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Five Harsh Lessons Learned from Returning to Demon's Souls

What does the Souls series debut feel like after a bout with Bloodborne?

Analysis by Bob Mackey, .

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.

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Comments 17

  • Avatar for siamesegiant #1 siamesegiant 2 years ago
    I'm really struggling with Bloodborne. I can objectively see that it's a good game, but it's colour palette is so monochrome, it's areas are so similar... I can only seem to play for a couple of hours before putting it down for a week. The lack of equipment to find makes exploration seem less rewarding, and I ran out of blood vials fighting Rom (a boss who seems to be based entirely on luck) and have no desire to go and grind more. I've never been bored with a souls game until now. I played through Demon's Souls this year for the first time and was surprised at how creative and imaginative it was, and playing Bloodborne is just making me want to go and play that again.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #2 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    Still the best.

    The only thing wrong with WT is what you didn't mention: people can indirectly affect it via their play, hence my first playthru as a Hunter-started kept shifting to Black and my pre-DS2 Magician-started one kept shifting to White.

    The rest is pushing cars up a snowy hill.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #3 SigurdVolsung 2 years ago
    @siamesegiant There are a lot of armor sets to find by exploration and by taking on some challenges, and a few weapons to find as well. Rom is definitely not based on luck, once you learn his patterns he's actually not that difficult of a boss compared to others in the game. Also, using certain weapons makes him easier, but that is something you'll have to discover for yourself, if you genuinely want to master the game.

    I love this writeup and reading it makes me want to dive back into Demon's Souls as well. I might actually like Bloodborne the most, I haven't decided yet, but either way it's only contest was Demon Souls. While I enjoy Dark Souls 1 & 2, I definitely considered them a minor step back. Some of the wonderful ideas in Demon Souls like the Red Dragon and the Monk boss, are some of my greatest gaming moments of the previous generation.
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  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #4 ShadowTheSecond 2 years ago
    I had far more trouble with Blight Town than I did with the Valley of Defilement. I remember being really bored of the Valley's brown hues--something that I didn't feel was as much of an issue for Blight Town.

    And I agree about the world tendencies--it would be neat to see them back in some form. I never really noticed much about it during normal play, but the light/dark tendency weeks (weekends?) were awesome to have a slightly different experience.
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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #5 brionfoulke91 2 years ago
    Demon Souls is still a tremendous game. One thing this article doesn't mention: Demon Souls has an absolutely GODLY soundtrack! This is the one area where it blows all the sequels out of the water. None of them have a soundtrack as eclectic or as memorable as Demon Souls. Dark Souls 1 comes the closest.

    Demon Souls also used to be the king of atmosphere in Souls games, but I think it has now been trumped by Bloodborne in that regard. Tower of Latria is an amazing area, thick with atmosphere and dread. No area in Dark Souls 1 or 2 could match it. I've been waiting to see if they could ever top Latria, and they did one better... Bloodborne feels like it was designed to be the CITY OF LATRIA. That same gothic, dreadful atmosphere permeates the entire game, and there are various sections that match Latria's brilliance.

    Demons Souls has other things going for it, like it's relatively straightforward narrative and an ending that isn't a complete downer. It's more than just a great game, it's one of the gaming masterpieces of our time. And Bloodborne is a very worthy successor.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #6 VotesForCows 2 years ago
    I get such pleasure from breezing through 1-1 now, with the memory of my first run (dying dozens of times) still fresh. Playing this on release (imported to Ireland from the US), when little was known about it, was such an amazing experience.

    And yeah, the Red Dragon is breathtaking.
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  • Avatar for siamesegiant #7 siamesegiant 2 years ago
    @SigurdVolsung Well, I'll keep at it. I've never been able to effectively dodge that ranged attack though. I'm pretty locked into using the Threaded Cane at this point and haven't found any other skill weapons. The armour sets all seem pretty similar. Not much in the way of fashion souls this time round! I like Rom's arena though. It's a kind of balm for my eyes after 20 hours of muddy browns, purples and greys.
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  • Avatar for siamesegiant #8 siamesegiant 2 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 The soundtrack to Demon's Souls is amazing. I prefer Dark Souls as a game, but the soundtrack isn't a patch on Demon's.
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  • Avatar for MekkaGodzilla #9 MekkaGodzilla 2 years ago
    Funny, I just bought a PS3 to play this game, after a year long love affair with Dark Souls on my Xbox360. It's strange to be out of my comfort zone all over again and to struggle with this game and its items and systems.

