February 25, 2021

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Demon’s Souls PS5 review: stylistically uneven, but nevertheless an unforgettable experience

I don’t envy Bluepoint Games. For the last decade or so, it’s had the thankless task of remastering and porting older games to newer consoles. But, a few years ago, something changed. A gear shifted and the studio went from porting games, to remaking them entirely. After it remade Shadow of the Colossus, the studio felt confident in remaking a cult classic: FromSoftware’s seminal 2009 dark fantasy RPG, Demon’s Souls.

Demon’s Souls is a game that’s very near and dear to my heart. It dared to be different to most of the other games populating the AAA landscape, and it was a triumph for a Japanese Studio to create something so purposefully esoteric, and distinctly Japanese in its design, in an era where we once saw other Japanese developers struggle to reckon with dwindling sales and the rising costs of HD development. After playing Demon’s Souls for the first time, EX-SIE president Shuhei Yoshida recalls saying “This is crap, and an unbelievably bad game.”

Sony only ever published Demon’s Souls in Asia. It took the work of Atlus to publish the “unbelievably bad game” in America, and Bandai Namco in PAL territories.

Nevertheless, Demon’s Souls persevered, and became infamous for its difficulty, design and atmosphere. But, that’s not to say the original game was without its own flaws: unpatched bugs, easy ways to get around difficult areas, and certain boss fights that felt entirely anticlimactic. But, despite this, Demon’s Souls started gaining traction. The community went from being a small group of people, huddled around something strange and fascinating, to being completely mainstream within a decade. I still remember the late nights, talking to friends and people online about the obsession that consumes you as you wander the lonely landscape of Boletaria. Bluepoint, then, had a herculean task in trying to capture that lighting-in-a-bottle again.

In Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls, you can start off as one of nine classes, each offering their own play style and benefits. But this is pretty inconsequential. You can play however you want, including choosing from a wide spectrum of weapons, spells, magic and armour. The slow and methodical combat feels gritty and satisfying and an approach to difficulty that can be easily described as unforgiving, but fair. Those familiar with other games in FromSoftware’s catalog like Dark Souls and Bloodborne will feel right at home. For those who are intimately familiar with the combat of the original release of Demon’s Souls, don’t worry. All of it is built upon the code from 2009. The difference here is that weapons are somewhat flashier, with brand-new animations.

What remains are the quirks and balancing present in the original. By the end of my first session with Bluepoint’s Demon’s Souls, I had created an immensely overpowered character who was easily able to carry me through the rest of the game. Demon’s Souls’ difficulty doesn’t come from what level you might be, but the experience of learning how you can best equip yourself against what the game throws at you.

The first level of Demon’s Souls is a masterclass in game design, providing you with careful lessons on how to properly play. Enemies lurk around every corner. There’s an array of traps and difficult enemies that you should clearly come back to when you’re more powerful. If of course all culminates in a challenging boss fight. This is the blueprint for all the levels that come after it.

After completing the first level, you’re kicked into The Nexus, your hub for the rest of game. It acts as a safe-haven and level selector for Demon’s Souls. In The Nexus, you’ll find a relatively small group of forlorn NPCs huddled together as a last bastion for humanity in a world that’s becoming increasingly doomed around them. It’s not a cheery place, and the added fidelity gives it more of a sense of grandeur than was present in the original, which felt much bleaker by comparison.

This sense of grandeur is something that seeps into the design of the Boletarian Palace levels of the Demon’s Souls remake, which has had a significant change by the way of its art direction and design. For newcomers, this won’t make too much of a difference, but trained eyes might feel a bit differently about the slew of creative liberties taken in Bluepoint’s reimagining of the game. The changes in art direction don’t always land. But, when Bluepoint nails it, it goes hard.

One of Demon’s Souls’ most captivating and impressive areas is Upper Latria, which has been beautifully (and faithfully) recreated. It’s seeped in tone and an atmosphere, colored by the curious NPCs you encounter who may or may not be on your side. You’ll encounter difficult enemies who might flank you around every corner, while a gigantic beating heart thumps into the vibrations of the Playstation 5’s Dualsense controller. If you die, you load back in seconds, thanks to the PS5’s blisteringly fast SSD. Needless to say, it makes for a deeply engrossing experience that is on par with, if not better than the original game. The same can be said for certain other areas where Bluepoint has stayed true to the roots and atmosphere of the original game, and even added its own small flourishes which enhance the experience. But, other areas feel less impactful, in part to the visual ‘upgrades’ that the game has received.

