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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Demons Souls on the PS5 is an unlikely love letter to brilliant, broken things

Illustration for article titled iDemon/i’is Souls /ion the PS5 is an unlikely love letter to brilliant, broken things
Screenshot: Demon’s Souls

From Software’s Souls games are all about the tragic pursuit of doomed, nigh-impossible goals. Slay gods immune to the very concept of death. Reverse the apocalypse when it’s already 99 percent of the way complete. Stay sane in a world that demands madness. Stay alive. So we’d like to offer a toast to remakers extraordinaire Bluepoint Games and SIE Japan Studio, who’ve managed to resist what must have been a seemingly impossible compulsion all their own with their “new” PS5 launch title, the remake of From’s 2009 break-out Demon’s Souls: The urge to fix all the elements that have always been blatantly broken and misshapen in this beloved hot mess of a game.

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And we want to be very clear, right here at the top, that “broken” and “bad” are not intended as synonymous. Yes, there are sequences in Demon’s Souls—both the original, and this sometimes perversely faithful remake—that are out of touch with the principles of modern game design, and which in some cases verge into the anti-climactic, unsatisfying, or shoddily executed. (The biggest of these, as it always has been, being the visually impressive but poorly implemented Dragon God boss fight that ends the game’s second major world, an awkward combination of sudden stealth gameplay, fuzzy detection rules, and getting punched repeatedly in the head by a massive, angry dragon.) But Demon’s Souls charms at least in part because it’s filled to bursting with ideas that wouldn’t fly in a modern AAA game—which is what makes it so strange and wonderful that Bluepoint has seemingly preserved every bizarre, ambiguous, maddening touch for this, one of the most high-profile titles of the PlayStation 5 launch. The idea of millions of fresh consumers opening their shiny new boxes last week, only to immediately throw themselves into that brightly colored, seemingly innocuous death hole in World 1-1, is as hilarious as it is artistically heroic.

For the unfamiliar: The original Demon’s was released more than a decade ago, heralding From’s transition from its modestly successful King’s Field series of first-person RPGs into the genre-launching victory of Dark Souls, which cleaned up, refined, or otherwise developed many of the ideas that first saw the light of day here—the careful and deliberate pacing of combat, the spending of a tenuously held currency to strengthen your character, the ability to leave messages to guide (or trick) other people playing the game online, and the notorious ability to invade the world of those other players and make their lives a living hell. Just as important, though, was the tone the original game set: Mournful, mysterious, and resolutely hostile. (Which isn’t necessarily the same thing as “difficult”; even more than its successors, Demon’s delights in the deployment of a good level design troll over outright brutality.)

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Screenshot: Demon’s Souls

If the progress of the Souls series has been a consistent, frequently critiqued movement toward more player-friendly gameplay, then Demon’s Souls remains the top of the slippery slope down which the series has subsequently slid. Enemies (including bosses!) will frequently resist your weapon’s damage type. Necessary power boosts are hidden in out-of-the-way corners, or behind the ever-obscured World Tendency system, which modifies god knows how many small aspects of the game based on how well you, or other players, are doing at it. Bosses are largely based around puzzles and gimmicks, tricky ideas or conceits that you’re expected to desperately work out while they’re busy murdering you. Giggling men kick you down holes with gleeful abandon. (That part, at least, has stayed consistent.) If Demon’s Souls tries to hold your hand, it’s probably doing so in an effort to guide you straight off a cliff.

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And it’s all still here, albeit with a glossy, occasionally too-busy paintjob that nevertheless can’t obscure the wild, first-draft, best-draft energy of it all. Remake or no, this is the exact same stone that From spent the following decade polishing, first into brilliance, and then into a sort of cheerful corporate frictionlessness by the time Dark Souls III rolled around in 2016. It would have been tremendously easy, and diabolically tempting, for Bluepoint to shift things in that direction—a tutorial here, a slight reduction in the tide of bullshit there. (A shout-out to our very first invader, by the way, who smashed every piece of equipment we owned with an armor-breaking spear and necessitated a costly trip back to the local blacksmith to get it all fixed.) Instead, they’ve preserved the warts with the same loving care that they’ve lavished on the core gameplay, which remains solidly satisfying even as it’s used in service of frequent gotchas or nasty tricks. Yes, the levels are too long. Yes, the game’s consumable healing items lack the elegance of Dark Souls’ self-replenishing estus. Yes, the trick with the boss that just keeps respawning until you go kill the innocuous zombie standing on her balcony a billion miles away is unimaginable horseshit. But also, yes: That sense of running through the labyrinths of a demented, cackling dungeon master, daring you to stay alive ahead of rolling boulders and tricksy ambushes—while unseen friends leave you messages warning you away from the worst of the deathtraps—is still alive and well.

Demon’s Souls would have been easy to fix. Leaving it this wonderfully, majestically broken is the real victory. Umbasa.

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