[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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.