Dark Souls, it’s a game in the series that needs no introduction, so I haven’t bothered to write one. Instead I’m gonna get straight to the point. As much as these games have been revered and discussed to death, it seems to me as thought the actual origin of the series has all but been forgotten. And I don’t just mean by the community. Many of the merits and ideals of Demon’s Souls have faded away in the following entries, starting even as early as the original Dark Souls. After Demon’s Souls was a surprise hit, FromSoft set out to make it again, only this time, bigger and better. In many ways, Dark Souls was an ambitious sequel. The world was much larger and interconnected, which added a whole new satisfaction to exploration. The inability to warp from one area to another forced players into lengthy journeys, giving the game a sense of isolated adventure that even Demon’s Souls couldn’t offer. The animations were more polished, with even more of that satisfying weight that the series is known for. There were a bunch of refinements to the formula, like Estus, which removed potential downtime and helped balance out the challenge. It even had a few completely new mechanics of its own, like covenants. I think it’s a great sequel, and judging by its phenomenal success, it seems that many other people agree. There is one important caveat though: it’s not innovative. Many of the notable features that people assign to Dark Souls originated in Demon’s Souls, and were simply brought across because they worked last time. The goal of Dark Souls wasn’t innovation. It was refinement. FromSoft already had a formula that worked and they set out to exploit that fact. This is what really sets Demon’s Souls apart from the rest of the series. Early in its development, the project was assumed by many in FromSoft to already be a failure. Maybe a demoralizing way to think, but also liberating in a sense. That assumption is the main reason why director Hidetaka Miyazaki was able to take control of the project and why he and his team were able to implement some – at the time – bizarre features. With Demon’s Souls there was a sense that the developers were just doing whatever the hell they wanted, playing with conventions, and trying new features out with little care about how appealing they would be to a mass audience. World Tendency is a perfect example of this. Some developers believe that dynamic difficulty tuning is the correct
way to build their games, and even games in general. This method of design has been
gaining traction since around the 90’s, and given its success, it can be found in subtle forms in many mainstream games today. Other people – like myself – prefer when a game is consistently difficult, so there’s a more genuine sense of satisfaction when you finally overcome the challenge at hand. Demon’s Souls turns its back on both of those ideas and cuts your health in half as soon as you die. As if that isn’t enough, repeated deaths will increase enemy stats, and eventually spawn additional Black Phantoms to make the stage even tougher. Now you might think this a poor mechanic, there’s some very sound, logical arguments against it. I’m not saying that every game should work this way, but hopefully you can understand that I find this refreshing for the simple fact that it’s different from everything else. This – for me at least – was the real appeal of Demon’s Souls: time and again, they threw out the rulebook and just did whatever they felt like. Conventional wisdom says that struggling players should be offered a helping hand, not pushed down a well. Conventional wisdom says that a boss should be killed by the player, not themselves. Conventional wisdom says that secrets should be secret, not pointed out by someone else. Conventional wisdom says that important NPCs and vendors are off limits, not murdered while the player isn’t looking. Conventional wisdom says that the final boss should be an epic showdown; a test of the player’s skills. Not a pathetic, harmless blob. It’s the bossfights that stick out the most, with four of the five Archdemons clearly being designed to provide a memorable experience above all else. Even False King Allant, the most traditional of the five, has an incredibly punishing grab which actually delevels the player character, something the series hasn’t seen since. This kind of experimentation doesn’t always work. There’s not many people out there who’ll defend the encounter with the Dragon God, but an occasional failure is to be expected If a game is stepping outside the norm so much. To me, an anticlimactic “non-boss,” like Maiden Astraea, has just as much value – if not more – than something more traditional, like Flamelurker. There are other games I can play if I want a “Flamelurker-esque” experience, but only one game has Maiden Astraea. Later entries in the series, including the original Dark Souls, have largely done away with those weird boss fights, to the detriment of the overall experience. To understand why this is a bad thing, we have to confront a hard truth that few people seem to want to face about the Souls games, including FromSoft themselves. But here it is: the combat is nothing remarkable. Before you get your codpiece in a twist, keep in mind: that doesn’t equate to mediocre gameplay. As a whole, it’s hugely elevated by generally great level design, player freedom, load-out options, and some unique supplemental mechanics like World Tendency, covenants and Insight. The stamina system puts other action RPGs to shame, the animations are great, and the controls are tight. But in terms of actual complexity, there’s not much going on. There’s not much depth. And that wouldn’t be a problem. Except that the series has increasingly leaned on its action elements more and more as time has gone by. Bloodborne is the clearest example of this so far. The player character’s starting stamina is generous. And it’s easy to level up every useful stat for your build, with no meaningful trade-offs whatsoever. At this point, stats mainly exist so struggling players can grind out an advantage and carry on. The kind of self-controlled, dynamic difficulty the series excels at. To put it simply:
