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Demon's Souls and the Fog Gate of Nostalgia
Demon’s Souls is six years old. When it first came out, it took players by storm as it offered a distinct and challenging experience that many big budget developers shy away from in order to make sales. Since then, From Software created two spiritual sequels along with an altered, yet still recognizable core, sequel in Bloodborne . Each game garnered much critical acclaim and significant sales, making one hit game after another. The Souls Series has largely stayed with the same basic foundation laid out in Demon’s Souls, but each of the subsequent games has made various alterations and refinements to the core principles.
Despite the applause and obvious outstanding quality of each game, many critics and players continue to refer to the initial game, Demon’s Souls, as the best in the series. Professional reviewers and critics, like Jim Sterling of the Jimquisition and Chris Carter of Destructiod, seem almost incapable of discussing the series without mentioning that they believe Demon’s Souls to still be the best. Even EpicNameBro, when asked the question, answered Demon’s Souls, but added the caveat that it is a pointless question since most people will say whichever one they played first. I found it hard to believe that a game only six years old could be twisted by nostalgia, that because Demon’s Souls provided such a fresh and novel experience people overlook any faults it had or refinements subsequent games made.
I sat down and played Demon’s Souls. When I finished it, I switched over to Dark Souls. Basically, what I found out was that Dark Souls does what any self-respecting sequel strives to do: surpass its predecessor. And here is an explanation of how:
In concerns of fairness, I will remark where Dark Souls took a step backwards or if Dark Souls 2 furthered one aspect or another. Sadly, I cannot comment on where Bloodborne fits into any of this, as I do not own a Playstation 4 and have refrained from most any information concerning the game beyond a few reviews. With that out of the way, Fill Thy Horn with Oil, and GO:
War of the Worlds
One of the most “then I saw the light moments” people use for Demon’s Souls is the first stage of Boletaria. Basically everyone mentions how the that level, despite all the twists, turns, staircases, and enormity, is circuitous. The whole opening struggle brings you around to hit a switch to open a gate for a boss fight that takes place only a few steps from you first start the level. Everyone heralds this as significant to understanding what makes Demon’s Souls so special. Except, all the concept of struggling for hours only to find a shortcut that proves you have gone nowhere is increased exponentially throughout the world of Dark Souls, not just singular stages.
The Metroidvania world of Lordran is the best Metroidvania since Symphony of the Night, if not actually the best. Not only is the world organized in a smooth manner in which one zone connects seamlessly into the next with hardly any hiccups or head scratching, but the organization of the world also fuels and reinforces the deep mythology the game drip feeds to the player. Anyone who also played Dark Souls 2 experienced some of the geographical confusion of Drangleic and understands the elegance of Lordran’s configuration. In Dark Souls 2, you fight your way up an enormous windmill to find an elevator that takes you up into a volcano that was simply not there moments ago. Or how you can see Drangleic Castle from Majula, but you cannot see the giant rock spire that is the Dragon Shrine. But in Lordran, despite how different one place can be, the connecting areas feel like a natural and thematic progression because of how well organized the places are in relation to one another.
Some have pointed out that they respect the continuous, uninterrupted world of Lordran, but they prefer the more varied and diverse nature of Demon’s Souls. Saying that Demon’s Souls offers a larger view of the disaster, or that Boletaria feels like a much more believable place because it explores more of it. These arguments seem to miss some of Dark Souls’ nature. Yes, Boletaria is (or was, before the invasion of the White Fog) a traditional fantasy country rooted in a medieval portrayal, populated by mortal beings. That is true. But Lordran is NOT a country, much less a place for mortals. Lordran analogizes more with corrupted Mount Olympus, a place where the Gods reside and rule, with King Gwyn sitting on the throne atop the mountain where we expect as Zeus like figure, and instead of Hephaestus forging armor for Achilles or Aeneas, the Witch of Izalith became consumed in her attempts at recreating the force that created her. Dark Souls deals much more with Mythology and its ideology, both as fact and fiction, whereas Demon’s Souls deals more with the failure of kings/government or the cost corrupted of morals and values.
