Dark Insight

An International Video Games Podcast

A Promise To Some Demons

I know what you’re thinking. It’s not enough already that my opinions about Demon’s Souls are out there in the wide world of social media as it is, that I thought there is somehow a need to add insult to injury by inviting you to read my thoughts on it as well.
A promise is a promise. I’ve played through and completed it and said I would write something afterwards. I’ve suffered, now it’s your turn.
It’s up to you if you want to go further and before you all decide to stand outside my window, pitchforks sharpened and flaming torches at their most flamey..
I really didn’t mean to make this into something more when it started.
It was kind of funny, I’ll admit that at least.
It’s hard not to watch the fans react and band together with an acidic hatred for anyone who so much utters a word against one of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s most cherished developments.
It wasn’t really an acidic hatred in truth. More a bit of sarcasm, and possibly one insult.
But if we can’t critique something we like, then what hope is there for us?
It came to be a learning experience.

I’ve come to learn that we do not joke about not liking Demon’s Souls, and we certainly don’t embark on a six month campaign of subtle digs and slight harassment through social media that all started on a podcast appearance sometime last year and finished with an ‘agricultural incident’ on Stardew Valley.
This is not the done thing. Though I’ve found it increasingly more difficult to give up. (skeleton)

The whole semi trolling thing in itself is awful, especially when you consider I have not played the much loved game in question to completion. I’ve the square root of nothing to base my experience on to my complete shame.
So I took up the challenge to play nothing else for the next six weeks (not even Stardew Valley might I add, even though that is something worthy of your attention) just so I could have a basis for my misguided jest and japes about a game that is 8 years old and going slightly grey, or possible very dark brown.

What’s been the most surprising since I announced my intentions is the number of people who have confessed how they abandoned Miyazaki’s Nexus grounded romp after only a couple of levels, never to pick it up again, and were interested to see how I would fair in it’s brutal and difficult world.
The truth of the matter is that I too have already walked that path, when the game was released as part of the monthly PS plus titles. This was back in the days when the monthly titles were worth much more than a cursory glance than they are at present.
I dived in with the glee and wild abandon of someone who had bested Gwyn in Dark Souls, fell in love co-oping the Gaping Dragon and would fight people in the street who would even suggest that the second part of the game after Anor Londo was not as good as hitting Undead Burg.
The result being I bounced off it like Robbie the Rubber Man visiting the all-rubber trampoline factory during the height of Spring.
I don’t think I got much further than the Phalanx. I think I did get to the point of large amounts of swearing and promising to delete the thing from my hard drive. There didn’t seem to be a way forward, except to jump back into Dark Souls and in time, forget about the whole experience.

Time passed, and the PS3 that dominated my game time became a media machine and gave way to the sloping angles of the PS4 instead. I embraced Scholar and Lords of the Fallen, argued with Bloodborne, wrestled with Bloodborne and then fell to the ground laughing and giggling with Bloodborne.
(It’s dark and brooding charms and flashy combat didn’t manage to turn my head until after Dark Souls 3 decided to show its well trodden and eventually world weary hand.)
Sometimes I would turn on the PS3 and just stare the at the multi-gnashered icon on the home screen of the PS3, not even knowing who or what the Dragon God was. Sometimes I would get as far as the title screen, before switching it off and playing something more enjoyable, like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Which to this day is a wonderful high rise, rooftop experience that doesn’t deserve the hate it has received. I’m currently dipping in and out of Unity as well, which is equally as fun.

It was only after I tweeted a video about a field in Stardew Valley that I had made spell out the word ‘DEMON SOULS IS RUBBISH’, (and to this day I still remain very proud of that achievement, and the spelling mistake), that the voice at the back of mind reminded me that sometimes I go TOO FAR and this was one of those times.
So in order to overcompensate, I back peddled slightly, did a 180 degree skid and then proclaimed in a loud voice that I would play nothing else but Demon’s Souls for the next six weeks, pinned it on my Twitter profile..
And pretty much regretted it instantly.

