Since 2009 I have had a problem – I like being killed.
Okay, that isn’t strictly true. I like being killed by overpowered beasties in difficult to navigate areas, only to be re-spawned and proceed to fight back to the arena and slice the monster into equal pieces. You may have guessed what I’m talking about here: the renowned Souls series.
The Souls games have become synonymous with difficulty and ‘rage quitting’ and continue – to this day – to be the bane and unreachable Mecca of gamers the world over. This is due to difficult boss levels, convoluted leveling up systems, claustrophobic surroundings – by either space or usage of light – and weak starting characters who have pronounced weaknesses and ‘strengths.’
Demon’s Souls is FromSoftware’s first Souls game, which pitted the player against night unbeatable enemies, many of whom were grotesque masses and possessed suits of armour. The game encouraged an economy which forced the player to make tough decisions and to contemplate each move with quiet deliberation.
Demon’s Souls was released in a time where gamers were being exposed to extensive open-worlds, multiple-choice based quests and integral character development. It offered none of the hand-holding that many gamers had become accustomed to, instead delivering a gruelling experience which was largely linear, paved with two-dimensional characters and one-track conversational lines – why then do we still revere it and its successors as pioneers of video games?
At first glance, the Souls series hasn’t changed a great deal. Its idiosyncratic control scheme, testing economy and the majority of items that the player can find within the game, have largely remained the same since 2009.
The most noticeable difference is the atmosphere of the Souls games, which evolved in a way that no-one could have predicted. Even with the latest instalment – Dark Souls 3 – the contrast could not be any more noticeable. There are a number of reasons for this, chief among them is the fact that Demon’s Souls feels more open-ended and ‘free’ than its successors.
Demon’s Souls is often viewed as, a linear game which is comprised of stages in comparison to its descendants, which are seen to offer ‘open’ expanses that leave the choice right in the player’s hands.
Once the player has passed the first level, however this couldn’t be further from the truth, the player is faced with three different choices – via the Nexus – and afforded the decision in which order to challenge each stage. This can often lead the player to an area of overpowered creatures who are extremely difficult to defeat. I don’t remember Dark Souls offering that many options at such an early stage.
Let’s take a look at how the magic systems work. There are two types of magic: Spells and Miracles. Spells are generally viewed as ‘offensive’ magic, whereas Miracles are viewed as ‘defensive’ magic. The spells system may seem simple enough but working out how to actually cast magic is a deliciously difficult affair.
Miracles require a Talisman to cast while Spells require a catalyst; discovering the location of either item is not explained and you can easily spend a few hours looking at the magic metre and hoping for comprehension. The health system makes Demon’s Souls a comparatively terrifying place to begin with.
There is no doubt that Dark Souls has its fair share of difficult bosses (I’m thinking of a certain lightning and hammer duo), where you could use all of your healing items, die and be re-spawned with a full cache again. Demon’s Souls isn’t so forgiving.
You can use a dozen-plus HP items on a boss, only to die and lose them forever, which results in you being left at a greater disadvantage for the next encounter. It’s this mechanic which makes even trying to practice a boss – in order to learn its attack pattern – potentially disastrous.
In addition to Demon’s Souls being bigger, scarier and more convoluted and labyrinthine than that of the Dark Souls games, it’s also visually refined in a way that is more consistent than either of its successors.
Despite what its title suggests, Dark Souls’ world is a great deal lighter than that of Demon’s Souls, offering sun-kissed palaces and wide vistas with high-visibility in contrast to dimly lit, cramped locales. The dim locales in Demon’s Souls make the environment harder to navigate and therefore increases the overall difficulty.
The distance between checkpoints also serves to ensure you give the game the fullest commitment, as some of the levels are exceptionally long and you can spend upwards of half-an-hour navigating towards the next checkpoint. This serves to make the game much more grueling and forces you to consider every last option before acting which is a feature that is lacking in subsequent installments of the series.
I have personally trudged through half an hour of beastie-after-beastie while looking for a checkpoint, only to be confronted with an exceptionally difficult enemy which I must defeat in order to obtain the checkpoint or fear losing all of the progress gained to that point. Grueling is the definition I would assign to this situation.
Demon’s Souls is a far more alien and startling game than its Namco-published successors. It switches mechanics on the fly more than any of the other Souls titles nowhere is this more apparent than when viewing its veritable roster of bosses. From time to time, some of Demon’s Souls more monolithic creatures are comparatively weaker than their smaller counterparts – appearances do not mean everything in Demon’s Souls.
This becomes shockingly apparent in the ‘finale’, where the final boss is ‘the old one’, who is a morose and timid creature in need of a swift end. There are times in Demon’s Souls where you are struck with a sense of pity and sympathy for the many denizens which roam the map, corrupting or killing all who dare to venture closer.
I have enjoyed Dark Souls for many years and will continue to, for many years to come, but I feel that smashing and slicing my way through the colossal landscapes feels mundane at times and without character. The combat is still as solid as it always has been and the world(s) remain engaging, but I can’t help but yearn for the unique quality of Demon’s Souls.
Be it; the boss who re-spawns infinitely unless forced to become mortal – therefore killable, or the NPC who appears to be harmless and in distress but actually progresses to murder some of the game’s most important NPC’s in horrific and unimaginable ways.
I hope that Dark Souls 4 or Bloodborne 2 will rekindle my love for the series and surprise me in a way that even Demon’s Souls has not done before. I want a Souls game which ceases with vanilla, hand-holding experiences and delivers me a true demon slaying foray with no compassion or forgiveness.
Until then, you can find me in Boletaria – “I wonder where this fog leads to…”