Demon’s Souls claims to be an RPG, but I believe it represents the future of the survival-horror genre.
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.
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.
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.