When we look back to this generation from the next From Software's Demon's Souls and Dark Souls will be two of the revolutionary games we put on a pedestal. Their online innovations, their return to the punishing days of yore, their atmosphere, their refined and precise gameplay. Those things, and that in a time when the "games as art" is being pushed harder and harder, and story is becoming more and more important, they reminded us that it doesn't have to be.
Demon's Souls managed to get gamers' and critics' attention alike, but it wasn't always as positive. Dark Souls got more people's attention, and while it wasn't always positive, the positive stuff seemed to be a lot louder compared to Demon's Souls. Both games sold well and found their audiences, albeit Dark Souls sold better and reached a larger audiences. Why though, does Dark Souls seem to be so much more loved than Demon's Souls? What does it do better?
This debate won't be unlike a Super Castlevania IV vs. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night dispute, which is fitting, because the Souls series isn't unlike how I envision what a 3D Castlevania should be. Dark Souls features the Metroidvania style of Symphony of the Night with its open world, while Demon's Souls features more linearity akin to the original Castlevania and a Mega Man-like hub world. Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages. It would seem the interconnected world of Dark Souls is preferred. It's odd to me that in a time when time is of the essence to everyone, that the slower open world treks from one end to the other are the preferred route. Of course the type of gamers that are going to enjoy the Souls games are sure to have time on their hands. Still, in order to decide to pursue a different angle on advancing through Dark Souls or even just to find a shop owner, I have to go back the way I came, and fight through the hordes of baddies I had just struggled to make it past. Dark Souls does do a good job with the shortcuts, but even so, these journeys can be treacherous and time consuming.
In Demon's Souls I merely have to hit an archstone at the beginning of each area to be brought to the nexus, where I can buy, sell and store items, level up, as well as pick a level to tackle next. It's convenient and fast. Load times may break the immersion and it also loses the popular metroidvania gameplay element. However, I believe Demon's Souls to offer the best of both worlds. It has the linearity of Super Castlevania IV, but each level once completed in a world is connected to the other until the end of that world. There are also several secret areas and world tendency events that beg you to return to those worlds even after their completion, giving Demon's Souls that reason to go back motif that defines a lot of metroidvania.
Demon's Souls and Dark Souls' level and world design feel very well thought out. Both have thoughtful shortcuts, hidden paths, and nooks for loot as well as nooks for hiding. There is an atmosphere in the air of these games, and everything comes together to make it so. The artistic direction is quite similar in both games, but it's easy to see why Dark Souls has its name and Demon's Souls has its name. Dark Souls is more often than not, really dark. The color palette is darker, the places you go are darker, and even the brightest of areas are often dark. Demon's Souls is deceptively bright in some areas. It has plenty of its own dark spots, but the brighter areas bring hope, however false it may be. For third person games the everything works to immerse the players into their experiences. The haunting and epic music, the ambient noises, and disturbing sounds of a blade cutting through flesh, bone and armor all just ramp up the immersion. Suffice it to say that both games feature great, distinct and often disgusting senses of style and atmosphere, but as you may have guessed I like Demon's Souls' warped senses a bit more.
Boss battles are another big part of the Souls games. Those classic fights you remember against Bowser, Metal Man, Dracula, they don't readily exist in modern games much anymore. The Souls games do their best to change that and reinvigorate the ideas of boss battles. In Demon's Souls every boss plays quite differently. The tutorial boss welcomes you to the game with a giant ax in what is a supposed to lose fight, that can be won, and I won't spoil the surprise of that. The first major boss is features dozens of enemies grouped tightly together. Minibosses litter levels, such as dragons and black phantoms. The several towering bosses each have their own weaknesses and strengths. One boss uses its hearing to find you since it is blind, and another comes at you relentlessly often with area of effect attacks. There is a boss that will be fought over and over until a certain deed is done in the level preceding it, so it can truly be defeated. Some bosses fly around, one regenerates health, another can cause you to lose a level, and there is even one boss battle that you can even be for somebody else. Demon's Souls bosses set a new standard for what can be expected and done with boss battles. A lot of games may have a handful of great, memorable bosses, but for Demon's Souls to make each and every one just as memorable as the next, is quite the achievement.
