* Note: Spoilers ahead regarding some of the characters, locations, enemies, and events of Demon’s Souls.
The difficulty of the games in From Software’s Souls series is often exaggerated, with too great an emphasis placed on it by some of the lazier videogame “journalists” and others who can’t be bothered to acknowledge the numerous other facets besides difficulty that make up these games.
Because the fact is that Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls – not so much the sometimes cheap and lazy Dark Souls II, in all honesty – are challenging, sure, but on the whole they’re also fair. If you’re patient, if you concentrate, if you learn, it’s possible to overcome any obstacle these games can throw at you and emerge triumphant.
That’s what I told myself through gritted teeth as my character took a pickaxe to the face and died – again – while I attempted a Soul Level 1 playthrough of Demon’s Souls, anyway.
But let’s rewind a little.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Souls games since first playing Demon’s Souls in 2011, and since then I’ve put a lot of hours into all three games. Last year I fancied trying my hand at a Dark Souls challenge that had emerged amongst the Souls community: the Soul Level 1 playthrough. This involves choosing the one starting class who is Soul Level 1 and then completing the game without levelling-up once. This greatly limits your options in terms of how you tackle the game as your character stats relate to what weapons and armour you can use effectively, your movement speed, your magic-based options, your maximum health, etc. It sounds tough, and it certainly can be, but personally I found it a testament to From’s incredibly balanced implementation of difficulty in Dark Souls that a Soul Level 1 playthrough is doable without having to be some kind of insanely expert player who knows every little intricacy of the game.
After much blood, sweat and tears, I eventually completed my Dark Souls Soul Level 1 playthrough (in your golden faces, Ornstein and Smough!) and wrote a two-part article detailing my experience, which you can see here and here.
Nearly a year has passed since then, long enough for the mental wounds to heal, which is probably why I decided that attempting a Soul Level 1 playthrough of Demon’s Souls would be a good idea. Like my Dark Souls SL1 playthrough, I would play online and I wouldn’t summon any other players to help me. Like that masturbating monkey you see at the zoo, this was going to be a solo effort.
The Soul Level 1 starting class in Demon’s Souls is Royalty, which many fans of the game also consider to be the easiest starting class due to the fact that you start with the offensive spell Soul Arrow; a Silver Coronet that increases your maximum magic points; and the Fragrant Ring, which gradually regenerates magic points. Although magic is clearly the intended focus of Royalty, you also begin with a melee option in the form of a rapier and buckler. So Royalty is a strong starting class, yes, but that was fine with me – on a Soul Level 1 playthrough I figured I’d need every advantage I could get.
I chose a face for my Royalty character, gave him a noble and inspiring name befitting a great hero, and then sent “Lord Thrusticus” into the fray.
The game’s opening section, Journey to the Nexus, is a fairly straightforward tutorial area designed to teach you the basics, which I was obviously already very familiar with. But Journey to the Nexus contained one challenge that I hadn’t managed to complete in my previous playthroughs of the game: defeating the demon named Vanguard at the end of the area, Vanguard’s purpose being to kill the player in order to send them on to the Nexus and the game proper – ironically, the player is supposed to die in order to progress. As Blue Öyster Cult said, “Don’t Fear The Reaper”. They also said “Godzilla!” but that’s not relevant here in any way, so let’s move on.
Anyway, Vanguard can be killed and in this playthrough I managed to do just that for the first time. As I kept moving, avoiding his giant axe which I was fairly sure could kill me with one blow, I whittled down his health with Soul Arrow as I got that familiar pulse-quickening feeling I’ve felt in many boss fights across the three Souls games. Eventually I defeated Vanguard and progressed to the small bonus area you gain access to when you beat him. But then the game absolutely will kill you as at that point it really is the only way to progress – after collecting a few items, I was one-hit killed by a punch from the Dragon God (no accompanying cry of “Shoryuken!”, sadly) and then it was on to the Nexus.
The Nexus is the hub area of Demon’s Souls, its archstones acting as gateways to the game’s geographically-scattered levels, and it’s also one of my favourite locations in the entire Souls series, possessing as it does a haunting and melancholy atmosphere that is both bleak and soothing. After arriving in the Nexus I read the first online player-message I came across, which turned out to be the popular “The true Demon’s Souls starts here.” That seemed fitting.
After a wander around the Nexus, collecting a couple of items and speaking to the non-playable characters present, I entered the first proper level of the game, Boletarian Palace, another favourite Souls location of mine. There I picked up the Cling Ring, one of the most useful items in the game as it lessens the maximum-health reduction you suffer when in Soul Form, which is the state your character occupies when they die in Body Form. And given the number of deaths I expected to experience during this playthrough, I expected to be playing in Soul Form quite often. Various enemies were to prove me right in time…
I usually opt for a melee-focused play-style when I play a Souls game, so relying on sorcery to a degree now took a little getting used to, but I was already finding Soul Arrow extremely useful in many enemy encounters as I traversed the opening section of Boletarian Palace. Eventually, through the use of Soul Arrow and some firebombs, I defeated the area boss, Phalanx – a large, moving blob surrounded by shielded minions and one of the easiest bosses in the game, so I knew this was no indicator of how the rest of my playthrough would go.
