Demon’s Souls defined the PS3 for me.
In 2009, it was becoming evident that the Playstation 3 had lost the ‘console wars’. Microsoft had the better digital store, better online play, better versions of cross-platform releases, and better exclusives.
Demon’s Souls brought something serious and innovative to the PS3.
It was explosive.
Demon’s Souls sold out everywhere shortly after release. The game tapped into a part of the collective gaming mind that was under-served.
Many often cite Call of Duty as having ruined games today.
After CoD became a phenomenon with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, many other game publishers and developers tried to follow suit by making linear, cinematic games with enormous budgets, little single player challenge, and customizable multiplayer.
What Demon’s Souls did was the exact opposite.
The game presented an alternative that had been forgotten.
Demon’s Souls was the antithesis to what CoD had accomplished: A third-person, dark fantasy game set in a world with a medieval European aesthetic. Little was explained to the player.
Everything from the plot to the leveling system to the global mechanics were left for the player to decipher. There was no exposition here, it expected you to puzzle everything out.
After playing DS for a while, I said to my brother, “Its like playing Dragon Warrior on Saturday afternoons as a kid.”, it captured that lack of noise, the volume of space, and the confusion of trying to figure out what an ‘RPG’ was.
DS was the first game in a long while to not treat the player like an idiot.
By all accounts, Demon’s Souls should not have been successful in a post-CoD market and if not for its asymmetrical multiplayer, I don’t believe it would have been noticed to the same extent.
Prior to Demon’s Souls, From Software also released King’s Field, often considered a spiritual predecessor to DS, which also never really captured a large gaming audience.
Demon’s Souls was arguably From Software’s first big success. A success achieved by filling the void left by Call of Duty.
DS is a game about dread. The player is never at peace with the quiet, at any point nearly any enemy could kill you.
The game expected you to just barely get by. The little help you were granted came in the form of small messages written on the ground left by other players. This was the most substantial interaction you had, this was one of the few and only ways players could communicate.
The writing only amplified the dread and loneliness of the world, the feeling of having just missed someone repeatedly was jarring.
DS also allowed you to view how other players in the area had died. It allowed you to witness their final moments, their final acts.
Demon’s Souls was a love letter to loss, forever being lost.
When my mother bought Dragon Warrior for me, she had to coach me through it as I had no conception of how to play that game. I had come off of Mario and Duck Hunt and I had no reference for what Dragon Warrior was.
I didn’t understand how to save, I inevitably replayed the first few hours over and over again. I would ask my grandmother for help when my mother was at work, but she didn’t know English.
I read an interview once with Hidetaka Miyazaki, creator of the Souls series, where he explained the influence behind Demon’s Souls.
As a child, he had attempted to read English fairy tales to the best of his ability. However, he was never able to understand everything that occurred and was forced to imagine what happened in the gaps of his understanding.
This experience was the fuel that drove the broken, dark fantasy narrative of Demon’s Souls.
He was forcing players to confront and explore the emptiness of understanding.
When Dark Souls released in 2011, it wasn’t as much a shock to the gaming landscape as Demon’s Souls was. At that point, the medium had two years to digest what Demon’s presented.
What Dark Souls did was hone further everything presented in Demon’s Souls: A larger environment, more weapons, more subtlety, a stronger plot, more NPCs, more interconnectedness.
Where Demon’s Souls was an exploration of dread, Dark Souls was an exploration of tragedy, morality, and sanity. It was an archaeology of what makes us human.
In Dark Souls, the world is progressing through its own Götterdämmerung. The power of the Gods is waning and because of this no one can die, they are constantly reborn as ‘hollow’ (undead). The more hollow one becomes, the more they lose all sense of self.
The end of Dark Souls presents a question to the player: Do you sacrifice yourself and prolong the rule of the Gods? Or do you turn your back and begin the age of darkness (the rule of man)?
Dark Souls isn’t just an archaeology of place, it is an archaeology of the self. Just as the player digs into the world of Lordran, Lordran forces the player to delve into the heart of the self.
