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

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The 40 Hours that Changed RPGs

For me, Demon's Souls literally came out of nowhere.  Before reading the initial glowing reviews of the game and purchasing it, I had no idea what the game was.  I greeted Demon's Souls with a profound degree of skepticism because of its checkered development history and, honestly, because its title is antithetical to the English language.  I stand (sit?) before you now to explain why my initial judgments of the game are indefensible and why RPGs will never be the same for me.

You gotta know when to hold 'em...
You gotta know when to hold 'em...
Demon's Souls is described, mostly derisively, as being a difficult game.  To some degree this characterization of the game is correct - a person playing this game is going to fail.  The root of the difficulty, paradoxically, is the game's fairness.  The player is responsible for everything that happens to their on screen character.  If the character dies, its because the player made a mistake, if the character succeeds in defeating a boss, its because the player figured out how to overcome the game.  Unlike any game that I have played before it, Demon's Souls is as much about the character in the game battling the game's myriad of challenges, as it as about the player sitting on his or her couch battling Demon's Souls.  The player's relationship to the game is as important as anything that goes on on-screen.  Because of it's difficulty Demon's Souls builds a reservoir of emotional content throughout the game - everything you do has meaning because you have to earn everything you get.
Like other RPGs, DS starts by giving the player a relatively weak character that, throughout the course of the adventure will become stronger through acquiring new equipment and experience points; and it is precisely in this RPG convention that has been around since people were rolling dice on a cloth map in the 70s, which Demon's Souls completely turns on its head.  Experience is the operative word in describing how the game progresses - while the on screen character is "leveling up" by gaining experience points through overcoming in-game obstacles, the player in a very real way is leveling themselves (it's the best way I can put it) by adapting to the various challenges the game provides.  
...know when to fold 'em
...know when to fold 'em
I think an anecdote from my time with the game will illustrate the player-game relationship better than waxing further philosophic.  In an effort to avoid spoilers, early in the game I faced a boss that required a specific weapon to defeat.  The problem for me was that this weapon weighed my character down to the point where he could only move at a very slow pace - which meant that I could not avoid any of the boss's hits and subsequently died at the end of every attempt.  It was at that point that I had a revelation, no amount of armor my character could wear would protect me from this boss killing me in 1 hit, and that if i removed the armor, I would no longer be weighed down by the weapon needed for this boss.  Long story short, the new strategy worked on its first try and I never wore heavy armor again after that point.  I bring this story up because in a lot of ways at that moment I became better at the game.  Light armor, while statistically inferior in every way provides its user with invaluable maneuverability - and in a game where 1 blow from an enemy can kill you regardless of your armor, sometimes its better to be in a position where you don't get hit.  My character got better because he beat the boss and I got better because I was willing to let go of my conventional RPG reliance in stats.  
Demon's Souls online play is just as revolutionary as the game play.  When online, the player is able to see ghostly apparitions of fellow players on their own adventures and are also able to see messages players can leave for the rest of the world in the environment.  Once Demon's Souls is connected to the internet, the game becomes about the player being part of a global community trying to best this game, where all the players have their own stories to tell and advice to share.  Cooperative and Adversarial online play also exist but they often feel like fun diversions to the real task that you share with the rest of the world playing this game.
Visually the game is gorgeous - the world you inhabit is dying and aesthetically the game hammers you with that motif.  The game's sound and music score are also magnificent in creating a sense of desolation in the environment.  I finished the game in approximately 40 hours, and I come away from that experience not knowing how this could possibly be topped.  The game looks great, it sounds great and frankly, it is great.

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