Demon’s Souls PS5 review: A gorgeous game worth dying (repeatedly) for

November 13, 2020 by No Comments

Does the phrase “best graphics of the year” compel you to buy a video game?

Sony likely hopes that bullet point, as applied to this week’s Demon’s Souls remaster, will put you over the edge to buy not only that new game, but also its required $499 PlayStation 5 console. And while I’m cautious to put graphics over gameplay, there’s really no getting around it: Sony made the right bet with this masterpiece as a console-launch showcase.

Super Mario 64 has long stood as the benchmark for a system-selling console exclusive, one that exploits its hardware to incredible effect, and Demon’s Souls is the closest we’re getting to that lofty mark in 2020—a hair better than March’s incredible Half-Life Alyx as a VR system-seller. Crucially, Bluepoint Games’ remaster pulls this off while remaining faithful to 11-year-old gameplay, which means the game earns its next-gen stripes entirely through performance and aesthetics.

If you own a PS5, you owe it to yourself to experience how beautiful and haunting this game is. Just keep an asterisk in mind: if online PS5 shopping-cart woes or anxious, mask-clad waits for a new, sold-out console already sent your blood pressure soaring (on top of everything else in 2020), tread very, very cautiously with Demon’s Souls. Chill vibes, these ain’t.

From Shadow to Souls

This game’s faithful return makes sense for a big reason: the phrase “Souls-like” has become ingrained in the industry’s lexicon, yet this debut Souls game, made by FromSoftware, has been locked away as a PlayStation 3 exclusive since it launched 11 years ago—and struggles to play smoothly on that console. Bluepoint Games has pulled the genre’s progenitor out of a pile of last-gen rubble to remind us how pure and solid its foundation was—in ways that stand out compared to Souls sequels and spinoffs.

Put Demon’s Souls next to its 2009 original, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single mechanical difference. (The 2020 version will be referred to through this article as “Demon’s Souls” for simplicity’s sake.) This lines up with Bluepoint Games’ track record, as it’s the studio that delivered a stunning, note-for-note remake of Shadow of the Colossus in 2018. You may find the mildest differences with camera rotation speeds or other minutiae, and maybe a hidden Easter egg or two, but big-picture stuff like world structure and enemy attack patterns remains identical.

For the unfamiliar: Demon’s Souls revolves around a medieval-style world in a state between the living and the dead. The titular “souls” refer to your ability to die and come back to life (since you exist as a soul that goes into and out of human form), all while gathering other semi-dead creatures’ souls as a form of currency. Any time you die, you leave your pool of souls where you fell. You have infinite lives, but should you die again without touching that lost pool of souls, they’re gone—leaving you with less to spend on upgrading yourself to handle the game’s ever-increasing challenge.

You're going to see this screen quite a bit in <em>Demon's Souls</em>, even if you've beaten the game in the past.
Enlarge / You’re going to see this screen quite a bit in Demon’s Souls, even if you’ve beaten the game in the past.

That challenge comes pretty much from combat, and in Demon’s Souls, death comes easily, while victory must be earned. Your third-person battling arsenal revolves around archetypes like sword-and-shield, two-handed staves, bow-and-arrow, and magic spells, though these vary based on your starting class and experience-point upgrades along the way, while enemies range from hulking beasts to out-of-nowhere zombie ambushes. In some ways, the whole affair resembles the Monster Hunter archetype established by Capcom in 2004, requiring you to study enemy attack patterns and use that information to dodge, parry, and counter.

Notes, specters, and light sources

But Demon’s Souls stood out in 2009 by deliberately forking away from Capcom’s outdoor monster battling and toward cramped, surprising environments. It’s in this aspect that the game’s PS5 transition really shines.

While the game starts softly for newcomers, giving them a mix of simple foes and ample health items, it doesn’t take long for brutal foes and situations to emerge. FromSoftware originally eased players into this reality not with a useful instruction manual or in-game tutorial, but with messages crafted by other players. Demon’s Souls, like other Souls-branded games, is designed to be played online, and one reason is that players can leave notes on the ground after surviving perilous moments; these notes can be read by other players as they stumble upon the same locations. They can only be written using pre-made templates, and their vocabulary is robust enough to offer useful or silly information but not, say, hateful speech. This feature is still here—and whenever your messages are rated “useful” by other real-life players, you’ll receive an instant notification that boosts your in-game health a bit. (Plus, you can see how other players rated messages, which, as of press time, seems to prevent spam.)

