The Japanese concept of Kaizo Mario — or “Asshole Mario” (not a direct translation) — is one of the most important movements in videogames. A parody of regular Mario, Kaizo games throw our plumber hero into a surrealistic nightmare world where his every move is seemingly incorrect.
Where a normal level would see you leap onto the only brick available, in Kaizo Mario the brick will disappear as you land. Instead, you were supposed to land on an invisible brick to its left. Another invisible brick blocks your next jump, and so instead you need to drop onto a spike. Where in regular platformers you battle against the level, in Kaizo games you battle the creators themselves. You need to anticipate what the level designer has anticipated what you think is the next best course of action. You need some trace-buster-buster-buster shit if you're to beat a Kaizo game through anything other than trial-and-error.
It's important in games because the ability to subvert the expectations of a player requires a deep understanding of those expectations in the first place. And for a player to succeed, they too require a deep understanding of those expectations — but better still, their understanding deepens as they play it, because good Kaizo games establish their own conventions. They teach you their own language. And the best Kaizo creators also deepen their own understanding as they then attempt to skewer their own established patterns.
"It feels like From establishing their language even while they don't yet fully understand it...”
Demon's Souls is the first in what is now the "Souls" genre, where players wade through punishing worlds built upon deep, obscured systems and filled with menacing bosses. And to me, it feels like a creator's first attempt at a Kaizo game. It feels like From establishing their language even while they don't yet fully understand it. Within it, you can clearly see what Dark Souls and its successors would become, but you can also clearly see that it's not there yet.
Before I get into Demon's Souls itself, it's important to underline that this game is a remaster. Bluepoint Games took FromSoftware's 2009 classic and gloriously restored it. Bluepoint are the masters of this. Demon's Souls is arguably the best looking and best performing next-gen game out there. I think an argument could be made for Watch Dogs: Legion looking better in some situations, but Demon's Souls on the PS5 looks absolutely gorgeous while also running at 60 frames (there's a Cinematic 30fps mode but I don't know why anyone would use it). And while Demon's Souls has a few hitches here and there (almost exclusively just after loading), Watch Dogs: Legion reminds me of a clumsy optician — always dropping frames.
I've seen comments online from 'purists' who dislike the new graphics — those who feel the atmosphere has been harmed thanks to Bluepoint's changes, but I think they've done a phenomenal job. I didn't play Demon's Souls back when it first came out, but I did see it in action extensively, and the way Bluepoint has used lighting and shadowing enhances the 'horror' aspect of the PS5 version immensely.
Loading times are way better, although that's the case for basically any game coming to the new consoles — the easiest path to any upgrade is to get an m2 drive. And the way they've incorporated the new DualSense controller is basic but fantastic all the same. The beating of the heart in the Tower of Latria rippling through your hands as you make your way past the gargoyles is very cool.
If the remake falters anywhere, it's in the online element. And it's hard to say it's a falter — it's simply… as good as any of FromSoftware's efforts have ever been. That is to say — it's a bit shit if you live in Australia. According to the Networking system, I never got a ping better than 250, which is what I'm used to in Souls games (and I can still clap asses when I do) and the alleged Sydney server hovers somewhere closer to 1000.
It's disappointing, because I love me some Souls PVP, and Demon's Souls has a boss fight based around it, which is absolutely one of my favourite ways to fight. But thanks to these issues, I was far better off helping instead of hindering — I spent quite a bit of time chucking down a blue sign to assist people in their war against the Demons.
It doesn't help that, the way Demon's Souls is made, invaders are able to play like absolute shitheels, casting Second Chance the moment they load in so they can heal to 50% health when you kill them. Meanwhile, I'm not even healing up because I respect the old rules of Souls invasions. If you can't even trust yourself to win your invasion without a Second Chance, why are you even invading?
Anyway, the broader point is that according to people who played Demon's Souls PVP on the PS3, Second Chance is apparently just what you do in Demon's Souls PVP, despite it being garbage shit. That's the done thing, 'everyone' does it. And Bluepoint Games recreated Demon's Souls on PS5 faithfully enough that it's also just what you do when you PVP on the brand new console.
And that's kind of the dilemma that Demon's Souls faces. Bluepoint Games has masterfully remastered a game that, honestly, isn't that great.
Cue the pitchforks.
I think at the time, Demon's Souls was probably revolutionary. I mean, if you go back through the historical texts of… a decade ago, you can see that it earned a 9.0 from GameSpot and a 9.4 from IGN, and their assessment of it echoes my own feelings about its successor, Dark Souls. Punishing but fair; a slow-burn, carefully crafted and well-realised RPG.
"I couldn't help but feel like it was chock full of elements that they correctly excised for its sequels. That Demon's Souls does things games shouldn't, and that it acted as a learning experience for FromSoftware...”
But nobody reviews anything in a bubble. Hell, Demon's Souls — like Kaizo Mario — is a game that plays on and subverts your expectations. It demonstrates a deep knowledge of videogame systems and how players interact with those systems, and it utilises that knowledge in its attempts to create a greater challenge for players.
