The Northern Kingdom of Boletaria
King Allant the Twelfth, by channeling the power of souls, brought unprecedented prosperity to his northern kingdom of Boletaria. That is, until the colourless Deep Fog swept across the land. Boletaria was cut off from the outside world, and those who dared penetrate the Deep Fog never returned. But Vallarfax of the royal Twin Fangs broke free from the fog and told the world of Boletaria’s plight. That the Old King Allant had aroused the Old One, the great beast below the Nexus, from its eternal slumber. And that a colourless fog had swept in, unleashing terrible Demons. The Demons hunt down men and claim their souls. Those who lose their souls also lose their minds. The mad attack the sane, and chaos reigns.
Vallarfax spoke of the enticing power of the Demon souls. Each time a Demon claims a human soul, the Demon’s own soul is invigorated by the life force, and the power of a mature Demon Soul is beyond human imagination.
The legend spread quickly. Mighty warriors were drawn to the accursed land, but none have returned. Biorr of the Twin Fangs; Yurt, the Silent Chief; Saint Urbain; Scirvir, the Wanderer; the Sixth Saint Astraea and her knight Garl Vinland; and Sage Freke, the Visionary.
The colourless Deep Fog slowly creeps beyond Boletaria’s borders. Humankind faces a slow and steady extinction.
No matter how far I venture, only the soul starved remain. Is there a single sane person left in Boletaria?
–Ostrava of Boletaria
I started replaying Demon’s Souls a few months ago in preparation for this series of articles. As the series originator and underdog (by virtue of its comparatively limited audience), it’s always held a special place in my heart, and when Dark Souls originally came out, it was tempting to draw unfavorable comparisons. The Dark Souls series is ambitiously mythic, folding into its apocalyptic worldview a rich pantheon and moments of quiet beauty. In comparison, Demon’s Souls is uncompromising in its bleakness. You won’t be ferried around by giant crows or parley with the gods; in fact, Demon’s Souls‘ nihilism doesn’t admit for much possibility of a benevolent higher power. Saint Urbain is said to “hear the voice of God,” and even he falters in his faith, wondering, “Perhaps it is the fate of those left behind by God….” Umbasa.
We’ll revisit the topic of theology in our tour of the Valley of Defilement, where the Maiden Saint Astraea chose to become a Demon to protect those abandoned by God. Back to the point at hand, I was surprised to revisit Demon’s Souls (my fourth time through the game) and find it both smaller and emptier than I recalled. The environments, the enemies; everything has a hollowed-out, abandoned feel, akin to the too-large, too-empty Anor Londo, forsaken home of the gods in Dark Souls. Part of this is Demon’s Souls‘ graphical limitations; it wasn’t exactly a showhorse in 2009, and 7 years have passed since then. Deliberate or not, it’s difficult to live in this world for an extended period of time and not feel your own soul being carved out by that emptiness.
Mechanically, too, Demon’s Souls has the purest vision of any game in the series, which have made (welcome) concessions to player-friendliness with each successive release. From the Byzantine weapon upgrade system to the unwieldy World Tendency concept, Demon’s Souls is practically unplayable without access to a player guide. (You might struggle your way to the final boss, but good luck forging any of the Boss Soul Weapons or finding the Pure White/Pure Black Tendency Events all on your own.)
This deliberate inaccessibility hits its saturation point immediately. In World 1-1, the Boletarian Palace Archstone, you must run a literal gauntlet taking you up and down the palace’s defensive walls and towers. This is, in many ways, Demon’s Souls‘ most difficult moment (at least, until New Game+), mainly because, before you can gain Soul Power (level up) or access any of the other Archstones, you must find a way to open the palace gate and recover your body.
Yes, I said “recover your body.” During Demon’s Souls’ tutorial, you will die–there’s no way around it. That’s when the Maiden in Black binds your soul to the Nexus, giving you a second (and third, and fourth, ad infinitum) chance at existence, “so the world might be mended.” But while you can exist in the physical world as a soul “withdrawn from its vessel,” you face certain limitations. A shimmery pall hangs over your body. You move silently through the world, the clink of armor and thud of footsteps eerily absent. Most notably, being sundered from your physical form saps your vitality. Your Soul Form is fragile, able to withstand merely half the punishment before…I would say “death,” but you’re not capable of that, so I’ll go with “being sent back to the Nexus.” (The actual “You Died” screen reads, in smaller font, “Phantom, you were not able to achieve your goal. You must leave this world.” If you die in Body Form, you get an alternative text: “You Died. However, the Nexus traps you. You shall remain in this world as a Soul, forever.” Cheery.)
