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Demon's Souls Review

[This is a review of the import version of Demon's Souls. For another take on the Atlus localization, click this link]

Games are a growing, diversifying medium. Expanding beyond their arcade roots, most modern games are no longer expressly designed to suck quarters or tokens out of a player’s pocket. Games can get by on their narrative, complex systems, deep characters, and immersive worlds.

Unfortunately, difficulty has tended to form a barrier between games that rely on those factors, and their intended audiences. Players can hardly be expected to care about a game’s rich cast and twisting plot if they can’t actually make it that far.

As a result, many newer games have been seeing their difficulty toned down, challenge traded for accessibility. From Software’s PS3 title Demon’s Souls is not such a game. In fact, it prides itself on being as difficult as possible, punishing players for their missteps and kicking them in the teeth when they get knocked down. This might sound terrible, but this uncompromising brutality is actually what makes the game one of the most satisfying, challenging play experiences around, provided you have the will to persevere.

(Please note that this is an import review, based on the Hong Kong-Chinese release of the game, which features full English-language voice and text. The game has since been licensed for publication in North America by Atlus USA, expected to ship sometime in 2009. As such, it does not take into account any potential changes Atlus may make before then, such as relocalization or alterations to the game’s multiplayer aspects.)

Demon’s Souls is a lonely game set in the heart of darkness. You play as – more or less – the last living thing in the land of Boletaria, and even then, the word “living” is something of a stretch. A plague of demons has swept the land, covering it in deadly fog and killing or driving insane every soul trapped within. Mighty heroes have already attempted to penetrate the fog seeking to save the kingdom, but none have returned. And now, your turn has come up. You must journey from the Nexus into the various fog-choked regions of Boletaria to defeat their ruling demon overlords, eventually forcing them back into slumber, before the fog covers the whole world.

Speaking in genres, Demon’s Souls is a dungeon-crawling action-RPG, a spiritual successor to From’s King’s Field series. Creating a highly customizable character (down to an Oblivion-esque face creator), you proceed from the “Nexus” hub area into any of five massive gameworlds, the sections of which are guarded by equally massive demon lords. Not that what your face looks like matters too much, as you will very much want that face well-protected behind some thick armor, lest it be eaten off by the wide variety of horrible monsters infesting every stage.

To prevent horrible face-consumption, a wide variety of weapons are available to your character, the better to chop the face-eating implements off of the monsters who would use them for their intended purpose. Swords, shields, daggers, axes, cesti, spears and more tools of medieval face-chopping comprise the selection, spiced up by a smattering of spells, miracles and ranged weapons. The weapons themselves run the gamut of visual styles, from a quick-and-efficient mail-piercing dagger to a sublimely decorated heavy shield, adorned with depictions of deities and holy crusaders.

Your style of combat is entirely dependent on your chosen weapon and stance, such as holding a spear two-handed or combining it with a shield, or even dual-wielding shields (dual-shielding?). And though you choose classes at the beginning of the game, they only determine your starting equipment, statistics, and implied style of play. Over time, however, a player can master any type of weapon, style, or spell, given enough time, and cash spent on attribute points.

Cash – rather souls – is the primary driver behind player advancement in Demon’s Souls. Every enemy drops soul points upon defeat, and those points are used to buy attribute points, gear, spells, items, and fund weapon creation. Demon lords and mini-bosses reward unique souls once conquered, which in turn can forge special weapons and acquire powerful spells. Players will learn to treasure every soul collected, and dread the possibility of losing everything.

Those possibilities come in droves, lurking around every corner and hiding within every shadow. Every enemy poses a significant threat, unless grossly outclassed, and you need to devote time and effort to memorizing their behavior and attack patterns to escape unscathed. From insane soldiers that swing rusty swords to silent, blue-eyed knights blocking key portals, to giant greatsword-wielding skeletons whose approach is heralded by a rapid, rolling somersault, it seems as if the entire world is out to get you. And it is.

That malicious intent is manifested in the way the game treats you when you eventually taste death. When you die, you respawn at the beginning of the stage as a soul, your health limited to 50% (or 75% with a certain ring equipped). Every enemy you defeated has been restored to its place, all your souls left at your bloodstain. Should you fail to fight your way back to the site of your death, all your souls are lost. And the only way to return to the land of the living is – ludicrously – to defeat a boss. A harsh punishment for failure, and one that gamers with more contemporary sensibilities may find utterly off-putting.

