If you're a fan of the Souls series, you know these RPGs thrive on replays.
It's no wonder why every entry features an endless cycle at the heart of its narrative. Where most other games' finales bring a sense of triumph or relief—an unfortunate effect of journeys that overstay their welcome—the conclusion of any Souls experience typically inspires a return trip, if only for the sake of steamrolling through formerly explored areas in minutes instead of hours. From Software's school of design rewards mastery above all else, so jumping back into one of their games with thorough knowledge of the dangers ahead can be an intensely liberating experience. (That's really the only time in these games where you have an upper hand.)
2009's Demon's Souls served as my entry into From Software's challenging RPG series, and if you can handle what this game throws at you, you can handle anything—yes, even Bloodborne. And, after taking a trip through this recent PS4 exclusive, I recently decided to revisit Souls' debut—the installment I struggled the most with by far. (Definitely the case for everyone's first Souls game.) Now, six years isn't the longest span of time, but this half-decade has seen From Software rise to prominence, and the developer's RPGs have certainly benefited from their newfound popularity. Still, this first game brings plenty of unique challenges, especially if you're used to some of the more user-friendly refinements to follow.
The Red Dragon is Still the Best Dragon
The Souls series has featured massive, Smaug-like creations pretty prominently since Demon's, but none have been able to measure up to 1-2's creatively named Red Dragon, who makes his debut in the area by landing briefly (and nearby) with his mouth stuffed full of corpses. From Software telegraphs the appearance of this massive foe for a reason: Soon, he'll be your number-one obstacle in getting from point A to point B. Essentially, this level tasks you with planning out careful dashes between cover as Mr. Red continually strafes open areas of the surrounding bridge with scorching fire. Even though Demon's Souls is a mostly non-linear game, most players will naturally head to 1-2 following 1-1—it's practically video game law. But they may be surprised to see such a formidable challenge this "early" in the game.
And it's here where Souls shows off the many possibilities involved in playing with the many mechanics. Seeing as movement speed relies on weight, stripping your character down to his or her skivvies can give a boost to bridge-dashes, but also makes fighting enemies hiding in those secure bottlenecks significantly tougher. But there's another way to take care of the dragon, if you're patient: Just plink away at him with arrows or spells as he swoops by, and, in roughly 20 minutes, he won't be a problem anymore. (Yes, most Souls games will let you cheese them if you're willing to put up with the tedium involved.) Strategizing aside, there's never been a dragon in the Souls game with the presence of old Red: While the others simply wait for you to approach, he makes his existence known, and even if you're safely hidden from a fiery death, his powerful dive-bombs send tremors rippling through the level. All these years later, and I'm still waiting for From Software to top this dragon-based set piece with something equally tense and terrifying.
Most of the Micromanagement is on You
Over time, the Souls games have whittled away a lot of unnecessary micromanagement—an improvement I assume most people aren't up in arms over. That certainly isn't the case with Demon's Souls, which takes a bit of getting used to if you're more familiar with the changes that would come later. Item burden makes its only appearance here, and limits the amount of goods you can hold at once based on their weight—even items you don't necessarily need in your possession, like weapon-upgrading materials. It doesn't take much effort to check in with Stockpile Thomas and drop off inessential goods, but if you've been finding lots of great treasures without a chance to return to The Nexus, you could end up sabotaging yourself.
Find a treasure in the world, but then discover you're too encumbered to grab it? If you don't figure out a way to drop enough weight to nab said item, it'll be gone forever once you die or warp away. That's harsh. Thankfully, Dark Souls and beyond lets characters run around with an entire armory strapped to their backs, eliminating the need to do Item Burden checks and Stockpile Thomas visits every so often. It's not entirely realistic, but at least it's convenient.
World Tendency Still Makes Little Sense
Don't get me wrong: World Tendency is a really cool idea. If you've never played Demon's Souls, this system has the potential to alter the challenge, item drops, and enemies of a world, and can even open up new areas when the scale slides to either extreme. This novel concept, though, soon becomes a non-issue thanks to the difficulty involved in manipulating and even reading the visual indicator of a world's lightness or darkness. From Software provides no explicit, in-game explanation of World Tendency—an omission that isn't exactly out-of-character for the developer—making the actions involved in changing it a complete mystery.
And even if you do understand the circumstances involved in shifting this scale, the menu for this feature provides no legend to show the various possible degrees of lightness and darkness—even looking one up on Google doesn't help much, since brightness levels on TVs can vary greatly. In the past, From Software (or maybe Atlus) "apologized" in a sense by running events that would shift World Tendency to pure white or pure black for an extended period of time, giving fans who couldn't grapple with this system a chance to see hidden content, but it's been several years since last one. Following Demon's Souls, From Software dropped World Tendency entirely, but if they can figure out a way to make it more manageable, I wouldn't mind seeing this system return for a future installment.
Magic is the Closest You'll Come to a "Win Button"
Want to try Demon's Souls, but don't know if you're ready for a challenge? Roll with Royalty. Though From Software has tried their hardest to gradually nerf sorcery, miracles, and hexes in future Souls games, here, spells are amazingly overpowered. There's another benefit to sorcery, too: Because you're limited by an magic points and not a prescribed number of uses, there's essentially no limit to how many Soul Arrows you can fling around—so long as you keep that MP meter full. And, since the Royalty class comes with a ring that regenerates MP (however slowly), tackling the game's initial challenges goes much smoother. You'll still have to be careful, of course, but having a theoretically limitless supply of powerful projectiles certainly helps.
The Valley of Defilement is Still the King of the Souls Swamp Levels
The frustrating swamp level has been a mainstay since the beginning of Souls: In these often-tedious stages, oppression reigns supreme, and being poisoned is just something you'll have to live with. Dark Souls has Blight Town, an especially infamous area if you're playing on consoles—the frame rate dips experienced here definitely prove just as annoying as the environmental hazards. Dark Souls II's Black Gulch really pulled away from this trend with a much more tolerable take on swamps: Outside of a gauntlet of poison-spitting statues, dealing with these dangers only requires a quick sprint to the boss.
Demon's Souls' Valley of Defilement, though, is a different story altogether. While 5-1 is fairly straightforward, and can even be completed fairly early in the game, 5-2 can't be called anything but absolute hell. Simply put, this nightmarish stretch drops players into a vast lake of poison, tasking them with finding the few safe spots of land in near-darkness. Keep in mind, though, your HP meter will be dropping perpetually throughout, and, thanks to the level's sticky swamp, your movement speed and dodging capabilities suffer a serious loss. Even if you struggled with Anor Londo's archers and the tricky projectile dodging within the Shrine of Amana, no other From Software creation has matched the Valley of Defilement in terms of sheer misery. If you can handle it, you truly deserve From Software's RPG-centric Medal of Honor.