There are only two ways to reacquire your physical substance: draw upon the raw power of a Demon soul, or, as an invading Black Phantom, find and kill another player, robbing her of her life essence. This latter option makes for another of Demon’s Souls‘ cruel ironies, for while you are more powerful in Body Form and can summon Blue Phantoms, or friendly players, for assistance, you’re also a constant target for less fortunate souls looking for a quick score.
At the start of your quest, however, only the former option is available to you. That means surviving the traps and treacheries of Boletaria Palace and defeating your first real Demon, Phalanx, all in your weakened Soul Form, without the benefit of Soul Power, spell vendors, weapon upgrades, or the myriad other ways Demon’s Souls finds to soften the blow once your journey gets underway. As the soul message says, “The true Demon’s Souls starts here.”
Boletaria is the most civilized, and therefore the least interesting, of the five standing Archstones. However, it does contain some of Demon’s Souls‘ iconic moments. Here, too, you will find the origins of motifs reverberating throughout the series. There’s the Indiana Jones-style rolling boulder trap, requiring quick reflexes or forewarning to avoid an ignominious death. There is the bridge patrolled by fire-breathing dragons. There are the locked doors requiring keys found much later. (In keeping with its overall opaqueness, Demon’s Souls has a particularly obscure “puzzle” involving a raised staircase and a porkpie hat.) By virtue of their unfairness, these moments serve as a forcible reminder of the importance of another of Demon’s Souls‘ unique online features: the soul message.
When you discover a secret or narrowly avoid an ambush, you can leave a message of warning to others. By interacting with this glowing scrawl on the ground, you or other players can display the full message and know, for example, to “Be wary of the staircase ahead.” Mastering the message, with its rigid templates and broad but often unhelpful menu of fill-in-the-blank nouns, is an art-form akin to the haiku or sestina. How can you warn someone to watch out for the ten-foot plague victim that can kill you with one swing of its crude club? How about “Be wary of beanpole”? What about the giant pillbugs? “Listen carefully,” which only really makes sense after you realize that the high-pitched whine they emit upon death means they are about to explode mightily. Leave a helpful message, and you might find yourself rewarded with an unexpected boost to your health when somebody in another world rates it highly. You can also examine the bloodstains of other players, evoking a red-tinted phantasm that plays out the last seconds of their life. A plenitude of bloodstains is a warning in itself.
So you aren’t completely helpless during this introductory gauntlet–assuming you have established the connection to other worlds. But what exactly does this journey entail? Let’s set the scene:
Exterior: a bridge in Boletaria, approaching the palace walls. The masonry is crumbling, and the bridge is choked by detritus: crow-picked bodies of horses, overturned carts, small fires, makeshift barricades. Soul-starved ex-defenders of the palace, called dreglings, lie in ambush. A winged shadow appears from the mountains to the west, coalescing into the red-scaled body of a flying dragon, its mouth stuffed so full of corpses that it appears to be wearing a fleshy goatee. It crashes into the bridge, taking out another chunk of masonry, and screeches stuff-mouthed at you before flapping off to its nest in the mountain path. This is your introduction to the once-great Northern Kingdom. In the words of Ostrava, a wandering knight you will frequently encounter on your path to King Allant’s throne room, “At its peak, Boletaria was a grand kingdom. The king, his knights and his subjects were modest and plain, but also steadfast and compassionate. In the distant southern kingdom, Boletaria was known as paradise on Earth. But look at what has become of us now! … The Lord’s Path, just down yonder, has degenerated into a feeding ground for flying dragons. Have your wits about you.”
Aside from the dragons, you will find your path blocked by dreglings, glowing-eyed knights, and “hoplites,” which are little more than kite shields and long spears sunken into oozing mounds of black goo. These hoplites are a curious case, given that they are the only non-humanoid “monsters” you’ll find defending the palace, and they only appear in a few contiguous locations. The reason for this quickly becomes clear as you raise the gate and face your first Demon: Phalanx, a giant, quivering mound of black ichor surrounded by a solid wall of hoplites, shed from the greater bulk like rotten fruit. Penetrating the shield wall and avoiding their thrown lance attacks takes some finesse, but luckily, the boss chamber is plastered with helpful messages:
“Fire works for the next enemy.”
