Demon’s Souls – The Horrors of Ruthless, Monstrous Challenge
Demon’s Souls is a masterpiece of cruelty – a ruthless action game that inarguably changed the course of AAA game development. It showed the incredible appeal of carefully crafted difficulty, and that players truly savor the feeling of overcoming those challenges.
It is a hard, demanding action game, but its core strengths and lasting appeal come from outside that genre. It’s horror that infuses the game, and its wider series, with its staying power. It’s in that fear you learn to feel while wandering its halls that it all becomes so compelling and memorable, using challenge, design, and a little bit of chaos to make an experience that is pure action,. but also undeniably unsettling and frightening.
I remember my first walk to the Boletarian Palace. It was so eerily quiet as I moved up the steps. I kept expecting foes to come rushing down the stairs at me. Maybe a cutscene punctuating their arrival. Some rocking tunes to start up as I entered combat. Instead, I had a lone, emaciated creature come running at me, its gait uneven and broken, feet tapping in the ground in near-silence. It looked sick and tired. I felt like a stiff breeze would blow it over. I just wound up and started swinging, figuring I’d carve it up and move on.
My first swing didn’t kill it, but the monster’s four follow-up swings sure chewed through my health. In a panic, I started smashing the attack button, but the monster was lashing out at me as fast as I was attacking him. Another monster also leapt up to my side, slashing away. I didn’t last long, my body crumpling to the ground, the infamous YOU DIED appearing on the screen.
Two small, starving, seemingly-helpless creatures beat me, an armored knight, down without breaking a sweat in my first foray into the main part of Demon’s Souls (not that I was much better during the tutorial). Right here, I learned that every single enemy would be a threat throughout the game. The sickliest, weakest-looking creature could take me out if I wasn’t extremely careful. Everything was a threat, and I was always in danger. That confidence to dispatch foes that usually came with action games went right out the window.
I felt similarly (although a bit LESS SO, honestly) when I played through games like Resident Evil, Fatal Frame, or Siren. In many good horror games, running into enemies is a noteworthy event that comes with a great deal of danger. There’s little in the way of disposable foes like you see in other action-based titles that are more concerned with making you feel strong and powerful. A good horror game aims to make you feel small and weak, allowing for the imagined sense of danger to set in. A straightforward way to do that is to make enemies that are really strong, or who will steadily whittle down your resources as you go, weakening you ever further along the way.
Demon’s Souls does both of these. The tiniest piece of trash can surprise you with an unpleasant demise (ask me how I feel about Plague Rats and Plague Babies), so you learn to be nervous any time some foe shows its face. Even if you’ve fought them a dozen times, certain enemy groups or combat situations can lead these foes to further surprise you, and no matter what, all it takes is one slip-up with your stamina or attacks and you’ll likely receive a lethal beating. And if you survive your mistake, it’ll cost you healing items that you’ll want to save for the game’s truly difficult foes and bosses. This is the most heartless game in the series as far as checkpoints go, too, so you have to play perfectly for a really long time in places if you want to have a chance against the bosses. If a mistake doesn’t kill you outright, it honestly likely still will down the road.
This loads every single fight with tension, as you really can’t afford to make any mistakes. This means you’re always nervous around any of the game’s foes, new or old, because each can either kill you or leave you in a state where you won’t survive the boss, having to take another long journey down to its lair. Having to stay perfect for so long makes for a stressful experience, one where I was leaping at every shadow in fear that something was going to get the drop on me.
Demon’s Souls loves doing that, by the way. Its jump scares are exquisite, with the developers cleverly hiding foes in every conceivable little cubbyhole and dark spot. It honestly almost becomes predictable by the end of the game, there are so many attacks from your blindside. Still, for a good while, the game will constantly have you jumping out of your skin as some new enemy (or a trap you’ve forgotten despite getting caught in it a few dozen times) comes rushing from behind a wall or some other hiding spot.
This surprise also makes the player make mistakes. It gets you out of your careful routines, and makes it difficult to execute your preferred techniques, often getting players to just react to what’s happening. As I mentioned above, those mistakes whittle you down quickly in this game. These scares also just make for a terrifying moment when some slavering monster lashes out at you with a broken sword from some direction you weren’t expecting. These frightful moments have made me jump harder than many other horror games I’ve played.
Failure also comes at a high cost throughout Demon’s Souls. You die, you lose your progress through an area (which can mean taking an hour long walk all over again) and drop your souls, the currency gained from beating monsters that you use to grow stronger. You can’t spend it in the dungeons, but have to return to the Nexus to buy some levels. To return there, you typically have to go back to the start of the area or reach its end, with the latter coming with the real danger that you’ll die along the way, losing your souls. The former represents less danger, but will also reset all of the enemies in the level, meaning you’ll have to fight your way back to your current position again.
This cost attached to death makes dying a frightening prospect. It’s not a simple jaunt back to a nearby checkpoint, but a massive loss of progress and currency that could be used to increase your abilities. You are weakened, to an extent, by dying in this manner, something similar to what you would see in other games like Friday the 13th on the NES. In that title, you have six characters of varying skill levels you can use to beat the game, but as Jason kills them, you lose them permanently. Since you’re likely using the best characters first, what you end up seeing is a growing weakness in your play as you are forced to use ever-worse characters. It creates this withering effect that makes you afraid to die, but you can only do so much to avoid it.
