The first time I had ever heard of Demon’s Souls was when GameSpot made it their game of the year for 2009. That was the year Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Assassin’s Creed II, and many other frankly incredible games were released. I was shocked by the decision to award top honors to an esoteric Japanese quasi-medieval dark fantasy game among so many other clearly superior, superb competitors.
Curious, I searched Giant Bomb’s database for a Quick Look video to see what the game was all about. What I saw was, in fact, perplexing. The game looked drab, mundane, and inaccessible. Certainly at that time nobody on the GB staff was into Demon’s Souls, and most of them simply wrote it off as “another weird Japan game.” Being an Xbox 360-only guy at the time, I did the same.
When 2011 rolled around, I started to hear talk of a sequel to Demon’s Souls. This game was Dark Souls. The marketing for the game reveled in the idea that all players would die frequently. It flaunted its horrific monsters and hardcore-gamers-only appeal. From Software’s sequel (technically a spiritual successor since the rights to Demon’s Souls belong, at least partially, to Sony) was to be bigger and better and was set to be released on the 360 simultaneously with the PS3. I was ready to write off Dark Souls as well. Little did I know it would eventually become one of my favorite games of all time.
Again, the Giant Bomb staff (particularly Jeff) didn’t do the game any favors. Vinny had gotten through Demon’s Souls earlier by the skin of his teeth and was at least intrigued with the sequel. Once the game came out, reviewers all over were singing the praises of the game. Matt Rorie, former Whiskey Media employee and the newest member of the GB staff (we'll miss you, Dave!), did an excellent article on his time with the game and what made it so appealing. I was intrigued – everything about the game seemed so mystical and strange, like nothing I’d ever heard of.
Then one day as I was getting groceries at the local Walmart, I noticed that Dark Souls was available to rent from a Red Box. I had to try it and see for myself what it was all about.
Based on the recommendations of many who had braved the waters of both the Souls games, I consulted a few wiki sites to get my bearings with the game. I decided to start as a pyromancer class since it seemed to be the general consensus that fire spells made the game a whole lot more manageable the first time through. I named my character Richter, honestly after a Spanish professor of mine and not the Castlevania character. I don’t play many games that allow for extreme levels of character customization so I wasn’t sure exactly how to spec my guy, but I was sure I’d figure out what I liked best.
I was fascinated with the way the game progressed. Dark Souls staunchly refuses to hold your hand, a move that flies in the face of most modern games. The pace of the game is slow and methodical, giving incentive to explore but at the same time punishing careless behavior. It had a tense, frightening atmosphere that drew me into the bizarre, violent world. I wasn’t 100% sure I actually enjoyed what I was playing, but it was so different and had so much to offer, I needed to give it its fair shake.
I returned the game after a couple of days and didn’t immediately purchase it. Skyrim was out, as well as Rayman Origins and a number of other games I wanted to check out. Dark Souls went to the back of my mind, and I figured I didn’t have time for a game as involved as that while I was in school and I was going to spend Christmas break exploring Tamriel, so I wasn’t too interested in getting it right away.
A few months passed. I couldn’t shake that intrigue I had for Dark Souls. It had filled me with such dread that few games have ever done. It gave me the tools to approach its solemn world and otherworldly beasts. I had to see what else there was to see. Skyrim had been an okay adventure, but I had already gotten a taste of much better level design and melee combat in Dark Souls. I had to go back. So I bit the bullet and bought it.
It still took a while to really get the gist of what the game was all about. There were dozens of frustrating deaths, stupidly hard new areas, and confusing objectives. I got lost. Progress was slow. I turned off the game several times in dismay, resigning myself to try the following day. I’m no stranger to hard games (Super Meat Boy, Ninja Gaiden Black, and others are among my favorites) but this was something different. The game was trying to teach me. And I was hooked.
The game is made so difficult because it is simply ruthless in the way it treats you. Even the simplest enemies can be a threat later if you let down your guard. Death makes you lose souls (the universal experience points and currency) and any accrued humanity points. Upon dying you have one chance to go back to the spot where you died and retrieve everything dropped, but if you fail to do so they’re gone forever. No matter how great the loss is. Luckily, levels, items and gear are unaffected so sometimes the game rewards some careful risk taking.
I don’t know at what point it clicked. I honestly think in some ways it still hadn’t fully clicked until partway through the second time. But somewhere along the line I had figured out my style and how I was going to approach the enemies I faced. I killed every boss on my own, unable to figure out the hazy “humanity” system and how to get other players to help. I favored heavy-hitting big weapons, heavy armor and huge fire spells to more nimble weapons and lighter gear. I learned to dodge and block effectively, learned how to trick enemies to fall to their deaths, exploited AI routines for my benefit, and worked my way through all the difficult bosses till I finally defeated Gwyn, Lord of Cinder and conquered the Dark Souls universe. I felt on top of the world.