“Try luring it out.”
“Be wary of the enemy’s back.”
With some tenacity, however, you’ll see these words fill the screen:
As reward, you will return to Body Form…until your next death, anyway. You’ll also link a new Archstone to the Nexus and receive the soul of the Demon you have slain. From here, Boletaria opens up significantly: you can now progress as you see fit in any of the five Archstones; assist heroes in other worlds using a Blue Eye Stone; seek Soul Power from the Maiden in Black, tailoring your attributes to your liking; and start hunting down the sages, saints and legendary equipment that best complement your fighting style. Eventually, though, you will have to return to Boletaria and press on toward “the King’s Tower, once a symbol of Boletaria…now ridden with dragon claw marks, with only the Old King watching all from his broken throne.”
World 1-2, the Phalanx Archstone, takes you across the Lord’s Path (also known as the Cliff Pathway), a long, narrow stone bridge leading from the palace gates to the inner ward, where the king’s knights are quartered. For most of its length, the upper section of the bridge is inaccessible, any sign of life quickly extinguished by dragon flame. With some patience and a lot of arrows, you can rid Boletaria of this flying nuisance, but it’s faster to use the alternate route inside the pathway. Just be wary of the dark, the dogs, and the crossbow-wielding dreglings. Eventually, the path will open up to a wide courtyard where you will face another Demon: the Tower Knight, a colossus in polished steel armor who can end your life with one stomp of his sabaton. There are two approaches possible here: for the nimble, you can dodge his feet and greatsword and prick him in the ankles until he falls. However, you’ll also have to be prepared to guard against volleys of arrows from the ramparts surrounding the arena. The more cautious might prefer the ranged approach, sprinting for the stairs, taking out the dregling archers, and targeting the Tower Knight with arrows or spells. Either way, he will drop another Demon soul and open up the third Boletaria Archstone.
The Tower Knight Archstone takes you to Boletaria’s winding streets and choked alleys. Here, rabid dogs shake the walls of their kennels, imperial spies lurk in the shadows with hidden daggers and tenebrous hoods, and the king’s chortling Fat Officials, dressed to the nines in neck ruffs and top hats, toss fireballs, wield whips and crescent daggers, and command their underlings to lace the streets with deadly traps, “an embodiment of Old King Allant’s madness.” At the end of this death labyrinth lurks the Demon Penetrator, a skilled knight who wields a glowing, armor-piercing sword. Unlike the prior two Demon’s, Penetrator has speed on his side, so having an ally to distract him aids in the fight immensely. Luckily, you can cop a key off of a Fat Official and free Biorr of the Twin Fangs from a dungeon beneath the Cliffside Pathway, and the former king’s elite guard will help you take down Penetrator and, eventually, alongside the true heir to the throne, the two dragons on the steps of the King’s Tower.
Biorr, once one of the king’s most respected knights, is still fiercely loyal to Boletaria’s ruler and vehemently denies rumors of Allant’s treachery. “Our great King is a magnanimous leader. He is stolid, spirited, caring of his subjects. He fought vigilantly against the vile and depraved. The seditious claims that our Lord brought this scourge upon us–they are mere fabrications woven by jealous conspirators. I am certain of it, for there is no other explanation. … If our Lord, with the esteemed help of Vallarfax, could not prevent it…then no one could have.” Even on the steps of the King’s Tower, with evidence of Allant’s madness all around him, he still dashes into battle with the cry, “May light shine upon our Lord and our proud Boletaria!”
Biorr is not alone in his faith in the king’s goodness. As you work your way deeper into Boletaria, you will frequently encounter another knight on a similar errand, who goes simply by the name of “Ostrava.” Wearing gilded armor and wielding ornate, practically ornamental arms, Ostrava can barely fend for himself in battle–in fact, every time your paths cross, you’ll have to help him out of another jam:
“Please! Help me! I’m trapped; surrounded by dreglings!”
“Look at me, again surrounded by evil warriors. Could you, perhaps, help me one last time?”
“Help! Helppp! Soul-starved soldiers are after me! In the name of all that is sacred, please open this gate! Oh lord, hurry, please! They are almost upon me!”
“A dead-end? No! Help me! I’ll never make it! I’ll be killed!”
