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Demon’s Souls PS5 review – the launch game From Hell

The most graphically advanced game on the PS5 is a remake of the forerunner to Dark Souls and it’s a definite game of the year contender.

With the next generation now upon us, and the new year looming, the internet is shortly going to be flooded with articles about the best and most influential games of the outgoing generation. Games like Fortnite and Zelda: Breath Of The Wild are obvious inclusions but in terms of influence on other games, rather than just being very successful/critically acclaimed, nothing has had quite the impact of Dark Souls. The game that made being difficult a virtue has inspired dozens of other games since – but there is no Dark Souls without Demon’s Souls.

The irony here is that while Sony did publish the PlayStation 3 version of Demon’s Souls in Japan they were so unimpressed by it they left it up to other publishers in the West, who almost didn’t bother either. The game was a minor hit nevertheless, thanks to strong word of mouth, and while Sony never pursued a sequel developer FromSoftware were snapped up by Bandai Namco to make Dark Souls as a spiritual successor.

Sony still have the rights to the original game though, which is how we’ve arrived at this remake, which is the best launch game on the PlayStation 5, one of the best games of the year, and one of the most visually astounding console titles ever created.

FromSoftware has had nothing directly to do with this remake, with development instead being handled by Australian team Bluepoint Games, who worked on the excellent Shadow Of The Colossus remake. The approach here is very similar, in that although the visuals have been recreated from scratch the underlying level design and gameplay is almost identical to the original. There are some changes to help modernise the game, particularly in terms of the camera and the controls, but they’re still relatively minor.

As with all the Souls games, the storytelling in Demon’s Souls is purposefully opaque, although the intro sequence does spell the basics out a lot more clearly than usual, revealing how the king of Boletaria has foolishly reawakened the ‘Old One’, covering the land in a thick fog and turning every living person into a zombie. You play as a customisable adventurer trying to lift the curse, until you’re inevitably killed and travel to the otherworldly Nexus, where you begin to realise the true scope of the problem at hand.

Demon’s Souls is a third person action role-player and in terms of the basics of gameplay there’s nothing very unique about it, even if at the time its approach to melee combat in a fantasy world was more unusual than it seems now. The combat mechanics are very simple, with none of the complications of later Dark Souls games, and amounts to little more than light and heavy attacks, plus a parry/riposte and optional magic attacks.

There are multiple different types of weapons, and the ability to hold swords double-handed, but the nuance of the combat is not in the controls but in how you approach the game and its enemies. Everything in Demon’s Souls can kill you in one or two moves and when you die you’ll lose all your progress and enemies will respawn, with just one chance to reclaim dropped souls – used to level up your stats – from the place you died.

What’s more important than collected souls though is the experience you earn internally, as a player. When people complain about Souls games being too hard it’s usually because their first go involves running straight at the first enemy they see and wailing away at them with a sword, as if they’re playing a 3D version of Golden Axe. But that is not how Demon’s Souls works.

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The one thing that immediately strikes you about Demon’s Souls is its thick atmosphere of doom and melancholy. Like most From games, the antagonists have already triumphed long before you appeared and it’s left uncertain to what degree you can remedy the situation. So rather than rushing to meet every enemy the game’s oppressive ambience encourages you to move more cautiously, to always have your shield ready and to expect enemies to appear at any moment, without warning.

With that attitude, death takes you by surprise less often and you begin to master the combat and realise that many enemies are just as fragile as you, once you understand their abilities, weaknesses, and range of attacks.

Set pieces that at first seem perversely impossible become almost trivial, as you break through the wall that everyone hits with a Souls game and realise, from the other side, that rather than being unfairly difficult the game is almost the opposite: very little in it is random and everything is designed to be beaten – and to make you more confident and skilled a player for doing so.

