A Demon's Souls characters stands before a stained glass gallery in the back the nave of a Gothic church
screenshot courtesy of Sony

The Horror That FromSoftware Lost Between ‘Demon's Souls’ and ‘Elden Ring’

The themes and mechanics are still there in places, but nothing has come close to the bleak religious survival horror of From's 2009 masterpiece.

Within an hour I wasn't sure I'd touch Elden Ring again. Demon's Souls 2020 winded me, reminding me so completely what these games were before the internet got ahold of them that Elden Ring, built to address a decade of fan engagement, instantly felt less unique, more the actual dark fantasy RPG everyone always claimed they wanted than the mad experiment in *religious survival horror* inflicted on an unsuspecting public over a decade ago. Elden Ring might be a masterpiece, but it doesn't make me fear God or Hell the way Demon's Souls did, as it still does.I may never finish Elden Ring. Not because it isn't a great game. It's obviously some kind of masterpiece, a synthesis of everything From Software has learned since they created Demon's Souls 13 years ago. That sleeper hit gave way to their mega hit Dark Souls and its many sequels/spin-offs, creating a new subgenre and leaving a mark on the industry that hasn't yet faded. There is nothing else like them at the AAA budget level: nothing as weird, as singular, as committed to eccentricity, to their own mad gameplay and narrative logic, which are often one in the same.


I waited for Elden Ring like everybody else, bought it the day it came out like everybody else, and thoroughly enjoyed its meticulous, nuanced world—now an *open* world. This was the game's key selling point, a departure from the Metroidvania style of From's previous efforts. But something curious happened a dozen or so hours in: after months of trying I landed a PS5, and with it the exclusive remake of Demon's Souls.

Released two years before Elden Ring, but on a next gen console that's still hard to find, BluePoint's Demon's Souls remake feels both newer and older than From's latest opus, an obsessive recreation of the 2009 original, preserving the odd flourishes and rough edges that From shaved off over the past decade, all reimagined with vivid next gen presentation. I popped it in on a lark, just to see what it, and the PS5, were like.

Rats feast on a corpse in Demon's Souls

'Demon's Souls' screenshots courtesy of Sony

Within an hour I wasn't sure I'd touch Elden Ring again. Demon's Souls 2020 winded me, reminding me so completely what these games were before the internet got ahold of them that the new version, built to address a decade of fan engagement, felt less unique, more the actual dark fantasy RPG everyone always claimed they wanted than the mad experiment in religious survival horror inflicted on an unsuspecting public over a decade ago. Elden Ring might be a masterpiece, but it doesn't make me fear God or Hell the way Demon's Souls did, as it still does.


It's shocking that the Soulsborne genre isn't talked about more in relation to survival horror. The scarcity of resources, the heavy emphasis on slow, calculated, high-stakes combat, the way the player has to think about controlling space, inch by inch, room by room, is pure, golden age survival horror design. The RPG elements, the complex fighting, the larger environments, the presence of knights, castles, dragons—all change none of this. These games have always been closer to playing Resident Evil or Silent Hill than The Witcher, and Demon's Souls was always the closest.

Playing Demon's Souls after spending hours with Elden Ring instantly makes clear the benefits of *not* having an open world. Knowing you *don't* have to explore that massive city that sprawls out beneath you as you make the final ascent to Boletaria Palace is a huge relief. The fact that those tangled streets, their scattered fires and devastated barricades, are off limits, the fate of their doomed citizens left to speculation, makes it a perfectly choreographed sublime moment, providing nothing more than a chance to reflect on the scale of suffering, before you remember, with a sinking heart, that your only path was forward.

A moonlit tower soars above the trees and looms over a small player character as they approach.

Demon's Souls has long been the black sheep of the Soulsborne family because it's the only one that isn't seamless. You are never allowed to fully explore the cursed kingdom of Boletaria, instead teleporting to key locations from the spiritual purgatory you are trapped in, The Nexus. Each of these locations are intricate, self-contained mini-Metroidvanias, but it is impossible to walk from one to the other. At the time this was seen as a limitation, one From immediately did away with in Dark Souls with its single, fully seamless Metroidvania-style world. But six games later it's easy to see how Demon's Souls' more concise approach sidesteps a lot of issues its successors never fully solve.


When you create a seamless world, whether open or Metroidvania-style, you simply have to deal with the fact it cannot be as big as a real epic space would be. What we call "countries" or "cities" in such games are usually closer to the real life size of amusement parks or golf courses. What make them feel bigger are ingenious level and narrative design working in tandem— which is great—but it also forces you into certain design solutions to convey scope while keeping things traversable.

