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

Demon's Souls makes every other modern game seem laughably easy.

Since their very beginning, video games have been full of "one dude against the world" scenarios, but very few have captured the feeling of what it would truly be like to be the only hope in a world darkened by sorcery and evil quite like Demon's Souls. Such a journey would seem hopeless, frightening, and bereft of any joy or diversion. And it would be hard. Demon's Souls drives home the necessary lesson that no matter how uber your gear is or how experienced you are, a pickaxe rammed in your back from some weak and sluggish cave dweller will be enough to kill you.

And there are many creatures out to kill you. The basic story of Demon's Souls is that a great evil was released upon the land in the form of a fog that accompanied the return of the Old One to the world. You are to restore order to the many corners of Boletaria and then finally defeat the Old One yourself. That's about it. There are no novels of dialogue here and no silly romance side stories. You'll spend the vast majority of the game with your shield up (in stark contrast to many games in which blocking is barely even necessary on Normal mode), tiptoeing down a corridor listening for the next creature that may very well be your death. By the end of the game, you'll know how to block, how to time your attacks, how to be careful, and how to survive to the extent that you'll be hitting L1 to put your shield up when you switch over to another game.

While there's no question that the game is challenging, Demon's Souls features a magnificently intuitive system for general play. In short, if you die (and you will), you realize that you died because of a mistake you made. In this regard, the game is quite survivable when you become familiar with the controls. (Demon's Souls is far from impossible to beat.) Health and magic must be restored by inhaling herbs from your belt, but you must take time out to do this, however brief that time may be. Magic can only be used with a wand. While you may feel like Harry Potter at times, this strikes me as a more realistic form of game play. Everything in Demon's Souls seems geared toward recreating what it would possibly be like in such a situation.

Above all, I believe the implementation of souls in fantastic. Souls are the game's currency, and they are in a large part the source of its challenge. You accumulate souls as you play (so spending them sooner than later is a good idea), but if you die in a level, you must fight your way back through the entire level before regaining them. If you die on the way before picking them up again, you'll lose every last soul you gained. Forever. This system strongly discourages the brazen charges in action games to experiment with a boss or level, especially when you know that you'll resurrect a few paces behind where you died. Dying hurts in this game, and rightly so.

You do, however, encounter pockets of friendship throughout the game in the form of laconic NPCs who will help you once you help them back to the Nexus (the one area of the game that's safe). But there's one caveat: If you kill any of these friendly NPCs-even accidentally-they're gone forever (or at least until New Game). Demon's Souls tells you that just as in life, you must live with the decisions or mistakes you make. This is further driven home when you realize that you can't even pause the game.

And then there's friendship in the form of other players. Demon's Souls is unique in that I can barely imagine playing the game offline. Multiplayer quirks include a message system in which you can leave messages for other players with set wording to warn them of dangers that lie ahead. You can also help other players through a level in spirit form, which allows you to gain souls and also to get a sneak peak at the level with someone else leading the way if you've never completed it before. You can also invade another player's game (provided they're in bodily form) in order to kill them and take their hard-earned souls. And in one level, you actually get to be the boss for another player. All in all, this creates a very memorable multiplayer experience.

Except for boss battles (when you're free to focus all of your attention on one target) and the safety of the Nexus, there is no music in the bleak land of Boletaria. The absence of this music is a strong indicator of just how important sound is for this game: you'll find yourself listening for every little sound that indicates what's lying ahead. You'll come to appreciate the sound of the blades as they hit the walls and how frighteningly loud your own footsteps can be. Music, it becomes clear, would be a distraction when you're One Dude Against the World. (This has, however, led my wife to comment that Demon's Souls is the most boring game in the world . . . to watch.)

I have very few complaints when it comes to Demon's Souls, but I believe they must be said. For one, a key factor to being successful in the game is the process of upgrading your weapons, but this probably could have been handled a bit more efficiently, I personally found myself looking at forums while playing in order to find out how to best upgrade my weapons-a decision I don't regret. In particular, the need to kill some of the special crystal lizards you encounter as soon as possible should be emphasized as these are used for the final upgrades for your weapons. Unless your weapon is ready for the last upgrade, there's no way to be aware of this apart from a walkthrough.

In addition, I was amused by the smattering of possible Engrish in the game. While not common enough to be distracting, the few instances of it could have easily been avoided. When you've made it back to the spot where you died and you've regained your lost souls, a message pops up saying "You have regained lost soul," which sounds like you're Aaron Neville on a comeback tour. One of the bosses has the laughable name of "Armor Spider" (a simple adjectival "–ed" would have made this better). Also-this is really stretching it-the goth chick who trades your souls for skill points uses the affected phrase "May thine strength help the world be mended." It takes very little to research the proper use of "thine," and in this case she should be saying "thy". Then of course there's the awkward title of the game itself, which has spawned many forum discussions as to what it actually means-when it actually means that the translator apparently didn't understand English possessives.

And last but not least, very little attention was given to the facial appearances of the characters. The default appearance for a male looks like an Irish Cro-Magnon. Since you almost never see your character's face, however, this isn't much of an issue, although it comes as a surprise in a game in which the world surrounding you is so beautifully realized.

But that's all for the bad. This is undoubtedly one of my favorite games of all time, and it was the very first game of my life in which I started playing "New Game" immediately after completing the first playthrough. As has been said by many people before me, Demon's Souls is a treasure for those who miss the days when beating a level and a boss actually meant something. If you don't have skill when you start this game, you will have it by the time you finish it. Demon's Souls makes you learn skills that carry over into other games. And once you've finished Demon's Souls? Every other modern game you play seems laughably easy.


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