Now that I've played both games, it's time for the inevitable "Demon's Souls versus Dark Souls" discussion. When I played Demon's Souls back in April, I was immediately hooked. The combat just clicked for me, offering a far more satisfying and engaging experience than any other fantasy combat system I'd ever played. There was such a remarkable precision in every aspect of that game's design, making it one of the most unique and rewarding games of recent memory.
With Dark Souls came a promise of "more of the same" in a supposedly bigger and better package, complete with a new open-world design, more areas to explore with a greater variety of aesthetic themes, new online multiplayer mechanics, and an expanded range of weapons and armor. While Dark Souls does deliver in some aspects of the "bigger and better" promise, there are still a number of things I prefer about Demon's Souls. Detailed comparisons await after the jump.
Update: So Dark Souls II came out recently, about a year-and-a-half after I wrote this comparison. If you want to know more about how Dark Souls II fits into the comparison between Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, check out my review for Dark Souls II after you finish with this article.
Story / Atmosphere
These games aren't known for having particularly great storytelling, despite how much some delusional fanboys will tell you otherwise. They do some really good things in terms of explaining the lore through item descriptions and environmental cues, but they really don't have an actual story to speak of -- in fact, it's pretty refreshing playing a game that doesn't spell everything out for you. These games don't really need an overt narrative to be enjoyable, but a good story/premise makes anything better, and I think that Demon's ultimately does the better job in presenting and establishing its story.
Watching the intro video for Dark's, I had no idea what was going on -- there were just so many names being tossed about and they really didn't establish an actual conflict for the start of the game. I watched it two more times on YouTube and still couldn't figure it out. All I got was something about lords and/or demons coming to Lordran to fight the Everlasting Dragons, which led to an Age of Fire, but now those embers are dying and I don't know why I'm supposed to care about any of this. Basically, you're just a dead guy who doesn't want to be dead anymore, and everything else is just a contrived excuse to give you to stuff to kill.
Dark Souls intro video
When you watch the intro video for Demon's, you get a pretty good idea of what happened to Boletaria and what your objective going into the game is. In essence, King Allant was able to bring a new era of prosperity to Boletaria through the practice of soul arts (harvesting the power of souls from the living), which aroused the slumbering Old One beneath the Nexus, who then unleashed a colorless fog on the realm. With the fog came demons who preyed on the souls of man; the fog continues to spread beyond the borders or Boletaria, with humanity facing a slow and steady extinction. Your goal is to slay the archdemons and put a stop to the spreading fog. I felt far more informed by the intro to Demon's, and that made it easier to appreciate what was happening.
The ending to Dark's is especially disappointing. After spending 60 hours working my way to the climactic finale, I defeated the final boss and then watched a short clip as I kindled a bonfire and became a human torch, presumably rekindling the Age of Fire. Your other option is to walk away from the Kiln of the First Flame, thus bringing about an Age of Dark with primordial serpents bowing to you as their master. It was never really clear why any of this was supposed to be significant, and neither ending offers any kind of satisfying revelation or emotional payoff for everything preceding. Being intentionally vague and anticlimactic is fine, however, as long as there's a greater point to be made, such as with the ending in Demon's.
The final boss in Demon's is even more anticlimactic than Dark's, but it serves as an artistic coda that sheds new light on the understood lore and backstory while giving you things to think about. After fighting an epic, climactic battle with False King Allant in the throne room, you enter the Old One under the Nexus and find the real King Allant, twisted and mutated by his own greed, the thing that brought the fog in the first place. You're meant to feel pity for him being so helpless and pathetic, and because of his belief that the Old One is showing mercy by carrying out God's will. Seeing King Allant as a helpless slug, in light of your own insatiable quest for souls, is meant to challenge your preconceptions about what you've been doing all along. As a result, Demon's ending actually resonates, unlike Dark's which is anticlimactic just for the sake of it.