Dark Souls dealt with this by focusing on verticality. Instead of having you travel long distances to get to key points it stacked all the key points on top of each other. You're either forever going further up or further down in that game, which makes sense given its Greek-esque mythology, with the Hades-like underworld of Ash Lake at the bottom and the Olympus-like paradise of Anor Londo at the top. It's still the most iconic world in the whole Dark Souls saga, the one that's the easiest to picture in your head, but it also feels strangely small at times, like if Frodo found Mordor just by exploring a really deep cave under The Shire.

You can see increasing attempts to break out of this limitation in Dark Souls II and III, which bring back horizontal expansive spaces but also rely more on teleportation, having you construct a soft version of the hub from Demon's Souls as you slowly unlock warp points in your travels. This does free those games from their predecessor's strict verticality, but as a consequence they feel more fragmented, more difficult to hold in your mind. Less real.


Elden Ring finally bites the bullet and just makes the world huge, a scope increase it deals with by swiping the horse from Zelda and giving it the power to materialize on command. This makes traversing its open world manageable, though it still keeps the slowly accruing teleportation points from Dark Souls, and even adds an unlockable hub apart from the rest of the map, very much like Demon's Souls. This is one of the reasons people cite Elden Ring as the "culmination" of the Soulsborne genre, elegantly incorporating design concepts from each preceding game.

As an open world design it’s great. It embodies the Dark Souls trial-and-error philosophy of "if this direction is too hard, try a different one" but ingeniously makes it about horizon points rather than linear paths. Yet it does have the effect of both overwhelming the player and demystifying the world. It's thrilling the first time you realize you can explore *anything* in Elden Ring—any shining city, any mysterious castle that you see on the horizon. But the twelfth time? A bit less so. And you experience so much content it's hard to keep straight who everyone is, what they want, and why you should care.

A horse leaps a chasm in Elden Ring, as distant ruins emerge from the mist in a valley below.

'Elden Ring' screenshots courtesy of Bandai Namco

Demon's Souls doesn't struggle with these problems. Having fewer areas you teleport between simply means it's laser-focused on what matters: the locations and characters important to its core storyline, and it manages this *without* sacrificing a sense of scope. Constantly seeing vistas you can never go to, but that you know are experiencing the same horrors you are writ large, gives Demon's Souls a sense of epic intimacy. Your encounters feel both personal and representative of a fate befallen society, the same way that a single zombie bursting through a barricaded window in Resident Evil 2's besieged police station feels like an expression of a city-wide apocalypse.


Survival horror, and indeed horror in general, has long relied on claustrophobia to create its effect. There's a reason no Silent Hill game ever gives you a car, why the Racoon City streets are a labyrinthine tangle of barricades and alleyways. Feeling "trapped" in the narrow corridors and micro-worlds of Demon's Souls gives it this familiar tension. By forcing you to jump from deathtrap to deathtrap, each one representing a key aspect of the kingdom—the cradle of its government, of its industry, of its aristocracy, of its religion, of its underclass—Boletaria's descent into madness feels both complete and vast in the tradition of the best apocalyptic horror, where our frail humanity is put to the test in local expressions of global collapse.

This frailty, so crucial to generating terror, is one area Demon's Souls 2020 really nails. I confess I was not excited about BluePoint's remake when first announced. Though well-crafted, I was leery about some of their "Westernized" creature and character design. Demon's Souls being a Japanese take on Western tropes is what gives it (and the entire series) its elemental power, what makes it unique in the crowded video game landscape of knights and dragons. Once I tried it though, I was impressed by how awkward, how unwieldy, how imprecise—indeed how human—it felt to play. This hallmark of From's earlier designs has softened overtime, but BluePoint enhanced it, giving us sweaty, terrified fleshbag avatars right out of the third act of a slasher movie.


When a possessed knight runs at me in a full suit of armor, I can hear the flesh of the body squelching against the metal, the muffled breath inside the helmet. I can feel them—and myself, clumsy, tired, straining—as we knock about the environment. I never got a sense in Demon's Souls 2009 that there was really a person inside that armor, but in Demon's Souls 2020 all I can think of is what must be happening to the soft body underneath as my spear pierces their side. The dull clang of weapons using the PS5's more realistic sound propagation, the wobbly imperfect lunges more subtly blending animation and physics, they all add up to a sense of sloppy desperation. The combat system is the same as the original, and essentially the same as in Elden Ring, but it has been recalibrated to emphasize what is human.

