Alright, let's do this. Rose tinted glasses can be checked at the door. This intended as an unbiased evaluation of the changes made between Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. From here on out, it is acceptable to just refer to them as "Demon" and "Dark".
So From Software moved on, because of contractual arrangements with Sony, from Demon's Souls and made their own game Dark Souls. There were a lot of "spiritual successor" aspects, and frankly there are a lot of direct references that I am surprised they got away with (Patches the Hyena, Mirdian Hammer, Uchigatana, for examples). I think they genuinely made a lot of improvements, and would like to discuss them. I have recently "finished" Dark Souls (as in got the last trophy and arguably have seen all of the content). I have experimented a fair bit with "breaking" some of the mechanics and got pretty familiar with them. Because I am a glutton for punishment, I almost immediately fired up Demon's Souls. The games are both fresh in my mind and I think there can be some meaningful discussion and insight into the changes that were made.
The contract with the player
I feel that Dark Souls makes a "contract" with the player, in that you may die, but you will understand why. In another thread I called this brutal fairness. There are a number of mechanics that support this:
- Warning signs: Often when you enter an area that you are not prepared for, there is a "gate keeper" to keep you away. Some examples are Hawel, the "un-killable" skeletons on the way to the Catacombs, and the first Giant Skeleton on the way into the Tomb of Giants. These gate keepers send a pretty clear message: If you can't get past me, TURN BACK NOW.
- Good for the goose: Enemies are subject to the same rules as the players. They suffer falling damage, clang off of walls (sometimes) and shields, and have a stamina gauge. Just like the player, then can exhaust themselves. This is completely "fair" as the same happens to the player. What would happen if they didn't have stamina gauges? You'd have Demon's Souls!
- Show the way: There will always be some indication of where you can go. There have been a few articles written on how Sen's Fortress is a tailored learning experience. Clearly massive amounts of design effort went into predicting where players would go, and how the level could communicate with the player. If you can't find somewhere new to go, you probably aren't paying attention. There will be some breadcrumb trail to follow; and if you don't like where that goes, backtrack to another trail.
Demon's Souls doesn't obey the contract
Demon's was the first crack at the genre, and they did an admirable job. But they also dropped the ball on some aspects. The brutal fairness is not fair in Demon's. Enemies can spam an attack forever. I have literally been killed by the 20th attack in a row from a gold skeleton. I was just stun locked enough that I could not move, and regenerating health slightly slower than he was doing damage. It was a farce.
Demon's also doesn't really spend as much time trying to let their levels indicate where you should go. The ability to give up on one area and try another is great, and the influence can be seen on Dark Souls open world. However, there is a lot more "I have been everywhere else, so it must be here" exploration instead of "what is that over there." This seems a bit less of an engaging approach to showing the way and I really appreciate the second (Dark Souls) approach.
Lastly, there are no "warning signs" in Demon's. The giant club wielders in 5-2 are not really a warning as they physically block the way you need to go. They are not avoidable. In a lot of cases, you will kill them when they get caught on geometry or you get lucky and don't accidentally roll into the swamp. There is no lesson here, there is just punishment. The backstabbers in 4-2 seem much more like a "warning" for your next attempt, but they are the exception, not the rule.
But you can climb! And fall off of more stuff!
This is an odd feature of Demon's Souls: you can actually climb stuff. There are so many chest-high-walls in Dark Souls that completely impede progress. It is a bit frustrating when your bad ass warrior, who can do a little running jump, cannot clamber over a small wall to literally save his life.
In Demon's Souls, the climbing is not implemented very well. You can climb back up onto some ledges, but only when it says so. As near as I can determine, you need to run into the small wall for some unknown number of seconds. You have to do so at exactly the right angle (not always a 90 degree angle) and running or walking may or may not be acceptable. Having your shield up prevents climbing. Small obstacles on the other side prevent climbing. I have never attempted this while in combat so I cannot comment on that front. It is just really hit or miss. I hope we have some clambering ability in Dark Souls 2, but that it is more reliable than in Demon's Souls.
As a trade-off, Demon's Souls gives you so many surfaces that look just as flat as other safe surfaces. Except you will suddenly slide off to your death. You need to memorize what pieces of floor are not safe. That isn't the game communicating with you; that is preparing for a boring exam. No thanks. There are almost no areas (I can think of) where you get that annoying slide-to-you-death trap. The exception would obviously be the crystal cave, but the threat of falling to your death at every step is pretty clearly communicated by the complete lack of visible floors. Shortly before the first time it comes into play.
Poise and Shield Stability are better
In Demon's Souls, the percent of damage you absorb with your shield, and the chance of being unbalanced are both determined by your Guard Break Reduction stat. This stat is pretty well fixed as only a few shields increase this value substantially when upgraded. So, basically there are a set of enemies that will always stagger you if you block their attack. The club-Giants and gold skeletons are good examples. The only consistently feasible option with these enemies is distance and evasion. Except, you will fight them in a swamp where evasion is eliminated, and on cliff tops where rolling is ridiculously dangerous. You are reduced to baiting them into small defensible areas where you can fight them. It just feels like you are being discouraged from fighting in the places the designers set for you to fight.
Dark Souls has the much better implementation where Poise determines if you are staggered by a hit. This value can be changed by the armour you choose to wear. The amount of stamina loss is determined separately by your Shield Stability. This gives much more flexibility in defensive options. For example: PRO TIP for NG+ and the Four Kings, get your Poise up in the high 80s, don't worry about being slow on your feet, double hand your favourite weapon, and wail away. The Kings won't be able to interrupt you so you can actually deal damage fast enough. Similarly, they won't interrupt you drinking from your flask so you can heal in peace.
Demon's Souls is not "fair" in a lot of the design decisions. You have to memorize how to get through areas and how to cheaply kill large enemies. There is no communication to the player of "you died, but this is what you should have done." You cannot expect the enemies to be subject to the same rules of the world as you. The enemies, in effect, can cheat. So you feel compelled to cheat back. The levels don't give warning signs that a ledge will kill you. Too many attacks are simply unblockable. You can hope over a small wall and get the very important ring by Ostrava, but most people will do that because they read about it, not because it was a reasonable thing to try.
By contrast, Dark Souls wants you to learn. It leaves you signs, often visible by your fading corpse. It tells you when you are going the "wrong" way, although we often seem hell-bent on proving it wrong. The mechanics are much more predictable and apply to you and your foes. Dark Souls is a love letter to anyone interested in teaching through level design. It is constantly telling you things, you just have to pay attention. Demon's Souls, on the other hand, is just waiting for a momentary lapse so it can kill you cheaply. I like hard, I don't like unfair. So tell me, what do you like?
[EDIT] The title and contents of this post are intentionally a bit controversial. I would like to create a conversation. Bring your own opinions. Bring a fight. It's all good. Rational discussion often involves conflicting opinions and viewpoints, so bring it on!