Demon's Souls - Good Ending
Meanwhile, I also prefer the overall atmosphere of Demon's over Dark's. Demon's ultimately has the darker, more depressing atmosphere which I feel lends it a greater degree of personality. Whereas Demon's felt like a unique take of dark fantasy, Dark's felt more like generic fantasy to me. Dark's has its own stylistic charm, but I really like how much effort Demon's puts into depicting the graveness of its world, especially in terms of the characters. Every character speaks with such sullen despair that it constantly reinforces the hopelessness of your quest and the desolation of Boletaria. "You have a heart of gold. Don't let them take it from you."
In Dark's, most characters seem relatively content to be in Lordran, evidenced by the fact that literally everyone does some lighthearted chuckle at the end of their dialogue. I just don't get the feeling of strife, conflict, or tension among the denizens of Lordran to make me care as much about the stakes of my quest. They're also quick to paint you as the "chosen hero" cliche (rather than the "just another warrior come to seek his fame and fortune in Boletaria" premise of Demon's), so I never felt like I was up against as great a challenge in Dark's.
Level Design / Exploration
The big change in Dark's is the removal of Demon's hub system in favor of an open-world design. In Demon's, you had the Nexus, a central hub that connected all the various lands of Boletaria, and which housed numerous important NPCs -- merchants, blacksmiths, trainers, and so forth. By touching one of the five archstones, you could teleport into one of the five "worlds," basically self-contained levels that all streamed one into the next while you were in that world.
The hub system in Demon's is great because it provides a natural rhythm for adventuring; you have everything laid out right before you so you know what lies ahead in each direction, and you can go into a level planning to fight your way to the boss and then return to the Nexus. It's also nice that each level gives you a few sentences of backstory to shape your expectations going into the level. The physical separation of worlds and the linear progression within levels allows for natural stopping points, so that you know where you are in the game's overall progress at all times with a rhythmic precision for visiting and conquering levels. It's also just incredibly convenient that you have access to almost all important NPCs from one central location.
The Nexus from Demon's Souls
In Dark's, the world is designed Metroidvania-style with a single persistent landscape, as each area connects directly to multiple other areas. Instead of touching archstones between areas to warp back and forth between the Nexus, you rest at bonfires which serve as respawn checkpoints, and which allow you to replenish your health and healing items, as well as spend souls to level-up. You kind of have to commend From Software for making the open-world, interconnected area system as convincing at it is, but I ultimately prefer the hub system from Demon's.
For starters, the Nexus was just such a special place, your one safe haven in a world where everything is out to kill you. It had a certain mystique about it, being the place that binds literally everything in Boletaria (including lost souls such as yourself) together, home of the slumbering Old One, the Monumentals, and the Nexus caretaker, the Maiden in Black. The bonfires in Dark's feel like they exist to serve the same gameplay function as the Nexus, but in a smaller and less interesting way. They also have the side-effect of dotting numerous safe havens all across the world, which makes the areas outside and between safe zones feel a little less threatening.
Despite the seeming non-linearity of Dark's open world, I feel like there's actually more non-linearity in Demon's. In Dark's, you usually only have two or three branching paths available to you at any given time, and you're often forced to complete areas in a specific order, anyway, or backtrack through completed areas to reach new areas (which gets kind of tedious after a while). In the case of levels like the Painted World or the Duke's Archives, you have to fight all the way through it before you can even leave. In Demon's, you basically have five branching paths to follow, and you can jump back and forth between them at any time, completing all of the levels in essentially any order you want.
A 3D representation of Dark Soul's world
What I like about Dark's, though, is that it has a greater variety of thematic areas to explore. Demon's pretty much only has the five different thematic "worlds" -- even though each level within those worlds feels distinct from the next, it's still just another flavor of the same theme. In Dark's, there's much more disparity between areas, with each area having its only totally unique theme. The range of different places you can go (from an ancient cathedral straight to a dark forest) is quite remarkable, and helps keep things feeling fresh as you constantly encounter such widely diverse areas.
