Instead of trying to “fix” what isn’t broken, the PS5 remake of Demon’s Souls brings the original’s eerie, oppressive atmosphere and unrefined charm to life better than ever.
Before the runaway success of Dark Souls, before all the “git gud” and the “it’s the Dark Souls of [x]”, there was Demon’s Souls. Driven in large part from a desire on director Hidetaka Miyazaki’s part to recapture the challenge of older games, it was designed to be a difficult but rewarding game—to make success hard-earned but all the sweeter for it. But high difficulty is a tough sell for mass market appeal, so publishers had modest sales forecasts at best. (Indeed, in talks with Sony during development, Miyazaki specifically downplayed the challenge element out of fear that they’d try to change this to make the game an easier sell.)
Instead, Demon’s Souls became a sleeper hit when launched in 2009, with widespread critical acclaim and sales figures that far outstripped all expectations. This success paved the way for Dark Souls a few years later, refining and expanding upon the ideas that Demon’s Souls established to turn the Souls series into the success that it is. This history makes it a fascinating game to revisit today, and arguably even more so to experience for the first time.
Which brings us to Demon’s Souls for PS5: a ground-up remake for a new console generation, intended as both a showcase for what PlayStation 5 can achieve and to bring the whole “soulslike” genre back to where it began.
In some ways, Demon’s Souls is an odd pick for a poster child for PS5 and the next console generation, with much of the original’s appeal lying in its unrefined nature. Instead of trying to squeeze every ounce of the PS3’s in delivering picturesque, pristine environments, it used relative technical and budgetary limitations to create an atmosphere of foreboding and mystery. The experimental nature of many of its game systems could deliver uneven results—shooting for “challenging but rewarding”, but at times landing on unintentionally frustrating or easily exploitable instead. That whole core concept is one that can (and does) prove alienating.
In remaking something like that, it can be enticing to want to “fix” all these things. The common “wisdom” is that being pristine and polished is an objectively good thing for any game, that perfect balance is always a desirable end goal. It could be easy to want to “update” the game to bring it more in line with Dark Souls, to stick mid-level checkpoints throughout a game that initially had none, introduce weapons that only appeared later in the series, or rebalance the stat system to mirror the games that came later.
Notwithstanding the ongoing discussion around the accessibility issues inherent in the Souls concept—the things that make them “challenging but rewarding” can also make these games fundamentally unplayable for people with disabilities, a nuance that’s often lost in talk about whether such games should have “easy” modes—it would have been easy to want to tone down the difficulty in the interests of more general, broad appeal.
But Bluepoint managed to avoid the lure of all those things, and instead deliver a Demon’s Souls remake that manages to retain the soul (sorry) of the original. There’s a level of fidelity and detail that’s far beyond anything that could be dreamed of even on PlayStation 4, let alone PlayStation 3, but Bluepoint uses that to emphasise the atmosphere in Demon’s Souls rather than detract from it. Instead of using the opportunity of new hardware to pretty up the game, it’s used to better bring Boletaria, in all its grotesque, horrific glory, to life.
Sometimes this means quite substantial redesigns of classic enemies—the Fat Official being an oft-cited example—but in these cases, they’re redesigns to help embed the oppressive atmosphere of the game as a whole. Elsewhere, it’s using a more powerful particle system to make the fog feel more dense and impenetrable, or more detail in the crumbling architecture of the Gates of Boletaria to better convey its ruinous state, or more realistic light reflections in the abundant pools of blood left behind where other players have fallen to draw attention to the dangers lurking around every corner.
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The DualSense controller plays its part in this, too. Haptic feedback, in particular, is used extensively to add texture to the world in a way that you can physically feel, be it in the uncomfortable clang of steel on stone when you accidentally strike a wall with your sword or the feeling of an arrow cutting through the air as it whistles past your head. The adaptive triggers aren’t used quite so much, but still have their place, adding just a bit of tension to your bow as you draw it.
In short, Demon’s Souls on PS5 is the same game as Demon’s Souls on PS3 in every way that matters, only now it has the technical backing to truly deliver on that vision.
And what a game that is. Much has been said about the way Souls games in general use “failing better” as a core game loop—each new challenge brings failure, but each failure comes with learning, if you’re paying attention, that means you do a little better each time until you finally succeed. This is hardly unique to Souls games—bullet hells and arcade rhythm games spring to mind—but it’s one of the better executions of the concept, especially within an RPG. Demon’s Souls is no exception.
Part of what makes it work so well is, simply, that the combat system is engrossing and satisfying. With every action comes a cost to your constantly regenerating stamina bar and an animation that leaves you vulnerable, making every action a conscious decision and a commitment. When it works, you’re rewarded—you made the right call, and it paid off. When it doesn’t, you quickly find out why, and learn not to do that again. And when you get impulsive or greedy, your hubris gets punished.
Unlike its successors, Demon’s Souls has no mid-level bonfires (checkpoints)—die, and you’re right back to the start of your current level for what might be a long and treacherous walk back to your bloodstain to reclaim any dropped souls. That just means thorough exploration to find and open shortcuts is more important in Demon’s Souls than ever—there are few boss fights that take more than a couple of moments to get back to if you’ve opened all the right doors. On the other hand, just like I’m combat, if you get impatient and try to just rush through a level, you’ll only end up making things harder for yourself.
That all comes back to the core ethos of Demon’s Souls, and Souls games in general: they’re challenging, yes, but their challenges are designed to be overcome. So long as you pay attention and don’t get impulsive, the game gives you all the tools to triumph.
And yet, for all this talk of difficulty, Demon’s Souls actually has a lot of scope to adjust how challenging it actually is, not in an “easy mode” sense, but just in how you approach the game. Compared to its successors, Demon’s Souls has a lot more scope to brute-force your way through obstacles by grinding. Each level up seems to have a far more noticeable effect on your strength, to the point that an extra two or three levels can be the difference between struggling against a boss and eking out a win.
Healing items can be easily farmed, and are limited only by your item load capacity—carrying stacks on stacks of Full Moon Grass can see you through just about any encounter, so long as you’re not careless about using them. If you really want to give yourself the upper hand, you can always go with the Royalty class, giving you an MP regeneration ring and reasonably powerful ranged spell right out the gate.
On top of this, the PS5 version of Demon’s Souls comes with a boatload of help videos that can be accessed directly from the activity bar. They offer tips for boss fights, help with finding shortcuts and other secrets, and more general game advice. They’re not quite a full walkthrough, but are easily accessible from within the game, and can be a big help when you get stuck.
All these things can help make Demon’s Souls‘ challenge more manageable, but without sacrificing the thematic weight that comes with that difficulty. It’s a game that, narratively and mechanically, is about overcoming obstacles that at first seem insurmountable. That’s still true if you decide to give yourself the upper hand with a spot if grinding or get some assistance from the Game Help feature.
There are plenty of ways a remake of Demon’s Souls could have completely missed what made the original game the surprise hit it was in the first place. I know I was concerned, in the lead-up to its launch, that Bluepoint Games might have polished away the soul of the game—and I say that as someone without any particular attachment to the original. Instead, they used this opportunity to breath new life into a true classic: Demon’s Souls on PS5 takes all the oppressive atmosphere of the original to a new level, while avoiding any desire to “fix” what isn’t broken.
The PS5 remake of Demon’s Souls is developed by Bluepoint Games and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It’s available now for PlayStation 5.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.