Demon’s Souls to me, is it’s own little game, in it’s own little bubble, that Dark Souls watched, took the framework and then ran with it, leaving behind a mixture of things that are done very well and things that are done to make you leave a three year gap before you play it again.

Things seem to start off well, you feel in control, there's are a few challenges.
It’s all very Dark Souls and familiar. You even start to feel the beginnings of confidence. So it puts you up against the hugest of demons to knock you back
I lasted all of two swipes before I ended up in the Nexus.
At this point I kind of have an idea why I'm here. A king decided to invite a whole pile of demons thinking that somehow things were cool with them hanging around, except he’s now of the opinion that this was in fact, one of those VERY BAD IDEAS. Similar to trying to dry wet cotton socks in the microwave when you were eleven years old, and the kitchen smelled of very burnt for days. I had no excuse except to hazard it was popcorn. I probably should have invited Demons back to the house. The punishment would have probably been the same.

There’s a Lady who sounds like The Doll in the Hunter’s Dream, except this time she is the Maiden with the Stick, and she’s very happy to see me. So happy that I’m sent upstairs on an errand to apparently meet some monumental chap who will explain more things than she cares to.
Of course I don’t listen to her. I go talk to the various members of the Nexus boyband, while wondering if woman with the stick is somehow their manager. There’s the grumpy one, the friendly one, the crestfallen one, the one who had lost someone and the angry/ashamed one who is quite clearly talking about Patches, which in itself raises a slight smile from me because I’m curious what the little shit looks like in the past.

Even before I start though, I fall at the first hurdle because I’m sure I’ve been up and down these stairs a dozen or so times and I can’t find this Monumental chap that sticky maiden was referring to. I blame the loading screen entirely of course, because in the loading screen you see all the characters from below and so you expect them to be considerably bigger than the actual fact. You also expect them not to be hanging about with forty or so of their mates who ALL LOOK THE SAME.
This is clearly not a very professional place if this is the way you are trying to pass on information about saving the world. Now, I’m not judging, but if I was a person of considerable importance, or a gatekeeper, though some might say a Brick Wall, then wisdom suggests you maybe have some more than a flipping lit candle in front of you point out that you are possible worth paying attention to.
I spent more time trying to find them then I spent in the whole of the first castle level place. That is a considerably long time in my book. Though I was willing to overlook it because I made a promise to people who I have never met in real life that I would play this thing for six weeks.

So before you put this down and go and do something else let me put your mind at rest.
It’s not my intention to go through every single part of the Demons’ Souls experience, because otherwise this is going to turn into a ten part Netflix series and I don’t think it’s fair to make you binge watch series one once again. Especially when most of you are on series five and are looking forward to watching something completely different. So maybe let’s just pick up on those things that maybe made me go oooh, or urgh..

What I will drop in from the start is that to me, the Dark Souls series seems to have drifted away a lot in the combat that Demon’s laid down as a solid foundation. Coming from the lightning fast worlds of Dark Souls 3 and Bloodborne where you dance around enemies with the precision of a blade accessorized ballet dancer, and crowd control is a matter of fact.
Let’s be really clear about this, even attempting to use that tactic is going to get you killed very quickly indeed in Demon’s Souls.
It’s very easy once you have a decent levelled weapon in Dark Souls 3 to wade in regardless of who you’re facing. In Demon’s, the first couple of enemies in Boletaria you encounter as you make your way up to the castle require the kind of patience you normally reserved for the Balder Knights in the Undead Burg. This continues throughout the game in various guises. The word I’m looking for is measured, but precise and thoughtful would easily apply as well.

