Some offensively written thoughts about Demon’s Souls.
Originally published Dec 18, 2009 on www.final-star.com by zi11ion
From what I initially understood, Demon’s Souls = Play for hours, die, lose all progress, start over, repeat until you slit your wrists. Was I correct in my assumption? Yes and no. I recently picked up Demon’s Souls along with a tube of KY jelly for the inevitable ass raping that I was sure to receive.
I hacked and slashed (and died), collected souls (and died), collected weapons and armor (and died), and bought a new controller to replace the one I shattered against the wall. I yelled and screamed and cursed the name of From Software. But through it all I felt myself wanting to come back; to try the level again because I was sure that if I’m just careful enough and do things just right, I could kill this damned demon. And I did go back…and I died again… But I went back a third time. This time I was able to find the one specific area where the boss could not hit me yet I could hit it. Through cheap tactics and repeatedly pressing a button, I triumphed and claimed the demon’s soul as my own. Huzzah!
Demon’s Souls is, in essence, an action RPG. It’s like Oblivion, Zelda, and Monster Hunter mixed together in a smoothie mixer with some gravel and shards of glass. It tastes great, and will destroy you as you digest it, but you don’t care because it still tastes great. You’ll be pouring blood from your ass like a rust-filled garden hose with a broken spigot, unable to sit without the aid of a donut cushion, but damn that smoothie was DELICIOUS! At least, you think it was. At the very least it sounded delicious and you were somehow convinced of its tastiness. Maybe the taste of blood, coughed up from your shredded esophagus, enhanced the flavor?
Goals and Souls
The goal of the game is to defeat the boss demons lurking in each of the separate worlds and capture their souls. While fighting towards your goal, you earn lesser souls from the regular enemies in these worlds. These souls are used for trade in the central hub world, The Nexus, to buy items, upgrade weapons, learn spells, and gain stat points. Souls are a combination of money and experience points. It is a very important commodity that one could never get enough of and can easily lose as you are viciously and repeatedly murdered.
After mashing your character’s face like a lump of Play-Doh on the character creation screen you select a starting class. Classes in this game only determine your starting stats, equipment and in some cases, spells. Once you are in the actual game and earn the ability to actually level up (yes, you have to earn the right of character progression) you can take any path you choose with your character. You may start out with a Mage but end up with a full plate wearing, dual katana-wielding, shadow-hiding, fire-flinging jack-of-all-trades. All you need are souls to make this happen.
Difficulty and Reward
Too bad that you’ll be losing those souls every time you make a mistake, which is quite often. Demon Souls will hit you harder than an unexpected Charger in Left 4 Dead 2 as you first venture into the 5 thematically different worlds. Demon’s Souls doesn’t so much as have a difficulty curve as a punishing cliff of pain and despair that you must climb; made of razor rock, overgrown with thorned bushes, and inhabited by ornery mountain goats and hungry eagles, both of which are infected with Super-AIDS.
This game feels much like an old-school 8-bit or 16-bit game where you must learn the levels, enemy behaviors, and boss patterns. Castlevania never gave you any indication that the next area would have a flood of inexplicably floating feminist hippie heads coming at you. You just had to run in there, get bitten in the tit, knocked into a pit, and try again with the knowledge of the deadly encounter seared into your nipple.
Eventually, with perseverance, you’ll be able to navigate the gauntlet of Medusa heads successfully with a sliver of life left and feel good about it. At least that is until you notice that the next room contains nothing but flea-men and axe knights. But still, with the constant fight against what seems to be impossible odds, cheap deaths, and your ability to memorize what’s coming, you may eventually beat the boss at the end of the level. And if you do, it feels fucking great. Demon’s Souls is quite similar in my mind to an old-school Castlevania game. It is quite rewarding and satisfying if you have the patience for it and if you can take your lumps to learn what you should be doing.
Characters don’t lose every bit of progress they’ve made when they die, only the souls that weren’t cashed in. You retain all of the items you’ve picked up and changes you’ve made to the level. You may have lost 20,000 souls on the last death, but you were able to pick up a rare weapon and open a shortcut that leads back to the entrance so it won’t take as long to get back. The enemy locations are always the same and their behaviors are very predictable. As you play through Demon’s Souls you will learn how to deal with each of the enemies in safer and more efficient ways. An area that, at first, would have killed you 20 times in a row is now a breeze to go through, not just because you’ve leveled up your character and forged a stronger weapon. It’s also because you know how to handle your character, which is much like learning how to play a character in a fighting game. And you will know exactly how these enemies behave, and you will be able to block, parry and counter attack about anything they throw at you. You will mow them down like they were common soldiers in a Dynasty Warrior’s game.
Sense of Loss
Losing souls feels horrible, and it should. If you are not careful, pretty much any enemy can kill you, dump your souls on the ground, and send you back to the beginning. You will only get one chance to regain those lost souls. If you die again those souls on the ground disappear forever.
