canuckeh's Demon's Souls (PlayStation 3) review

Some kind of monster


Demon’s Souls is a game that pushes the boundaries of one’s patience. In fact, scratch that. It doesn’t push the boundaries, it pancakes the boundaries with a monster truck dressed in decal patterned after its box art. And the driver of the truck is the villain from ’s World; the one that envisions an arcade game where players cannot defeat the blob, but will invest hundreds of quarters to figure out how anyways. Demon’s Souls is the kind of game that gets parodied on a show like The Simpsons, where a generic knight character will leap over a pit of spikes only to fall into another trap pit of spikes. It’s a sadistic and brutally difficult game, with the capability to drive players stark raving mad. So a degree of resiliency is required.

The Adjudicator, aka the Lady Pleaser.

There’s a modest amount of backstory that will do little to entice you. There’s something about an ancient evil that has the munchies and is snacking on the souls of humanity, and a lot of kings and such succumbing to said munchies. You play as a would-be adventurer who dies in the tutorial and is drawn to the Nexus, an afterlife-like temple lacking any Prottoss. The only way to free yourself is the kill lots of bad things and collect their souls. Souls, after all, are a sort of superstitious currency that can be spent on items or leveling up your character. Shang Tsung would easily be able to save the .

So first you create your silent avatar protagonist. And I consider any game that lets you create your hero to be starting on the right note in not risking the player control a pre-designed jerk hero (thank you very much, The World Ends With You.) You choose from your typical set of archetypes, from knights to mages to thieves to greasy cavemen, though the difference is mostly in relation to your initial stats and armament. If you’re resourceful enough, you can give your character any set of stats and abilities, which is fortunate since you’re going to want at least some form of ranged and melee offence.

Once you’ve created your peon, it’s time to send him or her out to the world to die. You’ll learn very quickly that you’ll spend more time dying than men think about sex. Any given enemy can finish you with a well-placed strike to the heart. And these enemies often hunt in packs. Combat is akin to the Zelda games with targeting, attacks and dodges. But Link is superhuman in his ability to wave around a giant sword like a feather, turn invincible while rolling to the side and freezing the universe while he drinks a magic potion. In Demon’s Souls, your attacks are a little more believably paced, a flying boulder can still crush you while you’re jumping to the side, and nobody has the manners to let you finish eating your grass sandwich. So combat is something that takes time to master, but the lack of comfort in knowing there’s no “easy” way to survive battles means that no matter how many generic soldier enemies you run into, you never feel like the combat is a chore. Partly because you’ve never had a chore that could end your life while you’re dosing off.

 Demon's Souls Babies? Why would someone make children's fan art for a game about frequent, nonstop DEATH?

And if it’s not the enemies trying to slice and dice you, it’s the many traps that lie in wait on any given stretch of land. If you’re caught walking forward while blinking, you can wind up falling in a bottomless pit, smashing by a boulder on fire or skewered by the tongue-mouth of Admiral Akbar’s prison ward-cousin. The game already has a strong sense of atmosphere thanks to the great art direction of the various worlds and ugliness of the enemies. But there’s also a strong sense of peril; a constant feeling that everything in the world wants you to die. This stems from the fact that everything in the world DOES want you to die. And you’ll consistently find yourself uttering the phrase “oh you’ve got to be kidding me.” That skeleton monster you fought earlier with the giant meat cleaver? The one that can kill you with a single heavy swipe? Now you’re going to fight him on the edge of the cliff. And there’s actually two of them.

And die you will. Very often. The game has some kind of mentality where you start out “alive” and with full health. But if you die, you enter “soul form” with only half of a health meter. There are various ways to return to living form, but the most prominent seems to be to actually progress through the level and defeat a boss, thus proving you didn’t need the damned health in the first place. Between that and an early power-up that reduces the death penalty to 3/4s of your health, one quickly realizes that “soul form” isn’t really much of a penalty at all.  Also, when you die, you revert to the start of the level, with all of the enemies respawning, and you lose all your souls, forcing you to revisit the place of your demise to gain them back. And that’s assuming you don’t die again on the way to fetch your prior corpse because it’ll vanish with all of the soul money you collected before if you do.

This whole “starting from the beginning of a level” thing, now that’s old school thinking. There will be times where you’ll spend a hardy amount of effort at a stage, only for a random flying manta ray to throw a spike in your back and nullify all your progress. Aggravating? Yessiree. The game doesn’t have real stat-bumping grinding, per say, but you may wind up revisiting a certain level in the name of collecting more healing power-ups or a few souls so you can go to the nihilist blacksmith and repair your weapons. This is the kind of game that, if it had a real checkpoint system, could probably be finished in 3-4 hours, but it doesn’t. So I wound up finishing it in about 34 hours. That, people, is a significant amount of time dying, respawning and dying again. At the same time, being punished so harshly also makes the game strangely addictive. Even in death, making a few extra yards of progress in a level or thinking up a slight change in your tactics becomes its own demented motivation for trying again. And I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I spent many lengthy game sessions a day trying to complete what was essentially a single level.  