At the same time, however, few of the areas in Dark's feel as sophisticated or as unique as many of the levels in Demon's. Nearly every level in Demon's had some kind of unique gimmick or gameplay mechanic which set it apart from the others, whether it be the great poison swamp of 5-1, running along the parapets while the dragon attacks you in 1-2, or navigating the prison wings of 3-1, and so on. In Dark's, most levels are pretty simple, linear, and straightforward, and with a few exceptions, many of them play virtually identically to one another. It often feels like the only real difference between levels is the aesthetics and the types of enemies you fight.
It felt like each level in Demon's was there to serve a specific purpose; some were naturally more enjoyable or more impressive than others, but I liked every level for what it was trying to do. Some of the levels in Dark's, by contrast, feel like bloated filler just thrown in to pad out the content. I really liked the Undead Burg and Parish from Dark's, but after getting through those introductory areas, nothing else really stood out to me, except for a few really lame and disappointing areas. Sen's Fortress was cool, but even areas like Anor Londo that were supposed to be cool kind of disappointed me. Most of the time I was just marveling at the visuals and feeling slightly underwhelmed by the actual level design.
Combat / Difficulty
The two games have basically the exact same combat mechanics, and there are a number of things I like about each one, so it's hard to choose between them. I really like that Dark's included a mid-weight roll dodge, because heavier armor sets were pretty much useless in Demon's on account of the incredibly slow, handicapping "fat roll." But in Dark's, you can wear medium armor and get through the game pretty well, and the new "poise" mechanic (heavier armor absorbs physical impact, making you less likely to be knocked down or suffer hitstun) adds further incentive to wear heavy armor.
But when it comes to PVP, poise has a pretty broken and crippling effect. With poise, it's far too easy for people to go "backstab fishing," a cheap tactic where you try to lure someone into attacking you, so that your poise will absorb all the impact and then you can walk around and backstab them while they're still recovering for their own attack animation. And with the way From Software nerfed the speed and efficacy of roll attacks (most attacks in general feel a little more sluggish than in Demon's), once someone starts backstab fishing on you, you have no choice but to play the same game with them, because aggressive offense was basically removed from the game. It makes PVP in Dark's feel much less engaging or rewarding than PVP in Demon's.
Dark Souls -- PVP in a nutshell
In terms of the difficulty, I actually found Dark's a lot harder than Demon's, despite already having "mastery" of the system from my prior experience with Demon's. I really didn't struggle that much with Demon's; I took my time, was very observant of the environment and enemy attack patterns -- just playing carefully -- and was able to get through the game with relative ease. I killed every boss (except for Armor Spider and the Maneaters) on my first try, and most of the times I died were because I'd made some kind of reckless mistake. Demon's punished you hard for mistakes, but it always felt fair about doling out deaths.
When Demon's became a cult hit because of its challenging difficulty, I think From Software looked at the fan response and decided to try to ramp the difficulty up for Dark's. After all, the new limitations on healing items and spell casting were obviously intended to prevent players from over-stocking on restoration items, because Demon's was admittedly a little easier when you had a practically infinite number of healing items and spell casts at your disposal. In this sense, Dark's retains basically the same level of challenge that was present in Demon's, except that Dark's artificially inflates the difficulty by restricting the player more.
I died a lot more in Dark's than I ever died in Demon's, and more often than not it felt like it was due to no fault of my own. More often than not, it felt like Dark's was just being cheap and killing me for the sake of satisfying its own reputation/ego. In Demon's, you could almost always test the water safely, through trial-and-error that rewarded patience and diligent observation; the game only ever killed you for making a mistake after it established its own rules. In Dark's, some rules are impossible to learn until after you've already died, because a lot of stuff in Dark's is simply impossible to predict; it relies on the bad kind of trial-and-error that emphasizes the error component more than the trial aspect.
Wearing a mimic as a hat
The first time you encounter a mimic, for example, is likely to be fatal unless you've been consistently upgrading your vitality. Once you've learned about mimics, you know to attack every chest you see or carefully study them until you can discern the subtle differences, but up until that first encounter you never have any reason to suspect a chest might kill you. When you open that first mimic chest, it doesn't warn you at all, it doesn't even give you one second of an unusual animation or sound effect to make you think something might be awry -- it immediately grabs you and locks you in a devastating attack that either leaves you with only a sliver of health, or it just kills you with no chance for retaliation or self-defense.