This principle makes Demon’s Souls more frightening as it aims to make the player afraid to die. They’ll lose so much if some enemy manages to take them down if they’ve made a lot of progress. The game isn’t entirely heartless and affords you some shortcuts, but often, there is a big loss with every death that will have players nervous to die due to what it will cost them.
There is a bigger price to be paid in this particular game in the Souls series, though. World Tendency is a unique element to this game where certain actions will change an area’s Tendency to black or white. Black Tendency is far more dangerous (although you can get better stuff) as enemies grow stronger the further down this path you go. You can shift the tendency toward black by being a murderous jerk to NPCs, but it also happens when you die. So you make the game harder if you fail at it. LOSING makes it MORE difficult.
Admittedly, you can avoid this easily if you know it’s coming (assuming you’ve done some research). The deaths only affect World Tendency if you’re in Human Form, which is the shape you return to when you beat bosses or use special items. You have far more health in this form, but if you die, you turn to Soul Form, which has far less health, but at least doesn’t affect World Tendency if you get killed. So, you can risk pretty much permanently making an area harder, or you can purposely hamstring your health and try to survive.
And again, this is assuming you know all about this surprising rule in Demon’s Souls. The game isn’t exactly overt in its explanations of how this element works. It doesn’t try to explain much of anything, which creates an intriguing mystery around every element of the game, but also makes it so you can screw yourself completely without even knowing it. A horror game that gets more ruthless the more it kills you sounds terrifying, and this game went and did it.
If you KNOW about World Tendency, you get to choose whether to be massively afraid of failing a level and making things worse for yourself, or to take a massive handicap that will make every stage that much more tense. You get a choice about what to be nervous about, creating even more anxiety and fear around the game’s combat. And that’s if you even understand what’s going on, as the game might just seem capricious and cruel without you knowing how it works, creating an experience that feels even more unsettling and hostile.
Even if you know everything about Demon’s Souls – how its various elements work, how to avoid World Tendency issues, where its enemies and traps lay – there is still the matter of invasions. Other players can hop into your world and just mess up your day, if your skills aren’t there, as fighting a human opponent is far, far more challenging than just about anything the game throws at you. The invasions I’ve encountered were all killers well versed in the most complex mechanics of the game, making them hard to beat for my clumsy self.
You never know when one is going to show up, either. Will you get invaded as soon as the stage starts? Near its end? Right in the middle of an encounter that’s chewing up your health? Who knows? Just know that at some point in your journey, you’ll run into someone who’ll add an unpredictable, likely even more ruthless challenge to your game. I know there are plenty of skilled players out there who can handle this better than I, but as an average player at best, the possibility of running into a staggeringly-powerful flaming red ghost adds even more anxiousness and fear as I walk through the area. Just seeing the game announce an invasion makes me tense up, and from then on, I’m always wondering what corner they’ll surprise me from. Some invasions are honorable, but just as many will cut your throat from a hiding spot you won’t even think of, or will wait until you’re busy to carve you up. It makes a hard, frightening game even moreso.
This is all before I even mention the creature and environmental design of Demon’s Souls. That sickly monster that managed to demolish me at the start of the Boletarian Palace, despite seeming pretty flimsy, is unsettling in how gaunt and disheveled it looks. The way it shifts from a slow, exhausted shamble to frantic, ferocious movement is also unnerving, giving players a big, panic-inducing shock when it starts rushing toward them.
And this is one of the weakest enemies in the game. There are far greater dangers that will frighten players, like the massive red dragon that buzzes overhead in the second part of the Palace, dropping gouts of flame from above as you run as fast as you can, praying to survive (which made for a pulse-pounding chase, to be sure). What about the bell-ringing Mind Flayer’s that wander the prison, that tinkling noise indicating you’re likely to get blasted with spells the moment you hear the tone? The aggressive, incredibly-fast skeletons that wander the Shrine of Storms? These tougher enemies offer a great challenge, able to carve careless players up in moments, but each has a strong visual presence that makes them unsettling from their appearance as well as their capabilities.
The locales of Demon’s Souls carry a similar power, taking players to dark dungeons, shadowy catacombs, and caverns filled with fiery monsters. There’s so much darkness all over the place that every stage exudes menace, and the ruined details you CAN see imply a corrosion and destruction that’s sweeping the land. Everything, down to the structures themselves, seem to be perverting and dying, creating this sense of unease everywhere you go. One strengthened by the incredible danger you’re always in, sure, but one that is there purely from the environments as well.
There is so much to be afraid of as you work your way through the game. The enemies, even at their weakest, can take you down easily, making every encounter into a noteworthy and nerve-wracking event. That’s assuming you see them, as many will lie in wait to surprise the player, leaving them screaming as they fight for their lives against an unexpected threat. Even if you live, you’ll see yourself growing weaker over time, your increasing feebleness making you more and more nervous to keep moving forward into the frightening areas that lay beyond. Hopefully you don’t die and make the game harder on yourself. And even when you’ve learned all the game inside out, human players can still make your heart leap into your throat with clever surprises and nasty attacks.
Demon’s Souls is built on systems that make the player feel weak, nervous, and afraid to move on, always whittling at their health or confidence as they explore. Overcoming that fear and triumphing over challenges is terribly compelling, making it hard to walk away from the game no matter how scared you are to die in its halls, though. Still, it’s that fear of death in a game where failure is meaningful that makes it feel like a fantastic horror game, using its combat mechanics and play style to make for a delightfully frightening experience.