It’s hard to imagine a game more at odds with gaming’s current fashions than Demon’s Souls. As developers fall over themselves to reward players for the emptiest of achievements, From Software’s stern demand that players learn, understand and master its game’s systems, or else face severe punishment, seems anachronistic. Likewise, the dark, heavy fantasy setting runs contrary to the JRPG’s ongoing primary-coloured charm aesthetic, while the ponderous, precise nature of the combat contains none of the insta-thrill of its exuberant, button-mashing contemporaries. And yet, despite all this, few games in the last decade of scale and budget have enjoyed the kind of grassroots success Demon’s Souls has found in its slow but steady journey around the globe.
“I’m no fan of the genre westerners refer to as the JRPG,” says Takeshi Kajii, the producer at Sony Computer Entertainment who first approached From Software with the proposition to rediscover a lost breed of action game. “I’ve always loved the dark fantasy genre, from Wizardry right through to King’s Field. Yet games that assume that aesthetic these days are usually, at their heart, more like science-fiction. So my desire was to revisit this lost area of gaming, to rediscover a charismatic corner of the medium.”
Demon Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki (left) and SCE producer Takeshi Kajii
For game director Hidetaka Miyazaki, the interest was shared. “I’d worked exclusively on Armored Core titles in my role at From Software,” he explains. “But I’d always wanted to make a dark fantasy game that drew on the Fighting Fantasy series of books. The Demon’s Souls project was that opening that I’d always been waiting for."
But while Demon’s Souls is heavily influenced by fantasy fiction cliché, in play it appears vividly distinctive. “I think because our influences came from other media the team felt very free to approach things differently,” Miyazaki explains. “I never had a videogame influence in mind when writing the design documents. Of course, people need to make comparisons and our game has been likened to Diablo, Wizardry, Monster Hunter and even Bushido Blade. But none quite fit. I think this is because our orientation for the game was so different. We weren’t built around cutscenes or scenario, as in so many action-RPGs. Rather, our aim was to have the player feel rewarded simply by playing the game. Not for completing a quest or finding a prize or winning loot, but simply by playing and experiencing the game.”
Of course, by attempting something visually familiar yet mechanically unusual, the team risked alienating its audience at first touch. “When we first demo’d Demon’s Souls at the Tokyo Game Show it was nothing short of a disaster,” explains Kajii. “People were initially excited about the idea of a dark fantasy game, but they were so critical of the gameplay. Many people presumed we were still working on the combat at that stage of development, despite it being nearly finished! The truth is Demon’s Souls is just not well suited to previews, particularly at shows.
"You can’t possibly understand its approach in five minutes. Because of the action-RPG style people simply expected it to handle in the same way as Sengoku Musou. When it didn’t, they were left disoriented. This feeling was compounded by the fact that the controls aren’t based on any familiar scheme. Only a handful of players finished the demo. Some even put the controller down at the character-creation screen, which was particularly disheartening.”
In part, this alienation derived from the slow pacing of the game, which, in its condition that players think before acting, requires some adjustment. While many claim the game is difficult, in reality it’s just unforgiving. For those who approach the game with the correct mindset, it’s both fair and rewarding. Fools rush in. “We were sure we went too far in this,” says Miyazaki. “The team kept waiting for Sony to tell us to rethink our approach but that instruction never came.” Kajii explains: “At Sony we try to deliver games that can touch the widest possible number of users, so there was a critical decision to be made: do we to ask From Software to make the game more accessible, or do we let the team pursue the creative road it set for this project? Of course, we chose the latter and, mercifully, it was the right decision.”
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