Reviews

Demon’s Souls on PS5 is a classic reborn

Demon’s Souls has good bones. It was true in 2009, when developer FromSoftware released the mechanically groundbreaking role-playing game on PlayStation 3, and remains true for Bluepoint Games’ remake, released alongside Sony’s PlayStation 5 this week.

Over those bones is a gorgeous remodeling. Every texture in Demon’s Souls has been painstakingly repainted, sometimes to the point of questionable reinterpretation. Every stilted animation appears to have been replaced by three or four new ones, all of them remixed with more lifelike flourishes. Many of the original game’s points of aggravation, like long load times and frequent backtracking, have been softened or nearly eliminated. But rarely does Bluepoint muck with the foundation of Demon’s Souls, because to do so would be sacrilege.

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The core of Demon’s Souls remains almost entirely unchanged. It is still challenging and unforgiving. The game’s opaque, esoteric rules and innovative online connectivity are still here. But modern players will already be accustomed to this, because Demon’s Souls’ similarly difficult progeny (Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice) are global hits. They are mainstream.

Some things have changed in the new Demon’s Souls, occasionally out of necessity. The game’s music has been re-recorded and is richly textured and gorgeous. Voice acting has been similarly redone, which changes the mood in certain cases. I loved the contempt of one blacksmith’s dialogue in the original Demon’s Souls, for example, but he now sounds less harsh. I miss his older, angrier delivery. I miss the sadness in Stockpile Thomas’ voice when he tells me that I have a heart of gold, and that I must protect it.

Image: Bluepoint Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

But most of the changes that have come to Demon’s Souls in 2020 are for the better. The vast kingdom of Boletaria, imprisoned in a thick, colorless fog by an ancient evil, is slathered with detail. Sometimes the graphical fidelity — high-resolution textures, mood-setting lighting and shadows, impressive weather effects — creates a dissonance with game mechanics imported wholesale from 11 years ago.

The greatest improvements come from a combination of a decade’s worth of technical advancements. Take, for example, the battle against the Storm King, set on a rocky, barren beach. Prior to arriving here, I am harassed by flying manta ray-like monsters in previous levels. These beasts are huge and frightening. In the final confrontation, their aircraft carrier-sized father, the Storm King, appears.

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The spectacle of seeing this massive creature, while dramatic in the original game, is now astounding. The Demon’s Souls remake’s visual fidelity, its immersive sound effects and score, and the haptic feedback from the DualSense controller together convey the scale of a giant beast tearing through the atmosphere above me. And when I bring down my sword on this demon, I feel the thundercrack reverberate through my hands and my ears as the screen shakes violently. It is an experience far superior to the original.

The scale of Boletaria, its castles and swamps and underground depths, was always impressive. But here, that vastness feels so much more inhabited. Winding corridors and large open spaces are more detailed, and now convey a better sense of place. I once worried that all that extra detail would make the world feel cluttered, but it doesn’t. Boletaria simply feels more lived in — and in its abandoned state, it feels all the more tragic.

I even took time to stop and appreciate the fidelity of the flowing sewage in the game’s notoriously gross Valley of Defilement. And this shit looks good.

Image: Bluepoint Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Bluepoint offers two visual styles for play: cinematic mode and performance mode. The former renders the game in native 4K at 30 frames per second. The latter runs at 60 fps, with a lower resolution upscaled to 4K. After starting the game in performance mode, I found it impossible to revert to the other option — there’s no going back from playing Demon’s Souls at 60 fps.

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One of the nicest new additions to Demon’s Souls is a photo mode. In addition to giving players the option to actually pause Demon’s Souls — something you couldn’t do in the original — it also takes some lovely screenshots. (See: every image in this review.)

The remake does introduce changes I bristle at, but these are minor concerns, like font choices, enemy redesigns, and amusing bits of charm getting smoothed over. I miss the silly Cat’s Ring icon — a photo of a cat, which I always assumed to be one of the developer’s pets. I miss some of the original translations and language choices. But I can also understand why these changes were made. Demon’s Souls went from a PS3 sleeper hit, one that Sony chose not to publish out of Japan, to a marquee PS5 launch title. The presentation needed to match.

Image: Bluepoint Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

It’s that gorgeous, modern, big-budget presentation that may cause a sense of friction with players who will experience Demon’s Souls for the first time, or will do so in the context of FromSoftware’s subsequent games. Games like Dark Souls refined the formula established by Demon’s Souls, while Bloodborne and Sekiro streamlined it further. Reverting to the hallowed ground of Demon’s Souls, and its experimental and quirky gameplay rules, may feel at odds with its looks.

But PlayStation 5 owners are getting something unprecedented: one of the best video games of all time transformed into one of the best-looking games ever.

Demon’s Souls was released Nov. 12 on PlayStation 5. The game was reviewed using a download code and final retail hardware provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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