Like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls is a quiet game set in an enormous world where anything can kill. The developer evened the odds by having more weapons and armor available to the player.
I often tell people that Dark Souls is the simpler game when compared to Demon’s Souls, but only because it presents things more cleanly while maintaining the narrative and mechanical darkness that made Demon’s Souls so enthralling.
Dark Souls is a literary epic that has been ripped apart. The player mainly gathers information while sifting through the world.
The short object descriptions are a fundamental part of the narrative: The more items you manage to find, the more of the story you understand.
Many often complain that the combat and movement in the Souls’ series is unsatisfying. The character movements are floppy and slow, but this only adds to the feeling of being dispossessed and lost in some decaying surreal spectacle: A lack of coordination.
Dark Souls was a proper evolution, everything that made Demon’s Souls great was expanded.
In Dark Souls II there is only back-tracking and contraction.
I spent two years playing Dark Souls, the game was that important.
Sometimes I would simply exist in the world without doing anything, just watching the clouds.
As the release date for Dark Souls II neared, I became excited. Dark Souls meant something to me.
From the second I put DSII in, everything felt off.
The character was quicker than in DSI, the game began with one of the most awful, poorly integrated tutorials I had ever experienced, and there was more plot exposition: exactly what I had feared.
The controversy mainly had to do with comments made from the Dark Souls II dev team about how to make the game more understandable and easier in order to increase accessibility.
These comments then set-off a chain reaction of anxiety from embedded Dark Souls fans. They became concerned that everything that made Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls grand and unique were going to be gutted.
The broken narrative of the first two Souls games is poetry. Poetry is a broken narrative of an experience or a thought. No one asks poets to make their poetry more understandable, I couldn’t see why anyone wanted to do that with a series that had proven itself twice.
In the first 30 minutes of playing, I could tell that Dark Souls II was not going to be as engrossing or as challenging, narratively or mechanically.
After managing to burn through the first five bosses, I had to take a break and think about what happened.
The item descriptions had become twice as long. The world was not layered at all, the different locations didn’t fit together in any compelling way, and the enemies were unbalanced.
One of Dark Souls II’s major problems is the difficulty does not scale properly. One minute the player will have control of an area only to be hit with a very difficult enemy type out of nowhere.
Dark Souls’ genius was that it was a constant uphill battle, but the challenge never felt ‘vertical’, it never threw up barriers out of nowhere, the difficulty ramped up meticulously: DSII had none of that subtlety.
The battle with the Ruin Sentinels was a poorly conceived pyramid scheme of fun.
This lack of subtlety in Dark Souls II’s design would not have been an issue had they allowed the player to grind for experience in the same manner as the previous two iterations. Now, the player could no longer go to areas with respawning, high-experience enemies and grind, after a certain amount of time, the enemies stop coming back, and when that happens not only is it frustrating for the player, but the area feels barren and boring.
Couple this ‘wasteland’ mechanic with the ability to travel between checkpoints outright at will, and you have a game that asks so much less of the player than its predecessors while hollowing out its own world.
It’s almost as if Dark Souls II deeply misunderstands everything that made the first two Souls games relevant. It is by far the worst entry in the series.
This is not to say that Dark Souls II itself is a bad game, it isn’t, it just isn’t the game it could have been.
Dark Souls II is a cheap experience that only tries to grasp at the mechanical and narrative shadows cast by its siblings.
What defined Demon’s Souls was its exploration of dread and triumph.
What defined Dark Souls was its exploration of tragedy and loss.
What defines Dark Souls II is cheapness and a failed attempt at ease.
From Software should not be proud of Dark Souls II, regardless of sales. Dark Souls II’s inevitable financial success will only be based on the high quality of its predecessors, not on its own merits. It offers nothing to the series while taking so much away.
From can do better than this and until we begin to see what the next installment in the Souls series holds, Dark Souls I is still the pinnacle of what they can accomplish.
Dark Souls II: