We’ve waited a long time for this – a whole console generation in fact – but a revamped rendition of Demon’s Souls is finally coming, spearheading the line-up for Sony’s next generational leap in gaming. This is indeed Bluepoint Games’ mysterious project, first teased by the developer back in March 2018 on these very pages, and it’s a big deal. First released as a PS3 platform exclusive back in 2009, From Software’s Demon’s Souls laid the template for the Soulsborne games to follow and based on the PlayStation 5 reveal we saw last week, we’re in for a treat with its remake.
So what should we expect from the masters of the remaster? The game’s debut was a teaser at best, with only minimal footage to look at along with a small selection of screenshots. However, what’s clear is that even for a launch title, we should be seeing a satisfying workout for the new console architecture. Everything from its lighting, to model quality to volumetric effects are touched upon in the remake process. It points to a grand showcase of the PS5’s capabilities, delivered in pristine, native 3840×2160 resolution – with a twist we’ll touch on later. Published details on the new engine are sparse, but the PlayStation blog confirms some major technical details, stating that, “in addition to beautiful shadow effects and ray-tracing, players can choose between two graphics modes while playing: one focused on fidelity and one focused on frame-rate”. Beyond that, it’s down to us to take a closer look at the reveal asset, with a view to ascertaining Bluepoint’s approach in modernising the game.
Looking at the reveal teaser, it opens with an eerie sequence of landscapes, with Bluepoint matching the pre-rendered CG sequence of the original game shot-for-shot. This is possibly another pre-rendered intro, though interestingly, the sepia tone of the PS3 classic is lost in favour of a more natural colour palette. It brings more richness, more vibrance, to the showing of the Dragon God boss. Later scenes show off other major enemies: the Storm King, the Framelurker and the Tower Knight, right up to more typical enemies like the Reaper and gargoyles – these are snippets of Bluepoint’s new engine at work with what is almost certainly actual in-game capture. Given that each is a match for the original game in terms of frame composition – and even timing – to the PS3’s boss intros, it’s a fascinating glimpse into how in-engine rendering compares across the generations.
A major upgrade, of course, comes by way of resolution. Everything runs at 3840×2160 with a pass of anti-aliasing – and it’s a locked 30fps as far as we can tell from a 30fps encoded trailer. That’s a huge boost over the PS3′ release from eleven years ago, with its fixed 720p output and struggling 30fps frame-rate. Sadly, servers closed on the original PS3 game in 2018, but even returning to its offline mode, this game is still defined by its brutal difficulty. There’s much that I hope will return: the heavy focus on Havok physics for environments and bizarre enemy ragdolls being one. There’s even a form of real-time shadow-casting from the player, and screen motion blur, which impressed at the time. Plus, draw distances on its long bridges rarely showed limits, with little in the way of pop-in. As we wind our way up to the Boletaria Palace, we get our first encounter with the Tower Knight, which gives us our first proper comparison between PS3 and PS5.
Side-by-side there’s no end to the upgrades. Grass is added underfoot, and much like Shadow of the Colossus, terrain benefits from more complex geometry. The Tower Knight itself is far more intricately detailed in up-close shots, with a radical upgrade in materials quality. Armour is etched with a higher resolution insignia – coloured bronze and blue – and with dirt scuffs added to the bottom of that jumbo-sized shield. Whether we’re looking at ray-traced reflections across that armour-set is unclear, but specular detail is vastly updated either way, under a new lighting model. Particle effects are also added to the shield’s impact, along with dust – plus we have an improved motion blur as the foot comes crashing down.
In terms of environment, the surrounding palace is given a wholesale redesign. It’s a more gothic layout – a creative flourish that sees spikes line its walls and spires, adorned with blue flags. Next to the PS3 original it’s a huge technical leap in detail. Equally though, it’s an art design choice on Bluepoint’s behalf that creates a brighter, richer, and more saturated courtyard. There is still a lot of charm to the PS3 version’s gloomy, green-tinged aesthetic, but these are art assets built to the technical limitations of the era. PlayStation 5 is capable of so much more, so the goal posts shift – aiming for a more ambitious target in terms of detail.
In showing the developer’s new flourishes, we have some more assets to work with. A pack of five 4K screens were released by Sony, showing the opening tutorial areas. Walking down that initial tunnel there’s a greater volume of plant-life flanking our knight, with each fern bouncing the moonlight with a specular pass that wasn’t possible on the original, while lighting and volumetric quality in the distance is enhanced too. Parallax occlusion mapping is used liberally to add extra detail, reflecting Bluepoint’s work on Shadow of the Colossus where POM, screen-space reflections, light shafts, and swaying foliage were all present. The Demon’s Souls remake does much of this too, but goes the extra mile to completely rebuild the scene. It’s curious to see the updates to the knight’s armour as well. I tried to get a match to what Bluepoint showed in its asset by choosing the same basic character setup (note the comparison gallery above), but the remake’s design for the helmet and shinguards are tweaked to add more ridges. The interaction with oncoming light is more natural all round though, with reflections playing against the top and right sides where the sun is shining from.
