In prep for this review I dusted off my PlayStation 3 and spent about a week replaying through the original 2009 Demon’s Souls. My main takeaway from that experience was, “Man, as fantastic as this game is, it feels old.” And I don’t just mean graphically: you can only roll in four directions, character controls feel loose, and just overall, there’s a lot of jank. But Bluepoint – the team that so expertly remade Shadow of the Colossus in 2018 – has addressed just about all of those major issues and more in the absolutely gorgeous PlayStation 5 remake, resulting in a game that feels much tighter to control and one that brings FromSoftware’s neglected original Souls game back to the forefront, reminding us what a strong foundation the Dark Souls series was built upon.
Like the rest of the Souls series, the appeal of Demon’s Souls is that it’s an action-RPG that prides itself on difficult, cerebral, and methodical combat, as well as extraordinarily deep character build customization. In combat, every action poses a risk, whether it’s committing to an attack and leaving yourself vulnerable in the start-up and recovery of it, or committing to defense and sacrificing a portion of your stamina to avoid taking damage. Rather than relying mostly on reflexes, Demon’s Souls relies more on making smart decisions both in and out of combat, and making the right decisions in order to overcome its many tough challenges feels incredibly rewarding in ways few other games can match.
Demon’s Souls may be the game that kicked off the Souls subgenre of action-RPGs, but it is the ways in which it’s different from the Dark Souls games that really make it stand out. The biggest is that rather than being one contiguous open world, Demon’s Souls is split into five isolated worlds, each made up of three to four sublevels, each offering their own unique rewards and challenges. The thing I love so much about this structure is how easy it becomes to just pack up, leave, and try out a new area if you find yourself struggling in the one you’re currently in. Each level is difficult, but in very different ways, and never for reasons as simple or as boring as the enemies simply just being stronger.
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World 1 is tough because you frequently have to contend with an obnoxious dragon that spends its whole day roasting each of the bridges you need to cross in order to proceed; World 2’s enemies are resistant to most damage types outside of piercing; World 3 is a labyrinth that’s easy to get lost in and is guarded by tough mind flayers that can kill you in just one or two hits; World 4 has highly aggressive skeletons that are also resistant to most weapons outside of maces and hammers; and World 5 has a ton of enemies that are easy to kill, but have a nasty habit of swarming you with rapid hits and wild attack patterns. Not to mention the whole “lake of poison” thing.
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What’s clever about this is that Demon’s Souls’ structure makes every playthrough feel different because you’re able to approach each world in new ways. For my first playthrough, I went with a magic-focused build and went to world 3 first so I could stock up on magic-replenishing consumables and unlock the NPC that grants access to the most powerful spells. But in my second playthrough with a more dexterity-driven character I bounced from world to world, picking up useful items and gear from each one before committing to beating any of them. It’s this flexibility that makes Demon’s Souls so distinctive among the Souls games.
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All of this is true for Bluepoint’s remake, which largely stays true to the spirit of the original Demon’s Souls, both for better and for worse. Not all of the ways Demon’s Souls differentiates itself from the rest of the Souls series are positive ones. Demon’s Souls is exceptionally grindy in often frustrating, time-wasting ways. If you run out of health-restoring grass, you’ll need to either farm it by repeatedly killing specific enemies in specific worlds that drop it, or you’ll need to farm souls (that you could have used to improve your character) and purchase it from a merchant. Weapon upgrading is also needlessly convoluted, with 16 different types of upgrade materials to find and make sense of, and almost every weapon type requiring different materials in order to upgrade them. Dark Souls addressed both these issues with the introduction of Estus Flasks and a simplification of the weapon upgrade system, and going back to how it used to be made me remember how much of an improvement Dark Souls was in those regards.
The Quality of Life
The real stars of the show here, though, are the litany of smaller quality-of-life upgrades that make me never want to even think of going back to Demon’s Souls on the PS3. There’s so many to touch upon, but the long list includes: The addition of a tool belt that lets you equip up to four situationally useful items in a submenu that’s accessible with the touchpad; the ability to use archstones like a bonfire and reset the enemies without having to go back to the Nexus; being able to see the durability of your weapon in the HUD; being able to see what the next item you have equipped is; and all of this is on top of a much cleaner and more intuitive menu UI that sacrifices some of the original’s unique visual style in favor of simplicity and readability.