At the top of Sen's Fortress is a giant who throws large firebombs at you. If you examine the floor, you notice scorch marks indicating places where you can expect him to throw the firebombs. Later on, you walk across a narrow bridge thinking you're safe because there are no scorch marks, and he blasts you with one anyway. When you're fighting the Bed of Chaos, it eventually sprouts two fiery appendages, so you think "I have to be careful of those things now," and then the floor falls out from underneath you without warning. In the Depths you encounter enemies that curse you, a status ailment that kills you instantly and limits you to 50% of your maximum health until you can remove the curse with a special item; like all status ailments, a gauge is supposed to fill up and then the effect takes place, but in my first encounter with those enemies, I got cursed before the gauge even appeared on screen.
These are just a few examples of what I mean; a lot of deaths in Dark's are impossible to predict and require you to die to learn their lessons. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, but I feel like it's a definite step down in terms of quality from Demon's, because they're just throwing unpredictable curve balls at you to trip you up for the sake of it, as if to stick their tongues out at you while reminding themselves of how "hard" the game is. Mix in numerous bullshit deaths from the game's own inconsistencies, glitches, and design problems and you have a game that's sometimes more frustrating than it is satisfying or rewarding.
Online Components / Multiplayer
The main differentiating factor in this category is the fact that Demon's uses dedicated servers and Dark's uses peer-to-peer matchmaking, and I do not care for the online implementation of Dark's. In Demon's, everyone connected to the same dedicated servers, meaning that everyone saw the same bloodstains, floor messages, and summon signs as everyone else. It was a persistent online system that allowed you to feel surrounded by other players, even though you were just playing by yourself.
The ideal epitome of online gameplay in Dark Souls
Attempting to save the cost of maintaining dedicated servers, Dark's uses a peer-to-peer system wherein players are matched into "lobbies" with other players, connecting directly to each other. The great thing about this system is you can play with anyone anywhere in the world, and the multiplayer aspect can remain alive as long as other people are playing the game. However, the peer-to-peer connection also severely limits the amount of other players with whom you can interact, making the entire online aspect of the game difficult to access.
In Demon's, it was very common to find floor messages that had been rated by hundreds of other players, because those messages persisted for everyone playing (or not playing) the game. In Dark's, you see far fewer messages because only messages written by people you're currently connected with appear; it's incredibly rare to see a message with a rating any higher than, say, five. If you're trying to invade someone for PVP, your odds of a successful invasion are lower because you have fewer possible people to invade. If you're trying to play with a friend, it can be outright impossible to meet because you get matched into different lobbies.
Regardless of the connection system, multiplayer in Dark's is also more restricted because you have to join specific covenants to engage in most of the game's more advanced online components. The covenants are loosely considered guilds or factions designed to serve some specific purpose in the game world, be it PVP or co-op. If you join the Forest Covenant, you'll be able to invade other players in the Darkroot Garden; if you join the Sunlight Covenant, you gain access to offensive miracles and can be summoned as a gold phantom for cooperative play.
Touching another player's summon sign
The covenants are an interesting concept to provide some kind of meaningful structure to the multiplayer scene, to give you expanded goals for multiplayer and more ways to interact with other players. But they also have the effect of limiting your interactions with other players, because you can only join one covenant at a time. If you're coming from Demon's and want to be an active invader, most of the PVP covenants are kind of difficult to find in ordinary gameplay; whereas in Demon's it was fairly quick and easy to get your hands on a black eye stone and begin invading anywhere at any time, you have to play a considerable amount of Dark's before you can get a consistent method of invading other players (apart from the limited, single-use items you're given in Firelink Shrine), and even then it's only in one specific area or context.
