Demon’s Souls is dead. The massively popular cult hit hails from all the way back in 2009, but its presence has been felt in video games since. Then, on February 28th, at twelve minutes past 2am CST, its servers at Atlus were taken offline forever. With the servers gone, gone too was one of the most important aspects of a game that had inspired not just a series of games, but an entire genre. Gone with it, a community that, while not without its toxic corners, was funny, supportive and passionate. Demon’s Souls didn’t just have a multiplayer function—it created an entirely unique multiplayer experience that was unlike anything that had ever been seen before. And that’s why, even with the single-player campaign available to play offline, and after the threat of a permanent server shutdown back in 2012 narrowly thwarted by fan outcry, the community that built up around Demon’s Souls is in mourning.
I played Demon’s Souls for the first time shortly after its North American release at the behest of a coworker. I initially hated it. I didn’t understand it, the controls seemed imprecise, and the fact that enemies respawned upon player death or reloading blew my mind. It was an archaic mechanic, and it made traversing back and forth across the hauntingly atmospheric levels tense to the point of being stressful. Each time you defeated an enemy you collected their “souls” which served as both currency for items and for levelling up. What’s worse: when you inevitably died, all of these souls would be left on a “bloodstain” marking the location of your death. If you could fight your way back to it, you could reclaim your lost souls. If you died, they were lost forever. Even worse than that, I discovered other players could come into my game when I didn’t want them to and halt my progress—a concept that made the game seem even more untenable.
In Demon’s Souls you play a lone warrior who has braved the fogs encircling the land of Boletaria to fight the demons that now roam the countryside. Upon arrival, you fight through a series of soul-hungry citizens, gone mad when their own souls were snatched away. Eventually, you get to the Vanguard Demon, a fat brute with a big axe and tiny little wings. You fight, but he mostly wins (and even if you win, you get punched by the Dragon God. That kills you.) Once you die, you find you are trapped by the Nexus, a mysterious place where souls intermingle and coalesce–and where brave warriors ready themselves to fight the demons. Inside the Nexus is a Maiden in Black who guides you as well as serving as the way you spend souls to gain levels. The Maiden in Black is a powerful but benevolent demon who wants to assist you in destroying the five archdemons and claiming their souls so she may lull the Great Old One back to slumber and the fog that envelops the land will lift. It’s a story that is told in fractured details (another series staple) but the imagery and lore were so intriguing, that even with a game that seemed so impenetrable, I either had to press on to find out what happens, or spoil it by reading a walkthrough or watching a YouTube video. I decided to press on.
And then I learned how to “git gud.” The concept truly clicked for me when I realized that Demon’s Souls was archaic, but in the best way. It made me work for the objective–to get to the boss, and actually work to win unlike most games where winning seemed inevitable, even with the least of efforts. I found that with enough practice, I could even breeze through the game without worrying about levelling up to as high as I could–in fact, I would avoid it, as being higher level in no ways guarantees victory the way it does in some role-playing games. Weapons, too, worked differently. It wasn’t a behind-the-scenes dice roll that was in vogue with so many role-playing games. Instead, each weapon behaved in unique ways and felt unique to wield. They had their own damage values (based on a complicated set of upgrade paths) but if you looked like you physically hit an enemy it was guaranteed to have some effect. There also wasn’t a “best,” (for the most part) weapon. Instead, you could viably use any of them with enough skill. But it wasn’t just the weaponry and solid combat that was different—Demon’s Souls multiplayer was something totally new and unique, and its legacy is felt in each of the Souls games that came after.
You could play with others cooperatively, but doing so required you to use an item to turn yourself from a phantom into a fully corporeal person. This allowed you to see other player’s phantom signs, which you could touch to summon them into your world. If you didn’t have the item to turn corporeal, you could put down a sign and offer service to others, helping them traverse the perilous levels or defeat a particularly difficult boss, just as they could do for you. You could use this mechanic to play with specific friends, but it could be difficult, as there was nothing preventing others from summoning them instead. Being corporeal came with another very real danger, too. It opened you up to invasions by Black Phantoms—other players who wanted to kill you to gain their own corporeal form back, farm souls, or harass you for the fun of it.