Bloodborne is more action, less RPG Unfortunately, even with the addition of trick weapons, there’s still a case to be made that, overall, the combat doesn’t even have depth exceeding basic action games If you’re a staunch defender of the series, this is where you might be tempted to rattle off all the different attack animations your favorite weapon has. After all, there’s two-handed attacks, jumping attacks, running attacks, charged attacks, transformation attacks, and probably more. It’s true that there are differences in range and damage, but the effect on the enemy is usually identical. They lose some health, possible suffer some hit-stun, which either lasts long enough to get another attack in, or it doesn’t. In which case, you back in the defensive until your next opening. Positioning is important, but that’s about the extent of it. If anything, Bloodborne actually has less depth than any other game in the series because shields are dis-incentivized and unable to parry, making the two things mutually exclusive when players used to be able to do both without having to swap between them. The magic implementation is also quite barebones and it even lacks a kick option although that would be irrelevant anyway since so few enemies has a defensive stance. At the end of the day, your options generally boil down to low-cost light attack, a high-cost heavy attack, and a ranged option of some sort, be it a spell, an item, a bow, or a gun. Apart from destroying the grounded aesthetic these games are – or were – known for, the weapon arts of Dark Souls 3 are kind of a step in the right direction, but the synergy between all these things is practically nonexistent. For example, there’s a few spells that allow you to set up an enemy for an interesting melee attack and vice versa. In terms of defensive options, this series is a lot better with the ability to block, parry, or dodge most regular attacks. These go a long way during regular combat encounters but unfortunately against bosses, parrying is often completely impossible and blocking is often ill-advised. Which leaves you with rolling as your one and only defensive action. So prepare to roll again and again and again and again and again. When you’re not rolling, you’ll generally be getting one to two hits in with whatever weapon you choose, hits that usually provoke no response from the boss whatsoever, making every weapon basically the same thing apart from whatever damage types and numbers it has. That’s not to say that bosses like this can’t be good. They can be. At their worst, they’re camera-eating monstrosities with infinite stamina that blatantly read your inputs, cancel their recovery animations, and have nonsensical tracking. But at their best, they’re fair, challenging, and have great presentation. False King Allant is a great boss. So are Artorias, Ludwig, and Sister Friede among many others FromSoft have put together over the years. But they’re also undeniably samey. You go in, you learn the moveset, maybe you die a few times along the way, until you know the boss’s moves like the back of your hand. Then you dodge past them, punish at the right times, and win the battle. It’s perfectly serviceable gameplay, but doing it twenty times in one game is just excessive. This has been the go-to boss design philosophy for FromSoft ever since Artorias of the Abyss and fights have only gotten more shounen anime over time. To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with simple combat mechanics. I’m not saying you should be able to juggle Hollows or anything. But if the game is going to be so relentlessly focused on action, then I have fewer reasons not to just play a better action game instead. What I can’t get elsewhere are the memorable experiences that Demon’s Souls presented by taking risks. The Archdemons are the clearest example of that, but even its more traditional bossfights serve a greater purpose. Demon’s Souls’ greatest strength is how it pulls you into its bleak, dangerous world so that you think about situations the way you would if you were actually there. This is something the Souls games continue to do kind of well, but Demon’s Souls still does it the best of them all because, excluding the innovative online features, almost everything else works in service of that larger goal. Phalanx, Leechmonger, Tower Knight, Fool’s Idol, Old Hero, Maneaters, and Armor Spider all have quirks to their design or their arena that the player can exploit if they figure out. You don’t outright win by doing so but you gain a big advantage if you’re willing to use your brain. It’s a deceptively simple concept. Thinking how to survive a boss by using clever tactics is exactly what a real adventurer would do. In a sense, the battle happens just as much outside the fog door as inside. Because of