The most graphically advanced game on the PS5 is a remake of the forerunner to Dark Souls and it’s already a game of the year contender.
If you’d told anyone 10 years ago that one of the most important launch games for the PlayStation 5 would be a big budget remake of Demon’s Souls we know exactly what they would have said: ‘What’s Demon’s Souls’? Originally released in Japan in 2009, Sony was so unenamoured with the game that they refused to publish it themselves in the West, leaving it in limbo for over a year until Bandai Namco stepped in to release it in Europe.
That caused some mild controversy amongst the PlayStation 3’s hardcore gamer community, who had realised just what a great game it is, but otherwise its existence went largely unnoticed by the wider gaming world.
Bandai Namco took note though and signed up developer FromSoftware to make Dark Souls as a kind of spiritual sequel. The rest, as they say, is history, when against all expectations Dark Souls became a major hit and one of the most influential games of the generation, inspiring dozens of clones and making the concept of purposefully difficult games not only popular but financially viable for even relatively big budget titles.
Despite all that, it’s still surprising to see this full-blown remake as a PlayStation 5 launch game. Although if it wasn’t for the coronavirus it probably would’ve been flanked by Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart and other more mainstream-friendly games. Although we should point out, before we get any further, that Demon’s Souls is not as difficult as its reputation suggests, or at least not in the way most people imagine.
It’s not superfast reflexes you need to beat a Soulsborne game but a cool nerve and a willingness to explore and experiment. Demon’s Souls will force you to fend for yourself from the very first instant but it’s never unfair or vindictive. If you die it’s because you didn’t heed the warning signs or took an enemy for granted. All of them can kill you with just a couple of blows but you can do the same with most of them and as long as you don’t go running around like you’re playing an arcade game, then anyone can beat Demon’s Souls.
Or at least that’s what we keep telling ourselves. Review copies were only sent out on Wednesday, which means there’s been no chance to get a review ready for November 12, when the PlayStation 5 launches everywhere but Europe. We have been able to play several hours though and the initial impressions are extremely favourable.
If you’re not familiar with Dark Souls or its ilk the game is at heart a relatively straightforward third person action role-player. Its main focus is combat, although mechanically it’s very simple, with only a few different moves for each type of weapon. The magic of the game is in the wonderfully complex level design which constantly rewards exploration and cleverly wraps around on itself, so you’re never quite as lost as you think.
The storytelling is extremely opaque and while the intro explains the basic set-up (an ancient evil has appeared and turned the entire population into zombies) the details are left for you to work out from scraps of lore found in the game world.
We’ll get more into the game’s deeper systems in the full review but since this is the only PlayStation 5 exclusive game at launch (not counting the still very good Astro’s Playroom) the first thing anyone really wants to know is what the game looks like. And the short answer for that is… fantastic.
There are two graphical options, with Performance selected by default and running at a ‘targeted’ 60 frames per second and upscaled 4K resolution. Or alternatively you can choose Cinematic mode, which runs at 30fps and native 4K. Either way, this is a staggeringly beautiful game, with every location looking like some interactive painting, ripped from the front cover of the sort of lurid fantasy novel that inspired the series in the first place.
We were surprised to discover that the game doesn’t use ray-tracing, even though there are reflective surfaces (so far mostly puddles) and some gorgeous use of light and shadow. Either way, it’s easily the best looking game on the PlayStation 5 – a clear step ahead of Spider-Man: Miles Morales – and by that virtue one of the best looking console games of all time.
It would be that anyway, from a technical perspective, but what makes it so impressive is that developer Bluepoint, who also handled the Shadow Of The Colossus remake, have nailed the FromSoftware aesthetic so well. Perhaps you could argue they’ve made the character designs slightly more stylised – more cartoonish we’ve heard some people say – but that’s really just a by-product of the improved animation and things like glowing eyes being easier to make out.
There’s always been a unique blend of horror and beauty in the Souls games, where even the most repulsive enemies have a strange sense of grandeur to them. As you creep along battle-scarred parapets or through what must’ve once been carefully maintained gardens there’s an overwhelming sense of doom and misery but also a quiet whisper of hope that things could be returned back to the way they were.
If Demon’s Souls is the first proper PlayStation 5 exclusive it’s almost overwhelming to think what games might look like in a couple of years from now. Although the DualSense controller also plays a major part in making the game feel so unique and ‘new’. The haptic feedback effects are subtle but as you press down one of the adaptive triggers to pull off a heavy attack the rumble you feel is subtly different depending on whether you hit the wall, the floor or an enemy’s blade.
Together with the excellent sound effects the sense of immersion and physicality is incredible. Swords don’t awkwardly disappear through walls when you’re in an enclosed space, they spark off the side, and when you roll out of the way the sound effects and controller feedback is completely different depending on whether it’s stone or wooden floorboards you’re moving over.
Getting a parry right, and using a riposte to instakill an opponent, is especially satisfying thanks to the mixture of force feedback, sound, and the knowledge that you’ve done well in a famously difficult game.
Arguably the most important technical improvement is simply the fast loading, which instantly cuts out much of the frustration incurred when you die. Now there’s no more than a two to three second delay before you’re right back in the action.
The online features seem to be largely the same as the original game and since every PlayStation 5 owner in the world descended on the game as soon as the download code arrived it’s been wonderful to see everyone’s otherworldly spirits running around the world, encountering the same problems and offering advice via messages scrawled on the floor.
The only possible flaw we can see is that the new camera, which is now pulled in much closer to the main character, can be a bit skittish, especially in narrow corridors. Or maybe that was just us panicking. The original camera system is apparently available as an option though so it shouldn’t be a major issue either way.
It’s going to take us a good few days to battle our way through Demon’s Souls, even if we have technically played it before, but at the outset this not only seems the perfect remake but an excellent demonstration of the PlayStation 5’s capabilities and a hugely encouraging sign for the future of the format.
Formats: PlayStation 5
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Bluepoint Games and Japan Studio
Release Date: 12th November 2020
Age Rating: 18
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