‘Demon’s Souls’ Review: A Gorgeous Video Game Remake Shows Hollywood How It’s Done
For gamers who’ve already died so many times in the decrepit world of Boletaria that their grandchildren will come out of the womb cursing those giant manta rays that fly around the Shrine of Storms and hit you with bolts of glass lightning whenever you turn your back, playing the shot-for-shot PlayStation 5 remake of “Demon’s Souls” is nothing less than a splendid, relentlessly sadomasochistic bout of déjà vu that lasts for more than 40 hours at a time. Welcome to a walking, slashing, falling tour through a once-faded memory palace that’s been renovated to look so beautiful you might forget it was always intended to be your tomb.
Of course, anyone who’s braved the original game before (or any of the sequels, offshoots, and imitations that belong to the “Soulsborne” genre it spawned) should know better than to lower their guard and drink in the scenery for even a millisecond. Pause to marvel at the degree of detail on a corpse’s feet in the Valley of Defilement, for example, and you’ll be plagued by dog-sized rats before you even have time to look up. Newcomers will have to learn that lesson the hard way over and over and over again, but not even the most battle-hardened “Demon’s Souls” players will be immune to such rookie mistakes when confronted by the rich gothic beauty of the next-gen cover version that Bluepoint Games has mined from the bones of a pixelated classic and sewn inside a baby-smooth layer of new skin. Foreign and familiar in equal measure, the experience of playing this hyper-faithful remake feels like going home again for the very first time.
That disorienting imbalance between newness and nostalgia is a natural fit for a franchise that was always intended to be a throwback of sorts, and “Demon’s Souls” 2020 wears it so well that playing Bluepoint’s version makes it easy to understand why so many other studios have been aiming for the same effect in recent years. Once the exclusive province of amateur modders, refurbishing old video games has become an increasingly popular way for commercial publishers to squeeze more love out of their library titles. And — shocking as this might be to a film critic who’s been conditioned to think of remakes as an occupational hazard — gamers have been consistently rewarded for spending money on microwaved leftovers.
Titles like “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” “Resident Evil 3,” and “The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening” polished beloved gems into blockbuster sales, and were hungrily gobbled up by fans and critics alike without provoking even a fraction of the backlash (or settling for a measure of the same indifference) that greeted movies like “Aladdin,” “Miss Bala,” and “Fantasy Island.” On the big screen, a well-justified double-dip like this year’s “The Invisible Man” is the exception that proves the rule; in the video game arena, a misbegotten remake like “XIII” is such an outlier that the developers felt compelled to offer a public apology for it.
Game companies are enjoying more success and collective gratitude from going back to the well than Hollywood studios have ever consistently been able to mine from the same trick, and the fidelity of the “Demon’s Souls” remake crystallizes the biggest reason for that better than any other game of its kind: Video game remakes aspire to make something new feel old, while movie remakes typically beach themselves by straining to make something old feel new (a dynamic that Gus van Sant’s undervalued “Psycho” exists to illustrate).
When Miyazaki Hidetaka and his team at From Software created the original for the PlayStation 3 in 2009, they intended their grim and gothic third-person adventure as a return to the more hardcore days of yore, and a rebuke to the increasingly casual idea of video games that was taking hold as the medium stepped out of the basement and became a broadly accepted form of mass entertainment. Sony wasn’t too hot on Miyazaki’s pitch, and “Demon’s Souls” — as you might glean from the awkwardness of its title — wasn’t seen as a viable prospect for worldwide publication until two years later.
It’s easy to understand why, even if such thinking seems absurd in hindsight: Dropping players into a fallen world full of towering foes and sprawling gothic architecture, “Demon’s Souls” isn’t just hard, it delights in its punishing difficulty. Everything can kill you in the grotesque medieval world of Boletaria, and by the time you purge the five realms that splinter away from the Nexus and confront the Old One who shrouds them all in darkness, everything will (a point the game hammers home with its cleverly ambient internet functionality, which fills each level with the ghosts of other players, encourages them to leave cryptic messages for each other like “beware trap” or “a liar waits ahead,” and even allows for more… invasive measures).
Dying is just part of the learning process here, as resolute players come to master the maps and the monsters therein by achieving the same degree of hard-won, god-like omniscience that Bill Murray develops in “Groundhog Day.” Each death is your fault, and each triumph — whether it’s slaying one of the game’s seemingly unbeatable bosses, or just opening a gate to create a shortcut after several lifetimes of taking the long way around — leaves you with the kind of spirit-purifying catharsis that’s rare in art and even rarer outside of it. Some games ask to be beaten, “Demon’s Souls” demands to be exorcised.
That feeling certainly hasn’t changed, it’s only been reforged with some of the sharpest graphics ever produced by a video game console and brought to life by the haptic feedback of the PS5’s DualSense controller (if you thought it was tense before, wait until a dragon flaps its wings overhead with a force strong enough to shudder up your arms). There isn’t a hero’s soul or blue-eyed skeleton out of place, and the small number of conveniences that Bluepoint has coded into the game do little to dilute the general clunkiness that separated “Demon’s Souls” from the faster-paced likes of “Uncharted,” “God of War,” and even some of its own sequels.