that, the mindset of the character and the player allign in such a way that it pulls the player further into the experience. On the other hand, dodging telegraphed attacks which come out in predefined combos is just exploiting your knowledge that the A.I. is acting within the constraints of a computer game. This has the opposite effect. It widens the gap between the character and the player. Most elements of Demon’s Souls can be viewed through this same lens. The environments are filled with difficult encounters, traps, and ambushes not just for their own sake, but to encourage a slow, methodical approach to exploration. This contrasts with the blasé way most protagonists throw themselves into dangerous situations. In reality, people tend to act more cautiously when they have a chance of being brutally murdered so those punishing mechanics encourage you to think and behave that way. Perpetually autosaving over a single save file reinforces this as well. Even a trivial choice can feel like it has serious consequences because it’s irreversible, just like real life. Of course, these elements work better the more unknowns you go up against. In other words, the element of surprise is pretty important. Venturing into Demon’s Souls felt like venturing into the unknown not because it was narratively unpredictable, but because it was mechanically unpredictable. Even once you got used to the Souls series’ features, which were brand new at the time, it still made sure to throw curveballs at you on a regular basis. Lack of careful observation was punished, NPCs weren’t always what they appeared to be, bosses often had unique mechanics, and even the environments could be polar opposites of each other. Try one Archstone and you’ll end up in the claustrophobic halls of Latria. Try the other and you’re headed towards a sprawling poison swamp. Incidentally, while you’re spending so much time scanning the scenery for suspicious areas, you can’t help but realize that the environments are actually built a lot like real places, much more so than any other game in the series. Shortcuts aren’t just inexplicably one-sided gates or needlessly complex elevators, they’re blockades to keep intruders out or mechanisms for transporting materials. This is half the point of shortcuts in the first place. They’re a way of presenting checkpoints without making the world seem like it was built just for your convenience. After picking up on those environmental details, you might go on to notice that the enemy designs and item placements have also been carefully considered to suit the area in question. What might not even occur to you is how sparse the cutscenes are, keeping interruptions to a minimum, or that the sound design can be described as minimalist as well. Most of what you hear as you wander through the stages is completely diegetic. Even death and resurrection are contextualized by the Nexus, weakening the barrier between the player and the game. By this point, the biggest things standing between you and Boletaria are the loading screens. The word I’ve been avoiding is “immersion”, but hopefully now that I’ve explained it, you can see that’s what it is. Demon’s Souls greatest strength is its immersive quality. That alone would be enough to make it a pretty good game, but what puts it over the top is the way it capitalizes on that immersion by throwing the player into a variety of situations which they can now experience as a first-hand participant. Patches’ trickery, the imposing Mind Flayers, Yurt’s betrayal, among many others All these things hit harder because the game does so much work establishing itself beforehand. The rest of the series has thoughtlessly replicated many ideas from Demon’s Souls which often defeats the purpose and occasionally completely misses the point. The first time you have to make your way through a poison swamp, it’s a new and interesting challenge. It gets your guard up. You have to think about your situation and make sure you have suitable equipment on hand. After five games in a row, it’s become a predictable, tiresome routine. Even though it’s the exact same thing mechanically, it now pulls you out of the game rather than in. As bad as that is, there’s few things worse than when the designers botch traps and ambushes. One of the most disappointing examples is giant archer in the Undead Settlement. You can see this situation coming a mile away, so when you finally arrive at the field of giant arrows, it’s obvious you need to think about your approach first. For a brief moment, this mimics the best of Demon’s Souls You’re there, as an adventurer, trying to decide how to overcome a difficult situation. You even have as much time to think about it as you like. The most reasonable line of thought is that the arrow will have a certain amount of travel time so if you change direction after you hear the shot, you’ll be safe. Wrong. The arrow magically curves in midair because this is no longer a series where you outsmart your opponents, it’s series where you press the roll button at the right time. To be fair to the later games, it’s important to point out that flashes of Demon’s Souls-style brilliance do show through from time to time and it’s telling that they’re some of the most memorable moments in their respective games. Intentionally turning the Sif fight into an anticlimax is far more impactful than just letting it play out normally. This is especially funny to look back on now that the series seems obsessed with multi-phased