Even once I was familiar with my long sword moveset and picked up some magic that would wreck shop. I remember heading back to 1-2 to take out the red dragon, spent a considerable time and effort kicking their scaley hide, then in my joy, ran round the corner and came very close to becoming a red smear on the stairs because of one of the early enemies with a spear and shield. Over-confidence seems to be a just a big an enemy as your normal grunts.
It works in Demon’s favour that your enemy encounters are that, an encounter that often needs you to consider how you’ll make your first strike. In later levels, the number of enemies don’t necessarily increase, but there are combinations that will hand you the restaurant bill before you’ve had time to sit down at the table. There’s a climb up a flight of stairs in Boletaria where archers, knights and claw handed assassins run a combo on you that pretty much wipe out those that give the mad slashing panic technique their priority. To me, Demon’s is harder that all the iterations of Dark Souls I’ve played because at no point do you really feel you have the mastery of the world around you. It’s oppressive at every turn. Even in the clear air of the Boletaria castle walls, you’re aware that the soldiers aren’t reacting to you, they’ve been waiting for you like they were waiting for the previous person, and the one before that. It’s clear you’re just another chancer here to take out King Allant.

It’s almost like the levels weren’t designed with you in mind, that they were designed because Miyazaki wanted to represent a world in gradual decline and you’re nothing more than a tourist. The various parts of Boletaria will endure long after you’ve left your mark or deleted your save, and they feel lived in, they feel like they’ve endured pain and suffering and frustration. In many ways the restrictions of the PS3 fit the world perfectly, because unlike Bloodborne or DS3 where you can see for miles if you want, you’re lucky if you can see more than ten feet in front of your face whenever you’re indoors.
So you end up in a constant state of apprehension in most of the levels because of this potential double threat. Merciless lumbering enemies and not being able to see for toffee are fairly horrific bedfellows. I defy you not to emit some kind of sound when you first see your first human rubber band ball in Latria, mainly because you don’t see it until it’s completely in your face, throwing magic or stabbing wildly.

Ah Latria, you actual bastard of a level.
I don’t think I remember feeling such dread navigating a level in the longest time. Not even the darkness of the Tomb of the Giants phased me that much, as there was always the slight feeling that you were meant to be there once you had reached a certain point in the game. Latria wants to you go away and to leave it alone and it does this by being repeatedly horrible to you throughout the level.
‘I’m sorry, did we not signpost the floor not being there?’
‘I’m sorry, did we make this stairway not obvious enough to find?’
‘I’m sorry, the levels do all look the same.’
‘I’m sorry, one key does not fit all locks.’
‘I’m sorry, our staff here are very huggy.’
And so on. It’s all designed to make you want to rush through once you make the same mistake for the 13th time, and then it punishes you for rushing, and then you realise you have to slow down again and take your sweet time and all the time it’s picking away at your confidence and you dread even turning a corner.
Once you make it through, and you fight the doll, who was ok as a boss, it then opens up even further. Being outside doesn’t increase the light, it just adds some flying claws to the night sky and blood underneath your feet and some mild peril.
I completely understand why Dark Souls 3 wanted to emulate it. I don’t understand why it did, because in emulating it, it just underlined that they were struggling for ideas of their own. It was Diet Latria, not as tasty but apparently better for you.

I can’t say I felt the same love for the Valley of Defilement. It’s need to punish without teaching is frustrating. There were too many times where the camera was more of an enemy than the visible threats themselves and too often I followed a minion off a platform because switching the swinging viewpoint ended up with me plunging to my death with them, like a set of star crossed lovers.
It was the giants who almost caused me to quit. Double the size of the minions, with clubs that gave no ducks about Shields being up or down. When you thought your physical defence was 100%, they decided it wasn't.

For an introduction to a level it did a good job of getting under my skin.
I must have played it so many times that I could have done the first part of the run down without opening my eyes.
Rats don't help either. Not with their plague and certainly not with their ability to simply ignore piecing attacks or crawl under your sword swipes. It’s a nonsense part of the level that requires an item that you really don’t bother using anywhere else and it’s cheap. It's another point that added to my reasons to almost make me give up if I’m being brutally honest, because the boss is a pushover and you don’t feel you’ve achieved some level of triumph by passing through somewhere that you don’t feel is fair in its execution.