The system does a fine job of reminding players to generally watch out (as do “bloodstain” specters showing silhouetted versions of where and how other players died near your current location). But I’d argue that Demon’s Souls‘ gorgeous updates to art, design, and sound do an even better job of reinforcing this caution.

While the original game played fantastically, it was unfortunately a casualty of that era’s emphasis on gray and green-brown—think of the original Gears of War or Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Color desaturation was often used as a poor way to make Xbox 360 and PS3 games look “grittier,” while this year’s Demon’s Souls proves that a game can revolve around darkness and gothic horror while opening up the palette without looking silly or overblown. For starters, dynamic lighting rules the day in Demon’s Souls, which means organic light sources like magic, fire, or your character’s built-in, “soul”-driven glow can pump life into any indoor or outdoor scene. These bold sources of light (which look incredible in HDR) not only look realistic, but also confirm that the insane lighting and ambient occlusion system built into this game are not relying largely on “pre-baked” models. (I’m sure some pre-baked effects are in the mix for efficiency’s sake, but when you apply fire to your weapon of choice, then wave it around like a torch of sheer violence, beautifully cast shadows dance around in ways that would be very difficult to fake.)

With more pixel resolution and texture detail in the mix, Demon’s Souls can also subtly pump up the in-game color palette by dropping average brightness in a nighttime scene. As a result, lighting elements like a bed of nearby lava, a blue glow from a monster’s helmet, or a large, blood-red moon fill in the color-information gaps accordingly, all without making the game too dark to maneuver through.

Stop and smell the dead roses

These lighting and color factors combine to make the game feel more real, less video gamey—in spite of, you know, the monsters and dragons trying to kill you. Even more impressive is the astounding geometric detail on every surface. Look at an average tree in the game, for example, and it’s an explosion of detail: an abundance of apparent geometric texture for the wood itself, with zero apparent repeating textures, along with moss and nearby foliage winding around the full shape. Branches and knots sprout off every which way, in ways that look entirely unique for each tree you see. That tree is then surrounded by dense collections of dirt and rock, and that path leads to a building built stone by stone with, once again, dense detail for each stone, as opposed to some sort of flat-with-depth-texture exterior. Shine a single light on that stony building, and the global illumination model will bathe it in proper light and shadow.

For many video games, this level of rich detail on buildings and foliage might whizz by. In Demon’s Souls, it gives you something to relish as you take your time deciding if, when, and how to move forward, as you take into account where your next foe (or foes) might emerge from. Stopping and smelling the dried, nearly dead roses can be a matter of Demon’s Souls life or death. Bluepoint has also applied clever differentiations from one zone to the next, since the FromSoftware original didn’t do as good of a job with that. Maybe one zone has an undercurrent of lava, while another is draped in swaying-and-sticking spider webs that reflect nearby light in astonishing ways.

Enemy redesigns take the entire PS5 aesthetic overhaul into account, as well, and out of context, some of them look like they’re missing FromSoftware’s original artistic mark. But some of those original designs’ unrealistic colors and baked-in glossiness don’t fit what Bluepoint has rebuilt. In a game universe with so much more detail—more foliage and organic growth clinging to walls, more realistic stonework on buildings and in caverns, and most importantly, a full ambient occlusion overhaul to establish a sense of real 3D space—the original designs are now smothered in compelling lighting and shadow. Seeing them in action will clinch this for anyone who comes to Demon’s Souls with heartfelt memories of the original and worries about Bluepoint’s artistic license.

A great frame rate—and you’ll need it

All of this, by the way, runs at a crisp 60fps when set to the game’s “performance” mode, which upscales a 1440p signal to something approaching 4K. (I only saw a few flickers outside of 60fps through my hours of play.) In action, it’s really quite difficult to tell the difference between an upscaled 1440p signal and the game’s native 4K “quality” mode, which sticks to a lower 30fps refresh, and neither mode suffers from the frame-pacing stutter that has weighed down FromSoftware’s biggest Souls-like hits for years. Seeing all of the aforementioned detail fill a 4K panel with HDR enabled is really unlike any other video game experience I’ve had this year—and much of my fiery passion about this remaster comes from its successful 60fps implementation. Milliseconds matter in deadly games like Demon’s Souls, and with a crisp 60fps mode, Bluepoint has given fans some of those precious milliseconds back.

