Since we reviewed it in March last year, Demon's Souls has gone from potential cult hit to wildly acclaimed classic, earning itself a US and, soon, European release, several Game of the Year accolades and thousands more enthusiastic disciples. It is one of the greatest unlikely success stories of modern gaming, and proof of the power of community in the internet age.
Originally an Asia-only release from a developer whose other games, when they even saw the light of day outside their country of origin, never really penetrated the public consciousness, its success abroad has been driven entirely by phenomenal critical acclaim and word-of-mouth popularisation. In the absence of a vast marketing budget or an established brand to stick on the cover, Demon's Souls proves that being good sometimes really is enough.
The key to Demon's Souls' brilliance, in retrospect, is a combination of an old-fashioned refusal to pander to the player, forward-thinking online concepts and an extraordinary coherence of creative vision. Its levels are perfectly self-contained pieces of dark fantasy, each with its own artistic direction and sadistic gameplay twists, and its enemies and bosses range from the unspeakably gruesome to the gigantic and monstrous to the strangely touching. But all of it conforms to the same darkly uncompromising ethos.
We've never yet encountered a Japanese developer willing to boast of his game's success, but Demon's Souls' director Hidetaka Miyazaki's surprise is more credible than most. "We never thought that we would receive so many awards. We are incredibly happy and deeply grateful for all the support we have received," he tells Eurogamer.
It's particularly surprising because Demon's Souls wasn't well understood by its Japanese publisher, Sony - as reflected in the decision not to publish it outside of Asia, which it later admitted was a mistake.
"To be honest, while the game was still under development, we weren't being fully understood and it was very difficult for us," says Miyazaki. "We weren't interested in following any trends, but I suppose we weren't paying attention to a practical world view, which was rather difficult."
Demon's Souls was born out of a desire to return gaming to its fundamentals - that is, to re-embrace the trial and error and difficulty that we used to take for granted, and leave the player to work things out for themselves. "From the outset, we started making it based on a 'back-to-basics' concept," says Miyazaki. "We wanted a 'game-like game', something that was fun in the way games used to be, and we were confident that we could do it.
"We wanted to stay clear of current trends... we thought it was only going to be judged by a handful of core players. Without meaning to attribute special significance to the game, now that there are so few games of its type, we thought that there was definitely a need for it, and we also felt that it was something that the current games industry needed. With all these ideas in mind, we created Demon's Souls."
It didn't come out of nowhere. Demon's Souls has certain things in common with From Software's long-running dark fantasy series King's Field - namely, its unrelenting bleakness and wall-punching difficulty - but Miyazaki doesn't see it as a direct successor.
"King's Field was the beginning of the Demon's Souls project; I wouldn't go as far as to say that we had King's Field in mind while we were making Demon's Souls, but of course I think its world probably formed one of the bases [for the newer game]. However, if you're asking if it's a 'successor', the answer is no. Of course there are parts of the game that are inspired by King's Field but we were very much aware that we wanted to make a new title with Demon's Souls."
What did inspire the game was a combination of European mythology and artistic sources outside of the world of videogames. "There aren't any other games [that I'd cite as inspiration], but there are films like Conan the Barbarian and Excalibur, and Frazetta's fantasy art," Miyazaki explains. Demon's Souls' medieval horror aesthetic is itself a product of the back-to-basics approach behind its punishing gameplay; where Japanese action-RPGs are traditionally fond of a historical Japanese setting, From's designers found their inspiration elsewhere.
"The worlds of the games we used to play, the ones that made us tremble with excitement, were all Western worlds," says Miyazaki, "like series of fantasy game books like Wizardry and Varitmu. When we made Demon's Souls we took a back-to-basics approach, and so it turned into that kind of world - it was perfectly natural... It isn't widely known overseas, but lately in Japan games with that kind of world have all but disappeared."
The crumbling forts and gothic dungeons of Demon's Souls' world have a European aesthetic to them that Miyazaki thinks is entirely understandable, citing inspirations from Arthurian to bloodsoaked old-Germanic myth. "Aren't all of us, especially those involved in the actual making of games, influenced by the West? It's only my personal taste, but I'm very much drawn to things like King Arthur and Beowolf, and also the Nibelungen, because they're classics. They show the good and evil in the human psyche and you're made to breathe the unvarnished stench of humanity... [Medieval tales] are not trying to put on airs."
Miyazaki also explains the game's surprisingly authentic, untranslated scriptwriting and the use of predominantly Scottish voice actors, which has long been a point of personal curiosity (I'm Scottish). "As you'd expect, with medieval Europe as our base, American English wouldn't do. We're Japanese so we don't know the particulars, but in Japan, in period pieces and such, there are very distinctive [linguistic] expressions. We thought these probably existed in English, so we went to the [SCE] co-ordinator and explained this, and they cast to suit our needs."
Demon's Souls' uniquely double-edged online play, in which players can either help each other through levels as Blue Phantoms or invade and assassinate as Black Phantoms, is easily its cleverest feature. It's also deeply revealing of human nature, and quite culturally fascinating when you look at the difference in people's behaviour on the Japanese and US servers.