In that sense the remake is exactly the same as the original, although you do have a more well populated online community ready to offer help as ghostly allies that can be summoned or merely observed in their moments of death, as a warning for what may lie ahead. The means for enabling co-op is left for you to discover but everyone can also leave messages on the ground, advising on ambushes or hidden items – a system that is rarely abused given that everyone benefits from it (not least because if a message is upvoted your health is restored).

There’s also new help in the form of the PlayStation 5’s Activities cards, with 180 separate help videos which prove genuinely useful in terms of explaining how to deal with certain situations and enemies, or how to locate rare items. Everyone uses wikis when playing a From game, it’s part of what gives the game its unique sense of community, and the Activities seem very much an extension of that.

On the flip side, other players can invade your game as phantoms, enabling a PvP element and ratcheting up the difficulty another notch. Although, again, beating an invader inspires such a feeling of achievement and mastery it’s at least equivalent to beating one of the game’s infamously challenging bosses.

That reputation is well earned and Demon’s Souls has always had some of the best bosses in the series. The Tower Knight was legendary even before the remake, and the likes of the Storm King and Flamelurker are also amongst the series’ best. At the same time, encounters such as the Old Monk and Maiden Astraea deconstruct the idea of what a boss battle actually is, and even today stand as amongst FromSoftware’s most inventive creations.

Demon’s Souls is a triumph all round and no one could have asked for a more sympathetic remake, even without From involved. The painfully beautiful scenery that you move through, from ruined castles to haunted swampland, looks like it’s been painted not rendered, with astonishing attention to detail and amazing use of light and shadow – even though the game doesn’t use ray-tracing.

Demon’s Souls is the only major PlayStation 5 launch title (ignoring Astro’s Playroom) that is next gen only and the difference is plainly obvious, as the game forces upon you an even slower pace of progress, as you constantly gawp at the horrifically beautiful landscapes around you.

The use of 3D audio is equally good, with many enemies identified by sound long before you see them, but it’s arguably the DualSense controller which makes the most difference. Together with the improved sound, animation, and collision detection there’s a much greater sense of solidity and weight to the remake. When just walking around you can sense the texture of the ground – whether it’s wood, stone or something more organic – without looking at it, while clashing swords with a demon you feel the push back through the adaptive triggers, as every action stimulates multiple senses.

What faults there are revolve around the new cinematic camera, which sits closer to your character than normal but can feel a touch skittish in more enclosed areas. The original is available as an option though, so you can’t blame Bluepoint for trying. And while the world tendency feature now has a visual indicator of whether a particular level is black (harder enemies but better loot) or white (easier enemies but less loot), it never properly explains what causes it to shift from one to the other.

Previous to this remake few people would have said that Demon’s Souls was their favourite From game but that was largely because in its original state it was difficult to obtain and riven by performance issues. That is no longer the case, indeed the fast-loading of the PlayStation 5’s SSD instantly removes one of the greatest frustrations of the original, as death requires but a few seconds wait before you return to the action.

As the world waits to see what From will do in the next generation, with Elden Ring, this remake of their first breakthrough game couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s a welcome reminder of one of the most important gameplay movements of the outgoing generation and proof that better graphics and presentation can improve a great experience and aren’t just a frivolous concern.

It does still seem a strange choice to have as a launch game but having Sony promote something that is so unapologetically a video game – not an interactive experience or glorified tech demo – is highly encouraging and sets a tone for the future generation that couldn’t be more exciting.

Demon’s Souls PS5 review summary

In Short: A fantastic remake of one of the most influential games of recent history, with stunning visuals and improved technical features that make it easier and less frustrating to play for everyone.

Pros: A perfect combination of presentation and gameplay that results in one of the most daunting and atmospheric video games ever made. Superb graphics and great online features.

Cons: World tendency still feels like something that could have been cut and no-one would’ve complained. Very expensive.

Score: 9/10

Formats: PlayStation 5
Price: £69.99
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Bluepoint Games and Japan Studio
Release Date: 12th November 2020
Age Rating: 18

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