Also, from strictly design views, developing widely different and alien locations is much easier and allows for almost anything to coexist when the boundaries of distance and space do not play a role. The imagination can run wild with each different world since the game does not need to explain how the different locations connect or relate. Demon’s Souls does a fantastic job of allowing each world to possess a unique atmosphere without ever truly becoming too incongruous. But with Dark Souls, From Software takes on the burdens and restrains of spatial relation and general direction to inform the player of how one place connects to one another to make Lordran a magnificent setting similar to how the constraints of a sonnet force a poet to create something far more airtight and intertwined than the liberty of free verse. Also, Dark Souls allows for a more varied locales since Demon’s Souls needed each stage to fit into its world’s overall tone. In Demon’s Souls, the player cannot waltz through a fog gate in the mines of Stonefang and find themselves wading in the poison bog in Valley of Defilement, as it would be far too jarring a change in tone and continuity. Yet, Dark Souls does achieve this since Blight Town bleeds into the Demon Ruins underneath it, with Quelaag’s Domain serving as a twisted buffer between the two that feels right at home next to either place. The transition does not grate to player, since the deeper below Undead Burg and Firelink Shrine the player goes, the more corrupt and bizarre the everything becomes.
I would also posit that no place in Demon’s Souls is as alien as Lost Izalith, where vast ruins sink into lava while think tree roots scrawl in every direction . Or for that matter, no place in Demon’s Souls is nearly as psychologically frightening as the Abyss, where you fight the Four Kings in a pitch black horizon.
Let’s also not forget the technology and coding that underlies this triumph. A player can walk from the top of Sen’s Fortress all the way down to Lost Izalith or Ashen Lake without ever seeing a load screen. I understand that this not the whole game, but it certainly is the majority of the game to access without the game ever entering a load screen, not to mention all the enemies mechanics, flavoring details, and possible npcs along the way, and, if in human form and online, while constantly checking with servers to make it possible for invasions or seeing messages from other players. That is a structural achievement that deserves an award in itself.
NPCs and the Role they Play
Ostava requires as much rescuing over the course of Demon’s Souls as Princess Peach does in the original Super Mario Bros. Hyperbole? Yes, but that does not deny the facts. Compare this with the Dark Souls primary NPC, Solaire: he gives you the White Soapstone which allows for the player to “enjoy jolly cooperation” with other players through the use of summing souls signs. Players can also summon Solaire at four different boss fights, with the possibility of an extra depending how his event chain unfolds, in addition to appearing throughout the world, providing a friendly presence in an otherwise derelict kingdom of monsters. By allowing him to aid the player, it develops an appreciation for him through his direct support in our journey.
Over the entire course of Demon’s Souls, only one NPC actively helps the player in a boss fighter, one of the more important facets of the Souls games. That character is not Ostrava, it is Biorr, who you have to go out of your way to release from prison, but it is not entirely apparent to the player on how to go about it (though, most NPC interaction in Demon’s Souls isn’t, not that any of the subsequent games ever made it more apparent). Again, the Boss battles stand as one of the Souls series’ highly touted achievements, which encapsulate a lot of the strictures of combat as they require a dire amount of attention and provide some of the most direct challenge in the game. For most initial players, they are some of the biggest struggles and the summoning of other players eases some of the difficulty of these encounters.
The summoning of players is one of the unique features of the series, as it turns a singleplayer campaign into a much more communal effort without ever making the player feel like one of a million players. However, other players are not a reliable thing, through either simple lack of skill, time of day, or just difficulty of internet connections. I know I’ve spent hours, cumulatively through the whole franchise, waiting for a summon sign to appear so I can get help fighting bosses, but said battle may only take a few minutes. Demon’s Souls offers no alternatives to being stuck against one boss, the game seems to almost demand that the player either then do it themselves, or simply stop playing altogether. The summonable NPCs of Dark Souls do not offer much more than simply taking attention off the player. They are mostly useless beyond the initial playthrough, as the game does not escalate them to meet the challenges of Game+ or beyond, which may be a conscious design decision to reinforce the isolation and difficulty of the game at the higher replays levels. On the other hand, I stopped playing Dark Souls on Game+ for a good stretch of time simply because I could not beat Ornstein and Smough with just Solaire. This is an area where Dark Souls 2 further improved, by offering many more NPCs across the game to grant aid when no other players were available, or simply not helpful. These NPCs, like Masterless Glencour or Lucatiel, not only help flavor the game world but also scale with each additional Game+, providing assistance to those who continue to play the game well into the hasher climates, where some may choose to simply elect to move onto another game and are no longer accountable to aid other players.
Even further, the NPCs of Dark Souls are not strictly there to serve the player, either as phantoms for Boss encounters or merely as merchants and trainers either. They also serve as characters within the games’ setting and story. In Demon’s Souls, the characters do little beyond simply flavoring the world and cryptically allude to the greater world and story of what is occurring. Most of the characters, outside of Ostrava, Patches and possibly Yurt, do not possess an actual narrative arc. But Dark Souls’ NPC provide such arcs and personal narratives. Seigmeyer of Catarina, rather than Solaire, equates better with Ostrava, as someone constantly requiring assistance. That is how it goes until you meet the wrinkle called Seiglinde, his daughter. From here, Seigmeyer rises beyond Ostrava’s need of assistance and embodies a twisted, more tragic, Don Quixote, with an awesome battle cry. Similar to Solaire, Seigmeyer’s quest chain can be resolved in various different ways that all depend on the players active participation and decisions. However, everyone NPC in Demon’s Souls basically unfolds in one of two manners: either you encounter them and help the relocate, or nothing really happens with them.
