The Souls series has become important to me in a very short space of time. Going back to Dark Souls recently felt like returning to an old friend, even though I played through it for the first time only around half a year earlier. It’s also easy for me to forget that Demon’s Souls was actually my first experience with the series, buying it to take advantage of my housemate at Uni owning a PS3. All I remember was getting my ass kicked, and watching my housmate, who had beaten Dark Souls, get his ass kicked. But after returning to Demon’s Souls and completing it, after conquering all the other Souls games, it isn’t really that game I imagined it to be, or the one that intimidated me so much back then.
The overall art design, while never bad, feels a bit more anime and mashed-up from multiple influences than the western-fantasy-filtered-through-japan style of Dark Souls. The music sounds less elegant than later scores in the series, but it also has some of the catchiest and most brash moments, especially the main theme.
The first Boletarian stage is fairly gruelling, largely because you can’t level up yet, and also because of brilliant and condensed level design. The environment itself constantly poses some sort of challenge, rather than presenting open spaces with enemies dumped in. Every corner has something that will try to fuck you up and no moment feels wasted. And that’s why in the later prison level, when there are moments of extreme pause, it isn’t lazy, it is truly effective horror, since you’ve been trained to expect something to jump out at you.
The segmentation can be disappointing for players coming from Dark Souls, who want a seamless and cohesive world. But it does work, since the levels are so distinct, not just in their look, but their feel. A later Boletarian Stage has cutscene interludes with darkly comic themes not present anywhere else in the game. The branching choice between 5 paths, if you come to this after the Dark Souls games, is refreshing, and doesn’t detach you from the world much more than warping in those games does.
Although bosses still took effort to beat, I did finish all the later ones on my first try, including the penultimate (final, really) boss. I supposes it works for bosses to be easier, due to a lack of checkpointing, which means dying to the boss means playing the whole level again. There are some clever (and accidental) pathways openings that answer this, but there could have been much more.
The bosses are ultimately one of the more disappointing aspects of the game. One is a proto-Gargoyle fight from Dark Souls with worse AI, and one is just PvP (another player becomes the boss, if you are playing online). Both were interesting ideas, but were developed to far grander heights with subsequent games in the series, and don’t hold up compared to the overall level design. At least the puzzle boss, Dragon God, is less frustrating than the Bed of Chaos boss in Dark Souls.
It’s hard to dislike Demon’s Souls for its flawed difficulty balance. After the ordeal of the opening few levels it’s welcome, but what is welcome isn’t always what is best. Really, a smoother opening, ramping up to more challenges would have been more satisfying. I didn’t even pay much attention to levelling up my equipment, so it’s possible to have an even breezier time of it.
Demon’s Souls gets my wholehearted recommendation for those, like me, coming from later games in the series. The crushing challenge of the first couple of stages should delight veterans, while the rest of the game is more of a victory lap. Then again, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this game, personally, for those same reasons. While it has aged a tad, and could do with a little remastering, Demon’s Souls is both an important historical step in the series and a great game in its own right.