The Dance of Death
A love/hate relationship is probably an accurate assessment of my feelings towards From Software’s “Souls” games. Strangely, though, the love side of the equation would appear to be stronger. Given the number of times I’ve quit these damn games in frustration and rage, it’s amazing how many times I’ve been drawn back in by the weirdly alluring, and disturbingly macabre atmosphere. The games are notorious for their punishing difficulty. Hours of searching for precious souls and items to make your quest that little bit easier, can be wiped out in seconds if you make even the slightest miscalculation in battle, or take a wrong turn into one of the game’s many devilish traps.
The severity of the challenge is part of the fun, supposedly, and with many years of gaming under my belt, I’ve tackled and conquered plenty of games that seemed impossible to beat. The “Souls” games hit differently, though. It just feels so unfair at times. It’s like that moment in “Ghouls and Ghosts”, when you’ve seemingly completed the game; only to be inexplicably sent back to the beginning.
“Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, might feel like a suitable tag line for the game, especially for beginners, but it’s not quite as daunting as Dante’s eponymous Inferno. An acceptance that you will die many times, and will likely need to grind for souls and resources is a good beginner mindset to have. You will become frustrated at some point, usually from making a stupid mistake. From experience, this usually leads to rushing things and invariably making the same mistake again. Or worse still, compounding the error and losing all of your souls to a an enemy you’ve dispatched numerous times.
Even so, when the game was announced as a launch title for the PS5, I just knew Demon’s Souls and I would be doing the dance of death once again. The fact that Bluepoint Games were handling the remaster was a huge draw initially, given their impressive work on the Shadow of the Colossus remaster for PS4, but it became increasingly clear from the initial trailer that the pull of re-visiting and conquering Boletaria was going to prove irresistible.
Let Battle Commence
After the impressive opening cinematic, you’ll be dropped into an incredibly deep and richly detailed character customisation menu. Seriously, you could spend hours there choosing just the right eyes, hair, teeth, and blemishes for your character. Once finalised, you’ll need to play through the “Forlorn Outpost” tutorial, before facing the many dangers of The Boletarian Palace. It’s one of five separate areas, each with their own set of unique challenges, enemy types, and fearsome bosses. You’ll need to complete these first two stages and beat the Phalanx Boss before being allowed to wander the rest of the world.
Loading the original PS3 version of the game took an age, and the time between dying and re-spawning into the world was frustratingly long. The game was also locked to 30 fps, and the control system was a little rudimentary, only allowing you to roll in four directions. On first impression, it was improvements to these three aspects that made this latest Souls experience, dare I say it, enjoyable?
Live, Die, Repeat
Loading times are now ridiculously short. There’s literally a few seconds and a brief wisp of fog between being chopped down in combat and being thrown back into the action. It leaves little time to overthink things or dwell on your frustration, and this aspect alone greatly improved my own personal experience. It also affords you the option to drop into another area; experiment with tactics or pick up some resources; then re-spawn in another in the blink of any eye. The game also saves your exact position when you exit, so if you need to take a break, there’s no need to complete the level beforehand. Pro tip! You can also take a breather by using the inbuilt photo mode to pause the game; something you famously couldn’t do in the previous version.
The 60fps performance mode is quite literally a game changer. It’s how any souls game should be experienced; simply because the increased response time gives you a much better chance of survival. The enhanced visual mode is capped at 30fps; and while it is pretty, the differences in graphical quality aren’t particularly noticeable during gameplay. It’s certainly more prudent to give yourself an edge in combat. Anyway, if you’re too busy looking at scenery, or staring at your reflection in a ray-traced puddle, you’re not going to last long in Boletaria.
Keys To Victory
Character animation and movement is extremely fluid and responsive, and the ability to roll in any direction certainly makes mastering the art of the dodge a little more achievable. Timing and memorising attack patterns are the keys to success in these games; whether it’s perfecting the extremely powerful parry mechanic; dodging to an enemy’s rear to initiate a backstab; or just interrupting an attack. Invincibility frames are still present, and depending on your experience level they can be useful or harrowing. Wind up and cooldown frames lengthen or shorten depending on your character stats and equipment. This makes levelling in line with your preferred play-style and loadout absolutely imperative.
