A friend of mine recently went mad with post-tax-return power and took the plunge into the world of the PS3, and along with him I took a journey into Demon’s Souls. Boletaria is being oppressed by some kind of evil fog that’s filled the kingdom with monsters, and shortly thereafter numerous adventurers seeking fame fortune and ultimate power by fighting said monsters. You are one such adventurer recently arrived in Boletaria hoping to make your mark and not get horribly murdered by obscene abominations from beyond the veil. Let’s see how that goes.
Damned If You Do
Welcome to die – Initially I passed this game by because the most frequently highlighted selling point was its difficulty, and a game that would kill me more than Devil May Cry or God of War didn’t sound like my cup of tea. However, now that I’ve actually played it (and at the risk of getting into semantics) I don’t think Demon’s Souls is difficult; to me, it’s deliberate. If you take your time and think about how you’re going to approach a battle you can just about always succeed. Though I scoffed at the notion initially, looking back I think it may really be possible (if time consuming) to complete the entire game as a level 1. The opening section that took me a week or two to complete initially is now about half an hour of breezy running and slashing now that I understand how everything works.
Knight simulator – The combat in particular strikes a good chord of simplicity for me. If you go in expecting the sort of hack & slash you see in most games you’ll get brutally slaughtered. Combat in Demon’s Souls isn’t about 100-hit combos and jumping about like a flea on acid, but rather more like actual realistic combat. Aside from your health and mana bars (both of which can get drained quite quickly if you’re not careful) there’s a stamina bar that drains when you swing, do an evade roll, or block attacks. Stamina refills more slowly while you keep your guard up, and swinging relentlessly will drain that green bar down to nil and leave you open for a guard break. Thus you have to watch your opponents careful and choose the right time to strike, especially if like me you favor the big weapons that fell a foe in a single swing. They even factor in physics, reminding me very positively of Mount & Blade; like yourself many enemies are capable of making a lunging attack, and the added momentum adds to damage dealt (or recieved, if you can successfully sidestep and let the enemy fall on your sword). Likewise you have to take the environment into consideration. On my main character I prefer my bastard sword, especially when fighting in open areas where I can cut through three enemies at once, but if I find myself in a narrow tunnel out comes the spear because there isn’t room for swinging some big long blade about. It’s not without gaps; the hop-back dodge move is basically useless and there’s a couple situations where you can sit back outside of the enemy’s awareness and pelt them with arrows to cheap your way out of a dramatic battle. Overall though the fighting system is solid.
Silent storytelling – The story could use a little more meat, but I’m impressed by how much of it they tell through world design. Aside from the few folks hanging around in the Nexus (the world hub all games seem to need to have by law now) the kingdom of Boletaria is a very lonely place. Anything that’s not already dead is shouting incoherantly and trying to kill you. Every bit of the art design tells you little snippets about the world you’re exploring without being intrusive. The enemies aren’t just haphazard monster collections, but rather all fit their environments quite well. They never spell out what Boletaria was like before the fall but in my mind’s eye there’s a story behind each of monstrous inhabitants told to me just by how they live and move about and try to kill me. Characters communicate as much through their mannerisms as through their dialogue. Each of the characters seems to have their own motivations, adding flavor to the world. The Maiden in Black, for example, has a habit of hanging out next to an archstone just after you leave a world as though she was looking forward to your return, perhaps with genuine concern for your well-being. There’s also a contrast between the few helpful people you meet and the world they inhabit that gives a good sense of unnerving wrong-ness to the place. I didn’t believe it until I saw it for myself but this is most certainly a horror game. Sometimes in the sense that monsters jump out at you but more frequently in that atmospheric sort of horror where your imagination is cooking up terrible prediction of what lies around the next shadowy corner. Early on it’s guilty of a little bit of unnecessary cinematics, but most of the cool stuff happens through interactive exploration as should be the case in a game.
Phantoms – You can get along just fine playing Demon’s Souls solo, but the quirky multiplayer is quite interesting in the way it reinforces the game’s narrative. Most of the time you’re on your own, but you can read and post an assortment of pre-generated messages to try to help out your fellow phantoms. If someone reccomends your message you get a little health boost. There’s also some neat systems by which phantoms can cross over to other worlds once you get some special items. As a blue phantom you can join a living player’s world, and if you help them beat a boss you get your body (and the other half of your life bar) back. Alternately you can visit as a black phantom to try to kill a living player and steal yourself some hot tasty souls to spend on upgrades (though if you’re defeated you’ll be the one offering up a soulburger).