Stonefang, starts off well, impresses, wildly dips into a land of fake tan orange before finishing in a large scale test of utterly impressive patience. The Shrine of Storms follows the same format in grey, but contains more gimmicks and enemies that are there to kill if you if you don’t have the correct equipment at your disposal.

This is a game wide issue, because you sword and board people are going to have the worst time if you don’t branch out in your weapon choice and pick yourself up a bow or some magic. There are simply too many bosses in the game that just take you apart if you go toe to toe with them. There are also too many enemies that fall easily to magic and seem to have rock skin when you are poking them with a sword.

Towards the end of the game, I put more points into Magic and simply cast my way through most enemies. Those I could snipe at, I hit with my bow and arrow instead. Charging up with sword in hand often resulted in a two shot kill, mostly with me being the one getting my ass handed to me.
If I switched to a projectile weapon, it was more like a walk in the park.

Three black phantoms waiting for me in the room behind The Penetrator? Easy pickings..

The Armored Spider and it's need to spam with fire and webbing every second?

Arrows and an outcrop.

The whole of 4-3 with the swamp jellyfish? I’ve got your Soul Arrows right here..

Even several of the showcase bosses fell eventually without a death. I felt like I was cheating when facing off with the False King Allant and all i did was to fill him full of blue light while dodging his homing attacks.

There is also a but. A large and looming BUT over everything bad I've said so far. There's something completely compelling about pressing on and finding out what's in that next area, seeing which boss you face next.

Trudging onwards with a shield raised and limited vision and living from moment to moment as you face your demons.

For every time I cursed the screen when facing the ridiculous armoured spider, I smiled and nodded when a short cut opened up that made the journey back to them that little bit easier.

After facing the disappointment of the Leechmonger and the Rotten Colossus, I felt my heart romp in my chest as I took the final shot against the Flamelurker as they charged that one last time.

I saluted Miyazaki for his ingenuity in the Old Hero and the Dragon God, and had less flattering things to say about playing as a female character and being stopped from wearing certain armour sets. Demons souls is full of buts..

So I'm conflicted. Not because I wanted to be right. I think I wanted to be proven wrong. I wanted it to be a sublime experience. I wanted it to click like Scholar and Bloodborne and the original Dark Souls did. I wanted to join the crowd and have my back slapped and people give me a knowing nod and whisper gently ‘ now you understand why we love it so’.
I don't know if I was looking to be critical for the sake of it, but there are issues with Demon's Souls that go hand in hand with everything it achieved. These issues cancel out the greatness of climaxes like the Storm King. (I now completely understand the those who found the Yhorm boss fight in Dark Souls 3 to be disrespectful of the original material.) Or the sheer enormity of stonefang and it's mining operation. Or the majesty of Boletaria Palace. The gripes don't push it in the direction of it being a terrible game by any stretch of the imagination, it just evens everything out for me.

Things like summoning and world tendency stayed as mysteries for the entire run, I understood and did neither and probably missed an entire world of differences that would have changed my perception on the game. This does win the title for a the only Souls game I solo’d every boss on the first run through.
I laughed at the Blacksmiths Scottish gruffness and the Stick maiden's staccato voice. I hoped that somehow Stockpile Thomas made it out alive.
In the end, given the final choice I walked away from everything and saved the world.

I'm not sure I won't visit again because I think it deserves another playthrough.
It's impossible to dismiss a game that laid the foundations for a follow up that set the entire games industry alight in flames.
So maybe I'm wrong to judge it for what it actually is and not what it helped it's follow up to become.

If you were to judge the entire souls series as an painting, looking up close at the Demon's souls part, you see the blotches, and slight mistakes, the wrong brush marks and the missteps with colour choices.

When you look at the whole picture and what it is part of? That's where you see the baby steps of greatness. And you can never take that away from Miyazaki’s game.

It's a fucking 6.