And so I come into Demon's Souls knowing full well where the series would go. Through its evolution into Dark Souls, the twists and turns of Dark Souls 2, the refinement of Bloodborne and the grandiosity of Dark Souls 3, I have played (and reviewed) the game ever since it went "Dark".
And while I was playing Demon's Souls, I couldn't help but feel like it was chock full of elements that they correctly excised for its sequels. That Demon's Souls does things games shouldn't, and that it acted as a learning experience for FromSoftware who would inevitably get rid of these elements to the benefit of players.
The first time I noticed this was on World 4.1, which is the way players refer to the area known as the Shrine of Storms. Populated by Silver Skeletons who forward roll their way over to you before attacking, I found myself in a predicament. In my hubris I had neglected to upgrade Vitality (my health pool), figuring that my experience with a half dozen Souls type games would allow me to focus on damage dealing instead.
Demon's Souls, like other Souls games, can be finished with an "SL1" or Soul Level 1 "onebro" character, and many people have done it. It's a move characterised by a deep understanding of the game and its systems. It was, of course, arrogant of me to think I could finish Demon's Souls without upgrading my Vitality, but I yams what I yams.
"Souls games often feature two 'versions' of a player, human and soul form. Human form is susceptible to invasions...”
And so I was faced with a problem. I could kill these silver skeletons easily enough. They die quickly before the might of my magic. But I too die quickly before the might of their sharpened steel. In fact, I die in a single swing of their sword. And they close distance so quickly that it meant sometimes they wouldn't be dead before they reached me.
My solution was simple. I noticed that I died in two hits if I was in human, or body, form. Souls games often feature two 'versions' of a player, human and soul form. Human form is susceptible to invasions, has more health and can summon help from other characters. Soul form players have a bit less health and generally suffer from a handful of other negatives, but nothing too steep.
Through my adventures, I'd banked up a number of "Stones of Ephemeral Eyes", an item used to restore your humanity. So I made use of these as I explored 4.1, especially as I was slowly acquiring the resources I required around the level. I died to so many things. Mostly skeletons, but traps and flying manta rays too. I decided I would leave the Shrine of Storms for later when I was forced down an ugly tunnel and I got killed by a Skeleton strike that clipped through a wall. A strike that would not have killed me if my own sword had not collided with the wall and bounced off.
Now, this isn't a Demon's Souls specific issue. The Dark Souls games are all extremely guilty of this particular brand of wall-clipping horseshit. It's probably my least favourite thing in the series, because at this point it feels like FromSoftware either don't know how to fix it or they actually like it, but it's objectively shitty game design.
The Man Who Cannot Die
Anyway, having died to wall-clipping I decided for my own sanity I was going to go try somewhere else. I went to the Prison in the Tower of Latria, I killed some octopus-faced assholes, I zapped a many-armed lady and I felt like I had done well. I was on top of the world. I traded the boss soul to a guy I'd rescued from the prison for a spell that absolutely belted every enemy it hit (and those behind that enemy too), and I returned to the Shrine of Storms a human again, full of pluck and vigor and my trademark arrogance.
And the moment I spawned in, a red phantom character ran over to me and killed me in a single strike. He dodge-rolled away from every single Soul Ray I cast, he moved into melee range super-quickly. His health pool rivalled the main-story boss I'd literally just killed in 3.1, he had a fairly diverse moveset thanks to his ability to switch between one and two-handed strikes and a successful parry/riposte only let me take off about 15% of his health while a failed parry meant instant death. Oh, and when he dropped to below 20% health he would heal back up to full.
I couldn't run past him, the typical Souls solution for enemies you can't handle, because his arrival also meant a bunch more silver skeletons had spawned in, all of them with more health and more capacity to deal damage.
My game was, pardon my Boletarian, fucked.
It took some investigation, but what I'd done is tank my "World Tendency", a system through which Demon's Souls rewards and punishes players for their actions. Kill a boss? Your tendency builds towards 'White', and enemies in that world are easier to kill. Kill an NPC? It streaks towards 'Black' and the opposite occurs. Both directions have hard caps, and when you reach either you trigger other in-world events. Go full white in the Stonefang Tunnel and you can acquire an epic, giant sword when you go fight the Dragon God.
"Impossible to overcome? Certainly not. I came achingly close at least a dozen times, and I'm sure a more accomplished Demon's Souls player might even deliberately trigger PBWT to acquire Black Phantom Satsuki's sword...”
Go full black world tendency in Shrine of Storms and an enraged samurai with more health than that level's boss will attack you every single time you spawn in.
And it turns out that dying while in human form drives your World Tendency towards black. Doing it over and over again in the Shrine of Storms will cause it to go "Pure Black World Tendency". Impossible to overcome? Certainly not. I came achingly close at least a dozen times, and I'm sure a more accomplished Demon's Souls player might even deliberately trigger PBWT to acquire Black Phantom Satsuki's sword or something.