The miserable swamp in the Valley of Defilement is now easily navigable, largely thanks to how far the draw distance is. Where you’d previously only see distant torches, you now see pretty much the whole map, and it makes for a significantly different experience. It reminds me of the Silent Hill 2 HD release, which completely removed the near fog and close draw distances. To say the least, the Demon’s Souls remake is fairly inconsistent in tone when compared to the original release, and it’s important to note that increasing the visual fidelity in every area doesn’t necessarily make Demon’s Souls better, or preserve the design intentions of the original game. Despite these visual changes, which include NPCs and other enemies, the core of Demon’s Souls remains intact, including its unique online functionality.

You’re able to leave helpful (or unhelpful) messages, get summoned into other players worlds to help them clear an area and defeat a boss, or even invade someone, defeating them for a handsome reward. Also present is an obtuse mechanic named Tendency, which may make your game slightly easier or harder, and even let you unlock new paths to explore based on how you manipulate it. This makes you always return to well-worn ground and previously beaten areas, once you’ve managed to understand and achieve those conditions.

Every area in Demon’s Souls is littered with secrets to find, and shortcuts to unlock, which root themselves deeply inside your mind as you play the game. I found myself awake in the early hours in the morning on several occasions while in the process of reviewing Demon’s Souls, just waiting to find the hidden alcoves in areas, or unlocking shortcuts.

This style of level design isn’t found too often, even in modern AAA games, and the detail in which the world is imagined makes it feel like the kingdom of Boletaria was genuinely a real place, and not just somewhere purely created for your enjoyment. Miners toil away for their masters in adverse conditions, heretics or those perceived as dangerous are locked away in prisons populated by the damned, and the unwanted children of the world fester in a swamp, guarded by a woman who dared to stray from the path of her god.

As I made my way through Demon’s Souls, I was enthralled. I was deep in the throes of obsession once again. The quality-of-life changes which include making healing items drop a bit more often go a long way, too. It’s made Demon’s Souls more palatable to contemporary audiences, but also revises some of the decade-old design, which can also be seen as at-odds with the experience of the original game. Bluepoint is walking along a very narrow tightrope.

The differences present in 2020’s Demon’s Souls remake are in the form of a lot of very small, minor changes that layer on top of each other. From UI tweaks, to changes in art design, or how your character still ripples on the magical floor at the centre of the Nexus in soul form. It’s worth noting that the more restrained soundtrack is now gone, too. It does genuinely feel like Bluepoint lost some of the design language and other notable elements of the PS3 release along the way.

But, it’s not like Bluepoint has ripped up every element of the original, either. There is a small online backlash to these changes, but it’s not like it’s given Old King Doran a gun. It would have been nice to see a Master Chief Collection-style option, where you could switch between an upscaled PS3 release with all original assets intact, and the PS5 release with all the new bells and whistles. It’s important to note that due to the servers being offline, you’ll never be able to experience the PS3 version as it was intended with all of it’s online functionality without the use of a private server. The original game needs to be preserved. But, the community is doing a great job of keeping it on life-support, for now.

Bluepoint could have also easily demystified a lot of the systems present in Demon’s Souls, but in most cases chose not to. This is because at the core of Demon’s Souls is the obsession you eventually succumb to as you play through. You’ll want to discover how things like the Tendency system work, how upgrading a weapon down a certain path measures up to another, and for that you might have to look outside of what the game gives you – but it also opens up the opportunity for players to collectively connect and understand the game. That sense of community is palpable, and only draws you further into spending your time thinking about it. To take that sense of community away and clearly explain everything would be to lose a part of Demon’s Souls’ identity.

Though somewhat stylistically uneven, Demon’s Souls PS5 manages to capture the spirit of the original game. The experience is certainly not for everyone, but if you manage to get your head around its steep learning curve and obtuse mechanics, Demon’s Souls will give you a rewarding experience, seeped in an unrelenting and oppressive atmosphere that you will almost certainly never forget.

5 Stars

A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review.

The biggest changes in Demon’s Souls PS5

  • You can now send items that would overburden you straight to Stockpile Thomas
  • Crystal Lizards will not despawn until you have killed a certain amount of them
  • Draw distance in The Valley of Defilement has been significantly increased
  • Many NPCs & enemies have been redesigned
  • Some bosses have been redesigned
  • Some pieces of armour and weapons have been redesigned
  • The item duping glitch no longer works
  • Healing items drop more frequently
  • You can no longer shoot through fog gates with a bow
  • Some rare upgrade materials drop more frequently
  • Healing items now weigh more
  • New items and armour have been added
  • The soundtrack is now Orchestrated, and is significantly different
  • NPC dialogue has been rerecorded
  • The UI has been changed
  • You can now preview spells and magic before you learn them

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