    I apparently need to stick with it some more.
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  • Avatar for Y7748837 #10 Y7748837 2 years ago
    It's the inventory weight limit and healing item grind that kill replays of this one for me. I much prefer the estus flask system introduced in Dark Souls.
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  • Avatar for SigurdVolsung #11 SigurdVolsung 2 years ago
    @siamesegiant When he is far from you use sprint so that it will miss you when he fires it. He's unlikely to do it when you are up close. And when you are close just watch for his roll and then roll back out of the way because he does a different version only when you are close, it comes up underneath the ground instead of above. Has a very short range though in that version so you can dodge out of the way. Two other things, I find that fast weapons are king on him, and he's weak to lightning attacks if you want to add some lightning paper to your quick weapon.
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  • Avatar for ojinnvoltz #12 ojinnvoltz 2 years ago
    Demon's Souls is still my favorite. I like to think I'm not just saying that because of nostalgia.

    World Tendency is a great idea with your actions influencing how the world takes shape, it just needed some transparency. Bloodborne's Insight is a solid replacement of World Tendency, I just wish it changed the world more like how different paths opened up in Demon's Souls.

    I also miss Stockpile Thomas and inventory management. The removal of things to managet is a bummer since there are less things the game has me thinking about which leaves me a bit less engaged in the game overall.

    Something I'm glad Bloodborne did was go back to less equipment. It gives you the chance to get attached to your equipment. Blueblood and Butcher for life! With the increased granularity in Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, I didn't care as much about what I was using. But with Bloodborne, gunblades (Reiterpallasch) for life!
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  • Avatar for siamesegiant #13 siamesegiant 2 years ago
    @SigurdVolsung managed to beat him. Still never managed to reliably dodge those missiles though. Next area is...another gothic Victorian cityscape. With...respawning enemies! Time to go and do something else.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #14 SatelliteOfLove 2 years ago
    @siamesegiant

    Never abandon your Pootie Tang Pimp Cane. Never ever ever*.

    *well, I mean later sure, but for now: "SADAH TEY!"
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  • Avatar for docexe #15 docexe 2 years ago
    While I think the Dark Souls games are better mechanically speaking, I find that Demon's Soul is still special in its own right.

    Also, relevant to the points discussed in this article, some quotes of impressions I made of the game on another forum:

    “This is the more realistic depiction I have seen in a videogame of what would happen if a puny mortal tried to fight a dragon directly and without reinforcements or heavy artillery of any kind (and yes, he deserved to be fried like crisp for his insolence).”

    “The Tower of Latria is probably the most nightmarish place I have been so far in the game. The atmosphere and morbid details in the ambient are quite effective. I’m already dreading what’s beyond the prison.”

    “I was wondering when the game was going to throw me a more nightmarish scenario than the Tower of Latria. The Shrine of Storms was nightmarish only in terms of difficulty, but not so much in terms of atmosphere. Indeed, if not for the [enemies] trying to kill you, it would actually be quite the pleasant place to visit [...] Fortunately (not!) the Valley of Defilement is more than fulfilling my expectations so far: It’s nightmarishly difficult to traverse and the atmosphere fills you with an unlimited sense of dread, sadness and nausea. Mostly nausea.”
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  • Avatar for JosephB #16 JosephB 2 years ago
    why is the top picture from dark souls?
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  • Avatar for Fox-gamer2304 #17 Fox-gamer2304 A year ago
    I'm really struggling with Bloodborne. Demon Souls is still a tremendous game. Demon Souls also used to be the king of psn plus maio 2017 atmosphere in Souls games, but I think it has now been trumped by Bloodborne in
    jogos plus maio 2017 that regard. Tower of Latria is an amazing area, thick with atmosphere and dread. No area in Dark Souls 1 or 2 could match it. I've been waiting to see if they could ever top Latria, and they did jogos ps plus maio 2017 one better. Bloodborne feels like it was designed to be the CITY OF LATRIA. That same gothic, dreadful atmosphere permeates the entire game, and there are various sections that match Latria's brilliance.
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