The biggest catch about Demon’s Souls is how utterly brutal it is to play. There’s no getting around it: when you’re not struggling to face a dangerous foe, complete with tricky, somersault-filled attack patterns, you’re contending with the game world all around you finding ways to test your patience and attention. (Just like in the original, there’s no “easy” toggle anywhere.) If you really want, you can get a leg up on Demon’s Souls by watching complete YouTube guides from years ago; whatever was true then is true now. A bridge that’s patrolled by dragons that will bury you in fire if you don’t run across with perfect timing? A mass of tricky enemies that surrounds a narrow stairwell, such that improper attacks or dodges will make you miss your step and fall to your death? A pack of wild dogs that has decided right now, in this tiny hallway, is the right time to play fetch with your limbs? They’re all back.

As if the game weren’t hard enough for newcomers, Demon’s Souls still makes you experiment with item pick-ups, equipment loadouts, and even starting-class choices in order to understand their differences. If you want to access spells more easily, or understand how the “tendency” system works, or figure out what’s going on when you switch between “human” and “soul” form, a meager series of tutorial pages in the menus won’t be as helpful as you might hope. The same goes for “invasions,” a system that connects online players when anyone takes on the higher-health “human” form and is challenged by other players wanting their own returns to human form. The only really notable thing about this system is that the game’s PS3 version shut down its online servers two years ago, so anyone who missed that interaction finally gets it back starting this week. Otherwise, it works as intended in terms of a brutal risk-and-reward system, for when you adopt human form and enjoy its higher HP limit.

Shortcut tip, in the meantime: magic casters were overpowered (“OP”) in the PS3 version, and the same is true this time. Roll “royalty” as your starting class, then dump stats into “faith” and “magic” in order to hadouken your way through some (but not all) of the game’s worst challenges.

Die faster, revive faster on PS5

I’ll level with you: I have absolutely bellowed while making progress through Demon’s Souls. This is a butt-kicker of a game once you get past its first kid-gloves hour, and as someone who hasn’t touched the original game since the PS3 era, I had to come to terms with its quirks, particularly its lack of diagonal dodges.

But the original game’s best spots were interspersed between uninspiring PS3-era marches through generic castles. The same absolutely cannot be said about this year’s Demon’s Souls. Bluepoint Games has preserved the delightfully devilish challenge, momentum, and flow of the original, all while making its every level and monstrous encounter something I can close my eyes and firmly remember. And while it doesn’t have every next-gen bell and whistle, its polygon-rich, particle-filled, lights-dancing-everywhere universe is clearly a next-level jump beyond what PlayStation 4 could muster.

Also, gosh, it’s nice to only wait about eight seconds after a brutal death for the game to load your next life, instead of two whole minutes. That’s just one of many ways Bluepoint makes the die-and-retry reality of a Souls-like so much easier to savor on a new console like PlayStation 5. If you own one, and you’ve got the patience and stomach for challenge, don’t hesitate to purchase this remastered classic.

The good:

  • The ambitious gameplay of the 2009 original has been preserved.
  • Flexes PlayStation 5’s sheer teraflops to push some of the most incredible geometric detail and dynamic lighting ever seen in a game.
  • The newly renovated game universe organically helps players steel themselves in a game that requires serious patience to succeed in.
  • Robust sound design emphasizes atmosphere and monster voices in your vicinity, as opposed to creepy noises for creepiness’s sake.
  • 60fps frame rate transforms the experience, and super-fast loads after dying are equally welcome.

The bad:

  • The incredibly difficult gameplay of the 2009 original has been preserved. You have been warned.
  • Still fails to hold players’ hands along the way, and while the lack of “easy” mode is fine, unclear game-element education feels silly in 2020.
  • Skips many next-gen graphical talking points, particularly ray tracing and seemingly endless virtual worlds, if checking those boxes matters to you.

The ugly:

  • The noises you’ll make after thinking you’ve gotten the hang of the game, then dying carelessly to an animation (dodging, healing) not finishing quickly enough before a monster smashes or burns you to death once again.

Verdict: A must-buy for PlayStation 5, should you have the stomach for the original gameplay formula.

Listing image by Sony Interactive Entertainment / Bluepoint Games

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