Back in the Nexus, although I only had one spell slot due to my low level, I bought some spells from the arrogant NPC named Freke’s Apprentice, ignoring the urge to silence him with a Soul Arrow to the plums. Whether or not these spells would be of any use wasn’t that big a deal, as not levelling up would mean I had plenty of souls to spend on other things throughout my playthrough.
Conquering the opening section of Boletarian Palace meant that the archstones to the other worlds were now accessible, and there was a weapon which I wanted to get my hands on as soon as possible due to it being an effective weapon that could be used by a Soul Level 1 character: the Crescent Falchion +1, a sword that dealt both physical and magical damage. This would, however, require visiting the Shrine of Storms, a place of rolling skeletal enemies slightly similar to the wheel skeleton enemies of Dark Souls in their design, their approach to combat, and the fact that they’re utter bastards. Still, I managed to make it to my coveted item before fleeing back to the Nexus, Crescent Falchion +1 in hand. The rest of the Shrine of Bastards could wait until later.
I visited the second section of Boletarian Palace, the Lord’s Path, where my overriding urge to stop and pick up shiny things led to me being burnt alive several times by a dragon. I certainly can’t complain about a lack of variety in this area as I was also killed by a group of crossbowmen and a pack of hostile dogs. I did manage to defeat the area boss, Tower Knight, on my first attempt, however, by keeping my distance from the big fella and blasting him with Soul Arrow. I could get used to this magic stuff.
After spending more souls on spells I’m not even going to use until a possible New Game Plus playthrough – hooray for consumer mentality! – I visited another world, Stonefang Tunnel, a place rich with upgrade materials, in the hope of upgrading my Crescent Falchion +1. Only then did I learn that the darkmoonstones I needed to do this were to be found in the Shrine of Storms. Of course they were.
Along with the aforementioned pickaxe to the face, courtesy of a scale miner, one thing I did find in Stonefang Tunnel was an item which should come in very useful for a sorcery-focused character: the Kris Blade. I wouldn’t use this small sword as a weapon but rather hold it in my left hand while casting a spell with the catalyst in my right hand, as the Kris Blade increases magic damage (while also lowering magic defence).
I was right in that the Kris Blade did come in very useful throughout the rest of my playthrough, although not in my first attempt at the first Stonefang Tunnel boss, Armour Spider, who quickly blasted me to death when I challenged it. It’s not the hardest boss in the game but I’ve always hated that damn spider.
There is an easy, somewhat cheap tactic to defeating Armour Spider by using a bow and positioning yourself in a particular spot in the boss room. In preparation for my second run at the boss I initially hesitated to use this tactic but the combination of a Soul Level 1 playthrough and the fact that this particular boss annoys me meant it didn’t take long for me to change my mind – in the Shrine of Storms I rescued Graverobber Blige, the merchant who could sell me a Short Bow, and then used this (along with numerous arrows) to defeat Armour Spider.
It may have been a fairly cheap victory but at Soul Level 1, I’ll take it. Because as the Chinese general Sun Tzu wrote in his classic military treatise The Art of War, “When confronting a giant, armoured spider that spits fireballs at you, don’t fuck about.”
The two worlds I hadn’t yet visited, Tower of Latria and Valley of Defilement, were up next, which meant horrific, octopus-headed prison guards; my first encounter with a black phantom; a boss battle in which I was the boss; lethal club-wielding giants; a vast poison swamp; and death by mosquito. Oh, and there was also the small matter of what remained in the other worlds, such as the gruelling gauntlet that was the second section of the Shrine of Storms, and the monstrous, bestial boss named Flamelurker.
Would my skills, combined with a little luck, allow me to breeze through these trials as a tiny part of me hoped I might be able to? Or would I have to fight and struggle and die again and again in order to achieve victory? I was about to find out…
(Spoiler: It’s the second one).
To be concluded in Part 2
Alex De-Gruchy is a writer and editor of fiction and non-fiction whose work has covered comic books, prose and videogames. His 8-issue comic series The Fallen, from publisher Monkeybrain, is currently being published on Comixology, while two graphic novels he has written will see release in 2015 from Markosia Enterprises. His upcoming videogame projects include action / strategy title Crystal Arena, visual novel Eternal Forest, and action-adventure Edelin Tales: Portals of Doom. To witness more wordy outpourings from his brain-meats, find him on Twitter: @AlexDeGruchy