But is it something that should happen to a new player? If it was 2009 again, and I was playing Demon's Souls without the assistance of a decade's worth of knowledge from other players at my fingertips, what would the outcome of this be for me as a player?
If I, an experienced Souls player, found this system to be obtuse, how would this feel for someone who just bought a PS5 and decided to have a punt at the best looking and running next-gen game around?
A Cup of Concrete
Here is where Souls players will mentally chime in with a 'git gud'. This is where the sunk cost fallacy of the series kicks in. I have put hours and hours into a game, and I am a person with fantastic taste, so I would not have put those hours in if the game did anything 'bad'.
None of this is to say that I wasn't at fault for ruining my Shrine of Storms World Tendency. I was directly 'at fault'. But I can't have known, while playing through the game and absorbing as little outside information as possible, that what I was doing would lead to a near-impossible hurdle. That knowledge was left to a menu I didn't understand and couldn't meaningfully parse — a 'Tendency' screen where each World had an icon that changed ever so slightly brighter or darker as I made my impact on each area.
So let's entertain this line of reasoning. Why, if this system is good, does it never rear its head again? Why do Dark Souls and those that follow instead transition to the Covenant system, where players need to directly and actively engage with obscure triggers to begin the events that resemble World Tendency?
I think we are fortunate that Miyazaki and his team were able to successfully analyse the failures of Demon's Souls so they could make something better every time they had another run at it. Because too often, as players, we are quick to level the blame at ourselves — and ourselves alone. But sometimes, through flaws in design, we're not entirely at fault.
That idea, however, is poisonous in a game like Demon's Souls. Your willingness to continue relies entirely on an agreement you make with the designers — that your mistakes are your own, and you can finish the game if you can simply overcome them.
Once that proves to be untrue, it's a long road back for a game. That's what makes me think about Kaizo games, because I think Demon's Souls is a kind of Kaizo game. It's a spectacular demonstration of design brilliance, but in its pursuit of subverting expectations it strays directly into scenarios where it dicks the player about. The area directly after Shrine of Storms, 4.2 or The Adjudicator Archstone, is another fantastic example. Here, players learn conflicting things about enemies. Just when you think you understand them, they do something new.
At first, the lumbering slenderman dicks simply grab you and destroy you. You realise that if you kill the Reaper character near them, they all die. Then, when you see them next, they suddenly shoot laser beams. These are an instakill, and they clip through walls. Better still, the relevant Reaper character is hidden, obscured behind a double-back wall — and the laser-firing slendermen will respawn until that Reaper is dead. So you need to find him as soon as possible. You have to do all of this on a path no wider than a single person.
And then, when you get through all of this, your reward is a boss fight that is so comically simple that I did it basically by accident. I had to look it up afterwards to find out if I'd accidentally triggered some sort of Bloodborne-esque memory-leak situation (where the boss movesets simplified if you left the game running for more than 24 hours).
FromSoftware was so focused on creating an area that non-stop screwed you over that they forgot to craft a decent boss fight. And Bluepoint, to its infinite credit, appears to have perfectly replicated that scenario.
"I'm more partial to the sorts of hardcore platformers that sit in the space between the Asshole and Super Mario games. The Super Meat Boys and the Celestes...”
Me, personally, I don't like Kaizo Mario games all that much. I enjoy the chess game, matching wits with the creators and muddling my way through the insanity, but I find it to be a fleeting sort of joy. I'm more partial to the sorts of hardcore platformers that sit in the space between the Asshole and Super Mario games. The Super Meat Boys and the Celestes, where the rules are well-defined and established, and you are punished when you fail to live up to them.
I think it's awesome that we get to play Demon's Souls in all its remastered, gorgeous glory, and it serves as a wonderful reminder that FromSoftware is more than capable of holding itself to the same exacting standards it expects from its players — that it too can learn from its mistakes. And Bluepoint Games has done a wonderful job of fastidiously restoring the game, flaws and all, so that a new generation of players can not only experience it, but also have something that shows off the power of their shiny new consoles.
It is a testament to Souls games and the grip they have on players that, despite its flaws, I still found myself thinking about Demon's Souls when I first woke up, talking about it all day as I played it and finishing it in just a few consecutive eight-to-14 hour-long sessions. That despite directly putting my game in a terrible position, I was still able to — and still desired to — forge a path to victory (thanks to jolly cooperation).
But there's no question in my mind that some elements could have been improved upon without negatively impacting the overall experience, and the blind pursuit of flawless recreation comes at what I feel is a heavy cost. You will find no better looking or better running game than Demon's Souls with the launch of the new consoles. But I think you will find no worse (From designed) Souls game.
What we liked
Solid 60fps at upscaled 1440p
Like finding your favourite rapper's early mixtape has been remastered
Really uses the PS5's new features
What we didn't like
The last boss fight
Punishments without a clear explanation of wrong-doing is bad parenting
Attacks that clip through walls can fuck off
People who use Second Chance when invading are dogs