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I need to give a special mention as well to the new ability to send items to your storage box without having to return to the Nexus. Item burden is a huge factor in Demon’s Souls, and in the original, when you picked up something that you had no space for you’d have to either make room for it by permanently destroying something in your inventory or you’d have to just leave it and convince yourself that you didn’t really need whatever it was anyway. And then you’d also have to trek back to the archstone just so you could offload any unnecessary items. This is an elegant fix that still keeps the inventory management without any of the frustration.
There’s still an annoyingly common tendency to use a shove attack when I don’t mean to, and I wish the developers had done something to better explain World Tendency to newcomers. But those nitpicks notwithstanding, Bluepoint did an excellent job of updating Demon’s Souls to modern standards without changing the core of its gameplay.
One other area that Demon’s Souls obviously benefits by virtue of being on a console with an SSD is a substantial reduction in load times. Rarely will you ever wait more than five seconds in between deaths or while teleporting to a new location before you’re back in the action. I can’t overstate how huge this is for a game like Demon’s Souls, in which you’re expected to die over and over again and also to repeatedly reset a level for the purpose of farming.
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The DualSense controller is much bigger than a DualShock 3, which makes it a tiny bit less comfortable to use the infamous “claw grip” that is almost required in a game like Demon’s Souls, but my hands adjusted over the course of X hours it took me to beat it. Most notable, though, is the way the haptics react to you being hit. When you block a big shot with your shield, you feel that strong jolt localized entirely on the left side of the controller; when you run over a fallen vase and it shatters you hear and feel that distinct impact; and when you ride an elevator, there’s an almost roller coaster-esque rumble that accurately imitates the churning of gears. It’s incredibly cool.
Also, the provided in-game tip videos are fantastic tools that give progressively more specific hints. Those can either point you in the right direction if you’re lost in a stage or give you crucial tips against tough bosses to help you figure out a proper strategy to deal with them.
Sights and Sounds
As one of the first games available exclusively on the PlayStation 5, it’s no surprise that Demon’s Souls is breathtaking to look at. There is a staggering level of attention to detail here. Enemies display looks of fear, anger, and desperation, and react realistically to every hit; Blood spatter sticks to your armor, weapons, and body; just about everything you walk through or on reacts naturally to your physical presence, whether its a puddle, box, vase, or a fallen enemy’s armor; fat jiggles on the grotesque Vanguard Demon when you make impact with a weapon. The list goes on and on.
It is all around just a magnificent showcase of the power of the PlayStation 5 and an enticing taste and what’s to come if things can look this good on a launch game. Bluepoint definitely took more liberties with the art style and soundtrack than it did with the gameplay, and personally I love the art direction, even though I will say that I miss the jovial mystique of the PS3’s Fat Official compared to the remake’s, which looks like a radiation experiment gone horribly wrong. The soundtrack, in comparison to the mostly somber and lo-key music of the original, feels much louder and more bombastic during boss fights, which I dug – but it is so different that I can definitely understand people preferring the original.
Demon’s Souls offers two visual modes labelled “Cinematic” and “Performance.” It’s the usual split that we’ve come to expect at this point, with the cinematic mode targeting 30fps with a true 4K resolution, and the performance mode keeping a consistent 60fps at 1440p, which is then upscaled to 4K. Personally, I’ve always been a framerate over fidelity guy, so I played the whole thing in performance mode and never looked back. That said, cinematic mode is definitely a stunner if you don’t mind sacrificing half the frames.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Souls game without asynchronous multiplayer. If you’re familiar with how multiplayer has worked in other Souls games, Demon’s Souls should come as no surprise: Players can leave messages to give hints, point out secrets, or absolutely troll the heck out of you; you can play cooperatively with the tried-and-true method of leaving and activating summon signs; you can invade other players who are running the risk of going through a level while in human form; and you can lay down a red summon sign for some good ol’ fashioned consensual PVP.
I’ve always kind of been lukewarm on Souls multiplayer, and Demon’s Souls is no exception. My attempts in trying to get summoned in co-op were met with a ton of waiting and very little payoff – especially since without the covenant system added in Dark Souls, there’s little incentive to offer your help outside of the fuzzy feeling in your belly that you get for doing a good deed. My one success in getting summoned for PVP didn’t fare much better as I got summoned for the Old Monk boss battle, only to have it end abruptly when the player I invaded never even made it to the door. After that, I simply lost the will to sit and wait for multiplayer in general unless I was coordinating with a friend.