Human nature, it turns out, was the inspiration. "The origin of that idea is actually due to a personal experience where a car suddenly stopped on a hillside after some heavy snow and started to slip," says Miyazaki. "The car following me also got stuck, and then the one behind it spontaneously bumped into it and started pushing it up the hill... That's it! That's how everyone can get home! Then it was my turn and everyone started pushing my car up the hill, and I managed to get home safely.
"But I couldn't stop the car to say thanks to the people who gave me a shove. I'd have just got stuck again if I'd stopped. On the way back home I wondered whether the last person in the line had made it home, and thought that I would probably never meet the people who had helped me. I thought that maybe if we'd met in another place we'd become friends, or maybe we'd just fight...
"You could probably call it a connection of mutual assistance between transient people. Oddly, that incident will probably linger in my heart for a long time. Simply because it's fleeting, I think it stays with you a lot longer... like the cherry blossoms we Japanese love so much."
It is, indeed, adversity that inspires co-operation in Demon's Souls, a game that doesn't think twice about killing you at a nanosecond's notice in horrible and creative ways. "Because Demon's Souls is a game with a lot of dying in it, surely that kind of fleeting cooperation should come out of all the death - 'We're all dead, so let's help each other out'," suggests Miyazaki.
"It's a simple concept. But you don't know whom you will meet. Maybe the next person will be an enemy. That kind of encounter forms part of the larger storyline. There are constant surprises... the blue phantom that's helped you get through an area might, out of nowhere, turn into a black phantom that will kill you just as you're almost clear. Demon's Souls isn't like other RPGs. We've made a different storyline for every player. That's what the network's for; that's what the phantoms are."
"We made a game where rather than [giving players] a simple Game Over, we make them come back to an ephemeral existence as a phantom with less health, and this encourages people to co-operate in multiplayer. A darker existence as a Black Phantom has an even stronger incentive. Because you can both co-operate and aggravate through the unique multiplayer system, even if 100 players are role-playing, they will all have different experiences. Whether you behave as friend or foe is down to a person's character."
The message system, wherein you can leave messages for fellow hapless souls warning of danger ahead or begging for help, is another product of this fascinating multiplayer ideology, creating a sense of community that's both touching and entirely transient. The most you can ever know about a player is their name, should they invade your game as a blue or black phantom; messages, being anonymous, lack even that.
Miyazaki compares Demon's Souls' un-invasive multiplayer to text messaging, and other games' to phoning. "Text-message is less of a burden than a phone, basically," he says. "Firstly, we wanted to remove the instantaneousness of communication, and secondly we wanted to remove the physicality of it - that is, the voice. What was born out of those two concepts is this asynchronous online mode peculiar to Demon's Souls."
"Part of the idea behind the message system was that before, back when we didn't have so much information, everyone had to work together to help each other through games. The intention was to bring a sense of unity to players."
That sense of unity is evident in the reams of organised community wikis and guides that players have created together to help each other through. Even outside of the game itself, Demon's Souls encourages its players to bond through adversity and share information in a way that simply isn't necessary for less challenging, less idiosyncratic games. Demon's Souls' refusal to explain itself or lend you a hand isn't a design fault. It's a conscious decision to get players thinking and acting for themselves in a way that modern gamers usually aren't used to.
Miyazaki's favourite parts of the game, sadistically, are almost universally the parts that cause players the most grief, perhaps because they so ably illustrate the game's core philosophies.
"We're fond of all the areas but if I had to pick [a favourite], it'd be the Valley of Defilement - it's also the area I hate the most," he grins. "As for the demons, it's probably the Tower Knight... Beating him is really difficult by yourself, but in a co-ordinated multiplay, where no one's chatting (well, they can't to begin with, I suppose) and everyone does their jobs swiftly, it feels great to finally get through it. This might be a little grandiose, but I think that Tower Knight is significant, and as a boss character, symbolic of the demon system.
"There's also Maiden Astraea and the devoted Garl Vinrand... There are many points [in the story] that depend upon the players' imagination, but if people feel something from the stories of those two characters, then I'll be happy."
Demon's Souls isn't just a good game, it's an important game - one that proves that merit still counts, that a game really can become a worldwide success just by being brilliant. It's proof that we don't need our hands held all the time, that we can handle a developer's uncompromised vision without endless tutorials and explanations and reward trinkets, and that we can be trusted, as ingenious beings, to work together and find a way though the hardest situations.
"Demon's Souls is by no means a perfect game. We don't think there will ever be such a thing as a perfect game," says Miyazaki. But Demon's Souls never aimed for perfection - what it does is resurrect a videogaming philosophy that's been in dire danger of disappearing forever into the fringes in a modern context, stitching a patchwork of fascinating new ideas together with a back-to-basics attitude. It's one of the purest and most wholly fascinating games of the past decade, and that's as true now as it was in March last year.
Demon's Souls is due out for PS3 on 25th June in Europe. Check out our Demon's Souls import review.