Games

Breaking Down the 'Demon's Souls' Remake With a Bonafide Souls Expert

What we can learn from the little that we've seen of this remaking of a modern classic.
September 22, 2020, 1:00pm
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The Souls games from developer FromSoftware are no longer niche. They've become such blockbusters in their own right that Demon's Souls, not even a new game but a remake of a PS3 game from 2009, is anchoring the launch of the PS5 in a few months.

Dark Souls is where most people boarded the hype train, where Souls became a cultural phenomenon. But Demon's Souls, a game funded and released by Sony in Japan but left to Atlus to release elsewhere because Sony wasn't sure it was any good, is where everything started. Soon, a lot more people are going to have a chance to experience Demon's Souls

This update to Demon's Souls is not being handled by FromSoftware, but instead Bluepoint Games, a studio best known for the many ports, remasters, and remakes it's handled for Sony over the years, including 2018's Shadow of the Colossus

Demon's Souls is tricky, because updating and tweaking the many tiny and weird design choices that add up to a Souls game are in the hands of new people. How much of Demon's Souls do you preserve while updating it for 2020? So far, we don't know what's changing.

Many of those changes might go over the heads of people who are unfamiliar with Demon's Souls, but they're unlikely to go unnoticed by the game's notoriously hardcore community. 

Illusory Wall is one of the more prominent members of the Souls community, focused explicitly on unpacking tiny details in the various games, whether it's trying to grasp the logic driving the labyrinthian level design or digging into deleted parts of the games to understand how FromSoftware's creative process evolves while developing games like Dark Souls 2.

They've become one of my favorite follows recently, as they pick apart what little we know and have seen about the Demon's Souls remake thus far. If there was anyone to help me work out what to expect, what might change, and what we already know, it's Illusory Wall. 

VICE Games: You're someone who's spent a lot of time obsessing over the tiny details of these games. What did you think when the remake was announced? What were your expectations?
Illusory Wall: Demon's Souls was the first Souls game I played. I played a little bit of it at a friend's house and I got a PS3 shortly after just so I could really get into it. My love of it resulted in every subsequent Souls game being a day one purchase for me, and now, this means I'll be getting a PS5 at launch as well. So I was very excited when it first announced; It was a relief to learn that the rumors were true. I was expecting the remake to not only bring Demon's Soul_s up to speed with the latest Souls games and _Sekiro graphically, but to actually surpass them. And from what we've seen so far they're definitely delivering on that.

I realize this is really broad, but why is Demon's Souls so unique? What stands out to you, all these years later?
Demon's Souls is in an interesting place because it paved the way for an entire new Action RPG subgenre, the "Souls-like." But being an exclusive PS3 cult classic instead of a massive hit, it's always been overshadowed by the success and popularity of Dark Souls. It was completely unbound by expectations as there was no fanbase to please, so what makes Demon's Souls unique is how truly alien it felt as an experience. 

Some of its uniqueness might have been lost to time. Its ideas have been re-iterated, but it still has a rawness to it that has been unmatched. It has the unforgiving World Tendency system that can make the game harder if you die, and it also has the possibility of getting de-leveled by a boss or even from certain situations in PvP. There's a certain boldness (or lack of hindsight) on how brutal some of the mechanics were, but the game still managed to be alluring and never insurmountable. 

[Editor's Note: World Tendency was a very strange game system that only showed up in Demon's Souls, in which actions you took—who you killed, how often you died, etc.—shifted the "tendency" of the world between white and black. This shift occurred based on individual player actions and what players did collectively. Depending on the tendency shift of your playthrough, enemies could be harder or easier, different quest lines could show up, etc.] 

What can you tell me about what you've noticed? What's your overall impression, and how would you describe Bluepoint's approach?
Bluepoint seems to be ratcheting the detail up to 11, but in the process, they're taking a certain amount of liberties when it comes to source material. There are enough minor differences that may impact the aesthetic a bit, architecture at times feels a touch more gothic with the additional flourishes. 

But so far we haven't seen anything absolutely drastic, as the most recent trailer seems to show the tutorial area having the exact same level layout and enemy placement as the original game. And even the general flow and pacing of the action looked to be very close to the original, certainly in the same ballpark. So they do seem to be making an attempt to be very faithful in certain aspects as well.

What's the biggest change that you've latched onto so far? What's stuck out to you?
We haven't seen any major changes yet outside of the visual comparisons yet. Most of what we've seen of the level design and enemy placement matches the original extremely closely. 

We can nitpick a few tiny differences: there may be a Golden Skeleton in a different location if the first trailer matches the final product, the tutorial put a small barrier to introduce the ledge-hopping mechanic instead of just being an open ledge. (You can climb or hop-over waist-high walls in Demon's Souls, something that hasn't returned in later Souls games). 

The one thing that's really unfamiliar to us at the moment is the scene from the first trailer where the Dragon God appears to be climbing over and smashing some towers from Boletaria 1-1. But I'm assuming that's probably not a new in-game event, as the Dragon God did have a cinematic appearance in the game's original title screen loop. They probably just made a completely new set of scenes for that.

Is there something you hope they change in the remake?
My biggest wish for the game is that I really hope they make drastic changes to the World Tendency system by fleshing it out and enhancing it. In the original Demon's Souls, lightening or darkening your World Tendency could open a few minor side-paths, affect NPC events, give access to a few restricted items, and buff or debuff enemies and sometimes add a few extra ones.

There is an opportunity with the remaster to go a lot further. I would like to see it alter the environment itself in a much more significant way than simply moving some rubble aside or opening a door. We've seen changes to the weather by adding rain where it wasn't previously, and also some of the ruins in the Shrine of Storms are now on fire as well. I really hope these kinds of things are the result of World Tendency within those areas and not static changes that are permanent.

It's also an opportunity to have a greater effect on enemy placement and additions. The original game keeps all standard enemies in the same locations always, and then adds a few extra black phantom versions and a few Primeval Demons if World Tendency gets dark enough. But it's a fairly simple on/off kind of thing, there isn't a situation where being "a little dark" adds just one or two enemies here and there, then going further adds even more. 

There's an opportunity to be more dynamic with the changes, and that could add a greater element of surprise. There was also a complete lack of affecting enemy placement with neutral to Light World Tendency. That should introduce and change some things as well.

What's your favorite change? Least favorite change? And what does it tell you about what direction this might be going in?
My favorite changes are the enhancements to the environment. My least favorite are a few questionable changes to some enemy designs. The boss of the tutorial (The Vanguard) had enough changes to it to the point where it feels like something you might encounter in Doom

The original, though very rough in execution and hard to defend on a technical level, had more of a Lovecraft-ian vibe. They also made the Flamelurker a bit more generic (though the original was VERY goofy looking if you stopped to look), but the most recent trailer shows that they've changed it again to look a touch more similar to the original.

One last thing, the original Demon's Souls had a VERY VERY silly status effect icon when you wore the Cat Ring. It's like a straight up JPEG of someone's cat and it was quite honestly horribly inappropriate in the original version of the game. I've seen a lot of fans hoping that it returns just for the absurdity of it. I can't imagine they'll want to do that, so we're all waiting to see what happens.

Remakes are delicate beasts, and this is especially true for a Souls game. How do you think the community is going to respond to this?
It's difficult to quantify what exactly makes these games have that distinct FromSoftware flavor, so the biggest challenge for Bluepoint is to not have overly-critical fans feel like they're being taken out of a Souls game and being reminded of another franchise.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).