Compare also the similar characters of Yurt, the Silent Chief, in Demon’s Souls and Knight Lautrec of Carim. Both look eerily similar, both are initially met with them imprisoned, and both indirectly harm the player through murdering at least one other NPC. The act of murder immediately stings the player but also is heightened in a twofold manner by reducing the already sparse population of things not actively trying to kill the player and also it is a vast betrayal to the both the player and the world by actively choosing to engage in evil. However, Yurt’s sequence ends without much a climax. If he kills all the NPCs in the Nexus, talking to him causes him to unveil his plans almost like a Scooby-Do villain and you fight. Lautrec, however, can be summoned at two fights before murdering the Firelink Shrine’s bonfire Maiden, forging a friendly aura about him similar to Solaire, and while he gives vague hints as the heinous act he will perform. This means that the player most likely won’t even suspect him as the murderer until activating the Black Eye Orb found on the murdered Shrine Maiden. By activating the Ear of Reprisal, the player becomes more engaged in the quest and the mystery, thus more invested in actually seeing him pay for his actions. Although, it could easily be argued that Yurt is the much more egregious perpetrator, as he kills more characters who cannot be replaced and who offer all the magic to the player.
Big Hat Logan is basically a Sage Freke from Demon’s Souls. You rescue them both from prison and they offer an expanded spell list. However, Logan goes on journeying and requires to be freed once more. However, unlike Freke, indulging in Logan’s magical whims causes him to go insane.
Even Saint Urban is improved in Dark Souls by being split into a small company of adventurer’s on a holy quest from their country who eventually run afoul of Patches. Even a guy who you only marginally liked in Petrus suddenly becomes an atrocious coward for betraying his allies. The player meets Urban by falling victim to Patches’ trick, and he simply requires rescuing so he can return to the Nexus and offer an expanded miracles list. That is the extant of Urban’s place in the game, whereas the Petrus and Reah involves class distinction from their homeland and involves other characters hinting at Petrus’ crime, stringing the player along the murder mystery subplot.
Almost every character in Demon’s Souls appears in a better, more fleshed out version Dark Souls. Dark Souls, with its bigger funding and fuller development cycle, allowed it to reach deeper into the characters that populate the world and grant more reasons for the player to care about them beyond simply being the few somewhat friendly faces bleak journey. I mean, no one reacts to a Demon’s Souls NPC the way they react to Solaire.
Online Gameplay and Interactions
while Dark Souls’ lack of dedicated serves caused (or causes) some difficulties with the active online aspects of the game, it was hardly a debacle or a failure in any sense. Meanwhile, the Covenants offered a much wider range of player interactions with both each other and the world. Instead of the simple summoned blue phantoms and the invading red phantoms, Dark Souls offered the a different kind of choice, like a covenant dedicated to simply guarding a particular zone from other players, or the challenge of dueling for the Dragons, or the hunting of the sinful as a Blade of Dark Moon.
I know one of my favorite moments in all of Dark Souls was when someone summoned me, along with another player, to fight against Quelaag. In the course of the brief journey across the bottom of Blight Town to fight the boss, the summoner was invaded by two Spirits of Vengeance, members of the Blade of the Darkmoon. This led to one of the most intense sequences I have ever been part of in Dark souls, and maybe in all my years of playing games. And whenever I think about it, it is entirely possible I was a bad guy. This kind of experience really could not occur in Demon’s Souls. Yes, a summoner could be invaded while you were there, but it did not contain the connotation that the invaders were actually hunting down someone who had actively killed one of their NPCs. It was like being the one of the NPCs that defends Lautrec when you invade his world.
These covenants, like most every aspect of the game, also help the player understand the world and the story since they each fit perfectly into the game. They are placed in the world with just as much care and attention as the each location are. Dark Souls’ world and mythology are wound tight through every aspect of the game and while not air-tight perfect, their valiant effort certainly gives off a sense of completeness that very few games can even dream of achieving.
There are 18 sets of armor in Demon’s Souls. 5 of those are restricted to male characters and 4 are restricted to female characters. That leaves an individual character to only 13 or 14 different options for a player to choose from when equipping armor for the their character’s four armor slots, roughly since there are a few pieces that do not belong to a set. Given the lack of options and that the armors are not too focused on certain aspects of the defense, this leads to a kind of homogenization of what characters wear and what works best.
