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Wolf Kanno's Crazy Ramblings and Incoherent Statements

My Top 100's Lost but not Forgotten: Demon's Souls

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So as many people know, last year I did my Top 100 Games list, but as usual, there were a lot of games I loved that just didn't make the mark for one reason or another.
So to start this off, let's talk about the Granddaddy of the SoulsBorne franchise: Demon's Souls.
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The PS3 was never a console that grabbed me. I couldn't exactly tell you why either. There was just very few games released for it that really appealed to me and the few that initially did, eventually lost there luster like Assassin's Creed or the Arkham Batman series. One game that did pique my interest was Demon's Souls, a game made by FROM Software whom also worked on my beloved Armored Core franchise, so I was familiar with their difficult challenge, heavy customization, and hands off approach to storytelling. The game looked very different from other games, and I always find it interesting to see other cultures interpretation of another culture's mythology and tropes. Even more so was the game's incredibly unconventional online component, which was the most surprising element I was intrigued by because as anyone who skims my list of games will notice, I'm not a fan or multiplayer style games whether they be MMO, or simple Arena E-Sports type fare. Even all of the fighting games I listed are before the online era.
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So when I finally got my PS3, and was utterly disappointed by FFXIII. I picked up a bunch of games that I had been kind of intrigued by. While many of them turned out to be complete duds (Valkyria Chronicles and White Knight Chronicles) or mediocre at best (Assassin's Creed 1 and Fallout 3) for me, I also picked up Demon's Souls, which had slowly been disappearing from the public light thanks to the roaring popularity of Dark Souls coming out. I checked the game out, and despite being fairly more simple in execution of the gameplay at first (boy was I wrong there) and I was brutally beaten up just as promised. Sadly, I had just started to go back to school, and the frustration of the games difficulty and it's high learning curve was simply something I didn't need at the time. Not helping was reaching the Flamelurker and getting totally owned by hims, as well as several terrible mistakes I had made in my build when I barely understood the mechanics,. left me in a state where I really couldn't finish the game as is. So despite being one of the first entries I owned for my PS3, it wasn't until last year that I seriously sat down and tried to beat this game once and for all.
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It was certainly a water shed moment. My main issues was that despite knowing that this game was radically different from typical JRPGs, I was still trying to play it like one when that wasn't the case. For instance, I dropped my starting Fluted Armor for the Brushfire Armor Set, despite the fact that I tend to play a more dodgy nimble character than a tank. Veterans will understand my foolishness right there as I basically dropped the best armor to weight ratia armor set in the game for one of the heaviest armor sets in the title barring Vinland's set. I didn't put into account new mechanics like Equip Load and the Stamina Gauge which are everything in these games. Another issue was that I had convinced myself to tackle the areas in order, so after getting stalled after finally taking down the Tower Knight in 1-2, I jumped to 2-1, beat the Armored Spider fairly easily with a bow and my one measly spell I convinced myself to learn, and then went to 2-2 where Flamelurker resides and largely stonewalls new players from beating the game because his soul is required to unlock the ability to do advanced weapon upgrades. It just never occurred to me to move to a new area and try it out, but perhaps it's because I assumed the stages are in order of difficulty (they are not) so yeah, I played this game pretty stupidly my first go around. Jumping into 4-1, which is a bitch for low level Mage characters due to the fast skeletons but easy picking for armored knights like my own character meant I was able to get in there and gain more soul levels and way better gear for my character, which made the moment I finally did take down Flamelurker as a major turning point of the game for me. So now that's you've heard my story of woe, let's discuss the game a bit more properly.
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Demon's Souls takes place in the Kingdom of Boletaria, whose King Allant tried to harness the power of Souls to bring glory to his kingdom. This journey led him to the Nexus where he rediscovered the Old One and the lost Soul Arts. His kingdom flourished, but eventually a mysterious fog began to envelope the lands and strange monsters and demons began to roam as well. The people were either killed or driven to madness, and while some of the elite knights of Boletaria were able to break through the Fog and reach foreign lands to gain help, it seemed too late for the kingdom. Many people have come to Boletaria now, some to save the fallen kingdom, others to stop the Fog that is slowly encroaching on the rest of the world, and others to simply gain the powers of the soul arts for their own benefit. You plays such a character yourself, and while on your journey, you are killed by one of the demons that now reside in the lands and feasts on human souls.