Mortal protagonists were survival horror's secret weapon when it caught everyone by surprise back in 1996. Resident Evil in theory starred a team of elite badasses, but the way that game used fixed camera angles to create suspense necessitated a slow, methodical control system. Though people complained at the time, the way the controls functionally reduced you to a "normal person" was key to the game's effect. Silent Hill picked up this notion and ran with it, making its protagonists civilians with no combat experience, who sometimes weren't even in shape, and built stories around them that explored their human frailties.


One of the ingenious things about Demon's Souls when it came out in 2009, after classic survival horror had been murdered by the mid-2000s action-horror boom, was how it seemed to straddle this line between power fantasy and vulnerability, letting you become a legendary hero but never letting you feel like one. While you do become very powerful, the stakes are so high, with fatal errors almost always stemming from fear and panic, that you remain a nervous wreck all the way to the end. You certainly don't feel like you've saved anything, and—most tellingly—you don't really get the opportunity to use all the power you have amassed. You spend the game preparing for a last boss that never materializes. When the end comes it is with a whimper, which makes you wonder what it was all for.

A dragon glides above a still lake in a desolate valley.

'Demon's Souls' screenshots courtesy of Sony

This more than anything sets Demon's Souls apart from the games that came after. It speaks to one of its main but rarely acknowledged influences: the work of Fumitu Ueda. Demon's Souls co-creator and series mastermind Hidetaka Miyazaki has cited Ico and Shadow of the Colossus as inspirations, and you can see this not only in the tone-setting melancholy of his initial effort but in his willingness to let narrative dictate gameplay, often radically so. In a lot of ways Demon's Souls feels like an Ueda game, but with more mechanics to obfuscate what it's saying, requiring the player to decode a denser network of systems to reveal the core themes. Only those themes are darker, more harrowing, closer to the hellish psychoscape of Silent Hill, with its suffering, its gods, its judgment, and its refusal to provide easy answers.


Konami's little game-changer about a small American town beset by personal demons has always been animated by religion. Fans like to pretend Silent Hill 2 did away with the original's "cult elements" in favor of something more Lynchian when really its focus on sin and punishment is a direct extension of 1's Judeo-Christian-Pagan cosmology. The deity the cult worships—named in 1, unnamed in 2—is Samael, the Talmudic precursor to the Biblical Satan. Unlike the Christian revision, Samael isn't "evil" in a conventional sense. It's merely a judge, dispensing God's justice on the wicked. Pyramid Head, the grotesque hooded figure in Silent Hill 2 who pursues people through their own private hells, is its executioner. He is an instrument of God.

Silent Hill leans heavily on Satanic horror films of the 1960s and 70s like Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, and The Exorcist, yet the central deity isn't Satan and isn't evil. This positions it outside the black and white moral universe of most Western media built around Christian paranoia, even while forefronting the same anxieties. We're never meant to question whether the demon-child in The Omen is bad. We're just supposed to cheer on Atticus Finch as he attempts to put a knife in his son's heart. But the insidious web of spiritual torture that ensnares people in Silent Hill doesn't always seem just. Murderers like Silent Hill 2's James or Eddie deserve it, but abuse survivors like Silent Hill 1's Alessa or Silent Hill 2's Angela don't. So what are we to make of Samael's "justice", of a god that seems to punish perpetrator and victim alike?


The inscrutability of deities, of gods and demons, in relation to the suffering they appear to inflict is at the heart of religious horror. It reminds us of our smallness, our helplessness, in a fixed cosmic hierarchy we can never fully know. Though it doesn't take place in our world like Silent Hill does, Demon's Souls is fueled by the same anxieties, so much that its thinly-veiled analogs to real world religion hit harder than they normally would in a fantasy setting. We've all seen fictional medieval worlds with iconography meant to evoke Catholicism, but few that treat these elements as critically—as terrifyingly free of moral certainty—as From does.

At one point in Dark Souls you come upon a priest who claims to be able to "forgive you for your sins". If you pay him some absurd amount—what would normally take hours, even days, of play to amass—he can "turn back the clock" and undo decisions you regret, like killing a key character and/or getting locked out of a quest. Because these games autosave, leaving you stuck with every stupid, hateful, petty decision you make, the message to the player is clear: God can rollback your savegame, but only if you pay His church an arm and a leg. The fact that this is spiritual extortion isn't lost on the priest. He speaks in a mocking tone, delighting in the cosmic power he wields. You can kill him, like you can kill anyone in a Soulsborne game, but then you have no access to God's grace. You can never be "forgiven" again.