Demon’s Souls is sadistically challenging, but - and this is key – is never unfair. Every victory is hard-won, and the game only “easy” if you choose to exploit your enemies’ rather simple-minded AI. Ranged weapons and discrepancies in level design can be abused, and only serve to render the challenge moot, the game boring. This is a game where even bronze trophies feel like genuine recognitions of skill and perseverance.

But with sadistic punishment comes opportunity, as Demon’s Souls‘ most unique aspects pop up in multiplayer. When played online (the game will attempt to connect to the PSN upon start-up, though playable offline), the game provides odd concessions to the player in need. In a fashion not unlike Fable II, you can see the “ghosts” of other players passing through the same area, and leave prewritten messages on the ground that those players can read. The messages range from helpful tips (“Trap ahead”) to non-sequiters (“Cute foe ahead”). Dead players’ bloodstains are also visible, and touching them plays the last five seconds of that player’s life, the better that you avoid his fate.

More intriguing are Demon’s Souls execution of its cooperative and competitive multiplayer aspects. Living players can broadcast their availability, and dead players can answer the call, joining the living player’s game (as a “blue soul”) to help tackle his challenges. Defeating a boss alongside living player rewards the blue soul with his body. Most unique, however, is the use of “black souls”, who force themselves into another player’s game (within a certain level range), with the intention of assassinating that player. Successful attackers regain their bodies, and successful defenders gain their would-be killer’s souls. In fact, one in-game encounter automatically summons a player out of his game, to play the demon boss, in a one-on-one deathmatch. How cool is that?!

Demon’s Souls is brutal, uncompromising, and infuriatingly harsh, but it is also rewarding, aspirational, and fantastically unique. It stands alone among its contemporaries as an action game for the genuinely hardcore, demanding utter devotion and reciprocating with an unparalleled sense of satisfaction.

Rating Category
9.0 Presentation
The game adopts a dark, hostile atmosphere. Levels ooze hostility and vary from abandoned castles to wind-battered cliffs, to poisonous swamps. There's great variety in the enemy designs, and all foes are universally menacing.
How does our scoring system work?
8.9 Gameplay
The controls are uncommon to the typical action game, which will result in some early awkwardness. The game cannot be paused or quicksaved, and the only checkpoints are at the beginning of a given area. The difficulty alone will be enough to turn off many of the less-willing.
9.0 Sound
The utter lack of background music outside of boss fights only amplifies the chilling sound effects and feeling of isolation. You'll need to pay close attention to the shuffles and sounds nearby to catch hints of what face-eating horrors lie in wait.
9.5 Longevity
The game lasts as long as you can stomach the challenge. Its technical level cap (all attributes at 99) is a whopping 712, and the game can be replayed over and over, its difficulty increasing somewhat every time. The "World Tendency" system alters level composition and certain events based on your successes and failures, leading to new equipment and characters to encounter.
9.1 Overall
Demon's Souls is perhaps the most satisfying game of its generation, but its uncompromising nature will only appeal to players of a particularly masochistic bent.

  1. avatar Nodieza

    You wrote perfect review for this game.
    In short, hard hard hard but fun fun fun.

    Wish the world tendency was better explained in game, I can barely find a nice guide for it online.

    Here I come 3-3!

    • avatar PhotosCon

      that it is either a priefx (not allowed, thus), or a Hebrew word meaning a measure of capacity, a homer, believe it or not. Now, my understanding of Scrabble rules is that foreign words are not permitted unless general usage has deemed them fully assimilated. There is no fine line, of course (theatre/theater are definitely English words by now, as is eigenvalue, for that matter), but I have never heard cor or seen it in print. 7. Za ??8. Kas ??Suspicious I am. Or perhaps not half as clever as I fancy meself!

  2. Thanks! According to a semi-recent update they’ve changed World Tendency rules to be more reliable, though we’re still not completely sure what those rules are. Anyway, hopefully the Atlus publication will help explain things in more detail.

    Not to shamelessly promote or anything, but their newsletter reports that preorders were opened on Amazon with an expected release of late October 2009.

  3. Hm… I wonder if they’ll tone-down the difficulty for the Western version. It’s not like it takes nine-months to translate a manual.

  4. avatar Some-Mist

    that’d be pretty disappointing if they did tone down the difficulty, as the game is perfect in it’s current state. (Soul Level 98 in New Game+).

    • avatar Layla

      Steve, in these cash-strapped times, I’m curious to know the fniincaal number all of these arrests are costing governments. I’m of the opinion that if some of our legislators took their head out of the casino’s butts, they might find more budget savings on toning down this stupid drug war.

