Demon’s Souls is one of those games that’s hard to define. Sure people try, the most common phrase I hear describing Demon’s Souls, and all Souls games in general, is that it’s incredibly hard. While later Souls games certainly were about being hard at times, especially for marketing purposes (looking at you Prepare to Die Edition), Demon’s Souls wasn’t made to be difficult. The game has a strict set of rules that players have to follow, and it spends the first few areas easing the player into it. The tutorial is just a simple track for the player to follow and get used to the movement and combat controls, coincidentally it’s also impossible to die in the tutorial until the boss. After the tutorial the player is thrown into the first proper level. Later souls games would make it a point to beat the player senseless with an unexpectedly hard early boss or area, but Demon’s Souls unleashes only the most basic enemies on the player at first. The dreglings in 1-1 take upwards of six to seven hits to kill the player, and drop healing items nearly every death. From Software planned the first few levels perfectly, they treated it like an old NES game, where you couldn’t teach the players with long drawn out tutorials because cartridges didn’t have enough memory to account for it. Instead, developers would teach the players through clever little opening levels, that introduce each of the game’s mechanics individually, before they are thrown into the harder sections of the game. In the first level alone, Demon’s Souls introduces its players to mid level shortcuts, environmental interaction (things like cutting the chains in the tower with the cling ring to drop treasure), dodge and block timings, parrying, metroidvania elements (the locked door to the Mausoleum), traps, branching paths, dragon attacks, ambushes, consumables, and enemy elemental weakness; all without a single tutorial box popping up to describe how to use certain items. It also introduces the player to the most important gameplay aspect, and one that differentiates Demon’s Souls from its successors. Rather than bonfires or lanterns like later souls games, the checkpoints in Demon’s Souls are called Archstones, and they are only unlocked after defeating a boss. Rather than little checkpoints along the way to a boss like in the Dark Souls games, in Demon’s Souls you only have the one checkpoint until you defeat the boss and get the next. Due to this, From Software had to build each of the levels in a circular format with several shortcuts throughout the level. The level design of Demon’s Souls really shines because of this mechanic, it would have been easier for the developers to just have the levels just be a long line with checkpoints randomly placed along the way, but they chose to create these incredibly vertical, and believable levels that folded in on themselves time and time again.
Following the first real level, the player talks to a little being called the Monumental, and is introduced to the game’s plot. For the most part, a plot doesn’t exist. There’s a big fog covering the land, the player decides to jump in the fog to see what’s going on, now its the players job to beat all evil in the fog. But while Demon’s Souls lacks a plot, it excels at world building. Rather than having this complex story, From Software chose to create the magnificent world of Boletaria. Instead of searching for information about your current quest or what’s next for this kingdom, you search for information about what Boletaria was like before the fog, what each area was meant to be, and how each area turned into what it is today.. Demon’s Souls, much like its successors, is a game that is more about viewing and learning about the world around you, rather than following a set list of objectives.
I’ll touch on this subject only briefly because it stays the case in basically all souls games, and doesn’t just pertain to Demon’s Souls. While you do pick a class when you start a new game, your character isn’t limited down any one upgrade path. Souls games allow the player to specialize in whatever array of skills he wants, allowing for incredibly varied play styles, as well as a lot of replayability.
Regardless, the Monumental then opens up all of the Archstones for player use. This is where Demon’s Souls really shines. After only completing one boss, the player is given the ability to choose from five different levels to try next. I can’t imagine the nightmare that From Software must have gone through in trying to balance each of the archstones to be playable at early levels, but still challenging later, but they deserve an award because it is done incredibly well. The beginning levels of each archstone each have their own strength and cons to consider when choosing which one to beat first. If you’re playing a strength build, you can go to the Stonefang Tunnel and get the Crushing Battle Axe, if you’re playing a faith build you can go to the Valley of Defilement and get the Blessed Mace, or if you’re playing a magic or dex build you can go to the Shrine of Storms and get the Crescent Falchion. Speaking of the Shrine of Storms, first attempts at the level are always very hard to new players, because of the speed and relentlessness of the enemies. My first play through I spent death after death just trying to get up the stairs at the beginning of the level, and then one day, in my frustration I accidentally unequipped my weapon. Astonishingly, hitting a skeleton with my fist was insanely effective. After looking it up to make sure it wasn’t a glitch, I learned that the skeletons are weak to crushing damage, and since your fists are crushing damage and exceptionally fast, it just happens to be the most effective way of killing the mobs. Little things like that are what make Demon’s Souls so great. There’s always a simple, and relatively easy way to beat a level, and it all comes down to the player to discover that best way. For example, bringing up 5-1 again, but the first Shrine of Storms level takes the player on a long and hard trek, fighting many of the area’s harder enemies on the edge of cliffs; but if the player searches the level thoroughly, they’ll find a shortcut that cuts out ninety percent of the level, taking the player straight to the boss.
Speaking of bosses, this game has some amazing bosses. Sure, there are a few generic bosses, big fat dudes that are nothing more than a dps rush, looking at you Leechmonger and Dirty C
olossus, but for the most part the bosses of Demon’s Souls show some amazing creativity. There’s the Fool’s Idol, that can’t be killed until a mob in the level is killed before entering the boss fight, there’s Maiden Astraea, who if you kill her bodyguard/close personal friend in her boss room before confronting her, she will simply kill herself and lament the player for being so power hungry. There’s the Old Hero, who’s blind so if the player wears the Thief Ring, the boss won’t be able to find them unless they are attacking him, there’s the Penetrator Boss Fight, where an NPC helper will pop in to help you if you had saved him previously.
Demon’s Souls isn’t perfect, however, some cases show some very questionable game design. Drop rates for pure upgrade stones are brutally low, meaning that some players will spend months grinding for an item that has a .1% drop rate. World Tendency is a wonderful idea that From Software didn’t implement well enough. If only your tendency didn’t immediately drift to the server average when you logged online, then it would be much more feasible to complete all of the Tendency events even while playing online. There are few other petty niggles in the game, the Dragon God Boss fight is a test of patience more than an actual test of skill, magic is too powerful, with one ability being able to two to three hit nearly every boss in the game. These niggles don’t amount to anything more than little spots on an otherwise stainless masterpiece. Demon’s Souls, and to a lesser extent all Souls games, created the perfect experience for a person who likes their games to be a little unforgiving, their atmosphere oppressive, and their combat varied.