Such ruthless game design suggests equally ruthless metaphysics: there does seem to be an almighty god, but one that's a penny-pinching bureaucrat indifferent to pain. This is the implication in nearly every Soulsborne game, but few connect it to a larger statement about religion. In Dark Souls this unseen higher god feels a background detail, not a key element in its Greek/Norse-like main narrative of deities vying for territory in a broken, dying world. When you face off against Odin-esque last boss Gwyn it doesn't feel like a confrontation you're supposed to gain any moral or spiritual insight from. He's just the final obstacle you have to hack your way through in this beautiful, sad, fascinating landscape.

A weathered, cursed aristocratic woman sits amidst luggage and family treasures in a damp, candlelit cell.

'Demon's Souls' screenshots courtesy of Sony

Compare this to the Faustian simplicity of Demon's Souls, in which there is no divine pantheon, just a corrupt king and his state-allied church with ties to an insidious aristocracy. Everything happens in this game because King Allant made a deal with the devil, so to speak, awakening an ancient demon from its slumber in exchange for great power. (Apparently being king wasn't enough.) This power, as one might imagine, essentially amounts to witchcraft, long outlawed by the church his own monarchy endorses.

Right out of the gate Demon's Souls uses Christian vs. Pagan shorthand for both its worldbuilding and its systems design. Witches exist and appear to be enemies of both the church and the state. Those that teach you spells must be freed from prisons or saved from execution, and they have a lot to say about how their arts are perceived by those in power. The most chatty of them, Sage Freke, claims the "god" the church worships is actually a run-of-the-mill demon, neither good nor evil, and that what the church calls "miracles" are merely state-sanctioned magic. The clergy and believers you meet claim the opposite, that what they worship is the one true god, that demons are evil, and that the miracles they teach "cleanse" the souls of the demons you defeat.


This never-resolved theological debate becomes a lens to read the whole game through. Miracles predominantly heal. Spells predominantly hurt. Spell casting is governed by two stats: 'magic' and 'intelligence'. Miracle working is governed by one: 'faith'. This is why Freke tells you that magic is merely the pursuit of knowledge, and that blind belief inhibits that pursuit, insisting that whether spells are used to hurt people is up to the caster. But that's before you meet the most powerful witch in the game, Yuria. She has come to the conclusion that magic only causes suffering, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is naive, citing that most spells have no application other than violence.

It might seem like this is all pointing towards the clergy being right after all, except that they're portrayed with the same pious indifference as in Dark Souls. Saint Urbain, the main priest who teaches you miracles, is a self-righteous prick who wants you to murder Saint Astrea, a once-revered nun he and his acolytes fear succumbed to demonic influence after she disappeared on a pilgrimage in a plague-ridden valley. The part where you find her, sitting in a pool of bloody filth, caring for the mad and the sick the church has condemned, is the emotional centerpiece of the game. It's as if The Pope told you to go to Calcutta and kill Mother Teresa... and you did.

Saint Astrea is technically a boss, one of the coveted "Archdemons" you have to slay in order to break Boletaria's curse. But she's not a boss in any conventional gameplay-related sense. She refuses to fight you, calling you a hypocrite to your face after you kill her loyal, beloved bodyguard (who's barely tougher than a normal enemy). This disgraced holy knight begs you to leave the two of them alone, but you can't complete the game if you do. Later you are told Astrea abandoned God because she thought He was cruel, astonished that His church would turn a blind eye to Boletaria's suffering.


You'll notice how this isn't the typical 'both sides are bad, so let's blow them both up' copout. Demon's Souls presents us a tangle of belief and disillusionment, optimism and pain. We're not invited to decide whether the pious priest, the smug intellectual, the witch who hates witchcraft, or the nun who hates God is right. We're given these as a range of human responses to the Biblical tragedy that has befallen the world. We aren't challenged to make sense of it, just feel the pain of it, the loss of it.

The main thing that sets the Soulsborne games apart from typical action-RPGs is their acute sense of *empathy*. All the creatures you encounter have a ruined dignity that is radical in the world of video games. At one point in Bloodborne you encounter zombies—the most disposable of all video game enemies—that are weeping. They clutch at their rotting faces through broken fingers, convulsing in sorrow, aware of what they are, what they've lost. You are not encouraged to kill them. Indeed the game seems to have no opinion about how you treat them. Like most From games it seems mainly to want you to just notice, to have a human response in the moment, unobscured by some reductive reward/punishment system.

No From game lacks empathy, but Demon's Souls is singular in how it allows empathy to *disrupt* its gameplay. Astrea is just one of several "non-bosses" the game employs as deliberate anti-climaxes. The so-called Dragon God of the mining colony is in fact a helpless giant you execute in chains. The mysterious opponent summoned at the top of the cathedral tower is actually another, often weaker, player forced into PvP combat against their will - a fate which befalls you later in the game. And the last "boss", King Allant's true cursed form, is a pathetic, lumpy mass. You literally have to poke him to death as he flops around in the muck, unable to fight.

