Having completely missed Dark Souls and its recent sequel, I’m not exactly what you would call a die-hard fan of the series. However, there’s something about the very first Souls game that I still find refreshingly original, even five years after its PlayStation 3 debut.
The first I heard of Demon’s Souls was through a magazine (somewhat of a rarity nowadays) and instantly I was intrigued. Having always been a fan of role-playing games and medieval fantasy, that first cluster of printed screenshots was more than enough to reel me in. There was a catch, however: the game had only just launched in Japan and, at the time, Sony had no plans for an overseas release. Pretty soon, as more and more titles crept in from the periphery, Demon’s Souls fell off the radar but only to return a year or so later.
Although it may sound pretentious, being part of that first wave of players to experience the game before it “went mainstream” was something special. You see, beneath its gore-spattered bonnet Demon’s Souls is very much a community-driven experience, complimenting the game’s infamous difficulty.
Within the opening twenty minutes or so I had already been skewered, slashed apart, and even torched by a dragon with never a checkpoint in sight. As fans will know, being killed in Demon’s Souls (by whatever means) returns you to the beginning of a level, no matter how far you manage to get. Enemies respawn, traps reset and, on top of that, a portion of your max health is sapped away.
Understandably, Demon’s Souls is not a game for everyone. Although some people outright dislike the roleplaying genre, others will be turned off by the sheer lack of hand-holding, something which is close to a staple in modern gaming. Instead, Demon’s Souls drops you into one its many foreboding locales, leaving players to fend for themselves.
That’s not to say you have to work out everything yourself. Like many, I found myself baffled by the game’s very first boss battle against the Phalanx. Having tried a good four or five times to break its impenetrable shell, I made a beeline for the online forums where I found I wasn’t the only one having difficulty. Here I found a multitude of strategies including guidance on the optimum gear, battle tactics, and items I could use to weaken my foe.
For me, forum-trawling became an essential tool, even more crucial than my sword and shield. Japanese players, eager importers and first wave players all came together, discovering myriad facets of the game that had previously remained a secret. To begin with I felt a bit cheap, reaching for my laptop every time I could spot a boss off in the distance. However, as time passed, I realised that this is how Demon’s Souls was meant to be played, at least from my perspective. It’s a game of trial and error with players employing tactics and seeking the guidance of others to improve their knowledge of its many nuances.
This community aspect also makes a physical manifestation within the game itself: a product of From Software’s unique approach to online play. While exploring you can stop and scrawl a message, whether it be a joke, plea, or friendly bit of advice. After submitting your message it will then go on to appear in other players’ sessions, exactly where you left it. Adding to this is Demon’s Souls’ bloodstain feature which works in a similar fashion. Scattered throughout the game world are small pools of blood which, when touched, show another player’s ghost just few seconds before death.
Demon’s Souls’ innovation doesn’t end there, however. Another aspect that still remains fresh is the game’s approach to online play. Through “Invasions” other adventurers can sneak into your game session as Red Phantoms, where they can try and kill you outright or employ some very creative trolling.
Five years may not be a vast expanse of time yet, in terms of the video game industry, it’s enough to transform an entire landscape. Still, even today, Demon’s Souls feels as relevant and original as it was back then despite the presence of two sequels and an upcoming spiritual successor. Of course, having played none of these, my outlook may contrast that of the hardcore Souls fanbase. Something we can all agree on, however, is that Demon’s Souls is a modern classic and a reminder of just how compelling Japanese role-playing games can be even after their late 90s climax.