Yet he continues to forge on, dauntless, driven by some mysterious purpose. Well, maybe not all that mysterious; his frequent, angst-ridden cries of “Father!” should clue you in before long. Yes, Ostrava is really Ariona Allant, the Crown Prince of Boletaria, returned in secret to vindicate his father’s name. Like I said, it’s not that secret; even Biorr knows about it, having heard the rumor from a merchant dregling. “Ariona is a wise and kind soul,” he warns, “almost too kind; he would not be safe in this accursed land without protection. If you find Ariona, do look after him, and tell him to return to the Nexus immediately…and that Biorr of the Twin Fangs will look after His Highness.”
Ironically, neither Biorr nor Ostrava ever make it to the king’s broken throne. Biorr, after the fight with the dragons, collapses, wheezing, on the steps of the King’s Tower. Ostrava, if he survives that long, gives up his life just outside the throne room, finally realizing the truth: that his father is no more, replaced by a Demon puppet.
Before his death, Ostrava will tell you about Boletaria’s legends: of Old King Doran and the two swords, Demonbrandt, and Soulbrandt. “One sword banishes that which befouls man, and the other banishes man himself. … King Doran is the everlasting one, founder of Boletaria and protector of the Two Swords. Hah hah, of course, only according to legend! But in the dark state of our land, legends are all we can depend upon….”
Before he dies, Ostrava will pass on his royal heirloom, the key to Boletaria’s mausoleum (a locked tower all the way back in 1-1). Within the mausoleum dwells Old King Doran, the demigod himself, clad in patina’d bronze armor and wielding the Demonbrandt itself. Soulbrandt, the matching blade, is wielded by King Allant himself–not the demonic impersonator, but the true king, who dwells in the bosom of the Old One. Its item description provides an explanation: “After Allant rose to the throne, it was always in the king’s hands. Old King Allant favored the blade for the way its power increased the more demonic the wielder’s Soul became.” Demonbrandt and Soulbrandt do not scale their damage with your strength or dexterity, like most swords; instead, their damage is directly tied to your Character Tendency, or the darkness of your soul. However, even King Allant was ignorant of the swords’ true power: once you have both in your possession, you can fuse them together, along with the soul of the false king, into the Northern Regalia, “legacy of the Old Boletaria Kings. The shadow this sword casts is of both the Soulbrandt and the Demonbrandt. Little is known of its origin even in Boletarian Royal Family lore, but it is said to have been left in the world along with the Old One for malicious purposes.” This final line deepens the mystery surrounding the identity and purpose of the Old One. Why was the Old One, “an irrevocable poison,” “planted” upon the earth in the first place? What ties the Old One to the Maiden in Black, who states, “I have always been here in this Nexus. I was here when the Old One awakened, and I will be here when It rests once again. … The Old One and I shall slumber interminably. That is the way it must be.” And what links the two great Demons to the Northern Regalia? Perhaps it is not for mere mortals to know.
There is one other person of interest in Boletaria. Two, actually, if you count the dregling merchant, who can’t be said to have retained his sanity but at least makes an attempt at conversation. “Be you brave knight or depraved slave, the Demons will snatch your soul, then you’ll go mad. And those who dare cling to their humanity are hunted down. It is the end of Great Boletaria as we know it. But hell, at least the Demons don’t send us to our deaths in battle! Heh heh heh heh.” (You’ll notice that unhinged laughter is a bit of a motif in the Souls series.) The little gossip-monger also drops hints as to Ostrava’s true identity, in case you haven’t figured it out. “There’s this skinny fellow, clad in fabulous armour, who is always mumbling about some mission. He’s another one who’s managed to stay sane like yourself. Probably some pampered son, by the looks of his attire. I’d give an arm just for the buttons off his shirt!”
Less talkative is Executioner Miralda, the new right hand to the king. If you achieve Pure White or Pure Black World Tendency in Boletaria, you’ll encounter her lurking near the mass gallows, only a stone’s throw from the original Boletarian Palace Archstone. Wearing an executioner’s hood and wielding a Guillotine Axe (“An axe which is used for beheadings which has seen a lot of wear and tear. It’s fat-handled, short and heavy, but can sever the cervical vertebra in a single blow.”), Miralda stands triumphant near a dungeon pit, in which lies an unidentified body clad in the enormously heavy Brushwood Armor set, worn by Biorr and Vallarfax of the Twin Fangs, leading to some speculation that Vallarfax, venturing back through the fissure after warning the wider world, was captured and killed by Miralda for treachery to the king. She is also responsible for the imprisonment of Biorr and the witch Yuria. (The fact that Stockpile Thomas’s wife is found hanged, wearing the same traditional witch’s outfit, suggests that Allant, jealous of his power, has been persecuting other practitioners of the soul arts. Sage Freke is also imprisoned in the Tower of Latria. Yuria has been tortured–Biorr states that the “young sorceress” is “subject to, um, all manner of untold acts in the name of purification,” while Yuria herself, mistaking you for her jailor, asks, “What do you want with me? Have you brutes no mercy? Do as you wish. There are no secrets here; only a tired, emaciated frame.” Perhaps Miralda, on Allant’s orders, was trying to coax the secrets of her craft from the young witch?)
An odd detail, supplied by Miralda’s BDSM-styled armor’s item description: before the madness that enveloped Boletaria, the king’s executioner was “known for her lunacy and beautiful voice.” Real charmer, she was.
The battle against the False King Allant is, predictably, one of Demon’s Souls‘ most difficult moments. In fact, I’ve blacked it out of my memory, except for one detail: the demonic king standing over me, gloating, while sucking the souls from my body. Turning your back to King Allant will cost you more than your life. He has mastered the ultimate forbidden art, called Soulsucker, which drains an entire level of Soul Power from your body each time it connects. At this stage in the game, you are looking at a considerable investment of souls to gain a single level, so this threat is not to be treated lightly. (Allant’s knowledge of the spell adds even more texture to the untold backstory. It’s taught by Yuria, cementing the theory that Miralda was torturing her for knowledge of the soul arts. However, it also requires the Maiden in Black’s soul, suggesting that the innocent-seeming candle maiden may have a hidden hand in Boletaria’s plight.)
At the end of the fight, the true king’s words ring sonorously through the empty throne room, sounding a bit like Sean Connery. “How did you defeat my precious Demon? No human has an appetite for souls such as you. The rest is up to the Old One. If it is to be, then you shall be beckoned.”
Boletaria houses one last tidbit of lore that remains to be explored. There’s more than meets the eye to the three Demons you face on your way to the False King. At one point, Ostrava describes his father’s round table of loyal knights. “The royal Twin Fangs, Vallarfax and Biorr; Alfred, the knight of the tower; Metas, the knight of the lance; and the brave tribesman, Long Bow Oolan, and his fearsome legions. But today, Boletaria is an abysmal mess. Vallarfax was lost and Biorr slipped through the fissure, never to be heard from again. All the rest, along with Boletaria, have been devoured by the fog, and will soon be prey for the Demons.” That’s not quite accurate; in an analogue to the king’s own lust for power, the three knights allowed their bodies and souls to become corrupted by the Demon plague, and they continue to serve their king in this twisted guise. Oolan and his legion have become Phalanx, a mass of shields and spears that truly fights as one body. Alfred, knight of the tower, has transformed into the Tower Knight. And Metas, knight of the lance, has transformed into the Demon Penetrator. Meanwhile, a trio of Black Phantoms lurk at the base of the King’s Tower, divorced from their bodies and hoping to claim yours. One wields a Penetrating Sword; another carries the powerful Tower Shield; and the third, wearing simple leather armor, carries the powerful, if unorthodox, White Bow. (You will also face the phantom of Ostrava, who nobly gave up his life just moments before, already driven to madness and hungry for souls.)
After defeating the Archdemon at the end of every Archstone, the seal on the Nexus opens up, allowing you to descend into the pit to meet the Old One itself. Looking like an uprooted world-tree, it hovers over a vacant stretch of beach. Obedient to the Maiden in Black, it comes to a rest, allowing you to enter its colossal maw, where the true king awaits. At this point, you may be expecting an epic, soul-crushing battle, but the True King Allant (whose corrupted body resembles a giant, writhing slug) is a bit of a pushover. He has poured all of his power into the soul arts, letting his body atrophy and fester. In fact, while he puts up a token resistance, wallowing in the mire, his words express a desire for death. His dying speech is Demon’s Souls‘ most nihilistic moment: “Surely you have seen for yourself…the pain and suffering that fills this world! But fight poison with poison. God is merciful, and so created the Old One. The Old One will feed upon our souls, and put an end to our tragic realm of existence! You fool. Don’t you understand No one wishes to go on….”