Dark Souls, on the other hand, offers 42 different sets of armor and none of these are restricted to a gender, but again there are a few pieces that do not belong to a set. This provides a variety of armors that comes in all kinds of different stat focuses and wide ranging styles. With the larger number of stats that each armor has associated with it, it allows for different sets to focus on different defense specialties and balance out, for the most part. With all the information and possibility, players are then capable of choosing what pieces compliment both their character build and situational necessitates. Or players can indulge in superficiality and let style ultimately dictate what their character wears so they look unique, or at the very least, cool when they end up in someone else’s game. I mean, someone made fashion souls. Dark Souls 2 adds even more armor, however, it has a more traditional rpg “always going up” mentality and some of it gets pretty stylized, where Dark Souls 1 and Demon’s Souls generally stay pretty grounded and believable.
When it comes to weapons, Dark Souls manages to take two steps forward but also takes a step backwards too. There are certainly more weapons in Dark Souls, and with these new weapons come some new move sets and uses. These, like the armor, grant more options to the player and allow for some exotic builds or simply allowing the player to have different weapons for different situations, whether it be a different zone or simply a weapon for fighting against other players. While some may argue that the lighting spear found in Sen’s Fortress makes most other weapons moot, the truth is Demon’s Souls also provides the Dragon long sword, which deals fire damage, in the second stage of Stonefang and it functions almost the exact same since fire is largely effective throughout the game. But let us not also forget Demon’s Souls Enchanted Falchion found in the first part of the Storm Shrine, a weapon that not only uses intelligence to make the weapon stronger, but also regenerates MP over time. Also, my current play through of Dark Souls is using a Fire enchanted bastard sword, which has proven just as effective in almost every situation, if not more so. Maybe it has been patched, or maybe everyone exaggerated how dominating the lighting spear was.
However, there are a few weapons that end up being rendered useless by their ineffective move-sets. Many of these impotent weapons are found early on or are part of the starting classes, like the mace or the morningstar. These weapons cannot be used to much effect in combat beyond one swing, which also leaves the player wide open if mistimed. This is not the case for the aforementioned weapons in Demon’s Souls. You find a blessed mace in the first part of the Valley of Defilement, which deals holy damage and heals the player slowly over time. The weapon’s attack pattern may not be as effective as the long sword, but it certainly is a useable weapon that is also quite effective as breaking guards more than the sword.
Dark Souls 2 rectified Dark Souls’ mistake by ensuring each weapon had an effective move set, but it also increased the number of weapons possibly too much and ended up reusing the attack patterns for a lot of weapons. Not to mention that the sheer number of weapons can get intimidating after a few hours and force a player to stick with familiar weapons found early on instead of experimenting with every newly discovered weapon.
The separation of pyromancy was a brilliant move that added another type/school of magic to the mix, accompanied by its own lore within the world and politics in relations to the already established Miracles and Sorceries. Admittedly though, the tension between Miracles and Sorceries is still an extremely novel idea Demon's Souls used that I wish was more prevalent in Dark Souls. Both Miracles and Sorceries receive robust increases, offering either more improved versions of spells or brand new spells that alter the overall game experience and allow for extra tactics in both PvE and PvP. Sadly there are less Boss Souls spells in Dark Souls than its predecessor, though From Software compensated by tucking a sizable portion of the spells into the Covenants, which I am not entirely sure is an improvement.
It should also be pointed out that Miracles, specifically the healing ones, gained more importance in Dark Souls by limiting HP regeneration to the Estus Flasks and Miracles. The Cleric starting class certainly gained more usefulness by being the only class to start with extra healing outside the standard Estus Flask while all other characters needed to either buy the spells if they wanted extra healing, use the extra Humanity items, or simply deal with it. By reducing the ways in to regain health, it added more emphasis on the few avenues. Again, even small changes to the Demon’s Souls formula had far reaching consequences, proving the intricate design of the game. But these refinements to the formula found within Dark Souls also better reinforce those core principles, enhancing the themes of both gameplay and narrative.
MP in Demon’s Souls is such a broken mechanic, especially since the game gives the player a magic weapon that regenerates MP over time, not including it stacks the benefits on top of a ring that does the same. Yes, it does take time and waiting around is not the most viable option in a boss encounter, but the limited castings per spell in Dark Souls is a further implementation of resource management that challenges without the game outright opposing the player.