Not only was Demon’s Souls unique for the mechanics in which players can fight together or with each other, it allowed players to communicate in ways never seen before. A series of preset messages or words could be strung together to send a warning, give advice or do nothing useful at all, sometimes in humorous ways. Messages placed in the middle of a boss arena simply read “This is no time for messages!” and sometimes, players would leave a tip instructing you to jump off a cliff to your own demise. Many times, though, these messages warned of enemies ahead, or exposed secrets to help other players along on their own journey. Another helpful aspect of the online play had to do with the death mechanic. When players died in their own games, they would leave behind bloodstains that would show up in others’ worlds. When you touched a bloodstain, you could see how the other players died. This would sometimes reveal valuable clues as to what dangers might be lurking around the corner. There was even a specific boss in Demon’s Souls that was meant as a test of player-versus-player skill, in which a living human donned the tall, twisted mantle of The Old Monk and tried to defeat those working on progressing in their own game.
I have been in love with the Souls series since that first “git gud,” moment, but I didn’t spend as much time with Demon’s Souls as I did the other titles in the series. Being only available on PlayStation 3 meant its user base was limited, and those numbers only dwindled as the years went on and more Souls games were released, each of them touting variations on the multiplayer, message, and bloodstain systems borne out of Demon’s Souls.
Still, none of the other Souls games quite captured the same exact haunting, dreamlike feel of Demon’s Souls. Even its range of weaponry and spells were eclectic in a way never again seen in a Souls game. But despite these unique qualities, I came back to the title far less than the others in the series. Every year the community would hold an event called “Return to the Nexus,” a reference to the central hub that connects all the worlds and binds your character’s soul. I would promise myself this would be the year to play again, but I never found the time.
In the meantime, I played the other Souls games A LOT, eventually coaxing multiple friends and family members into run-throughs of Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and Dark Souls III. My fiancée and I even conquered Dark Souls’ increasingly difficult “new game plus” modes through “new game plus six” where it finally reaches max difficulty. It was around November of last year that I discovered that Atlus was once again planning on shutting down the Demon’s Souls servers—this time for good. When we found out Demon’s Souls was going to be taken offline, we had to be there to see it go.
So we returned. Once again, the servers came to life, full of players seeing their beloved game irrevocably change, or to get that online experience for the first (and last) time. Phantoms of players were visible everywhere, locked in their own battles even as you took on yours. People were invading each other- and even when that meant a fight to the death, there was a certain honor to it and you would see an opponent just as often drop a valuable item for you to use along your journey–right before they tried to backstab you to death. People fought together, died together, and got sentimental. Messages all over the in-game world read “Farewell” and “good luck” and in the final hours, those of us there to pay our respects gathered on the Reddit community and in Discord – to trade stories, help fight final battles, fight our last pvp battles, and reminisce. It was bittersweet, but beautiful in its own way. As the minutes ticked down to 2am CST, I stood as a blue phantom in my fiancee’s world for the last time. We killed NPCs, wrote messages and dueled players who were there for their own “one last time.” When the servers didn’t disconnect exactly on time, we held out hope in the back of our minds that maybe it wouldn’t end. Ultimately, we’d have 12 more minutes to be in the world as it was, after six more years than we originally expected. And it wouldn’t be enough.
Demon’s Souls gameplay unique isn’t totally lost, as the Dark Souls series, and Bloodborne have similar themes, multiplayer functionality, and gameplay as Demon’s Souls. With the recent announcement of Dark Souls Remastered, there is a renewed call for a remastering of Demon’s Souls–especially since the servers were recently taken offline. We can only hope that Demon’s Souls will see a remaster as well.
I will never forget the moments I had fighting beside and against the community that Demon’s Souls created, even as the Old One is lulled to sleep one final time. Umbasa.
Contributing author Marielle Shaw