I loved it.
At some point I realized that the game wasn’t truly as difficult as it seemed. Most enemies give clear signs as to what they’re going to do and follow predictable patterns. Patience with some repetition and attentiveness are required to get through, but most of the game is quite manageable when approached correctly. A few of the bosses are devious. Some are located far away from any checkpoints, making it harder to be patient with setbacks. But mostly the game wants you to think it’s more daunting than it is, and once you get the hang of it the game just takes time.
Once I had thoroughly explored Dark Souls and gained a great love for it, I realized I had to check out Demon’s Souls. I finally decided to get a PS3 for keeps and try it out once I had saved up the money to do so. As a recent Dark Souls veteran, I assumed I would fit right into the routine of how to play the game.
As it turns out, Demon’s Souls is quite different, structurally, from Dark Souls. Instead of a huge, seamless, open world to explore, the game is split into five distinct levels, each with about four checkpoint areas guarded by a boss. Tonally the game is quite similar to its sequel but there were a number of features that were not in Dark Souls and vice versa that threw me off a bit.
Demon’s Souls has a weird, ill-defined “world tendency” system that subtly affects the environment, enemies and certain things that are available. Light acts (defeating area bosses, saving certain NPCs, etc.) make the tendency lighter. Other acts, such as murder or dying in body form, make the world tendency darker. A dark world has tougher enemies that drop more souls, and the light world is the other way around. Some enemies and pathways only appear when a level is pure white or pure dark. Unfortunately, the best way to change these is by playing offline since world tendency pulls an aggregate from all players.
Playing offline would be a real pity, too, because the online features in both games are interesting and form some of the most unique features of the Souls games. You and anybody else can leave notes on the ground (using customizable prompts but no actual text entry) to warn of surprise enemies, point towards hard-to-find loot, or just straight-up troll others. By meeting certain conditions you can team up with others to take down tough bosses or invade other players and try to kill them to steal souls. All this interaction weaved into the framework of the games really heightens the experience that much more.
To be fair, though, I’m not sure I would have liked or appreciated Demon’s Souls if I hadn’t played and loved Dark Souls first. Most of the areas in Demon’s Souls are drab and depressing, the bosses aren’t terribly interesting for the most part, and there is far less loot to be found. Armor can’t be upgraded, the aforementioned world tendency system is mostly limiting and not fun, and dying has a more severe consequence by forcing you to be in “soul form,” which cuts HP to half and reduces certain statistics. The structure in Dark Souls includes bonfires, checkpoints that are scattered all over and which encourage further exploration. These work much better than having to start entire levels all over due to a mistake. Demon’s Souls becomes much more frustrating when you know about the advancements in the sequel.
I have since beaten Demon's Souls once, played through Dark Souls two times with one character and most of the way through with a second, and I'm mostly through with a third playthrough with the same character. All told I've spent more than 200 hours with both games, and I still crave more. It's been a long time since a game grabbed me like this (honestly, probably since I was young and played a lot of Pokémon). I'm still discovering new things - intricacies and layers that I hadn't seen before. I'm quite hooked.
There’s so much depth to the combat, exploration and systems in both games that I could take up multiple essays about all of it. My main purpose here was to show how a game I almost completely wrote off became one of my favorites of all time. I’ve heard Dark Souls called the “grown up Zelda” and after the complete failure of both Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword to grab me or to innovate in any meaningful way, I’m glad that there is such a relentlessly calculated adventure as Dark Souls. The sense of scope, wonder, and discovery present in Dark Souls is practically unmatched in any other game, even in its predecessor to the same degree. I’m glad I discovered it and I look forward to the announced follow-up. I’m surprised by this, since I haven’t really anticipated many games in the last long while. I hope you also give Dark Souls a chance.
For those interested, my main character is a pyromancer with a fully upgraded flame and with great chaos fireball, great fireball, and great combustion equipped. My main weapon is a Black Knight Greataxe (great speed, unique moveset and suuuuuper powerful fully upgraded) and I use the Black Iron armor set with an Eagle Shield. I do need to use Havel's Ring still to give me the mobility I want, but my guy is pretty unstoppable even in PVP settings except when I freeze up because I'm terrible at multiplayer. This character, oddly enough, has a really hard time with the new Artorias of the Abyss content, probably due to there being a lot of fast, magical enemies unlike anything in the main game, so I never beat Manus or the black dragon and only beat one of the bosses with help from another player. Also, the first time I saw that content I was working through new game plus, which is significantly harder already.