No major spoilers.
With Elden Ring (Souls-series director Hidetaka Miyazaki and George R.R. Martin’s upcoming video game project) on the horizon, as well as rumors swirling about a PlayStation 5 remake, I figured it’d be the perfect time to revisit the game that started it all, Demon’s Souls. As the game enters its 11th year of life, it’s hard for me, someone who’s just starting to understand what it feels like to be old, not to feel as though this game is still somewhat new, but alas, given that five derived official FromSoftware titles and a countless slew of imitations have cropped up since its release, it’s safe to say Demon’s Souls is somewhat of a cult classic at this point. So, with that in mind, does it hold up today?
Well, let’s talk briefly about what that means, since basically everything I’ve looked at for this website/project so far has had to fit a different criteria. For Demon’s Souls, I framed my analysis from the perspective of a modern “Soulsekiroborne” fan looking for another game to sate them as they wait for Elden Ring‘s (presumable) 2020 release, as well as just an average gamer unfamiliar with the series looking to jump in. From either perspective, I can say that, after my recent playthrough of Demon’s Souls, the game does hold up today, I’d say in the 80/20 range. That statement comes with a few asterisks, though, which we will get into.
Before that, though, here’s a quick qualification of my experience with the game/series. If you don’t care, feel free to skip the next couple of paragraphs!
Demon’s Souls was the first game I played in the series. I bought the game in 2011, just shortly before Dark Souls‘ release. I remember this distinctly because Dark Souls came out while I was in the middle of my initial playthrough. I even remember the GameStop employee describing to me just how difficult the game was. While all of my friends were enjoying Dark Souls, I was working through the OG. In fact, I would end up playing through Demon’s three or four more times before I ever got to Dark Souls. I eventually borrowed it from a friend, played through it once, liked it, but only went through it again many years later.
As for the rest of the games in the series, they came out, I played through them a few times each (Dark Souls II more than any other by a mile), and fell in love each time. It’s a series that holds a very special place in my heart. That said, this is my first time playing through Demon’s Souls in probably eight or nine years, so I definitely felt like I was coming at it from the perspective I wanted.
What Holds Up?
I hardly know where to begin. Can my answer just be “basically everything”? That’s how I feel, anyway.
In preparation for this piece, I read and watched other retrospective reviews and discussions on Demon’s Souls and one thing really stood out to me: everyone treats this game like it’s some sort of beta or minor experiment before the real deal, Dark Souls, came around. That’s a perspective I just don’t agree with having played through the game again. It’s what we’ve all heard over the years, of course. We’ve been inundated with that idea, but it’s simply not true.
Demon’s Souls feels every bit as polished and complete as any other entry in the series. I think that that perception came around just because far fewer people ever had the chance to play Demon’s Souls. It was a PlayStation 3 exclusive at a time – 2009 – where the Xbox 360 was utterly decimating it in the console war. It sold around 1 million copies by 2011, and just shy of 2 million today. Not a flop by any means, but a drop in the bucket next to the 25 million copies sold of Dark Souls I through III. Everyone played Dark Souls. Bloodborne was also comparably huge given the PlayStation 4’s domination of the current console generation. Demon’s Souls was kind of forgotten; a niche game for what was at the time was a relatively niche console, and thus its reputation.
But, having played through it here in 2020, it doesn’t feel any less modern than the juggernaut that followed it. You could pull a lay-gamer off the street and show them gameplay of Demon’s Souls and, outside of its visuals, I can’t imagine they’d be able to pinpoint which game in the series it’s from.
A Souls fan will definitely feel right at home. I can’t stress enough how much it just feels like another Souls game. The combat, if a tad less detailed and refined in certain areas than future installments, feels every bit as modern as Dark Souls III or Sekiro. Rolling, backstabbing, shielding, getting picked up by flying demons and taken to another location – it will feel just right at the hands of an experienced fan of the series. In addition, you could pluck any of its (refreshingly varied) enemies and put them anywhere in the series and they’d feel right at home.
It’s a point I just can’t stress enough: this game holds up. If it’s your first entry into the series or your last, this game will feel near-perfectly modern. It feels equally as confident and sure-handed as the masterpieces that followed. You can get Demon’s Souls and a PS3 for like $100 from GameStop. If you’re a hardcore fan who has played through every other entry and is dying for some more Souls before Elden Ring makes its way into our homes, the $100 is worth it. Hell, I’d pay $100 right now if there was another game in the series I had yet to play.
What Doesn’t Hold Up?
There are places where the future games in the series excel where Demon’s doesn’t. Some stuff is rather nitpicky, other things are bigger, though even the “big” differences I found are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.
Stuff like your inability to attack while falling, or being unable to jump stand out as clear places FromSoftware expanded upon as the series went along. If you’ve never played the game, these little details won’t be missed. The game stands very well on its own legs. If no other game in the series existed, I have no doubt that Demon’s Souls would still be a game people talked about today. But, if you’re coming into it as a fan of the rest of the series, these will stand out to you. For me, they were easily ignored and detracted very little from my experience playing through the game. For others, they may be bigger issues, but I can’t imagine they’d be a deal-breaker for most fans of the series.
As a whole, the bosses don’t quite reach the heights established by the game’s successors, but that isn’t to say they’re bad whatsoever. There’s a great deal of variety in the game’s bosses. They aren’t particularly numerous, but follow the quality about quantity approach (looking at you, Dark Souls II), and are surprisingly varied, with no two feeling alike. Some are standard dodge and slash-type battles, while others require specific actions and feature relatively combat-free set pieces.
The visuals are also starting to show their age. While far from bad looking, graphics have come a long way since 2009. Some textures are unforgivably muddy, and there are places where certain models don’t mesh together particularly organically. If you’re a frame rate or resolution snob, then the game might be a visual eyesore for a little while, but I’m sure you’d get used to it after a while. All I see is one more reason for a remake. Seriously, in this era of remakes and remasters, how has it not happened yet? Oh yeah. Sony.
That’s it, really! Very little negative to say. It isn’t a perfect video game (none in the series are, in my opinion), but it’s important to note that this isn’t a standard review in the traditional sense. The things that needed to work in 2009 work just as well today, and anything else is minor and wouldn’t detract from a modern gamer playing the game for their first or hundredth time today.
If you’re a Souls fan itching for more after playing through Dark Souls 1-3, Bloodborne, and Sekiro, it would be a disservice not to seek out Demon’s Souls. I found the game to feel incredibly modern (apart from the visuals that, while far from bad, certainly pale in comparison to the most recent three games in the series), and holds a strong candle to the juggernauts that followed it.
That said, if you’ve never played a single game in the series, there are probably better jumping-off points for you to start with. Bloodborne and Sekiro are fantastic standalone games, and Dark Souls 1-3 are significantly easier to find, given that they’re on a variety of platforms and can thus be found fairly cheaply. But, if you have the opportunity or were maybe on the fence because of how old the game is, I can say with full confidence that Demon’s Souls is a game that definitely holds up very well.
What are your thoughts on Demon’s Souls? What game would you like me to take a look at next? Let me know in the comments!