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Though death has come swiftly for you, it turns out not to be the end. Your character wakes up in the Nexus, which is cared for by the Maiden in Black and home to the Monumentals. The Monumentals are the former heroes who pushed back and defeated the Old One centuries pass and sealed it within the Nexus, their very lifeforce keeps it sealed, but Allant's use of the Soul Arts have broken the seal and now only one Monumental is left and they beseech you and other warriors to take up the cause to stop Allant and collect the Demon's Souls in order to stop the Old One from breaking through the Nexus and plunging the world into everlasting death and madness. Now bound to the Nexus, your character can never truly die, only give up and fall to madness eventually. There are five regions of Boletaria where the Demon Souls reside. Boltearia Castle is where Demon King Allant resides with his his Dragons, and the place is under a heavy siege at the moment though most of the combatants on both sides have slipped into madness. The Stonefang Tunnels, the industrial heart of the kingdom has fallen due to the mindless workers "digging too deep" and releasing a threat as old as time itself. The Tower of Latria was a smaller kingdom ruled by a wise and powerful sorceress who banished her husband who had become drunk on the power of souls. He returned later wearing a strange magic robe that gave him the power to defeat his wife and now the Tower is a prison where the Old Monk performs monstrous alchemical procedures on the people. The Shrine of Storms was once the home of a great warrior tribe who worshiped the King of Storms, now the dead are rising from their grave in these lands and thirst for bloodshed. The Valley of Defilement is a dumping ground for all of the unwanted things in Boletaria from the ill to unborn fetuses. A devout cleric named Astrea and her escort came to these lands to to help the unfortunate people plagued by the Fog and vanished. Each region has it's own unique story, and lore implications give more meaning to the game's cool bosses than expected.
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On your journey, you will meet several people who have also come to Boletaria for one reason or another and your choices to help them or not will change your journey. It is incredibly easy to miss some of them or accidentally end their journey prematurely. Not helping matters is that some questlines are tied to the World Tendency mechanic, which is a special mechanic that changes the difficulty of an area based on how often you die or if you slay one of the bosses. White Tendency makes the enemies easier, but they only drop healing herbs or low quality items. Black Tendency makes the enemies significantly more difficult, but they drop better loot. How players fare will also affect which Tendency a world has as well, giving an interesting community feel to the game.
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The biggest addition is the game's online elements. The two most identifiable are messages and bloodstains. Your character can come across messages left by other players that can either give you insight on strategies to defeat opponents, locations of items and secrets, or simply troll you into killing yourself by telling you to jump off a cliff for a secret that wasn't ever really there. Bloodstains allow you to glimpse the final moment of another player before death. Not super useful in boss battles, but great for figuring out an ambush may be in wait for you. While the games are largely single player, you have the ability to summon other players in co-op or even be summoned yourself into their worlds to help them clear dungeons and bosses.You can also have another player invade your world for the sole purpose of killing you and regaining their human form. It's an interesting mechanic that sets the franchise apart from other games with online features and it gives the games an interesting communal feel despite not being able to directly speak with other players.
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Mechanically, Demon's Souls is a different beast from other RPGs. This is largely due to Stamina Gauge and Equipment Load, two mechanics designed to add a sense of realism for the game. Basically, all actions are controlled by your Stamina Gauge which will slowly refill after use. Depending on the action will change how much is used. Walking doesn't really use up stamina, but running will quickly drain it. How much stamina you have can change how many swings of your weapon your character an handle, and stamina is also used to bolster your shield defense and will slowly drain as enemies wail on you when guarding with a shield. While not a necessarily unique mechanic, it adds a level of strategy to the combat system. You don't want to drain your whole stamina gauge by wailing on an opponent who will survive the combo only to get slaughtered in the counterattack because you didn't have enough stamina to roll or block their counter attack. So combat becomes a delicate balance of taking your hits where needed but also leaving enough stamina for defensive purposes like dodging and shield use. It complements the games simple but effective combat system and gives the series a similar vibe to Vagrant Story's Risk System which also promoted careful balance of offense and defense.
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Equipment Load is how much weight your character can handle from their equipment which affects their speed, ability to dodge, and stamina recovery. T use my foolish armor acquirement story from earlier as an example of what I mean. I basically dropped and lost my starting armor, which had a pretty great defense to weight ratio, meaning it gave pretty excellent defensive bonuses to my character without seriously restricting my agility. I lost it and traded it for the Brushfire Set, which is an extremely heavy piece of armor with excellent Fire Defense, which I had hoped would help in the Flamelurker fight but sadly, my character build was the complete opposite of a tank. I had never needed to put too much points in Endurance up until this point due to my starting armor being farily balanced so using this armor meant I had great defense, but my character could not really run for more than a few feet without losing all my stamina. I couldn't dodge roll, instead my character just belly flopped onto the ground and took the enemy hits, and I couldn't swing my swords more than once or twice without needing to back off and let my stamina recharge. My character build was not a tank build, and this armor is for that. I could have remedied the situation by acquiring a certain shield or ring that increases stamina recharge, put more points into the stats I needed, or simply change my get up and go for a complete light "dodgy" build by simply switching my gear for cloth armor instead, but I was dumb and didn't really know what I was doing at the time and so I eventually restarted, but yes, that's where equipment load becomes important, it changes how your character moves and directly affects stamina recovery. If you seriously overload your character, you can barely walk, so careful balance is important.