bosses that get stronger after you smack them around a bit. The reality is when slash a big wolf creature enough times, it has trouble standing up. Rather than make you feel like a big man all the time, Dark Souls tried to remind you of the grim reality. And it worked. I assume that most people enjoy Sif anyway because you get a pretty normal fight at the start. So how about I give you a genuinely unpopular opinion? My favorite boss in Bloodborne isn’t Gehrman, or Ludwig, or the Orphan. It’s this mad bastard. Micolash feels like a boss for people who enjoyed Demon’s Souls because he does something a boss isn’t supposed to: he runs away. Trying to catch him while he flees and rambles like a nutcase is unlike anything else in the entire series. This is made all the better by the way Bloodborne firmly establishes itself as a grim game. The Nightmare of Mensis is an imposing place but at the same time there’s something vaguely comedic about Micolash’s cowardly behavior. It’s not done just for the sake of it, though. If anything, it would be disappointing if such a Lovecraftian game didn’t have a fight against a mad scholar. It comes together well. And again, it’s something I can’t quite get elsewhere which isn’t to say that it’s good just because it’s different. But that certainly helps. In a 2009 interview about Demon’s Souls, Miyazaki himself said: It’s been the better part of a decade since that interview, so it’s fully possible that Miyazaki has changed his mind since then. But it’s still a quote that resonates with me at least. If the Dancer of the Boreal Valley had been in Demon’s Souls, I probably would’ve loved it. It has an intriguing visual design and the unconventional attack animations present a good challenge. The reason I don’t enjoy it is because it’s in a game filled with bosses just like it. FromSoft have long since figured out that one way they can punish players who carelessly roll around all the time is to hold the anticipation phase of attack animations for about half a second longer than you’d expect. They’ve completely abused this trick to the point to where most bosses seem to have at least a few of those attacks and even many basic enemies do as well. This could be a whole topic by itself, but rather than dwell on it, let’s just focus on the fact that by the time you reach the Dancer, you’ve already had to adapt to a huge number of unconventional timings designed soley to catch you out. The thought of learning even more wierd attack animations so I can roll and stab my way to victory yet again just isn’t all that appealing anymore. I could point to many of the bosses in Dark Souls 3 and say that they’re pretty good, but only in isolation. A great game is more than the sum of its parts. A little restraint would go a long way, as has been proven in a few other instances. Most of us can probably agree that the reveal of Irithyll in Dark Souls 3 is one of its better moments. You emerge from the catacombs and see a beautiful, snow-covered landscape topped by a crescent moon. It’s a wonderful vista. One thing Miyazaki and I seem to have in common is a fondness for these kinds of snow areas. As much as I love them – and believe me I do love them – I can still see that if the game had been nothing but snowy nighttime levels up to that point, the Irithyll reveal would’ve meant nothing. Just because it’s my favorite kind of area doesn’t mean I want the whole game to be like that. It’s the surprise that makes it work. Another example would be Gwyn’s theme in Dark Souls 1. You ask anyone who played Dark Souls and they’ll list it as one of the most memorable tunes. But would it have been as good if the entire soundtrack was somber piano music? Of course not. It’s the contrast with previous boss themes that makes it stand out. My point here is that even traditional bossfights stand to benefit by including others that don’t fit into the same mold. When it’s a forgone conclusion that every fight will be a dodge-and-punish affair, they lose their impact. Call it whatever you want. Restraint, pacing, surprise, variety, contrast. It’s something Demon’s Souls has in spaded which the later games lack. Catering to a larger audience has simply sucked more and more soul out of the series. Players whine about “gimmick” bossfights, so bosses become basic combat encounters and nothing more. Players want “honorable” PvP so they can test their skills against each other in a shallow, laggy, min-maxing, backstab, magic spamfest instead of having fun with the things you can uniquely do in these games, like disguise youself as an environmental doodad before kicking an unsuspecting player of a cliff. Never underestimate a community’s ability to take a cool feature and use it for the most boring thing imaginable. Players want convenience so they can fast-travel and respec their stats, removing absolutely any and all tension wherever possible just like every other RPG from the past ten years. At some point, you just start to wonder what’s next on the chopping block. Maybe the next game will have a built-in function to back up your save file so you don’t have to think to hard about any of those pesky decisions. If current trends keep up, sooner or later all we’ll be left with is a generic blob of game. Enjoyed by everyone, and loved by no one. Of course, the players don’t actually make the games. You can’t blame the audience for the decisions made by the developers. But it’s a stark difference going from assumed failure to subcultural