Dark Souls boss battles often approach the brilliance of Demon's Souls' boss battles, but also come up short. While it's probably cool to a lot of people, I find that encountering bosses as common enemies later in the game to be discrediting to that boss battle, and in Dark Souls there are several boss battles like this. Many of these boss fights were great too. However when you took away the confined spaces of boss arenas, many of these "bosses" were revealed to be not much different from any other standard enemy. Some bosses can be pretty thrilling, the bosses in the abyss, an invisible boss, and a twin boss fight that becomes harder when one of the bosses goes down. And just when you think the boss front is looking up, you fight the same boss for a third time, and its just reskinned. Boss battles in Dark Souls are still leagues ahead of just about any other game this generation, but it's hard to compare them to Demon's Souls' fights and not feel a little underwhelmed.
The online features of both games are outstanding precedents for gaming. The seamless online integration in what is an otherwise singleplayer experience make the Souls games stand out. Demon's Souls started it with messages that can be read for hints and tips, or laid anywhere to guide or mislead players in alternate worlds. Other players show up in your world as white apparitions, showing that someone is in the same boat as you. Bloodstains litter the ground like the messages, and serve a similar purpose, recapping the last moments of someone in another world, which you could see as a warning or perhaps as a symbol of your triumph over an area where others have failed. Then of course there are the black, blue and red eye stones. When in soul form a player can lay any of these stones to enter another world as a phantom. The blue eye stone is the most commonly used. When in human form, you have the ability to see blue eye stones, and when activated the stone drags the person that laid it in their world to your world, so that you can work together to conquer an area, a cooperative element. When the black eye stone is laid the stone searches for a world to invade. Invading a world initiates the games PvP element, and it lends itself to many great duels, or if the person invaded had already summoned some blue phantoms, the black phantom may have drawn the short straw. The red eye stone operates as cross between the other two stones. Like the blue stone, it shows up in other peoples' worlds and must be activated by them, however the terms of the summoning are for PvP like the black stone. The idea that all of these "game modes" and gameplay elements are seamlessly integrated into the singleplayer game is a striking proposition, and Dark Souls took it further conceptually, but stumbled along the way.
Dark Souls' online features the same bloodstains, white apparitions, and messages. The message system however, took a step backwards. In Demon's Souls with a few presses of a button you could lay and recommend messages. In Dark Souls you need to cycle through your inventory and actually use an item to lay and recommend messages. It's a hassle, and it has lead to less activity on the message front of the online element in Dark Souls. The invasions and cooperative play are still present and work better because of the limited number of healing players can do, which also lends itself to less tedious item management, on the fly at least. The new faction system, really adds some depth to the whole online scheme of things. It provides additional stake and makes things more interesting. However, it's a very complex and convoluted system that requires a wiki (or some serious in game research) to fully understand it.
The magic systems are slightly different, and for multiplayer purposes Dark Souls is better, though there is something about having a blue mana bar I like. Dark Souls also ditches the grass healing system in favor of a better for multiplayer alternative, a limited number of heals flask system, but for singleplayer purposes I go for Demon's Souls and grinding for all the healing items I can carry should I so choose. Dark Souls also ditches item burden, which in Demon's Souls limited the weight of items you could carry. In Dark Souls you can carry everything you want. It certainly makes up for the tedium that is the bottomless box that Dark Souls has, but again, for singleplayer purposes I like having to decide what loot I'm to bring to where.
Perhaps the biggest thing that can be said in favor of Demon's Souls is that someone tells me I have a heart of gold all the time, that and he stores and keeps all your stuff organized neatly.
I'm not sure how most people feel about the Souls games, but from what I've observed in my time on the internets, it would appear that Dark Souls is the better of the two. I offered my perspective on them both, and I prefer Demon's Souls. Either way, both are outstanding examples of game design, and if you consider yourself a gamer and haven't given either a shot, you should strongly consider doing so.
The timing of this post is not inconsequential. The Demon's Souls servers have managed to stay afloat for longer than anyone expected, but it would appear that all good things must come to an end. May 31st marks that end. It's time to send a game that redefined my expectations of what games can be off in style. Demon's Souls' online will be missed, but not forgotten. For now though, I embark on my last Demon's Souls online quest, to get that monk hat.
As you might have guessed from the crossed out paragraph above, I wrote this in response to the Demon's Souls servers shutting down. The day after I wrote this however, the servers were said to be staying up. A lot has happened since then too. The PC rallied and got its version of Dark Souls with new content that today comes to consoles, and I've been assured that a new patch makes the online a much better experience. So while I never got to explore the realm of the giants in Boletaria, I will get to explore more of Lordran. And for now, I think that is enough.
From Software, a friend has something to say to you. His name is Stockpile Thomas. "You have a heart of gold. Don't let them take it from you."