And even when I reached peaks of rage, even when all the testosterone in my body began to burn through my veins like magma, I always kept going. Yes, I wish I didn’t have to restart a stage every time a boss smote me. But that anger turned to adulation the moment I actually defeated my adversary. The bosses in the game, if anything, are very memorable. Even though many of them fit into familiar molds like “the giant spider”, “the giant knight” and “the giant knight with a bigger sword”, each battle is a mighty mountain that begs to be climbed, conquered, flagged and skied down. Plus, a lack of quick-time events makes each boss fight feel more organic, more personal than the many cutscene-driven boss fights that have become far too prominent in games today. When you beat a boss, you wear the accompanying PS3 Trophy on your profile like a badge of honour. Demon’s Souls is the only game to make me feel pride over a trophy or achievement.

After the first anomaly of a boss, you get the freedom to play through the game’s five worlds in any order you find comfortable. So there’s a Mega Man-like approach in that if one world is giving you problems, you can always try go to another world and find more problems. After you complete the game, the final “sequence” is made available. I have yet to decide whether or not this is a real flaw with the game, but both the final world and final boss are short and pathetically easy. While this kind of is anti-climatic, it was also something of a relief after all the pain and suffering the game put me through prior.

 I'm not joking when I say it takes 400 arrows to slay a dragon. You're better off running away.

I should mention the game’s unique online component at some point. You can’t communicate directly with other players in what I presume to be an attempt at an online game the ESRB can rate, but the ratings group still refused to evaluate the online interactions. Rather, players can leave behind messages on the floor for others to read, warning players of incoming traps, threats, or ironies. You’ll get bored very fast of seeing “Poor Guy” written in front of a dead body. From time to time, this system will work and my hide will be spared thanks to the warning of an incoming trap, but there actually aren’t that many helpful hints. This could be blamed on my belief that other gamers are cold-hearted creatures, though perhaps you have to be a tad evil to be willing to play Demon’s Souls in the first place. Or because whatever benefit you get from having your message recommended by other players is easily obtained simply by leaving the phrase “I’m in trouble, please recommend my message” on the floor. That message appears way too frequently in my travels, and I’m a bit disheartened when I see just how many recommendations they actually get in contrast to the genuinely helpful signs. You can also look at bloodstains on the floor and see how previous players have died, and at first you’ll mock the other players and the sad ways they’ve met their fate. Then you’ll remember the many times that you shouldn’t have died too. Demon’s Souls makes fools of us all.

And there’s also a whole component of players entering other player’s games. A dead knight can leave behind an invitation on the floor to join another game and help another player defeat a boss in the name of having your body revived. Or, you can invade the game as an enemy and kill the player for the same purpose. But with Soul Form not being much of a penalty in contrast to the cost of returning to your body, I rarely found either to happen often. And I guess lag could be an issue, as you’ll see in what could be the game’s weakest flaw; it’s potentially greatest idea gone bad. One boss fight will actually pluck a player into your world and force you to do battle for that world’s final soul. On theory, this sounds intriguing, but the set-up for this battle fails. It takes a minute long, unskippable cutscene for the game to randomly find and load you an adversary. And after it does, you have to do battle with two very tough enemies before you can even progress. If you fall to the two Super Admiral Akbars, then you have to restart the process. I wonder what the player whom gets thrown into my game world thinks, waiting for me to arrive only to get thrown back out because I failed to heed the warning of “It’s A Trap.” When I finally got to said battle, unhealthy lag issues promptly resulted in my getting thrashed by lance shots from 3 feet away. It was like watching a <a href =>bad wrestling match.</a> (Watch at about 3:15 in that clip.) I opted to just disconnect from the internet and find victory beating up an AI version of said boss.

You can call that quite a snafu. But at the same time, my heart goes out to Demon’s Souls for trying something new with its online aspects. But even if the warning in the fine print that is the online user agreement comes true and Sony does decide to pull the plug on the game’s online servers in six months, the actual game part of Demon’s Souls is what makes the experience. The game is vicious, vile, evil, sinister, and yet the allure of making that much more progress and seeing what will try to kill you next keeps you going. The influx of games with quick-time events and flashy cutscenes makes Demon’s Souls feel refreshing in that the player is in constant control, responsible for the few successes and many failures you’ll experience. You do all the dirty work yourself, and when you finally bite off that giant knight’s ankles and stab his head, you’ll have no one to thank but yourself. After you beat the game, the option of replaying it with harder enemies and your prior character carrying over presents itself. So the potential to lose a lot of time is here. Demon’s Souls is a fine game for the player that can handle being tenderized in the name of playing something with meat on it.

4 stars

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