  5. avatar The Dude

    ^^^^^

    That would defeat the purpose of the game. This game is supposed to be difficult, and you’re supposed to die. Alot.

  6. @J.F. Fox

    As The Dude noted, toning down the difficulty would defeat the purpose of the game. Atlus is known for supporting particularly hardcore dungeon-crawling titles, and Demon’s Souls is one of the best (perhaps only) ones of this hardware cycle.

    However, Atlus is also well-known for its excellent writing and localization, something that Demon’s Souls is sorely in need of. Many of the canned messages and item descriptions are Babelfish quality in translation, though the voice acting and cutscenes are bearable.

    Atlus’ DS releases of games like The Dark Spire and Etrian Odyssey speak volumes about how good localization can make for a great motivator even in the absence of actual narrative depth.

  7. avatar orakga

    Yes, indeed the hardest game I’ve played this gen. Still only beat 7 bosses so far (two of them with the help of summoned blue players), and it’s already been four whooping months since I got this game!!! Of course I haven’t been playing this game for all of those four months, but this is one game I will not sell until I beat. That golden trophy will mean more than any other trophy I received in the past (including the three plats I have).

    Huge props to anyone who’s actually beaten this game.

  8. avatar iimma

    gonna pick up the US release.

    • avatar Canova

      On December 24 at 8 o’clock in the morning, a young 14? year old boy? by? the name of Scott Johnson was found dead. Doctors codlun’t come up with the cause? of his death. His mother?? checked his emails? to see if? she could figure out?? what happened. Turns out he was? still signed? in myspace.? She found he? had gone to? sleep?? after he read and didn’t repose? a chain letter. If you? don’t repose this to six videos a? girl with no face will kill you tonight. sorry don’t want to? to die

  9. avatar darthLegion

    Why does this game have to be as hard as reviewers say it is? Thanks but no thanks. I like to keep my controller in one piece thank-you-very-much. I was interested in this game before, but I’ll just stick with buying Oblivion eventually.

  10. Great review! I’m on the edge of importing it myself.

    @Darth
    The fact is, we don’t get enough hard games these days. They’re fairly niche, and Demon’s Souls is able to scratch our itch.

  11. avatar JustBob

    Nice review. Stumbled upon it while googling, Just getting ready to buy an Import copy over here and wanted to read up a little background on it. Sounds like a real hard/fun game.

    • avatar Nataly

      Well, I guess most visitors are just eynijong the views, like me ;) . Or are too shy, or don’t like to share their e-mails, etc.I like watching boys in tight cycling/skating/swimming outfit since I was young. It’s sad most boys don’t wear that sort of clothing anymore (like in the late eighties/nineties), only when they have’ to, like in sports. I think that’s also a reason why there not so many good/new pics outside. Too few people are visiting sport events and even fewer are making photos and publish them online and with tight shorts not beeing in’ at moment you’ll not see boys wearing them as casual outfit (like 20 years ago -.-). They’re just too shy because that shorts could show’ too much.

  12. Want this game. It looks amazing. Come out in europpeee.

  13. avatar colsie

    Hope it aint really really hard as looks great!

    • avatar Joshua

      What a lame attempt at Okami.Though that huge bird is ptrety cool.By the way, he is clearly NOT holding a sword,? so he can’t possibly do a sword swipe Spear, Halberd, Naginata etc. Just not a sword.

  14. avatar Chevy Malibu

    Great review.At first it seems unfairly difficult but perseverance brings rewards.Harsh,bleak,epic and well worth importing.Haven’t played a game in a long time that punishes so much yet still compels me to try again.

  15. avatar Retroriley

    Yup, Hard as Nails but easily the best game on the PS3, and requires a lot of dungeon crawling to get the souls enabling levelling up from the Dark Maiden. I Imported the Asian Version as 100% english ( save for the manual ) from ebay.co.uk. Latest update appears to have fixed a few issues and yes, added shadows into the game ( something removed due to framerate issues! ). it’s a 9/10 game for sure :)

  16. avatar psn:gamesnskate

    Fantastic review!!! After all the feedback and reviews I’ve read this certainly sounds like a game i’d love to play and dedicate a large amount of time to. Thanks for the great review.

  17. avatar Zelal

    Some of those more esoteric words aeppar to be ones that are legitimate for Scrabble, but don’t aeppar anywhere outside of a Scabble board. Vrow, for example, is a Dutch word for woman and does aeppar in the Official Scrabble Dictionary, but outside of a mention I can’t find it anywhere. Apparently vrouw .

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