Ebb and flow – Although lacking a true pause function, the game’s pacing allows you to take on nearly every challenge at your leisure. There’s large gaps between the various encounters so as long as you survive an individual battle you can regroup and prepare yourself for the next one. This again adds a bit to the tension, balancing your sense of self-preservation against your hunger for more power. Sure you could turn back with your winnings thus far, but perhaps if you go just a little bit further…
Damned If You Don’t
No escape – This doesn’t excuse, however, the fact that there is no pause function. I could see disallowing pausing during a multiplayer session, and I understand that it’s part of setting the mood that you’re trapped in a cold unfeeling hostile world. That said, this is a game for adults and as adults sometimes we’ve got stuff to do. Similarly vexing is that a slight misstep (or a necessity to go take care of something more important) can chop away quite a lot of progress; dying causes you to drop all the valuable upgrade-currency you had on hand, and if you don’t survive to go tag the spot where you died those souls are gone forever. On top of that, when you die you have to futz about with only half your health bar until you defeat a boss (or help someone else do so). This would be a good time for some kind of difficulty slider, maybe something to say keep 50% of the souls but only gain 50% from kills, up it to keep 10% but gain 90% if you’re feeling adventerous, tone it back to keep 90% gain 10% if you want to play it safe, etc. Variable difficulty would have gone a long way towards making it more accessible.
So alone – They only mention this in half of one line in the manual; phantom summoning is limited somewhat by your soul level. This makes sense for black phantoms of course but not so much for blue. I see how they don’t want folks getting a free ride because they bring a level 99 along and just plow through everything, but frankly if I was level 99 all I’d want to do is go help low level folks. At the very least it’d be nice if you could ignore the level cap to play with folks on your friends list. As it stands I have to carefully monitor my leveling so I don’t lock myself out of the multiplayer with friends. Not so much of a problem if you want to just power through and team up with whoever, but co-op with friends is the driving force behind 90% of my game purchases.
No and then – While it’s nice that they don’t burden you with pointless cinematics and info dumps it would be nice if there was just a little bit more story to it. Once they get done with the initial explanation of ‘here’s some monsters, go nuts’ there doesn’t seem to be much motivation nor explanation beyond killing more and more demons to get more and more powerful so you can kill more and more demons.
Blank slate – Likewise the character devoid of character. If you poke at the descriptions of your equipment you can glean a little info on who you might have been before you came to Boletaria but from the look of things I don’t expect to see a lick of character development from here to the end.
The end is nigh – This last one isn’t really the game’s fault but it’s still something to factor into your purchase; Demon’s Souls is getting on in years. Nobody can afford to keep servers running forever and the reaper has been eyeing ol’ DS over the morning paper for awhile now. Even without the multiplayer it’s still a pretty solid adventure but someday you’ll have to go without. If you do decide to take the plunge, do remember to buy it new instead of used if you can; a few more dollars in the bucket may keep the servers up for a few more months.
The Final Word
In the end I’m not sure if I reccomend this game or not. A lot of the factors I like are the same factors I dislike, and at times it commits the sin of sacrificing fun for art. It’s rather brutally inaccessible at times. Be warned that early on you will die a lot and lose a ton of progress quite frequently. However once you do get into it there’s quite a lot to do. One of those games where you can chat with friends at work about hidden items you found and how you handled certain monsters. They had a vision for how they wanted their game to be and stuck to it whether you like it or not, taking the road less traveled between ‘mass appeal’ and ‘artistic goal’. Definitely not a game for everyone, but if you’re looking for something unique and/or a PS3 exclusive to make your system purchase a little more worthwhile this one may be worth a shot. It’s an ambitious start and I look forward to the upcoming spiritual sequel Deadly Souls.
Demon’s Souls was played on and is exclusive to the Playstation 3. Initial retail price was $59.99, and current price is in the range of $20. A collectible version with a soundtrack and art book can be found at varying prices. The ESRB has rated this game M for Mature for Blood and Violence. Demon’s Souls is developed by From Software and published by Sony Computer Entertainment, Atlus, and Namco Bandai Games. All copyrights property their respective owners.