So I’ve actually already done a review of this game in the past, but I felt that it wasn’t given the effort the game truly deserved. It’s been a year since the game’s release and I decided to pick it up again and see if I was in some sort of delusional haze when I played the game, or if it was truly as good as I remembered. I was pleasantly reassured to say the least.
In most RPGs it’s expected to find an encyclopedia of information regarding the background of the game, the setting, the characters, and a novel’s worth of dialogue. Games like Mass Effect, Oblivion, even Final Fantasy have pages upon pages of background on the history of the universe and the different species that inhabit it. Demon’s Souls doesn’t have that. It doesn’t have a quest journal, or a bestiary, or books to find that describe the history of the world.
Instead there are cut-scenes that describe everything in a nutshell, small tidbits of dialogue from NPCs, and history of particular items that give the players clues as to what happened in this deteriorating world. Many of the important characters among other things mentioned in the cut-scenes and dialogue are not mentioned again, so the player needs to pay attention or just be prepared for a second playthrough to get the whole back story.
So here’s the world in a nutshell. The land has become overrun by demons due to the impatient and foolish actions of a man who awakened a sleeping demon god. Humans tried to fight back, but soon fell victim to the overwhelming power of demons and were either devoured or became slaves. A few remaining heroes ventured into the foggy land to combat the evil but few have been seen since, now it’s up to the player to become its greatest hero or worst nightmare and defeat the demons.
Many of the other interesting pieces of the story are left for the player to discover by looking over item information or listening to dialogue with a persistent ear. If interested enough to investigate the lore of the land the hidden story can be surprisingly deep and involving. The developers wrote enough to keep the player guessing what happened without giving many definitive answers, which really helps involve the player a great deal more. But for most people, the main aspect that is truly enjoyable is the gameplay.
Perhaps what this game is best known for is its difficulty. Many reviews and frustrated individuals said this game was torturously hard. It even was a deal-breaker for many people who couldn’t get past the first level. Actually, even in the tutorial level, it is impossible not to die. That’s right, it’s a game where you are expected to die so much, that you cannot progress in the story without doing so at least once. Once dead, the player’s health is halved and it becomes a journey to slay demons and become resurrected. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the game is hard. The best way to describe this game is that it’s punishing. Games like Ikaruga or Devil May Cry 3 (original) are difficult games, because they are designed to be difficult and stay that way consistently to the end. In games like that, there aren’t so many abilities or upgrades available that make it much of a breeze; a great deal of the success depends on skill gained from playing and dying over and over.
The same can be said for Demon’s Soul’s, but eventually the opportunity to boost the character becomes available, and areas that once proved to be a challenge become breezes due to memorization of levels and the benefits of leveling up. There will still be plenty of enemies that can kill with one hit, but even then aren’t a match for a player who knows how to use the character and his/her skills.
What’s truly punishing about this game are the souls themselves. Souls in this world are both currency and experience points. In order to buy supplies, upgrade weapons and armor, or upgrade the character, it’s going to cost souls. This wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that it’s so easy to lose them. Souls are gained by killing enemies and should you die on your quest, you are sent back to the beginning of the level with 0 souls in your possession. The developers were nice enough to give players a second chance by making the souls retrievable by touching the spot the player died. However, should the player not be able to make it back to the place he/she died and touch the bloodstain, all those souls will be lost forever.
This adds a level of anxiety and danger to each level. With the constant threat of death and losing all those precious souls, it makes the perilous journey so much more exciting. Consider the amount of effort it takes to just make it through one of the dungeons, only to battle a massive boss at the end and die. It can be extremely frustrating because of how hard it is to get back to that spot again, especially with the risk of losing all those souls only making the trek more stressful. But like any great challenge, once the goal is completed and the foes bested, it is an exhilarating victory. That is what makes this game so satisfying. Every player is going to have to travel through the muck of sadistically designed levels only to fight some terrifying foes at the end, but once that foe is beaten, nothing feels better. It’s similar to the road to make-up sex. Some harsh words are spoken, objects thrown across the room in rage and frustration, nothing seems to be working until a new strategy is employed and everyone reaches a mutual agreement, then onto glorious victory.
In terms of the mechanics of the gameplay, the developers at From Software were very innovative. A great deal of time was spent considering the idea of customizing one’s character. Demon’s Souls has perhaps one of the most complex character customization options in any game with page after page of sliders that affect the appearance of the avatar. There is even a slider that affects the masculinity versus the femininity of the character’s face, regardless of what sex is chosen. So a man could look extremely feminine or a woman could have an extremely masculine jaw-line, it’s completely up to you.
But the customization doesn’t stop there. Once the player is done selecting all the physical features, next is to choose a starting class. There are 10 to choose from, but they don’t prevent the player from becoming something completely different down the road. One could start out as a magician in rags then decide to become a heavily clad lancer. So long as enough souls are gathered, any player can become something completely different and more powerful than what he or she started with.
But those classes still don’t dictate how someone decides to play the game. The way the controller is mapped out makes the experience even more unique with the multiple fighting styles available. The top buttons are assigned to the weapons equipped, while the face buttons are more for disposable items, movement, and interaction. Should the character start off with a sword, shield, and spear there are a multitude of different options on how to use that arsenal. The player can keep the shield in the off-hand while a sword or spear rests in the other, or the player can go two-handed and wield the weapon in both hands while the shield rests on the back. Perhaps more aggression is needed. One weapon can be in the off-hand to initiate the attack or parry incoming attacks while the other hand wields the main weapon. With all the weapons in the game and the various ways to use them, the different possible combinations are endless. The versatility in the combat can make for some very interesting encounters against enemies as well as with online opponents.
