Prior to 2022, I was what you might call a “Dark Souls hater.” I just couldn’t find the fun in acclaimed FromSoftware games like Bloodborne, which left me raging without giving me the sense of reward die-hard fans feel when they slay a tough boss. So, it came as a shock when I fell in love with Elden Ring earlier this year. Its open-world structure cracked the subgenre wide open for me, allowing me to better understand the appeal.
I figured the buck stopped there when it came to my ability to enjoy FromSoftware games. The game’s lack of a linear structure solved a lot of problems I had with the genre, so I wasn’t itching to start the less-forgiving Dark Souls series anytime soon. But when I subscribed to the PS Plus Extra tier and gained access to 2020’s Demon’s Souls remake, I figured there was no harm in giving the series another shot. Maybe my love of Elden Ring would make me appreciate the granddaddy of Souls games, even if I didn’t end up liking it.
My plan worked a little too well. After a four-day binge, I wound up loving Demon’s Souls — so much that it made me more unexpectedly critical of Elden Ring. While I love the latter, Demon’s Souls makes me yearn for a more compact, less esoteric FromSoftware experience.
Coming off of the 100-plus hour Elden Ring, Demon’s Souls is much easier to swallow by comparison. The action-RPG features five more linear zones to explore and can be completed in under 20 hours. When I started my playthrough, I figured I’d poke at it until I got frustrated and quit, just as I did with Bloodborne. Instead, I completed the entire game in 17 hours with barely any struggle beyond the second boss.
I hesitate to call Demon’s Souls easy, because even the easiest Souls game is still harder than most titles. However, the remake is a more legible experience that’s easier to take in at a glance. Take its boss encounters, for instance. Each boss is built around a clearly defined central idea that’s easy to pick up on the first attempt. I was able to immediately comprehend that the Old Hero is completely blind and will only target me once I make a scene. Due to clear encounter designs like that, I was able to beat half of the game’s bosses on my first try, sight unseen.
That wasn’t my experience in Elden Ring. Bosses would routinely take me dozens of attempts as I struggled to learn complex attack animations that seemed to never end. I’d spend battles standing around for a minute waiting for an attack string to tie up just so I could get one jab in. Demon’s Souls gets to the execution phase of fights quicker by presenting clear patterns that can be learned in one go.
That same philosophy applies to the levels leading up to bosses too. The more straightforward areas aren’t as reliant on “gotcha!” traps that are a fun shock once and an annoyance every time after. Something like a surprise boulder drop only tends to happen once or is easily avoided once you know it’s coming. Demon’s Souls isn’t really interested in making players struggle over and over just to get to the point where they can even begin learning.
That’s the main difference that’s made the Demon’s Souls remake my favorite FromSoftware experience to date. My final playtime wasn’t padded out by hours spent bashing my head against a wall. I couldn’t stand Elden Ring’s Rennala fight, which featured a long walk to her boss chamber and a time-consuming first phase, just to get to the actual challenging back half of the fight. It feels like recent FromSoftware games have become perhaps too self-aware of their reputation these days, upping the ante each time with more difficulty and danger. Demon’s Souls has more manageable wind-ups across the board, letting players take their swings faster.
It’s Demon’s Souls’ more subtle details that have finally allowed me to put my finger on aspects of Elden Ring that irk me. For instance, progress is incredibly slow in Elden Ring. If you raise a stat by one level, you won’t feel much of a difference. I’d only notice a sizable sense of growth if I went up five levels at once. That made grinding feel like a chore I didn’t want to engage with, as the reward often felt too small.
Demon’s Souls doesn’t have that problem. I always felt a difference when I made a single vitality stat increase or weapon upgrade. I became much more willing to farm for experience or resources because I knew exactly how it would pay off. I was able to settle on a build much earlier as I could better feel how each stat would shape my playthrough.
In general, I was more open to experimentation in Demon’s Souls than I was in Elden Ring. In the latter, I ended up hanging on to my starting lance for half the game. Once I had begun upgrading it with precious materials, it felt like a waste to swap it out. Demon’s Souls has a cruel, but effective way of keeping players from getting too comfortable: gear degradation. Weapons and armor wear out over time, so I felt a little more pressure to switch up my weapons. That led me to equipping Kilij, the curved blade that would allow me to melt down bosses like Leechmonger in 30 seconds flat. I previously posited that Elden Ring could have taken a The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild approach to item degradation, and I feel more confident in that idea after playing Demon’s Soul.
Nuances like that made it easier to engage with all of Demon’s Souls‘ systems, with very little leaving me totally stumped (though world tendency is still a total mystery to me). While I loved how sprawling and open Elden Ring was, I found myself missing out on entire components of the game due to convoluted quests and a glut of confusing items. The sleek design of Demon’s Souls makes it a much better entry point for beginners who want to appreciate FromSoftware’s design without delving into an encyclopedia-sized guide.
The Demon’s Souls remake isn’t without its own issues. Infrequent checkpoints turn certain sections of the game into a slog and FromSoftware’s historically terrible third-person camera left me struggling with otherwise easy fights like the Armor Spider. To developer Bluepoint’s credit, though, it’s done a fantastic job cleaning up the aging PS3 game. It feels more modern than Elden Ring despite that game launching two years later.
While I imagine that the incredible success of Elden Ring will convince FromSoftware to further widen the scope of its games, I hope there’s still space for smaller Souls games down the line. A more concise experience can help demystify a series that only becomes more complicated as it builds upon its strengths. Elden Ring may have piqued my interest in the developer’s games, but Demon’s Souls helped me actually understand them.
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