On paper, that approach might seem like a mixed blessing. Newcomers are delusional to think they’ll find any hand-holding here, but that impenetrability is also how they’ll know they’re getting the true “Demon’s Souls” experience. Veterans might grouse about the abject lack of new content — that sixth archstone is still broken, my friends — but the faithfulness that fans require only allows for so much flexibility. They’ll likely grapple with their feelings about that for days or weeks of sleep-deprived bliss as they indulge in the uncanny magic of seeing a fuzzy old memory in such pristine high-definition that you almost don’t recognize it as your own.
What we have here is essentially the video game equivalent of Disney’s “live-action” remake of “The Lion King,” but while that movie was seen as craven and heretical, it’s hard to imagine even the most dedicated of purists feeling exploited by the chance to see Boletaria in a brilliant new light. Despite the countless times this masterfully exhumed game has made me want to hurl my controller at the TV — I’d forgotten that checkpoints are way less convenient in “Demon’s Souls” than in any of the Soulsborne stuff that followed, but the Cthulhu-looking octopus wizards who guard the Prison of Hope were happy to remind me — I never felt like a sucker for spending another big chunk of my brief time on this mortal coil wandering through this godforsaken slaughterhouse.
When From Software first released “Demon’s Souls” in 2009 — which feels like a century ago in video game years — it was a state-of-the-art showcase for the PlayStation 3, and designed in a way that inextricably reflects the power and limitations of what that particular system could do. The scale of the monsters, the detail of the environments, and the discrete level of design that he would later abandon for the inter-connected world of “Dark Souls” are all byproducts of the tools that were available to his team at the time.
And though all visual artists are informed by the technology that exists during their period of creation, and filmmakers and video game developers alike are made to compromise because of forces beyond their control (time, money, studio notes, etc.). Only in video games, however — a young medium that’s still evolving fast enough to get the equivalent of a new “Jazz Singer” or “Jurassic Park” every six months — is it so easy to delineate between what something is, and what it had aspired to be.
The “Demon’s Souls” remake isn’t so much richer and more immersive than the original because Bluepoint cracked the code on something that From Software couldn’t figure out, but rather because it was created on a system that makes PlayStation 3 graphics look like sloppy cave paintings by comparison. If Miyazaki’s team had the PlayStation 5 available to them back in 2009 or whenever they got started, there’s no question that they would have chosen to use it.
That’s not to suggest that the “Demon’s Souls” remake is objectively better than the original, or even that it looks objectively better than the original; the difference between them leaves less room for personal taste, but there’s something to be said for the lo-fi aura of yesteryear, and how those blocky environments and drab textures left room for the imagination. There’s a misplaced arrogance in the assumption that “realism” = “quality,” and gaming is still waiting for its André Bazin to come along and dash that myth all over again. Nevertheless, the iterative degree of improvement between one “Demon’s Souls” and the next is hard to deny.
And yet it’s because this remake and others like it are so obviously “superior” to their originals that they’re liberated from the need to grow past it. Most movie remakes — especially the bad ones — are made with the heretical assumption that modern audiences no longer relate to the initial version, and so they strip-mine the source material for parts and stick it into the present… which often rejects it like a body rejecting a transplanted organ. Think of the 2014 “Robocop” — better yet, don’t.
Video game remakes, on the other hand, are expected to revere their originals, and likewise expect that players revere them as well; the medium is new enough for even casual gamers to have a handle on the canon, and so a mega-blockbusters like this year’s “Final Fantasy VII Remake” can comfortably zoom in on every detail from the first section of the 1997 PlayStation classic, while tweaking them all with an explicit meta-commentary about the constraints of fate and/or fan expectations. Video games were able to conjure compelling worlds long before they were able to offer equally rich stories to match, and those worlds are able to be more vivid, busy, and layered with every new hardware generation.
Clearly, not all game remakes need to be as straightforward as “Demon’s Souls,” but it’s important to note that they can be. In some cases, cleaving so close to the original might not indicate a lack of creativity so much as an act of preservation. Some of the classic titles that are being revisited are hard to find these days, and so video game remakes are effectively tasked with the one thing that we insist movie remakes can never be allowed to do: replace the original. Sure, “Final Fantasy VII” can now be played on your iPhone, but the PlayStation 4 wasn’t backwards compatible with PlayStation 3 games, and so the likes of “Demon’s Souls” has only been accessible to people who hung on to their old hardware.
In this case, it was incumbent upon Bluepoint to make a piece of next-gen software that’s as satisfying to play as the original is to remember; to honor Miyazaki’s version, while recognizing that the remake will have to carry the torch from here. Acknowledging the technological limitations of the original without overlooking the gothic majesty it was able to create in spite of them, this new “Demon’s Souls” lights the way forward for an industry that will be looking over its shoulder for a long time to come.
“Demon’s Souls” is now available for the PlayStation 5. This review was based off pre-release code provided by Sony.
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