The online components of Demon's just felt so much more prominent to me; it was easier for me to invade other players and I was invaded a lot more often, and I was able to witness the effects of other players (in the form of messages, bloodstains, and white phantoms) a lot more easily than in Dark's. In my 70+ hours worth of Dark's, I've barely even noticed the online components, and felt flustered at how limited my options for PVP were.
Then there are a number of smaller things that I like/dislike about the two games, which aren't really prominent (or important) enough to get their own category, so I'll just list them here as minor subcategories:
Demon's has the way better messaging system, hands down. Everyone could write messages from essentially the very beginning of the game, and the amount of different presets you could choose from was huge. In Dark's, you can't even write messages until you buy a certain item from a certain merchant in a certain level, which means it's possible to miss that item completely or to go through a decent portion of the game without having the ability. Once you have the orange soapstone to write messages, your options are a hell of a lot more restricted than Demon's, making it very difficult to convey a specific kind of instruction to another player, and you also have a lot fewer social options with the messages as well.
One of the highest-rated messages I ever saw
Weapons and Armor
I was a little disappointed in Demon's when I realized that most of the equipment consists of basic varieties that you're supposed to upgrade the statistics on -- I never got the euphoria of finding a cool new weapon because the halberd I started out with was pretty much the best polearm in the game. Armor options are somewhat limited as well. Dark's has a lot more variety in its weapons and armor (even weapons within the same category have lots of unique differences), so I found myself trying different combinations, and I had that fun feeling of progression because I was finding new and interesting equipment, which made the game more dynamic from start to finish.
Tendency / Humanity
Demon's has the concept of "tendency," a mechanic where player actions within a level push that level's tendency towards pure black or pure white -- two different world states that affected the level in different ways. Pure white meant easier enemies with special event encounters, and pure black meant harder enemies with a higher drop rate and other special event encounters. Tendency is a fun, interesting idea that's unfortunately not executed very well, but Dark's just sort of did away with tendency altogether. In its place is "humanity," a second resource that you collect which affects many of the same statistics that tendency used to affect, but its effects aren't nearly as dynamic or interesting as the special encounters from pure black or pure white tendency events.
Soul Form / Hollow Form
When you die in Demon's, you revert to your soul form, symbolic of losing your humanity, and your health gets capped at 50% of its maximum. When you die in Dark's, you revert to hollow form, a state of undead that comes with basically no penalties. You can casually find enough humanity in Dark's to return to human form whenever you need to kindle a bonfire or anything, whereas the items to return to human form in Demon's are much rarer and more expensive to buy. The harsh HP penalties of soul form make it so that it actually matters what form you're in because you have to weigh the costs/benefits much more than in Dark's.
Pure, sexy hollow form. Aww yeah
Technically speaking, Dark's doesn't seem to be much of an improvement over Demon's, but it does feature more visually striking artistic design. A lot of areas in Dark's are simply beautiful, marvelous splendors to behold, but that doesn't necessarily make Dark's the better game in this department since Demon's was going for a different atmosphere. What I prefer about Demon's, though, are a bunch of smaller graphical assets, like the textures for bloodstains, fog walls, white phantoms, and floor messages. Maybe it's just that I played Demon's first and so these are the ones etched in my memory, but I thought the new look of these things in Dark's was kind of lame and disappointing.
The Souls games are notable for their complete lack of music in the levels, which is meant to emphasize the fact that you're alone in the environment. You only hear music in the main hub, during boss battles, and during certain cutscenes, and I generally preferred the music from Demon's. After finishing Dark's, I honestly couldn't remember any specific pieces of music except for Ash Lake, Firelink Shrine, the character creation music, and the final boss theme. Listening to the soundtrack again on YouTube, most boss themes sound like generic, pounding action pieces without any kind of overt melody or distinct tone. Hardly anything in Dark's stands out to me like the Maiden in Black, Maiden Astreia, Fool's Idol, Tower Knight, Return to Slumber, the main theme, and so on
Abundant Recycling in Dark Souls
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Dark's is how much content they blatantly recycled from Demon's. As a spiritual successor (ie, an indirect sequel), a lot of themes, mechanics, and elements are going to be carried over from the original, but some things that were truly unique and original in Demon's lose all of their special charm when you see them a second time in Dark's. It's hard to appreciate certain portions of Dark's because it's just not new or interesting.
