Demon's Souls Review
Developer: From Software
Platform: PlayStation 3
Reviewed on PlayStation 3
The kingdom of Boletaria has been consumed by a mysterious fog, masking a plague of demons who hunt men to claim their souls. Once the newly-created soulless began to attack the survivors, the entire kingdom descended into chaos. Now, warriors, adventurers and holy men are heading to Boletaria to free the land from its demon infestation – even if they must do so from beyond the grave.
Demon's Souls is the epitome of the hardcore gaming experience. There is a rewarding and unique experience to be unearthed by players with the patience and gaming experience to wade through the confusion of the game's early morass and the patience to cope with incredible punishment upon failure. Those with the patience will uncover a beautifully crafted, action-oriented role-playing experience with mind-bogglingly creative online interactions. Those without the patience will simply hurl their controller across the room or flee the game's death screen, screaming.
While not a fatal flaw, Demon's Souls suffers from a doozy of an Achilles heel. Demon's Souls is an intricate (and sometimes Byzantine) role-playing game with tons of character variations, equipment nuances and item powers to learn. Simultaneously, it is an action game that requires split second timing and revels in its "gotcha" moments. These facets, combined with entirely unforgiving play with no margin for error, make Demon's Souls a game for experienced hardcore players with a high pain threshold. A casual gamer would easily be alienated in minutes.
Character generation is emblematic of the game's early experience. I was immediately presented with an array of important choices, but unprepared to make the kinds of decisions facing me. I just didn't have enough information to make the decisions feel meaningful, and arbitrary decisions (especially those that are forever binding) are frustrating. Even those who've never seen a game are well-equipped to decide between archetypes like thief, fighter and wizard, but Demon's Souls faced me with 10 classes, including wanderer and royalty. Despite minimal assistance from the manual, I started wading through lists of my equipment and statistics, and took solace in the extensive customizability of my appearance. At least I knew that was simply fun, and wouldn't handicap me in future play.
Then I jumped into the opening tutorial. Demon's Souls has an incredibly deep and rewarding combat system. But it's hardly intuitive. It's critical to learn both perfect timing and an extensive set of moves, such as shoving and parrying that mean the difference between victory and instant death at the hands of the weakest of foes. The combat in Demon's Souls is amazing... once you learn it. After the tutorial I found myself repeatedly playing and replaying the same brief area as I got the hang of swinging my club and not falling off the game's many precipitous ledges.
These issues don't even begin to touch on learning about, finding, purchasing and equipping valuable items, raising character statistics or generally learning the game's many systems. While Demon's Souls was ultimately an incredible experience, it was honestly around three hours of play before I actually started to have fun. Don't even consider undertaking this game if you have a low tolerance for frustration, or aren't prepared to work hard for the experience.
The game begins to get interesting once you realize that for much of the Demon's Souls experience, your character is dead. Again, this speaks to much of the game's initial difficulty, as a dead character has half the maximum "health" of a live character, and has to defeat a major demon or use a special item to return to life. But the exciting part about being dead is that you can enter other player's worlds.
Part of the game's conceit is that each world has but a single savior. When your character is alive, that's you. When dead, your character can enter other player's worlds to help or hinder, adding a marvelously unique form of cooperative play that embraces parallel worlds &ndash each player is the world's solo savior. Yet, there are others. Among the simplest of interactions, players can leave each other messages. I was playing a pre-release version of the game, largely populated by other reviewers, yet there were plenty of messages scattered around various levels, both helpful and amusing. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of other players wandering by. While often this was just a brief encounter, sometimes such apparitions clued me in to upcoming ambushes. Also, there are bloodstains everywhere. By activating a bloodstain, I witnessed the final moments of other players' lives. Given how often everyone seemed to die, these were amusing, if not particularly helpful.
Those are the simplest and most common of interactions, and affect play little other than making foreboding levels seem like more of a community experience. Players with "Eye Stones" can actually enter other players' worlds. The Blue Eye Stone allows a living character to summon a dead soul to help fight major demons, while the White Eye Stone sends the soul back. If the soul helps defeat the demon, he is resurrected in his own world. The Black Eye Stone sends a dead soul into the world of a living character. As a "Black Phantom," the dead player hunts the living player. If he is successful in killing the living player, he is resurrected in his own world.
The Red Eye Stone sends a dead character into the world of a living character to duel that character. The loser loses a soul level, and the winner gains the souls used to purchase that level. Souls are the sole currency of Demon's Souls, so this is like dueling for a level's worth of experience or vast amounts of money. By destroying demons and recovering their souls (or attacking other players), characters can stockpile souls that can then be used to purchase, upgrade and repair items, among other services right up to improving a character's fundamental stats.
All of the exciting interactions with dead characters aside, Demon's Souls is a gorgeous, if dark, action/role-playing game, with an exceedingly sophisticated combat system. The interactions with other players, even if only in the form of the blood stains their inglorious deaths leave on your path, are what transform a strong single-player experience into a remarkable and genuinely different one.
In some ways, it makes sense that the game has a punishing level of difficulty for living characters, but the fact that it's even harder to play as a dead soul is a little bewildering. For me death was common and frequent, and only extensive practice got me past repetitive death and actually made the game entertaining. Even then, "gotcha" moments still killed me when I played an area for the first time. Given that I lost my accumulated souls when I died, this was really frustrating for the early hours of play.
On one hand, it would be nice if the multiplayer function would have allowed me to gather a group of companions rather than simply summoning the occasional special help, but then Demon's Souls would have been just like many massively multiplayer online games. It's take on death and the overlap of worlds is what makes it a different experience.
Demon's Souls is an incredible experience for a specific kind of player. For those with plenty of gaming experience, particularly with Japanese role-playing games, and who enjoy timing the swings of their scimitar, Demon's Souls is an amazing game that offers a unique take on death and multiplayer connectivity. For casual players, those who are frustrated by frequent failure or those put off by min/maxing piles of equipment and character statistics, Demon's Souls is best left to the hardest of the hardcore. For those who enter the fog of Boletaria, success in Demon's Souls is the kind of badge that any gamer can brag about.