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Funny enough, it's these mechanics that often give the series it's "tough but fair" reputation, because the enemies themselves are also subjected to these limitations as well, meaning most enemies will always leave you an opening once they've exhausted all of their stamina. With that said, of my experience with the series, I consider Demon's Souls to be the most difficult. Which can be surprising to say since I also think it has the easiest selection of bosses in the franchise as well. A large part of the difficulty is due to the game being a bit clunkier than later installments. The controls are not as refined, the healing mechanics with herbs is tedious and requires farming often, there is less weapon variety and boss weapons require way more commitment to use effectively since most of them have glaring weaknesses. Other issue stem from death being way more bitter in this game, whereas later installments really make it more of a slap on the wrist. Dying in Demon's Souls means you're stuck in Soul Form, which boosts your strength and defense but your health is now cut in half until you regain Body Form by killing a boss, helping another player beat a boss, or use a very rare item. You can have your health only cut by 25% but this involves wasting one of only two ring slots with said ring, and rings are surprisingly useful equipment in this series. Making matters worse is that dying in Body Form in one of the five worlds will affect the World Tendency towards Black, meaning the enemies get harder and drop healing items less frequently.
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Another reason it's more difficult is the level design. Most of it is excellent but some areas are just sadistic in execution, and only the most cautious or players who have died enough times in the area to now know the stage very well will make it through them with ease. Your build is also important in factoring in all of this, as some places are easy peasy with certain builds over other. The Stonefang Tunnels are a nightmare for melee focused players due to all of the enemies having high physical defense and lots of health. The two main bosses of the area are also quite punishing to players who have to fight up close. Mages on the other hand will find this place a breeze as everything in here has pathetic magic defense and the two bosses of the area are ridiculously weak to magic. Contrast that with the Shrine of Storms, which is the opposite. While most things will still go down easy from magic, everything is either very fast and aggressive, or have punishing long range attacks to counter squishy mages. Consequently, heavier close range fighters can easily no sell most of these assaults with a shield and give the Skeletons warriors no advantage for their ease of closing the range gap. This is also a game where falling to your death is likely going to be the number one cause of death for you. It's kind of comical how many places make it so easy to do so, and places like the Valley of Defilement and Tower of Latria are purely designed to make falling your number one concern. Hell, the Valley of Defilement is still easily the most obnoxious poisonous swamp area in the series in my opinion. Blightown and the Black Gulch never made you have to crawl through the swamp only to deal with hard hitting and tanky enemies that are nor encumbered by the swamp water like you were. Hell Bloodborne's swamp area allows you to largely bypass the swamp part of it's swamp region, unless you're going after the items in the area.
In hindsight, this game should have been in the 100-80 range of my list, I just forgot about it for some reason. Perhaps I was still bewitched by the tighter designs of Bloodborne or the more user friendly Dark Souls, or perhaps I just felt like two entries from the same franchise was enough. Truth be told, I actually like Demon's Souls story and characters better than Dark Souls. Probably because Dark Souls borrowed a bit too heavily from this game for some characters. Not even counting obvious expy's like the Crestfallen Soldier, you can see how figured like Sage Frieke were expanded into figures like Big Hat Logan in Dark Souls. Hell Lautric from Dark Soul's is a poor man's Yurt the Silent if you ask me. Though in many places, I do feel Dark Souls took an interesting, if undeveloped character from Demon's Souls and expanded them into more interesting figures such as Big Hat Logan. With all that said, Demon's Souls has some really heartbreaking and thought provoking story elements which I just never really got out of DS1's cast for me. Ostrava's story is one. He's a knight who is trying to get to King Allant, but despite carrying some really powerful gear, he's completely inept at combat and has to constantly be rescued by you the player. It soon becomes apparent this "knight" is actually the Prince of Boletaria, and he wishes to find his father to help him stop the madness going on. His story adds a bit of levity at first since he's painfully useless in a fight and is constantly getting his ass kciked by the easiest of opponents, but it takes a much darker turn towards the end of it all and really sends home the bleak setting of the world. Maiden Astrea is another, and probably the most well known story figure in the story. She was a Cleric sent to the Valley of Defilement to help the needy and eventually lost her faith in God and the Church, was granted a Demon's Soul and now acts as the caretaker of the area. Unlike every other boss in this game, she's not malicious at all, in fact she will largely not attack you at all. In fact, a large part of why all the creatures in the swamp attack you is because they are protecting the only person who has ever cared for them. The fight with her largely comes down to battling Vinland, the Paladin sent to protect her and her lover. If the player manages to kill either of them before the other, they will kill themselves. This battle is really meant to make you question what you are doing. Astrea is actually pretty saintly and basically tells you to go home and leave her and the people of the valley alone. Considering how difficult this area is, she will likely be one of the last Demon's you fight in the game and this idea that perhaps you're the villain in all of this is a nice touch that none of the later games have ever been able to replicate on a similar level.

