In the early years of gaming, a lot of games were tough by necessity. Arcade games were tough so they could munch more of your hard earned quarters. Home console games were tough as a substitute for longer (or better) content. As gaming has evolved, many developers have taken advantage of the sweeping changes in technology to create longer more involved games that are less concerned with difficulty and more concerned with killer graphics or immersion. As a side effect of this progression fewer and fewer games every year are hardcore, beat you down, and throw your controller through the nearest wall tough. Once in a while a game comes along and bucks this trend. Demon’s Souls is an immersion filled experience with great graphics and solid gameplay. It’s not trying to munch your quarters and it’s certainly not trying to stretch out its lengthy campaign. Demon’s Souls is difficult by design not by necessity. You will die…a lot. You will get frustrated. If you allow this game to get its hooks in you, however, you will push through levels that are challenging at best and nearly Sisyphean at their worst and find an experience that is unlike any other console RPG.
The overall story of the game involves a kingdom in despair. King Allant XII brought prosperity to his kingdom of Boletaria by channeling the power of souls. Things changed suddenly however when a thick black fog covered the land, consuming all those who entered. Only one man managed to break free from the fog and return with the grisly details. Apparently King Allant’s actions woke a huge beast known as the Old One. This beast unleashed the fog as well as an army of demons who feast on human souls. The more souls the demons consume, the more powerful they become. As you can imagine, this has lead all sorts of adventurers to the kingdom, hoping to save the land and harness the power of souls for themselves. None have proven successful. That’s where you come in.
Your place in the story begins via a fairly standard character creation feature that allows you to choose your character’s class and look. The game features a multitude of classes that range from your typical Knight, Ranger, Spellcaster archetypes to classes that stand out from others in the genre. Just like any other RPG, you’ll want to pick a class that matches your play style because while you can use most every weapon with any class, you’ll run into some weapons that will have their effectiveness reduced depending on your characters strengths/weaknesses.
Once your character sets his armor clad feet on the ground for the first time in the world, among the first things you’ll notice is the incredible atmosphere of the game world. The graphics are great, the animations are smooth, and the subtle details do a great job of immersing you in the story. Among my favorite things in the world, however, are the things that you’ll be too busy killing to notice. The enemy designs are incredibly detailed and their scale is phenomenal. The most impressive of these designs are reserved for the huge bosses that you’ll encounter. I don’t want to ruin any of their designs for those of you that haven’t seen them (as seeing them for the first time is part of the charm) but needless to say you’ll be nothing but impressed.
These incredible enemy designs and scenic views come together to create some breathtaking scenes. Among my favorite moments in the game is towards the very beginning. Your character walks along a narrow pathway along the edge of the castle. In the distance, an enormous dragon rests on a rock, lazily waving its tail back and forth. This seemingly mundane scene did more to pull me into the story that From Software was weaving than most RPG’s can manage to do in 2 or 3 CG cutscenes.
Of course, all this would be for nothing if the game didn’t play well, so I’m pleased to report that it plays just as well as it looks. Though difficult to classify accurately, the game is technically an action RPG. You have your choice of many ranged and melee weapons, as well as a left hand slot which allows you to equip a shield or use two handed weapons. R1 is your primary attack button, with R2 functioning as a stronger (albeit slower) attack. Don’t think that you’re dealing with a simple hack and slash though, as its what’s on the other side of the controller that you’ll really need to master to be successful at Demon’s Souls. L1 functions as your block button, which you’ll learn to lean on during your assault. L2 is your parry button, which allows you to deflect enemies’ attacks and respond with a quick one hit kill of your own. Be sure your timing is precise, however, as you’ll seldom get a second chance (especially against stronger enemies). The viewpoint switches when your character has a bow and arrow equipped to a over the shoulder view, allowing you greater control over where your arrows fly.