The PS3 original still holds up well – flat walls aside – but the turnout of the PS5 remake delivers an almost painterly quality. The same can be said of the Vanguard boss too. Lit from above, the chamber and enemy texture materials are again completely reworked to support a new lighting engine. The geometric mesh is updated to put emphasis on its wing size, with neat decorative extras that again tells its story in a new way. For example, arms are covered in broken metal links that imply some kind of restraint was broken. The scene is practically unrecognisable, but remains gorgeous to look at. It’s curious to note, that Bluepoint’s Vanguard shot is unique in revealing a resolution of 2560×1440. It’s the only asset released so far under a native 4K – and so, perhaps, it’s a sign of a high frame-rate performance mode on PS5. Whether that ends up being 1440p60 or not this would be a fascinating and reasonable trade-off for a faster refresh.
Lighting is improved all round, and of course there’s the crucial point of ray tracing. For the shot with the three gargoyles, there’s a sense that the original cut-scene served as more of a starting point for the remake to build on. In this cathedral, more lights are added, with a full ring of candles – plus crepuscular rays streak down towards the player. But it’s in this scene we get our first hint of how ray-traced visuals could feature on PS5. The understanding is, based on the wording of Sony’s blog at least, that Demon’s Souls’ ray-tracing is focused primarily on shadows. It means a subtler use of the tech, and again, there’s no example of ray-traced reflections as yet. But path-traced shadows in a dimly lit area like this would create a much richer, all encompassing effect around the player than screen-space variants. Next to the current-gen use of SSAO or HBAO, this should be marked upgrade when actually nearing walls, or exploring tight labyrinthine tunnels. Whether it goes beyond just shadows though will depend on seeing much more of the game
Looking back to PS3, the original did well for its time with bloom, lens flares and a form of depth of field – but PS5 fills the space with more depth, by combining all these effects together and revamping the post effects pipeline. Other boss intros, from the Flamelurker to the Storm King, also show added atmospheric effects: there’s enhanced rain, lighting and high resolution alpha all round: on paper something to look forward to seeing in an HDR.
The visual upgrade is a jump beyond the other Soulsbourne games. And what’s more, thanks to it being built under a new engine, this could be the first to run with an even 30fps cap with no frame-pacing issues whatsoever – something that has blighted From Software’s work, from Dark Souls to Bloodborne. On that note, a flash back to Demon’s Souls’ frame-rate on PS3 is a great reminder that there is a lot of room for improvement. From the very first areas in Boletaria, you could count on a drop to 12 frames per second every time a dragon wreaks havoc on those initial bridges. The combination of multiple enemies, broad draw distance, and lots of full-res alpha for fire, really hammered Sony’s machine. And while there’s really no confirmation on the remake’s frame-rate targets, the 30fps trailer encode at least shows no drops.
On the topic of performance, Bluepoint already has a history of offering multiple ways to play. With Shadow of the Colossus on PS4 pro, we had two options: a fidelity mode running at 1440p and 30 frames per second, but also a 60fps mode that was factored in from the project’s start. It’ll be fascinating to see how Demon’s Souls has this set up on PS5. The expectation, right now, is a 4K30fps fidelity mode based on assets released so far. For the performance mode, the theory would be 1440p at 60fps – given the lower-res results of that Vanguard shot. But again all that’s to be confirmed.
Eleven years on from its original launch, Demon’s Souls Remake stands to be the best looking, most technically pioneering game in the Souls line. Bluepoint is on fine form as usual, and really, we can’t wait to see more. The snag is there’s no release date just yet, though the trailer at least points to a result worth waiting for. As an example of a PS5 title sporting a true 4K picture, vastly improved visuals, and the prospect of ray tracing, there’s the sense that Bluepoint is doing its best to fully exercise the PlayStation 5 spec, despite the fact that it’s presumably a launch window title. What’s also heartening is that the upgrade isn’t just technical in nature: the comparisons show Boletaria being given a firm artistic push too, re-envisioning From Software’s vision with a much-changed aesthetic. Every area, enemy, and effect is radically overhauled – and of course, what we’ve seen so far doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. Let’s hope we get to see more of the game soon.