Despite this gushing, I will commend Dark Souls and Bloodborne leaving your actions far more ambiguous. In Demon's Souls, your final choice to get one of the two endings really comes down to a simple "Good versus Evil" whereas Dark Souls brilliantly made your final decision completely ambiguous, and most people are still debating on what you were doing in Bloodborne. On the flip side, I preer the more horror elements in Demon's Souls over Dark Souls more subversive heroic mythology. The Old One fascinated me, and the utter bleakness of the setting, with humanity forever trapped in a historical cycle of their own blundering was a nice touch as well.

Other issues I would address is Item Load, which restricted how much your character could carry, meaning that if you had to be very meticulous about what you bothered to pick up and you couldn't really carry multiple armor types without some careful planning. Made worse when one area is pretty bad about overloading you with stones needed to upgrade equipment. I'm pretty happy this got dropped in later entries. The consumable healing items didn't necessarily bother me at first, but after playing Dark Souls and experiencing the much more user friendly Estus system, it's hard to look back without shaking your head. Demon's Souls also has serious checkpoint starvation. While the game is seperated into areas which contain three "levels" a piece, these levels are actually directly connected without loading screans or teleportation. You're only obstacle are the bosses but once they are defeated, it's possible to walk from the start of the first level all the way to the final checkpoint. Where the checkpoint starvation comes in is that checkpoints are your reward for beating a boss, meaning that if they thrashed you, you have to slog through a chunk of the level to get to them. Thankfully there are usually shortcuts you can activate to navigate the area easier but some are better than others as I still say it's safer to actually go through the Flamelurker's level over attempting the shortcut which involves navigating some tricky jumps that will likely get you killed. Other issues is FROM Softwares bungling of the servers. Basically, Demon's Souls got a different publisher for every region for the game on it's release, so you can't have cross-continetal play due to the games being on different servers, not helping things is that the servers are nowhere near as stable the ones for Dark Souls, so expect to watch your game jump into offline mode often. Despite these setbacks, the game is still fantastic.

For my final thoughts, I just want to lay out some ideas for people who really want to get into the franchise but might be too intimidated by the reputation. These are things I had to figure out on my own before I really started to get into the games.

#1 - There is no "better gear" just better builds. One mentality I had to drop was the idea of gear with incremental increase in defensive power. That's just not how gear works in this game. Much like the delicate balance caused by stamina, weapons and armor have their strengths and weaknesses and you're just going to have to figure out how to make the most of it. You can upgrade weapons, but even weapon upgrades get tricky as you can simply upgrade it's base power of add certain properties to the weapon like Fire damage which may weaken the weapons base damage but now gives it better coverage over enemies that have elemental weaknesses. My file was going rough in the Stonefang Tunnels due to my melee build, but acquiring a Magic imbued Falchion in the Shrine of Stormss meant I could now wreck all the monsters in the Stonefang Tunnels with a melee option. Armor ir a bigger deal cause you can't actually upgrade it in Demon's Souls or Bloodborne, but Dark Souls lets you. Still, armor has certain properties that will can't be fixed and so it really comes down to you figuring out what's going to work for you. In my first playthrough of the game, I kept looking for better armor than m,y starting gear and ultimately screwed myself maintaing this mentality. In my successful playthrough, I ended up using my starting armor set for almost 90% of the game only switching out for a stealthy set of gear in the Tower of Latria and using a mage set for the Stonfang Tunnel bosses. Which brings me to...