- Yurt the Silent Chief / Knight Lautrec of Carim: an NPC is locked in a cell who eventually becomes an assassin of other important NPCs if you choose to release him.
- Maneaters / Bell Gargoyles: a boss battle against a gargoyle-like flying humanoid, where a second one eventually joins the fight on a high, narrow platform.
Valley of Defilement, Blighttown (click to enlarge)
- Valley of Defilement / Blighttown: Blighttown is basically a carbon copy of the entire Valley of Defilement from Demon's, with a much less threatening poison swamp and the same NPC black phantom invader.
- Armor Spider / Chaos Witch Quelaag: you descend into a spider's nest to fight a giant spider-like enemy who uses a number of fire-based attacks.
- Shrine of Storms / Catacombs: the Catacombs is thematically similar to the Shrine of Storms and is inhabited by many of the exact same enemy types (resurrecting necromancers, rolling skeletons).
- Fool's Idol / Pinwheel: a boss who splits himself into multiple phantom forms and which deals ranged magic attacks, requiring you to attack the correct one to deal damage.
- Phalanx / Phalanx: a boss in Demon's which becomes a mini-boss in Dark's, consisting of multiple spear-wielding blobs with shields, vulnerable to fire and attacks from behind.
Demon's Souls Phalanx, Dark Souls Phalanx (click to enlarge)
- Sparkly the Crow / Snuggly the Crow: a crow's nest where you can drop items with the crow, who will then trade you for another item.
- Patches the Hyena / Patches the Hyena: a swindler who gets you to look over a pit in search of treasure, and then pushes you into a trap.
- A red dragon guarding a bridge.
- Gargoyles that fly you up to an unreachable altitude.
There are probably others that I'm forgetting as well, including ones I've intentionally left off the list because they're pretty mundane (Hollow soldiers of the Undead Burg are pretty much dreglings of the Boletarian Palace), but even stuff that's somewhat original in Dark's gets recycled within Dark's. The Asylum Demon that you fight in the tutorial area (which is itself kind of a recycled version of Vanguard from Demon's) gets recycled twice in two other boss fights as the Stray Demon and the Demon Firesage. The Capra Demon boss becomes a Minor Capra Demon copy-and-pasted all over the Demon Ruins, and the Pinwheel boss becomes a Minor Pinwheel copy-and-pasted multiple times on the way to fighting Gravelord Nito.
Even the DLC content of the Prepare to Die Edition basically feels like a rehash of areas already covered in the base game. The Royal Wood feels pretty much like a reskinned Darkroot Garden, the Oolacile Township feels kind of like a reskinned Undead Burg and Lower Undead Burg, and the Chasm of the Abyss feels like a reskinned Tomb of the Giants. As cool as it is to get new areas to explore in Dark's, they're not quite as fresh or interesting as they could've been.
In my own personal book, Demon's Souls wins the debate because it was more unique at the time, and because there seems to be a greater degree of precision in its design. Dark Souls feels like the kind of sequel where the developers listened a little too much to the fan response, and then tried too hard to step their game up to make the sequel "bigger and better," without paying enough attention to the little details. The best thing about Dark Souls is that it has a whole lot of great variety to experience, but none of that content feels quite as sophisticated as the content in Demon's Souls.
Dark Souls is arguably the bigger and better game, but that accomplishment comes at the expense of also feeling more bloated than Demon's Souls. Many areas feel like filler put in for the sake of padding out more content, and if you've already played Demon's Souls than several encounters will be particularly underwhelming because you've basically already seen them before. At the same time, though, new inclusions like mid-weight rolls, plunging attacks, jumping attacks, and new varieties of weapons offer enough genuinely fun new content to make Dark Souls an enjoyable experience; it just didn't feel as tight or as memorable as Demon's Souls did for me.