology more than that of Dark Souls, but it’s a testament to Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s world-building abilities that Dark Souls became its own entity simply due to publishing issues preventing a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls, and yet both games feature such deep, unique worlds of their own.
It’s in its world where Demon’s Souls truly shines. Not just in that world building, but also in level and enemy design. While, as stated, the levels do feature some sections that don’t know the difference between a tough-but-fair challenge and mindlessly stacking obstacles on top of each other, the level and enemy designs on their own right remain as strong as any in the Souls games.
Despite my previously stated grievances, the fourth stage, Shrine of Storms, is probably my favorite. A dilapidated temple that looks like it was pulled out of a Team Ico title, filled with ghosts and surrounded by storms, capped off with those intriguing (if infuriating) flying manta rays. It’s an absolute beauty to look at. The other levels are similarly interesting. Stage 1 takes place entirely in Boletaria’s castle, stage 2 is a fiery mine filled with exploding beetles, and stage 3 is a dreary asylum run by Lovecraftian monsters (a concept that would be revisited and bettered in Dark Souls 3). Admittedly, the fifth stage is a little more of a mixed bag. I love the look of the first segment, which reminds me of Davy Jones’s ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but once that part is done and we move into the poisonous swamp, its a lot less appealing both in look and gameplay.
There is, unfortunately, one other weakness to Demon’s Souls that was removed from its successors: World Tendency.
Back in its day, Demon’s Souls featured both an online and offline mode to the World Tendency feature. Seeing as the online servers are no more, there’s not much point to address them here, but the offline equivalent – at any rate – is a convoluted mess. I just don’t understand it.
World Tendency describes the status of each stage. The different phases are pure white, white, black and pure black. From what I can gather (the game largely leaves the details unexplained), if the world tendency of a stage is in the white, your character is more durable to enemy attacks, making things slightly easier on you. But when a stage goes into the black, more enemies show up – including painfully difficult “black phantom” versions of enemies – but with the benefit of more frequent item drops and more souls granted from each foe.
Like in the later Souls games, once your character dies, you come back in ‘soul form,’ only here, that comes with reduced hit points. Once again, Dark Souls made the process of reclaiming your physical form a much more tolerable ordeal by means of the “humanity” item, which you give to bonfires to reclaim your body. In Demon’s Souls, you reclaim your ‘living’ state either by defeating a boss, or by using an item called “stones of ephemeral eyes.” The problem is there are only so many bosses per each level, and once defeated they won’t show up again in the same playthrough, and the stones of ephemeral eyes are – yet again – quite infrequent to find, with the sole enemy that drops them being found in the last section of stage 5. So unless you want to brave stage 5 early on and farm the heck out of its final section, you likely won’t have too many ephemeral eyes at any given time. Naturally, with how difficult the game is, this means you’ll likely be in your weakened soul state for most of your playthrough.
Why do I bring this up now? Because apparently dying in your physical state on a given level is how that level falls into the black in World Tendency. I guess dying in your soul form doesn’t affect a stage, but the more times you die in your physical form, the darker the level gets, and you can only reclaim it by progressing through the level and defeating its bosses. But think about that for a second, there are only so many bosses, so if you’ve completed a stage but want to revisit it to farm some enemies, but you end up dying numerous times, the level will fall into the black and there’s nothing you can do about it for the remainder of the playthrough.
So basically, we have an incredibly difficult game, that gets more difficult upon defeat, and only gives you a few chances to set it back to normal. Demon’s Souls is essentially punishing the player for its own difficulty in this regard. It’s this convoluted World Tendency mechanic that sums up how far the series has come since Demon’s Souls. Hell, just going from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls 1 feels like a night and day difference.
I know, I’m sounding incredibly negative, but I stress again that Demon’s Souls is a good game in its own right. And back in 2009, when there was nothing else like it, it’s easy to understand why it may have seemed so incredible. But now that we live in 2020 and have an entire trilogy of Dark Souls and the exceptional Bloodborne, it’s impossible to not see the rough edges of FromSoftware’s initial Souls outing.
Yes, the gameplay is still intricate and deep, the world and level design are still engrossing, and even when it pulls some cheap tricks, there’s some weird sensation to keep at it and push yourself ever further in Demon’s Souls. But just because Demon’s Souls laid down the blueprint doesn’t mean its successors didn’t perfect it. And boy, did they ever do just that.
While Demon’s Souls may have launched one of the greatest video game franchises out there, it has to be said that it now feels like the rough draft of the winning formula that was to come.