*This article contains spoilers for Demon's Souls and the Dark Souls trilogy.
Demon's Souls is a milestone in gaming history.
The game was originally meant to be scraped, until Hidetaka Miyazaki learned about the project from another team and asked to take over. Due to his interest in medieval fantasy stories with which he grew up with, he and his team rebuilt the game with his own ideas to challenge gaming norms.
The result was a game with unmatched experience, and a refinement of the action RPG genre that influenced future video games. Although, much of the comparison was heralded through Dark Souls-the hammered-to-perfection version of Demon's Souls. Some would call Dark Souls the spiritual successor. Personally, I find it as a refined remake, which isn't exactly fair, since previous FromSoftware games like King's Field and Shadow Tower were basically Demon's Souls in the first-person perspective.
There's something special, dark, and twisted in the machinations of Demon's Souls that is gripping and intense every time you enter one of its worlds. Even the game's tutorial phase refuses to hold your hand. Instead, it leaves scattered notes on the ground as hints. These markings beyond the first area may come from other players, either warning you of the dangers to come, or to simply troll you.
I don't think I have encountered a game with similar mechanics in the past, but I thought it was way ahead of its time. This simple mechanic of leaving messages for other players to read was something ripe for picking. You can also summon players to lend an aid to your cause.
In Demon's Souls, the palace of Boletaria is under siege by a fog and the demons inhabiting it. There is an infection that needs to be cut off and you are chosen to ramify things.
The surrounding environments are beautiful and well-crafted. When you go through Boletaria, you'll spot the starting area you came from. The sight of it reflects the epic scale of the game without obvious loading times.
I don't think there has ever been a boss that summons so much despair as the Tower Knight or the Storm King. There's a burning thrill of running across the ramparts of Boletaria 1-2 while dodging incoming arrows and dragon fire from the sky.
Compared to Blighttown, Tomb of the Giants, the Catacombs, the Gutter, and the obnoxious Black Gulch from Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, Demon's Souls' Tower of Latria carries the atmosphere of dread. Not to mention that horrible wall of arrows you need to get around in order to deactivate them.
Dark Souls has the tragedy of Artorias and Sif, though the lore behind them unravels only after you've gone far enough into the game. In Demon's Souls' Valley of Defilement, the game demands you take the soul of the Maiden Astraea, who was only trying to heal the infected. To reach her, you need to slay Garl Vinland-most likely her lover. If you manage to get around and kill her, Vinland collapses into hopeless despair, as if life itself is no longer worth living. From here, you can either walk away or kill him yourself to pillage his corpse. Likewise, if you kill him before reaching the Maiden, she will take her own life.
In retrospect, the dread in these boss fights had little to do with the fight itself and with making it back to the boss fog, which both make each encounter a precarious journey. Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 both have bonfires that are scattered everywhere. But Demon's Souls? There are no checkpoints to spawn from. If you die, you start with half health and begin at the very start of the area. You only get permission to set up a new spawning point after you've defeated a boss.
Where the Souls games lack in elaborate storytelling, they make up for with small details scattered in each area. Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki takes inspiration from his own experience reading Western stories that he found challenging to understand. He applied these experiences into the Souls games, starting with Demon's Souls.
Granted, Demon's Souls was less about exploring. Each area was smaller and had a well-disguised linearity to it. But there's an intricate beauty to these levels, small details that can spare you from smashing your controllers. See those black marks on the floor? Clearly something burned it from above. Blood on the wall? Careful, spikes might appear out of nowhere.
Demon's Souls gave new meaning to the action RPG genre in the same way Devil May Cry reinvented the action genre. Other games took the Demon's/Dark Souls formula to heart and applied a bit of DNA to their own games.
Now that the servers for Demon's Souls have been shut down, perhaps FromSoftware can make room for future games. The escarpments of Boletaria and the fierce, howling winds in the Shrine of Storms, the Stonefang Tunnel, feel lonelier than ever.