Another important gameplay tool you’ll need to rely on to survive is the targeting button, mapped to R3. Clicking in on the stick targets your nearest enemy, allowing you to focus on them while moving around and attacking. This is often necessary, as it can be difficult to precisely attack or defend against enemies without being locked on to them. Unfortunately when the targeting is most important, it is also at its most unwieldy. It can be somewhat difficult to switch targets while being attacked by more than one enemy, especially when being attacked by ranged and melee enemies at the same time. Targeting is really the only chink in this games armor, as it’s easily the weakest aspect of the otherwise great gameplay.
Of course the most advertised and well known aspect of Demon’s Souls is its incredible difficulty. This is not a game that just throws a bunch of enemies at you at once and calls itself hard. Every encounter you have with enemies in this game is set up not to inconvenience you, but to kill you. You’ll encounter traps, ambushes, ranged attackers positioned just out of melee range and any number of strategically planned death traps for a foolhardy adventurer to wander into. Enemies are smart, and if you try and just cut your way through them you’ll soon end up staring at the death screen. You’ll need to know when to defend, when to parry, and when to counter attack. This is doubly true for some of the stronger enemies, many of whom can kill you in one hit.
I know many of you are saying “So what, big deal. Plenty of games kill you a lot” and if that was the end of Demon’s Souls torture you’d be right. The difference is, this game is set up not only to kill you as often as possible, but to punish your death as much as it can. When you die, you’ll be stripped of your flesh and blood body and reborn in your “Spirit form”. In spirit form, you’ll only have half the max health you had when alive, making it even easier for you to bite the dust again. You’ll also be forced back to the point where you first entered the level from the Nexus (the hub world that allows you to access all the rest of the levels, as well as level up and purchase equipment). What this means is that you’ll have to fight your way back through the entire level, enemies and all.
Souls are the primary currency in the game, and once you die you lose all accumulated souls until you’re able to make it back to your own bloodstain and touch it. These souls are used not only to buy new equipment, but to increase your skills as well so you’ll face a real dilemma if you’re too afraid to fight whatever it was that killed you again. This trade-off between sacrificing souls and risking death again would have no gravity attached to it without such harsh death penalties, and it can’t be stressed enough how integral to the overall gameplay these penalties are. This game really does take the hard knocks approach to teaching you how to play, and rare is the person that will be able to finish a level without dying enough times to learn from your mistakes. Still, it can be frustrating to replay difficult sections over and over in order to beat the boss and regain your living form, even for hardcore old school gamers. Because of this, the game puts you in an almost survival horror state of mind. You’ll constantly be walking slowly down hallways with your shield up. Terrified that you’ll make one mistake and be banished back to your spirit form or the beginning of the level.
Perhaps the most innovative feature in Demon’s Souls is the online multiplayer feature. After unlocking the co-op multiplayer by defeating the first boss, you’ll be able to leave a sign when in your living form which allows you to pull characters that are in their soul form into your game to assist you in making your way through the level and to beat the boss. This allows you an easier path to completing the level, and helps the spirit player to beat the boss easier so they can return to the realm of the living. Eventually you’ll also open up a more insidious version of multiplayer that allows you to invade other player’s games against their will as a dark spirit and attempt to assassinate them for their souls. Be careful doing this too much though, as the more you do the darker the nature of the level you’re in will become. The light or dark nature of a level changes nearly everything, from number and difficulty of enemies all the way down to NPC’s and new pathways through the level. Darker natured levels will present a greater challenge to players, so the game will make sure that you are appropriately punished for your transgressions against other players. I can’t stress enough what a fantastically in-depth approach to the standard RPG co-op fare this is, and it exponentially increases the replay value of the game.
Demon’s Souls is a fantastic game, with great environments and amazing boss battles. Unfortunately, most gamers will never see most of them. The bottom line is that this game is for the hardest of the hardcore. This difficulty, while probably alienating many casual RPG fans, adds an incredible amount of satisfaction to even the most basic tasks. Every level you complete, every boss you kill, every step you take towards the end feels like an accomplishment. If you can make it past the incredible difficulty you’ll find a game that is among the most satisfying and addicting RPG experiences you can have on a console. Just make sure you come in to the game with the right mind set and expectations, or you’ll quickly find yourself overwhelmed in more ways than one.