No other From game does this. No other From game has the courage to just *not* give you a challenge and have it be a moment of pure reflection. Not Dark Souls, not Bloodborne, not Sekiro, and I've read enough about Elden Ring to know it doesn't either. Yes, these games manage smaller such moments here and there, but generally not with bosses, and never with last bosses. I find it hard to believe that the Dark Souls fans who harp on about Gwyn being a radical anti-boss, simply because he's "easy" and has sad piano music, have ever finished Demon's Souls. King Allant is like a tumor-ridden cancer patient who's fallen out of bed, whereas Gwyn—and every major fight in Soulsborne games there afterward—is a sad version of a regular video game boss.

A hooded man in a cell explains he was undone by his greed and thieving.

This is the difference between Demon's Souls and all the other games. This is the difference between an experimental willingness to let story dictate gameplay and reshaping your story around game dynamics you know hardcore players want. When I first played Dark Souls back in 2011 I was struck by the reduced narrative framing around its PvP system. In Demon's Souls the PvP system is tightly connected to the story of King Allant's Faustian bargain and the curse of immortality it has brought on Boletaria. In Dark Souls they came up with a different narrative framing for the same death/rebirth mechanics - essentially swapping out being a ghost for being a zombie—and while it works it doesn't resonate with a larger theme the way it does in Demon's Souls, because it doesn't dare attach consequences to PvP the way Demon's Souls does.

In Demon's Souls the more you behave like a greedy soul-hoarding bastard— in other words, the more you behave like King Allant—the more you inspire the same behavior in those around you. NPCs that might have been friendly otherwise become soul-thirsty scavengers, locking you out of their questlines. Undoing this is possible but extremely difficult. It's not like in Dark Souls where you can pay God to forgive you. You have to figure out which actions will influence the world in the other direction, and if you screw up enough you can lock Boletaria into a permanent death spiral of soul-harvesting madness.

The 2009 version of Demon's Souls, astonishingly, based this not just on your individual behavior but on everyone using the server, so if enough people playing around you were bastards there was simply nothing you could do. This speaks to a hardcore commitment to story and theme over convention and fun. The fact that this cosmology is obtuse and unfair, allowing you barely any agency but bludgeoning you with consequence for failing to navigate it, is the purest expression of religious horror I can imagine. It's almost like you've been set up to fail by a cruel god, perhaps the one Astrea believes in but hates. Or maybe there's no god, and this is all just the indifferent metaphysics of how transubstantiation works. Not knowing, but feeling the suffering at every moment—the human cost of this terrible, inscrutable cosmic system—is what make's Demon's Souls such an emotional gut punch.

Demon's Souls still feels like an art game to me. It may have been a series of experimental ideas Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team threw at the wall to see which stuck, but they developed a narrative so deeply interwoven with those ideas that even the game's flaws feel like expressions of its larger themes, it compulsive preoccupation with pain and suffering, it vision of a terrible, indifferent, mysterious cosmos. This is what has degraded with each Soulsborne game, so that by the time you get to Elden Ring you still have a lot of the same themes and craft on display, but it's been recalibrated to not interrupt conventional rhythms of conflict and challenge. Elden Ring, ultimately, wants you to have a good time, to feel a sense of accomplishment. Demon's Souls doesn't give a fuck about what you want. That's what makes it so harrowing, such a tormenting riddle after all these years. It remains upsetting in the same way and for the same reasons Silent Hill at its height was so upsetting: it is, above all things—above even being a game—a window into Hell.

I may finish Elden Ring someday. (Or not. Who knows.) I'll probably love it if I do, and cherish the smaller flourishes of daring narrative design here and there. My favorite thing about Elden Ring is the fact that you can get hugs from a famous nun, that doing so permanently affects your stats. I love this for the same reasons I love the gender-transition sarcophagus in Dark Souls II, or the weird, inert brain creature in Bloodborne that just makes your head explode if you get within a mile of it. These things don't follow any conventional pattern of gameplay or difficulty design, which means they are about pure dramatic experience.

Demon's Souls was an absolutely mad experiment where all bets were off, where anything—I mean anything—could happen. And the fact that it used that experimentation to explore religious terror in the pressure-cooker context of a classic, claustrophobic survival horror structure made it sublime. Elden Ring might be a better game, but playing Demon's Souls again made me realize: I don't want a better game. I just want to feel something. I want my soul touched, by a demon if necessary, if that's what it takes to feel the fullness, the heartache, of a world where no one has answers, everyone is confused, but everyone is trying, and everyone deserves love whether God will give it to them or not.