I rejoiced when I noticed that Dark Souls ditched the item encumbrance in the move from Demon’s Souls. While in my initial playthroughs of Demon’s Soul, it was an accepted hindrance, another way for the game to constantly challenge and keep in line with the harsh systems. In my recent replay of Demon’s souls, it was one of the more aggravating aspects, despite fully enjoying Stockpile Thomas. It wasn’t that I couldn’t carry every armor I had found in case the situation arose where I needed more magic defense than poison resistance, Demon’s Souls informs the player fairly well visually with what kind of defenses they should need within each zone. I kept hitting my head on the ceiling of Item Burden through the constant collecting of recovery items, whether it was the health restoring herbs or the various status nullifying herbs or the occasional spice that restores MP. But, oddly enough, I was never carrying more than ten of any item at a time, and I never carried bombs or knives. Here, Dark Souls culled all that fat away by simply restricting healing to the very controlled substance of the Estus Flask. Here, resource management intensifies the difficulty of the game without actually fighting the player.
I will not lie, I only understand World and Soul tendency in a theoretical sense [Seriously, watch the link].
I’ve read the wikis multiple times, but whenever I try to get certain events to occur, it does not always pan out. Like when trying to find the venerable sage armor, the guides and in game messages say you need to have pure white soul tendency, but what you really need is pure white world tendency. Other times I have beaten a boss and gone from white world tendency to black, and I’ve never seen anyone mention it. And I have only met Satsuki once despite all my efforts, and I was not even trying to meet him when I did.
It is a draconian mechanic, one that certainly sounds awesome as it means the game world is directly changing because of player behavior in it, but it falls into the category of sounding better on paper than in execution.
Dark Souls did not keep either the tendencies. Instead it has the more involved, multiple outcome NPC quests and the covenants to make up for their removal, both of which I have already discussed. While part of me is sad that they did not try to improve it, I am fine with the mechanics and systems that took their place.
A Brief Look at Bosses
Some people say that bosses in Dark Souls do not feel as iconic or memorable as those in Demon’s Souls, which I am willing to chalk up as a symptom of the nostalgia. Yes, Demon’s Souls has some of the best boss battles in all of video games, but I would not say they are all stellar, and the same could be said of Dark Souls, and so on. For example, The fight against Maiden Astrea and Garl Vinland, while a nice change of pace and strikingly emotional one, is not the most compelling fight in the game. If you decide to fight Garl Vinland, it is not much an actual battle as he refrains from actively engaging the player in a fight. Instead, he physically prevent the player from getting directly to Astrea, otherwise you must wade through the plague water with infant spirits in it which will kill. Or you can sit back and snipe Astrea without any fear of attack. Either method does not make for an engaging encounter. Memorable and different, yes, but not for gameplay reasons, the way people remember fighting Phalanx Demon.
Though, Dragon God is better than Bed of Chaos, in almost every possible way outside of reasons pertaining to Lore.
I am also willing to disagree with Hidetaka Miyazaki and find the Old Monk boss rather annoying. I understand his point of the unique facet of the fight and can appreciate it, but I have also spent a good amount of time fighting players who were trolling the Old Monk fight strictly for PvP fights. Which can create an annoying imbalance for people who do not really enjoy that aspect of the game and forces them to engage another player, who may only want to fight other players.
But no matter where you fall on arguing which Souls game is better, the boss battles of every each game in the series is still leagues ahead of most other games. Do I need to bring up Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Or the general reaction people gave to its poor, shallow boss design being "maybe games have out grown bosses?" Even the Souls bosses I do not enjoy in any way and find more a chore than an engagement, are still outstanding given the majority of other games.
Demon’s Souls is a fantastic game and I fully enjoyed replaying it all over again six years later. There is nothing that really holds it back from being enjoyable as it has weathered those years better than others I still argue that it should have been an unanimous pick for everyone's game of the year. But again, Dark Souls surpasses its predecessor, like every sequel should strive to do. Unless you are married to the Soul and World Tendencies, From Software put everything you love about Demon’s Souls into Dark Souls while augmenting every facet of the game. Otherwise, nostalgia prevents from you seeing the game as it is. Your attachment to the initial impressions and experiences of Demon’s Souls color the game as something more than it is. That is the gist of nostalgia,
Again, I love and admire Demon’s Souls. I also hold dear to some of the my memories from both playing and watching my older brothers play the game, but those, while connected, add no intrinsic value to the game. In the end, the game is the game, but Dark Souls does it better. So let us walk through the Fog Gate and Praise the Sun.
Admittedly, there is one thing Demon’s Souls has that Dark Souls does not, and that is one of the most astounding opening videos in all of gaming:
This hub was written for Critical Distance and its series Blogs of the Round Table, and other articles in the August series can be found here.