And so we come back to the start. Demon’s Souls was first released on the PlayStation 3, in February, 2009, and only in Japan. Slowly, it seeped to the West, America that October, Europe the next June. Advance word—whispered by those who had waded into its mud and mists by way of an import—told of a game that knew no mercy, that paid no respect to your nerves, that looked like The Legend of Zelda might if it were handed over to Ingmar Bergman: darkly drawn, scratched at by shadows, plunged into cries and whispers.
Now it has returned, in the form of a lavish and loving remake for the PlayStation 5, courtesy of developer Bluepoint Games. The 11 years that are bracketed by the two releases have seen the unfurling of a legacy. Hidetaka Miyazaki, the creator of Demon’s Souls and its successors—Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice—has become a gothic Willy Wonka: the cloistered, eccentric purveyor of a rich and bitter product. (Let us pray that, when he is encastled behind the walls of his studio, FromSoftware, he favours a top hat and cane—hopefully with a sword in the shaft.) If Dark Souls was your first taste of FromSoftware, and you happen to hold Miyazaki’s work in lofty regard, my advice would be to treat the new game less like a freshly lacquered fragment of the True Cross and more like the unrefined first swing at a formula, by a director in possession of most of his powers.
In the opening moments, we are shown a drifting God’s-eye view of a green and pale land, rising to silver peaks, with rivers of fog streaming over the hills and breaking through the forests. “On the first day man was granted a soul,” we are told. “And with it, clarity.” Not so. The narrative is cloudy, though less than would become Miyazaki’s signature style. The lore of the world isn’t laced within item descriptions but delivered by a lyrical voice-over, and much of it is taken from Tolkien. We learn of the six Archstones, wielded to plug up an ancient, leaky evil—“One to the king of the burrowers underground, one to the wise queen of the great ivory tower,” and so forth. What we have here, in short, is a portrait of the artist as a young fan.
Even early on, though, he has an eye like no other for distortion—for the warping of detail that tips the ordinary and the beautiful towards perversion and disquiet. Check out the Old Monk, a foe lapped in custard robes that spill outwards onto a stone floor, and flow down a mound of wooden chairs (shades of Father Willem, and Byrgenwerth). The fact that his flesh is drawn and drained of life, or that his head is crowned with thorns, is nowhere near as nauseating or uncanny as his clothing. Later on, the Old One, whose arrival heralds the end of all things, may be the size of a mountain, with birds flocking in the foreground, like motes of dust, but it looks more like it might herald the blocking of your drain—a black clump of dirt and dead roots, with splinters of wood spiking outwards, like the rays of a foul sun. Pay attention, too, to the flourishes that would later be minted afresh in Dark Souls: the sneak aerial blitz mounted by a blood-red dragon, for instance, and the way that some levels fold in on themselves (in less dramatic fashion than we are used to now), stapled by a hand-cranked lift or an unlockable gate.
The last game from Bluepoint was the remake of Shadow of the Colossus, in 2018, which seemed to be composed of decidedly more make than re. The grainy graphics of the PlayStation 2 offered a pleasantly bleary canvas for the developer to conjure up new assets and drape them over the old code, like a resplendent tablecloth. With Demon’s Souls, Bluepoint has once again found itself in the shadow of the colossus, so to speak, tasked with revivifying the breakthrough work of a studio whose influence now looms over the landscape like no other. Wisely, the strategy here is one of absolute faith. Combat veterans: the backstabs are still abusable. Mythology junkies: the sixth Archstone is still broken. Passing grammarians: the apostrophe in the title remains in the wrong place.
So, how do you improve upon a game whose very imperfections have grown beloved? Easy. Double it. By default, the remake runs in 60 frames-per-second (you can also opt for 30, with native 4K and visual enhancements). Sometimes, the teeming of extra frames has an awkward effect on the look of play—particularly the cinematic kind, like Spider-Man: Miles Morales or The Last of Us: Part II, both of which crave the warm blur of a blockbuster. You might think that seeing a broken medieval castle as smoothly as you would in a making-of featurette for Game of Thrones is a jarring prospect, and on film it would be, but here it lends the violence a live and biting quality. The combat—even if you customise your character for speed—is methodical and exacting, encased in a thick suit of strategy, but it feels, if not exactly fast, then vivid.
The director, Gavin Moore, has described Demon’s Souls as “a feast for the senses,” and, while we may wish for the day when our consoles will emit stealthy puffs of mood-thickening fragrance—notes of singed flesh or plague patient, to really drive home the blight—the DualSense does a good job of grounding you in the fiction. Notice the palm-juddering clang of a sword as it smacks against stone, how it differs from the moist and meaty impact of striking an enemy. (A personal favourite of mine is the soft scrape and whirr of a lowering platform, as if its cogs and chains were sighing through your fingers.) These are small things, little wisps of texture to be caught on the wing; and the coup, for Bluepoint, is that, along with the higher frame rate, they buff the game without sticking their hands in its clay. (The animations, for example, while reforged, unreel across the same number of frames as in the original).
How odd and reassuring that Sony has launched the PS5 not with the balmy gusts of an Uncharted, or another Killzone, with its cooling planets pearled by gunsmoke, but by refurbishing a crotchety, uneasy cult hit. And it may bring more people into the fold of FromSoftware. Trying to convince a friend to play one of these games is like recommending a gloomy, indigestible lump of Joyce: the blocking out of other things in the diet, the difficulty, and the solitude, with hardly the promise of added sparkle to one’s social life at the end of it. Indeed, you emerge from Demon’s Souls not joyous or triumphant, merely changed in some small way—and they won’t put that on the box. However, if you wish to see what your new console can do, this is the game to get; it provides the most whimper for your buck. Plus, it isn’t that difficult; it’s the easiest of the series by a fair distance, and a fine point at which to start. For those already in thrall to Miyazaki, Bluepoint has paid the finest tribute: it has crafted a game that has, like one of his looping levels, deposited us back at the beginning, illuminating our route through the years.
Developer: Bluepoint Games
Available on: PlayStation 5
Release Date: November 19, 2020
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