Survival-horror games have had trouble finding their place on this generation of consoles. Essentially, they have no place. This is a generation that embraces action, a generation defined by the bombastic chaos of Modern Warfare 2. Resident Evil was the first survival-horror franchise to make the transition with Resident Evil 4, and the game was lauded for the change. Silent Hill followed with Homecoming, and games like Dead Space and Left 4 Dead further solidified the action-horror genre’s place over the dated survival-horror.
Enter Demon’s Souls, a game that claims to be a role-playing game but that’s missing many key traits of that genre. There’s almost no story to speak of, and the mere act of character progression has become so common that it’s no longer identified as an “RPG element.” There’s very little strategy involved in combat (it’s more about timing and pattern recognition), making patience a tactic that works every time. As I play through Demon’s Souls, RPG is that last genre that comes to mind.
It plays like an action game, with a heavy focus on individual combat. Once spotted, an enemy will pursue you to the ends of the world, and every encounter is a fight to the death. Like the best action games it creates a powerful forward momentum that pushes you through each level. Modern Warfare 2 creates this momentum with a breakneck pace in story and gameplay, Demon’s Souls creates it by not allowing you to pause. When you enter a dungeon, you’re committed to finishing it, waiting around is dangerous. You must always be aware of your surroundings, since you’re extremely vulnerable when managing your inventory. This vulnerability encourages us to keep on the move and creates constant tension, a specific kind of tension more appropriate for survival-horror games than for action games. It is fear generated through an awareness of weakness.
Enemies are always stronger than you. Every little poke that you receive takes away a lot of health. Healing items are plentiful, but when you eat an herb, you let your guard down, so if you’re hovering near death in the middle of a fight, using a healing item may actually be unwise. Like the best survival-horror games, Demon’s Souls throws you into a world where everything can kill you in an instant. You feel weak because you are weak, but you also have you the tools to fight your way out. Demon’s Souls combines the fear and anxiety of a survival-horror game with the moment to moment combat of an action game. In doing so, it fixes the biggest flaw of the survival-horror genre, the poor combat, while retaining the genre’s most prized trait, a sense of vulnerability. Several horror games struggle with this balance, but Demon’s Souls pulls it off.
Most survival-horror games want you to feel alone in the world, but even in the empty streets of Silent Hill, you can find ominous wall scrawls from those who came before you. From the silent ghosts of Fatal Frame to the detailed journals of Resident Evil, horror games always paint a picture of a past in which some poor soul didn’t survive the trials that you now face. Demon’s Souls paints just such a picture by allowing players to leave messages for each other. These glowing notes are often helpful and light your path ahead like breadcrumbs. This is one of the great innovations of Demon’s Souls, it takes an old horror trope and updates it for the modern age of connected consoles.
Despite turning the world into an open forum, the game still makes you feel alone thanks to its dedication to the single-player experience. This is not a multiplayer game; you are sill the main character and main hero. The game emphasizes this by limiting most of your interactions with NPCs to a place called the Nexus. Sure, there are some heroes and merchants running about in the world, but they’re few and far between, as are the opportunities to invite players to your game. For the most part, all that you see of other players are their notes, their bloodstains, and their ghosts, and the latter two are far more common. This discrepancy in numbers makes it seem like all of your helpful forerunners eventually failed. If you find a note warning of an ambush, I guarantee you there’s a bloodstain nearby. The combination makes you realize that you really are alone.
Of course, you can’t forget about the puzzles. Where would survival-horror games be without puzzles, arguably the bane of the genre? Demon’s Souls even incorporates this unlikely trait into its design.
The biggest problem with most puzzles in survival-horror games is how they’re integrated into the world. You can usually rest assured that if you’re solving a puzzle, you’re in a safe place. The tension fades and you naturally relax. It’s important to break up the pace like this in a horror game to give the player some moments of calm, but these moments always feel forced. You’ll be running through a sewer and suddenly have to push giant crates through a maze, or you’ll be fleeing monsters in a mall only to encounter a color-coded lock based on the beak of a cartoon bird statue halfway back through the level. One solution is easy and only serves to waste your time, the other is convoluted and only serves to frustrate you, and neither one feels like a natural part of the world. Demon’s Souls solves this problem by turning boss fights into puzzles. Each boss moves in a very deliberate pattern, learn the pattern and the boss becomes easy prey. Since players are accustomed to facing a boss at the end of each stage, these encounters feel natural. Since the puzzle aspect is just about pattern recognition, the lowered difficulty makes it more accessible for all players, and since the puzzle itself is a battle against a giant monster, it appeals to the large demographic of action-oriented gamers.
Demon’s Souls may describe itself as an RPG, and it may have all the trappings of a typical dungeon crawler, but its focus on lonely atmosphere, intense difficulty, slow pace, and pattern-based combat symbolizes the future of the survival-horror genre.