phenomenon Bloodborne was the game Sony banked on to push the PS4 into the hands of early adopters. That kind of financial pressure is a breeding ground for design-by-committee homogenization. As if this wasn’t frustrating enough, the real twist of the knife is that even though the series has started to stagnate, it hasn’t even managed to carry many refinements from one entry to another. Problems are regularly solved in one game only to be undone in the next one. Demon’s Souls remains the most non-linear entry in the series and still has by far the most believable environments. Dark Souls abandoned the health reduction penalty which removed the incentive to open yourself up to invasion if you weren’t going to summon. As bad as that was, at least they got the hollowing mechanic right by only allowing players to go human at the bonfire. In later games, players can wait until they’re at the boss fog before opening themselves up to the online, making many invasions pointless. The interconnected world of Dark Souls 1 is still unmatched, with Dark Souls 3 being more or less a linear progression from one end of the game to the other. Yharnam is arguably the best, most intricate level design FromSoft have ever done, but it’s squandered by the inclusion of fast-travel from the start. Same as both Dark Souls sequels. The resource management challenge of the Estus system was completely destroyed by Dark Souls 2. And while Bloodborne’s Blood Vial setup is at least thematically appropriate, it’s still mechanically inferior. New Game Plus is still barebones even though Dark Souls 2 showed that remixed enemy placement could provide a fresh experience. Bloodborne used charged attacks to fix backstabs without resorting to excessive enemy tracking. But then Dark Souls 3 abandoned the idea. Ashen Estus is my favorite addition in Dark Souls 3. But, at this point I fully expect it to be inexplicably dropped. Next time around we’ll probably be back to a wierd Blood Vial setup or something equally disappointing. Keep in mind, these are just the problems FromSoft actually bothered to address at some point. There’s a whole host of issues that have never even been looked at. The camera is still atrocious when unlocked during combat because it does nothing and occupies the thumb you use to press the roll button. Lock-on still breaks during bossfights even though there’s nobody else in the room. And the button still snaps the camera behind the player when it’s not in range with no option to disable it. I’ve played hundreds of hours of these games and I’ve never once actually wanted to use the button for that. Weapons still bounce off walls even though enemies glide right through, giving them an unfair advantage. Critical attacks still don’t work properly on slopes. Input buffering is still overzealous and sometimes feels inconsistent; a minor annoyance in the early games but completely unacceptable for something the speed of Bloodborne or Dark Souls 3. Enemy pathfinding is still embarrassingly wonky, leading to exploitable or unpredictable movement patterns. And enemies can still be leashed, defeating the purpose of the entire combat system. If these games are going to be iterative sequels, at the very least they could be good at that. But they’re not. Five installments is more than enough time to figure out what makes these games good and iron out the kinks. Many other series have come a lot further in fewer tries. With all that said, it’s finally time to take a shortcut back to my point from the beginning. Demon’s Souls is one of those rare, genuinely innovative games that did enough new things its influence can be clearly felt on the gaming landscape of subsequent years. That originality is one of its best qualities, but it would be unfair to expect every game FromSoft creates to be innovative. The more important thing about Demon’s Souls is how cohesive it is. It’s FromSoft unfiltered; free to persue an overarching design methodology, even if that results in some unpopular decisions. That’s what I want for every game developer. Games are more interesting when they’re unshackled by the expectations of a narrow-minded fanbase or the financial whims of a publisher. Right now, it feels as though these games have fallen victim to one or the other. Maybe both. Whatever the cause, recreating the superficial elements of Demon’s Souls isn’t enough to make a truly great game by itself. It needs more. The magic of Demon’s Souls lies under the surface. It’s a culmination of ideas and concepts that work together in unity to accomplish something greater. That’s not to say it’s perfect. In fact, it seems pretty clear that it wasn’t even finished before it was released. But the end result is a game that proves you can have it all. Haunting visuals, immersive environments, evocative sound design, satisfying gameplay, novel mechanics, intriguing storytelling, memorable characters, fun multiplayer, and a high level of replayability. They’re not mutually exclusive goals. Games don’t have to be one or the other. When you do it right, you can do it all. It may not be the best at any of those things, but what it offers instead is a complete package on a level that is, arguably, unmatched. Unfortunately, over time, FromSoft decided to focus on some of those elements at the expense of others. And as a result, those games are more easily eclipsed by others which do those things better. Demon’s Souls still stands tall because it knows what it is: a demonic soul with a heart of gold.