The player UI has also undergone some tweaking for the better, and is far easier to navigate than the original. There’s also the addition of a handy tool-belt, allowing you to equip four items for use via the touchpad. It’s a small thing, but being able to see the next item in your list is another really nifty addition. It eliminates the need to scroll through everything again, after you’ve hurriedly skipped past the healing grass for the third time. It’s also nice to see your current weapon status displayed, making it easier to keep your damage-dealing levels optimal.
Build with Purpose
Investing some time in getting to know and understand the levelling system will pay off handsomely as you progress through the game. A flawed character or weapon levelling strategy can greatly reduce your chances of defeating certain enemies and especially the bosses. The best advice I can offer new players looking to complete the game, is to do a little research instead of winging it. If in doubt, visit one of the many websites that offer tips on character builds and the relevant stats, weapons, and items for each. Once you know the areas well, each playthrough will allow you to experience the game from a new perspective. Whether switching to an “up close and personal” tank build; a ranged magic build; or a combination dexterity build, there’s a plethora of options to choose from. As a result, the game has immense replay value.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, the game world’s fog shrouded landscape is hauntingly beautiful to look at. Each area you’ll visit has its own unique atmosphere and dark foreboding corners. Bluepoint Games have done an exemplary job of enhancing the brooding, palpable sense of dread the game is known for. Sure, it’s not a truly open world, but there’s plenty of places to explore, with generous amounts of eye candy on display. Character models are insanely detailed, featuring a range of facial expressions that change from moment to moment. Armour and weapons are beautifully crafted and textured, revealing lots of intricate details and signs of wear and tear on closer inspection; including blood spatter from slain enemies.
The game is perhaps best known for its legendary boss fights. When you first pass through one of those fog doors into a boss arena, everything you’ve learned goes out the window, and panic can quickly set in. The thought of traversing the entire level only to be defeated in 10 seconds, fills me with existential dread. Every boss in the game has something in their arsenal that can end things quick if you’re not fully prepared. These battles are truly breathtaking in terms of scale and level of visual effects, from the arena of the awesome Tower Knight, to the weather ravaged cliff top where the Storm King resides. Just don’t stand around admiring the view, or you’ll be back at your local Archstone before you know it.
The Sound of Impending Doom
The game’s incredible orchestral score is another huge upgrade on the original. It’s absolutely huge, adding grandiose levels of drama and intensity to the boss fights, and a foreboding, tense atmosphere in general play. It gives the game a truly filmic sensibility, with the choral singing in particular adding a layer of ethereal eeriness. There are occasional moments where the soundtrack drops out during the “Prison of Hope” level. It’s particularly disconcerting with those C’thulu headed wizards roaming the place. If that was the intention, it certainly works very well.
Playing the game with a set of headphones and 3D audio enabled is as impressive as it is terrifying. Object based sound let’s you know when enemies are approaching and from which direction. You’ll hear all the moans, creaks, squeaks, and splashes from the surrounding environment, too. The PS5’s DualSense also plays it’s part. It rumbles and grinds as you ascend in elevators, and relays the effect of every impact dished out or recieved. You can also feel the impact of the terrain and debris underfoot as you run around. In combination, the 3D sound and controller feedback create a truly immersive next gen experience.
With Bluepoint Games at the helm, this Demon’s Souls remake was in very capable hands. Their track record of excellence in re-imagining classic, and beloved games was a testament to that belief. They’ve successfully refreshed the game for “Souls” veterans, and provided new players with an incredible introduction to the series. This ground-up rebuild feels familiar, yet improves on the original in every conceivable way. It takes the robust, gruelling framework and applies a level of next-gen polish that truly showcases the power of PS5.
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