Demon's Souls, A Consumption Game
When first approaching this game, one considers the long run of Atlas games that have been released, and despite their innovative style, have not been able to compete with the overwhelming popularity of a game from RPG juggernauts like SquareEnix. For once, Atlas has released a game developed by FromSoftware that is both different from the typical RPG game on the shelves and is selling out. And for good reason. Demon’s Souls has proven that an RPG has the capacity to show a distinct level of depth in a simplistic form. For the diehard RPG fan out there with a PS3, let me sum it up in this sentence: You need to buy this game.
From the start you are thrust into the dismal world of Boletaria, a kingdom that has been corrupted and decimated by the choices of desperate men who have brought about the overwhelming presence of demons. Your character, whom you customize at the start, is one of but a handful of individuals struggling to maintain control of their souls. After a quick romp through the tutorial you are thrust into the game’s version of Limbo: The Nexus. The central hub, the Nexus provides a relatively safe haven from the dangerous world allowing for a brief moment of peace before returning to the world of demons. After completing the first dungeon the game opens up and for the first time the player is able to level up his or her character, buy new equipment, and progress through the world of Demon’s Souls with five central lands to cover at the player’s own pace.
If you’ve read any other review for this game, they will tell you that Demon’s Souls is hard. And while I would agree on some level, I think a more appropriate word for the game is “unforgiving.” That isn’t to say the game isn’t difficult, but more that once you get the hang of the game, it’s the simple errors or relentless struggles that could drive you to ruin. Sure, after the tutorial your health is cut in half, but is that all that’s going to stop you? In the game, souls are crucial to your progression. They serve as both currency and experience points. You receive them by slaying demons or their various lackies throughout the worlds. Naturally, as you become stronger, the costs for improvement stack up and you find yourself only able to improve one statistic every half hour or so. But this still isn’t where Demon’s Souls is harsh.
The truly punishing aspect of the game is that when you die in Demon’s Souls, you lose ALL your souls that you have accumulated to that point. You do still have one chance for redemption however, should you manage to return to the place you died and touch your bloodstain, you will reclaim the souls lost in the previous playthrough. Beware though, the same thing that killed you the first time will be there waiting, as all the enemies respawn. Should you die a second time, before you reach your bloodstain, all those souls will be lost forever. The game rewards you for thinking out your strategy and punishes you for being reckless. There are moments aplenty where the game teases you with objects just outside your reach that you could reach if only there weren’t a fire-breathing dragon guarding the graveyard of corpses clutching the powerful rewards.
In the end its difficulty may be the very thing that turns most players away, as typical elements that have come to be expected in gaming—such as checkpoints or safe rooms—are few and far between. Even the weakest enemies can use a well-placed push to send you down a pitfall, wasting all your souls. But that is part of the challenge and what makes this game so fulfilling. A metaphor that I’ve used to describe this game is that it’s a lot like angry/makeup sex. You end up fighting in a difficult spot, some harsh words are spoken here and there, but after vanquishing the demon that was haunting you the whole you, you can’t help coming back for a little bit more; that is until at some point you just have to walk away angrily. But in the end, Demon’s Souls is still their waiting for you, in the dark, with the candles burning.
Regardless of the typical technical aspects absent in Demon’s Souls, there are still plenty of elements left in the gameplay that make this game worth playing. The controls are mapped out rather intuitively. The four top buttons act as your left and right hands with the triggers acting as critical strikes or parries. The d-pad is used to cycle through your weapons, spells, and items quickly. And the face buttons are used to roll/run, interact with something, or go through the menus. The menus themselves run in real-time, so there is no pause, meaning that you should secure yourself before attempting to navigate through your inventory. Or if you’ve played enough to develop that cockiness you could migrate through it during a boss battle. The other button of interest is the SELECT button which allows you leave messages for other players online. Yes, if you didn’t know, Demon’s Souls, while primarily single player, holds online multiplayer capabilities.
You can scroll through some pre-written messages to leave hints for other players who might be traveling through the area for the first time. As a reward, should your message be recommended by an anonymous reader, you will be fully healed. Another innovative method of hint-making is the bloodstains. Whenever a player dies, their bloodstain is left behind which can be activated by a player to see the last few moments of the previous warrior’s life, indicating what dangers may lurk ahead. Finally, where the online interaction really takes hold is the summoning and invading of phantoms. Players can choose to be helpful towards those out there who are still in their physical human bodies. By leaving a summoning sign, another player can pull you into his or her world where you can help them on their quest to take down a demon. Upon finishing the task you can rank one another, rewarding you in more souls, as well as resurrecting the summoned players in their own world. The dark side of online interaction is the choice to invade other players’ worlds as a black phantom. It’s risky but oh so exciting.
Some have complained that this method of connecting with other players is clunky and leaves plenty to be desired. There is no matchmaking system or real method of summoning your friends directly. If you want to play with your friends, you have to do it via PSN or set it up so that you’re in the right spot at the right time. While I can understand this argument, it seems the developers at From Software decided to go with a more isolated approach. The game is meant to feel daunting, intimidating, and lonely. The primary hub of where you spend your souls is a melancholy purgatory with an endlessly repeating sonata of strings being plucked slowly and sadly in the background. You are meant to feel alone in this game and the only help you can get is from strangers, which is typical of RPG storyline.
Another criticism of the game is the lack of story. As an RPG, it’s expected to have a deep engrossing story, but for the most part, Demon’s Souls merely hints at the various histories, heroes, and villains involved in the lore of the land. Much of it is told through small bits of dialogue with the characters or through the descriptions of spells and items. That’s pretty much all you get for the rest of the game. This leaves much up to the player to imagine or speculate over how the world works and which characters are right or wrong. This feeds an overwhelming desire to explore.
The overall look of the game varies from average to great. It uses a somewhat dated engine that allows for smooth textures and character movements, at times with the cost of bizarre animations and physics. There are a few hiccups here and their where the frame-rate drops significantly, though it’s of little detriment to the game. Many of the grunts and simple enemies are not interesting to look at, and though the customization options at the beginning seem endless, the overall texture on the characters can seem less than impressive. Yet, the customization is nice and the various styles in which to play the game allow for some interesting and creative combinations of characters and armor. The real effort in the visuals was paid to the demons themselves. You can tell where the effort went in the art department with the look of the various demons as well as how to approach each one.
So what makes this game a must-have? The multiplayer is different from what most expect or want. The story, while creative on some levels, lacks the depth that other RPGs have. The look and design can vary place to place. Even the music is less than memorable, save the song from a particular boss-fight. The gameplay and the world itself just pull you in. It’s harsh indeed, but the feeling you get when you take down a demon the size of a small skyscraper is more than enough to feed your hunger for more exploration and power. It makes you feel like you really have an impact on this world, which is a feeling that is only amplified by the fact that you can approach it differently each time. When choosing your character you choose their class and thus starting skills. But when leveling up, it doesn’t matter if you chose a Barbarian, you can still become a spell-caster, more than capable of bringing down a demon in an entirely different way than expected.
The game boasts how much you want to make your own character stand out with a creative way method of using online leaderboards. The Pantheon, located at the top of the Nexus, allows you to inspect the various shadows of other players who have collected the most souls, killed the most phantoms, or even beaten the game in the quickest amount of time. It was designed to make you feel important in this world, if not a little bit powerful.
You may not uncover an epic tale found in a Final Fantasy game but you will feel powerful when you take down a demon, be it by yourself or with a couple summoned strangers. Demon’s Souls is unforgiving, but oh so very rewarding.