Too many games do not have an adequate punishment for dying. In most games these days you don’t feel any pressure for failure. Most times you can just respawn near where you died and throw yourself back at it without any chance of a “game-over”. At most, you would just have to re-play a certain section again and the only thing lost to you is your time spent with the game. While there are no “game-overs” in Demon’s Souls, you do have a lot to lose; those often mentioned souls that are key to character progression. It’s somewhat like losing experience, such as in Final Fantasy XI, but not as ass-rapingly harsh. Being in the midst of a tough, unfamiliar level with a bountiful harvest of fresh souls can be a nerve-wracking experience. Do you proceed and possibly die, or do you run yourself back to the entrance to cash them in? Any further encounters could possibly result in a complete loss of profit. You have something to lose with practically every fight, and it’s more valuable than your character’s life, it’s those damned souls. You have more to lose the further you go into the level and it’s always on your mind. You know how easy it is to die and how hard it is to collect souls.
Design Failures: Vague Gameplay Mechanisms
As you learn your way around Demon’s Souls through trial and error, you will go back and forth between being a living, breathing human being and a shimmering translucent phantom. Living players enjoy a full health meter and the ability to summon other players as phantoms to help them. Phantoms suffer a reduced health bar but a slight bump in attack power. Defeating demons or using a special item will give phantom players their bodies back to them. Dying in any manner while alive will… well it’s obvious. In addition to abandoning your fleshy husk when you die as a live character, you lose points in a nebulous factor called World Tendency (WT). Dying as a phantom does not seem to affect WT. The game does not do an adequate job explaining what World Tendency does and how you can alter this attribute. You aren’t given a clear-cut answer for what raises or lowers WT. Also, you can’t really tell if you’re in a Pure White or Black aligned world, your only indication of what is going on is by looking at the graphic the game provides in the menu. The only thing you can really do is read a FAQ about it, but even the authors do no have all the answers for this confusing game mechanic. There is also Character Tendency which appears to gauge how good or evil your actions have made you, but that mechanic is even less understood and seems to affect only a few things such as making a certain NPC in the Nexus appear. You probably won’t give a shit about it when you play through. The Tendency systems are vague and barely explained to the player. The conditions which affect this system are so archaic that it may as well have been random. Sure, there seems to be a method to the madness, but you would never know that unless you did some research on the internet. This is what I would call a Design Failure, one of my favorite things to bitch about in games.
Design Failures: Low Walls
Short walls which you could climb over in the real word impede your progress in many places throughout Demon’s Souls. Strangely, there are a few walls and obstacles that the game allows you to climb up and over. However, there is no indication as to where you can do this and often there are many knee-high obstacles that might as well have been a 20 foot wall. This, to me, is a design failure. The developers could have built the wall a bit higher, added more rocks to the pile, removed the short hedge and opted for, I dunno, a giant fucking tree. It’s essentially an invisible wall and I abso-fucking-lutely hate invisible walls. Many hidden areas require you to drop off a ledge onto an area below. Sometimes that area is a small platform which requires very careful movements to drop to. At times you may get yourself killed trying to drop to these areas even if you are being careful as the trajectory of the fall is rather unpredictable and seems to not be related to the direction or speed of your movement.
If From Software were to make a Demon’s Souls 2 made, I would like them to add a climbing function and object vaulting mechanic that is similar to Monster Hunter. This would open up gameplay within a level to be more interesting and varied. As it is, it feels like those knee-high walls are taunting me.
Demon’s Souls does have online multiplayer, but not in the way most people think of online multiplayer. It is something that I have not seen used in an online capable game before and I think it suits itself to the sparse, lonely feel of Demon’s Souls.
The first thing you may notice when you start playing are these white phantoms running around, doing stuff, and fading away. These are other players playing the game. You cannot interact with them but watching them may give you hints as to what might be lurking around the corner or if there is a hidden path in the area. You will also find bloodstains and messages on the ground, also left behind by other players. The bloodstains act as a recording of a player’s death, giving you some insight into how cruel this game may be. Messages can be left on the ground by other players using a list of words and phrases. While this keeps profanity and teenie-bopper leet speek out of the game, it is a bit cumbersome to scroll through the list of words and construct a useful message for others. You may also give approval for a message, which grants the author a boon of health restoration. There is cooperative play to benefit the lone living character and earn bodies for the blue phantom players, but don’t expect to be joining up with a buddy. Co-op in Demon’s Souls is a purely random affair. The same goes for the game’s PVP and dueling. Phantom players must use a blue stone from their inventory to allow live players in the same world and proximity to your stone to summon you into their game. Phantoms helping Live characters defeat a boss will gain their bodies back and go back to having a full health meter. Phantoms unwilling to assist a live player can instead opt to murder them as a black phantom to gain their bodies back.
I love Demon’s Souls much like a beaten and bloodied woman loves her violent husband. Though he will kick me and hit me for the various crimes against him, like folding his underwear while it’s inside out or serving him beer that’s isn’t at the exact degree centigrade that he requires, I still feel like a successful wife when I am able to avoid his usually predictable wrath and make it through a day without passing out from a concussion. And I know he loves me back. I feel his love every time he breaks my nose and pushes me down the stairs for becoming pregnant when he raped me.