In October 2009, a little game from mid-tier publisher FromSoftware was released on the PlayStation 3. The game is called Demon’s Souls and little did everyone know that it would introduce a brand new way to play video games and a new genre. The spiritual predecessor to Dark Souls, this style of game would go on to influence not only other games in this genre but other genres as well. When judging how difficult a game is, Dark Souls is the new barometer. “Is it Dark Souls hard?” “This game is the Dark Souls of platformers.” Even the genre it birthed is currently only known as “Souls-like.”
Considering how much the game has permeated the video games industry, it’s hard to believe it’s only been 10 years since its release — even less if you factor in that this particular game’s impact wasn’t as large as its younger brother. 10 years of careful positioning and dodging, patience and pacing, fantastical worlds and Arthurian knights and soldiers. So let’s take a look back at the game that started it all: Demon’s Souls.
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Demon’s Souls started out as a concept pitched by SCE Japan Studio to resurrect a “lost area of gaming.” Originally being co-produced by FromSoftware’s Masanori Takeuchi and Sony’s Takeshi Kajii, the team didn’t have a coherent vision for the game and soon floundered. A coder named Hidetaka Miyazaki asked to be put on the project as he felt he could steer it to his own liking since it lacked direction.
Inspired by FromSoftware’s previous franchise King’s Field, Miyazaki wanted to bring back a challenge and skill-based game, which he felt was dying out at that time. He didn’t mention the game’s difficulty level to Sony when designing Souls as he was afraid they would force him to change it. At one point, he even considered implementing permanent death, but this extreme idea was eventually scrapped.
The Phantom and messaging multiplayer elements were inspired by an experience Miyazaki had while driving home on a snowy road: “[…] A car suddenly stopped on a hillside after some heavy snow and started to slip,” he recalled to Eurogamer. “The car following me also got stuck, and then the one behind it spontaneously bumped into it and started pushing it up the hill… […] But I couldn’t stop the car to say thanks to the people who gave me a shove. […] You could probably call it a connection of mutual assistance between transient people. Oddly, that incident will probably linger in my heart for a long time. Simply because it’s fleeting, I think it stays with you a lot longer… like the cherry blossoms we Japanese love so much.”
The game has a dark fantasy setting: the cursed land of Boletaria. There are five areas with four sections each to explore as well as a hub world known as the Nexus. The player must fight through each section, unlocking shortcuts to the beginning of the section along the way and defeat the boss at the end of the section.
You fight and defeat enemies with well-timed strikes and magic, as well as blocking, parrying, and dodging. All your actions (striking, dodging, running, etc.) require the refilling stamina bar in order to accomplish. Upon defeating an enemy, you will receive souls. These function as both currency and experience points. You can spend these at the Nexus where there are both merchants where you can buy items, armor, weapons and other useful items, as well as with The Maiden in Black, who will upgrade your stats for souls.
If a player is killed, they are sent to the beginning of the level, all enemies with the exception of the boss, are revived, and the player returns with lower maximum health, and the loss of all acquired souls. If the player manages to reach the point where they died before, they can regain their lost souls, though there are shortcuts that make this easier to do.
The World and Character Tendency system affects how enemies and NPCs respond to you respectively. Black World tendency makes the enemies tougher but with better loot while White World tendency makes them easier but earns you worse gear. The game also had a multiplayer aspect as touched on before but unfortunately, the official servers for the game have shut down, leaving multiplayer-only playable with modding.
After being originally revealed through a late-2008 edition of Famitsu, a well-known Japanese video game publication, a playable demo was made available a week later at that year’s Tokyo Game Show. No one was ready for the difficulty of the game, and after playing it for “close to two hours,” Sony president Shuhei Yoshida didn’t mince his words about its quality: “This is crap. This is an unbelievably bad game.” Sony released the game in Japan in early 2009 but, due to the negative response it had already received within the company, Sony decided not to publish the game in the west. However, game was later licensed by Atlus USA for release in North America later that year, and by Namco Bandai Games in Europe.
The game received critical acclaim in all territories and due to conservative expectations, racking up a 95% sales rate according to Media Crate. Sales were slow in Japan at first but word of mouth got out and eventually grew to over 100,000 copies. North American sales were five times that, bringing the worldwide total to over a million by 2011. The success of Demon’s Souls allowed the development of a spiritual successor, as Sony owned the Demon’s Souls IP, which would go on to even higher success. However, the formula was created here.
It’s a great game that holds up still today, although its even harder than its successors. Hopefully, a remaster is in the works, but in the meantime, if you can: boot up your PlayStation 3, get a copy of Demon’s Souls, and enjoy the origins of the Souls-like genre.
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