#2 - Be pragmatic about your build. The interesting stat building mechanics of the game offers a lot of variety for different playstyles and you'll often hear players talk about certain types of "Builds" like a Faith/Strength Build or a Dex/Intelligence Build, or a Moonlight Sword Build. Builds are fun an give great replay value for multiple playthroughs but my advise for new players is to not focus on such narrow builds and build something that will work. Just because your goign for a Tanky Knight character doesn't mean you should forgo teaching them a few spells and throwing some points into magic stats. Just because your a mage doesn't mean you shouldn't throw some points into melee orinetated stats. Bows are excellent Kiting tools and so throwing some points into Dex is a bad idea. By stubbornly sticking to a build before learning the real ins and outs of the game, you'll just give yourself a headache when you run into a wall of difficulty cause your build may have a severe disadvantage to a certain area or boss. For a first playthrough, I don't think it's a bad idea to spread your points and go for a more prgamatic build. My final character was still melee orintated, with enough strength and endurance to be super nimble depsite wearing full armor, but he could also cast a healing Miracle or a powerful Sorcery spell if needed. I ended up pouring enough points into magic that I took down Flamelurker with a mage build in full mage armor despite starting off as a knight and kind of ending the games as one as well. I used the bow to snipe annoying enemies from afar instead of "git gud" and face them head on with my melee character in order to minimize my deaths. You don't actually have to be some Action gaming god to beat these games, being pragmatic, smart, and playing dirty is just as rewarding. I didn't deal with the Maneaters gank fight. I killed the first one by exploiting the fog gate glitch and sniping him through it and thus I only fought the second one "fairly".I gave my character a spell that dramatically reduced damage in order to even stand a chance against the ferocious False King Allant. I switched out my gear for the situation using a stealthy rogue gear to stealth my away around the Mindflayers in the Tower of Latria. So never assume your stuck with your build and don't be afraid to make your character into a bit of a Red Mage until you get a better handle on the game mechanics.

#3 When all else fails, go Mage. Despite the heavy use of swordplay and all the knights in shining armor, Mages are overpowered in this series and Demon's Souls might be the most guilty of this. It's incredibly diffiult to find anything in the game that isn't weak to a particular type of magic and by end game, the mage can be easily spamming room clearing spells with a snap of their finger. Granted mages have some issues with dealing with human players who certainly have great magic nullfiying gear, but for just the PvE stuff, a mage will carry you pretty far through the series until you get to Bloodborne since it kind of dropped them. Kind of. Even missing out of the advanced teachers doesn't mean much cause basic spells are pretty potent. To the point where my Dark Souls character did sub pyromancy into the build to deal with the foes where brute force was just not going to work for me. Helping all of this is the sheer amount of really powerful weapons that get boosts in dmage from a character with high magical stats like Faith. So evne if you feel a bit sad about pouring all your stats into magic stats, you can still be a melee god with these types of weapons at your disposal. To be honest, most builds that are not weapon or armor focused are largely magic/melee hybrid classes anyway, so even if you feel a bit like a your going to be looked down upon for being a mage, you'll be surprised how even Havel Armor wearing knights might be pulling off Lightning Bolt spells to deal with you.

#4 - If your stuck, just try going somewhere else. One element never discussed much about the franchise in causal circles is that at it's heart, this series is very Metroidvania in design in terms of level layout. Outside of the prologue parts, most of the games will usually have two or three directions you can go and if you're getting steamrolled in one direction, you can easily backtrack and try the other path. The games sort of have the FFII thing going for it where you'll often realize you're going the wrong way cause the enemies can effortless one shot you. Some new players may see this as the games living up to their "difficult" reputation but in reality, if they simply tried another path, they would be pleasantly surprised to find far more manaegeable enemies down this path instead. Going back to my disasterous first run of Demon's Souls, I got stuck cause I convinced myself I had to beat the second Stonefang Tunnel stage instead of trying out the other areas which I convinced myself would be more difficult, only for my complete run to show me that getting stalled in one place meant going to another could unlcok new tools and needed levels to advance. I got a welath of great gear for my build in the Shrine of Storms, which made the Stonefang Tunnels extremely easy. Later gmes had similar things happen where I would hit a figurative wall nand I would simply backtrack and go to a different area that was much more manageable and build myself up to the harder places.

Overall, Demon's Souls is a bit of a clunky title compared to all of the games that came after, but it's still a fantastic title and a game I recommend to anyone looking for a challenging game and great lore. I still kind of wish this game had made the list.

Updated 05-02-2019 at 10:34 AM by Wolf Kanno