Perhaps the most innovative and unique aspect of the game is the online component. In an era of video games where a great deal of control in choosing who to play with is given to the players through matchmaking and linking up with friends is considered the usual method of connecting with others online, Demon’s Souls breaks boundaries by going the opposite direction. As soon as the game begins, players are logged into the Demon’s Souls server. There is no way to disable this unless the PS3 is not connected to the internet. Perhaps the developers wanted to add another layer of risk and danger by removing another aspect of player control and forcing them to play with strangers instead of friends. Whatever the reason may be, this method of online interaction creates another layer of depth to the gameplay.
There are different ways players can interact while on their demon slaying journey. First there is the message system. Everyone can leave a message on the ground giving hints or warnings as to what may be ahead. The messages are preset so what can be left on the ground is limited, but it doesn’t prevent people from providing helpful tips on how to defeat an upcoming foe or where to find a particular treasure. Of course, some bad apples can leave some misleading clues as well and throw other players off completely. However, these types of comments don’t stay long due to the recommendation system. Players can recommend a message that they feel is helpful. Doing so keeps the message on the ground in other players’ worlds longer as well as replenishes the health of the original author—a small reward for being a Good Samaritan.
Another method of interaction is through observing the shadows of other players. As players go through the level there will be different random moments where a white outline of another player might be doing something in his or her own game. They in no way directly affect what happens in other players’ worlds, they are merely shadows on their own quest in their own world. These shadows can also be seen in red. Throughout the world, the player will undoubtedly run across a bloodstain. By touching the stain it shows the last few moments of someone else’s life. This can be a helpful hint to expect a difficult foe or pitfall ahead. But once again, these shadows do not directly affect anything.
The way a player can directly affect another’s world is by becoming a blue or black phantom. While a player is in spirit form, he or she may leave a mark on the ground describing their skill and level. Another player whose character is alive may summon this spirit to assist him or her on the quest. Once summoned, the blue phantoms will remain with the living player till they die, the living player dies, or the demon is vanquished. Once the demon of the level is killed, the phantoms will be returned their physical bodies in their own world where they may summon up to two other players on their own quest.
This may make the game seem slightly easier with the ability to form a player party. However, there is a risk in being alive. While in physical form there is the possibility of a black phantom invading the world. Black phantoms are human players who have chosen the dark path of invading worlds to kill other players and claim their souls. It, of course, can be difficult to kill another player and his party without the proper equipment or preparation. But as a black phantom, that player can move throughout the level without being harassed by AI opponents; this means that the phantom can stalk or lay in wait for the other players throughout the level for the right moment to strike. Player Versus Player can be the most exciting and challenging battles anyone may ever encounter in Demon’s Souls. The game is not truly a multiplayer game, but without online interaction, a great deal of the this unique content is lost
This is perhaps where Demon’s Souls stumbles a little bit, which still isn’t saying much. The game still looks and sounds amazing. The designs of the weapons, armor, and different characters are exquisite. Players are bound to find different armor combinations that will satisfy their desire for a cool or goofy-looking character. Obviously the depth of character customization adds some strength to the presentation. The look of the avatars may not be extremely detailed, but still look extremely well considering how malleable the faces are. The detail and design of the enemies range from typical to stunning. The regular enemies one faces in Demon’s Souls may not be anything special to look at, but the demons at the end of each level are quite the sight to behold. The designs of and battles with the bosses are often awe-inspiring and rarely expected.
Perhaps the part where the physical presentation stumbles is with the ragdoll effect. Since the engine used in this game is a little dated, when enemies are killed, they crumple but can still be flung around like a doll. Some hilarity may ensue from getting one stuck on the character’s leg while running over the corpse, but it doesn’t make the game look quite as good as it could. There are also few places where the frame-rate dips a bit and there is some significant slowdown, but overall the game stays steady even when facing an online opponent.
The design of the world itself is fantastic. The Nexus is a very unique place as the central hub of the game. It’s an eerie cathedral filled with important spirits who may help or harm your journey. Each dungeon has a design that is well-thought out and meant to make the player uncomfortable. Stonefang Tunnel has many claustrophobic passageways to get lost in. The Tower of Latria has many pitfalls and evokes a dark atmosphere similar to a ghostly prison. The Valley of Defilement has a reputation of its own as being a horrible place, period. And to make the player even more uncomfortable, no music plays throughout the level till the player reaches the demon.
Unfortunately the music isn’t all that memorable most of the time when it does play. There are a few exceptions on the soundtrack that truly stand out and make the moments terrifying or epic. But much of the rest of it doesn’t add much to the atmosphere, which makes the choice to keep the dungeons quite a true boost to the game’s value.
Voice acting is relatively good with a few exceptions here and there where accents get in the way of the delivery. There are a few characters the player will encounter that can deliver their lines in a very convincing and sometimes creepy way. The sound effects themselves are also top notch. The sound of the weapons clanging against other objects or flesh sounds gruesome and awesome. The sound of the player’s thuds while rolling as a living body over-encumbered by armor, as opposed to a dead player in light clothing gently rolling across the floor makes all the difference.
Demon’s Souls is far from the game for everyone. Without a great deal of patience or desire to truly dive into a world where dungeon crawling is the main aspect of gameplay, then stay away. But if games like Diablo are appealingalong killing hordes of enemies, surviving dangerous mazes, and slaying a horrible beast at the end of the dungeon, then this should be a satisfying game till either “Project Dark” comes out or Diablo III. Just be sure to hope on board before servers may no longer be operational to get the true value from this awesome game.