Ignore the scores to the right of this paragraph. Demon’s Souls is a game that escapes being numerically defined by a scale, since it will mean so many different things to so many different people. Demon’s Souls is tough, stylistically different from anything you’ve ever played before, and introduces gameplay elements that are at the same time both archaic and gloriously new. It’s a game that some people will play time and time again and some people will absolutely abhor. Which type of gamer are you? Hopefully this review will help you figure that out, because if you’re in the first group, this is a day one purchase.
One caveat to this warning: if you do not have your PlayStation 3 connected to the internet (and shame on you if you don’t), this game is drastically different. As a single player experience, it is not the same game as it is online. That’s the glory of the title, though, that it is the exact same game online – there is no menu option for going online, no co-op mode, it simply becomes a part of your game as long as you are connected, and this functionality is what sets Demon’s Souls apart from any other RPG you’ve ever played.
The basics of the game are like many other action-RPGs, players venture out into different areas taking down monsters, collecting loot (and souls), and mainly being a kickass dude. Unlike most of those action-RPGs, Demon’s Souls is out for your soul: you will die, and you will die a lot. The game is not one for cheap deaths; if a player pays attention, plays smart, and does what’s strategically sound, he’ll live. Still, death isn’t the same barrier in Demon’s Souls as it is in other RPGs. There’s no respawning at a checkpoint to go back and hit the same horde of monsters. Dead characters will re-appear at the Nexus, while all of the souls that they’ve captured are left at a bloodstain where they died. When players die, they’ll become souls, with half of their normal maximum hit points, but they’ll also be able to be summoned into other players’ games – which brings the online aspect of the game into play.
When Demon’s Souls is played online, the player is always connected to the server, and is constantly receiving updates. Players can leave messages for each other, although there is no freeform messages, only those that are left as part of a “choose-the-word” system, resulting in messages like “Watch out for spear!” These messages are incredibly important to Demon’s Souls, however, as the game’s brutal difficulty is curbed somewhat by players being able to tell others what’s ahead. On top of that, messages left by other players can be up-rated or down-rated. Up-rate someone’s message while they’re playing? They get their health back. It’s something that doesn’t quite fit the normal thought of co-op, and it’s very unique in its own right.
That’s not the only way you’re going to get help passively from other players. Anyone that dies can leave a bloodstain in other players’ games. Examining these bloodstains brings up a phantom image of another player showing exactly how they meet their gruesome death. It’s the same kind of assistance you get with messages, but it’s a lot less vague. Then there’s the most direct kind of assistance you can get – directly from another player. You can summon players in spirit form into your game if you’re a human, and can be summoned by human players if you’re a soul. Successfully defeat a boss as a soul? Congratulations, you’ve just gotten your body back. The game also features a PvP system, where you can enter another players’ game as a soul and murder them to take their body. It’s something that I didn’t get to experience with my preview copy of the title, but if you believe what import editor James Q. Clark says, it’s not a fun thing to get murdered in PvP.
The game features a class system, along with magic, different types of equipment, and the like, everything that’s expected from an action-RPG. Some classes are much easier to play than others, and some weapon types will appeal to different players more than others. I found myself very fond of rapier-style weapons, as the thrusting attacks may not have been strong, but as quick as they were, I could dart in and out with ease. With ten different classes, there’s some replayability there, though some players will be content having beaten the game once. Others, however, will want to take down the challenge as several different characters. It just depends on what type of gamer you are.
The one thing I’m not so hot on in Demon’s Souls’ gameplay is the control scheme. Attacks and shield blocks are located on the triggers, which for an action-RPG seems odd. We’re not talking odd on the scale of Too Human’s analog stick attacks, but even as someone used to using the triggers for most commands in games like NHL 10, the trigger attacks never really grew on me. Still, the controls are rather responsive; even if your character doesn’t have the reflexes of Faith from Mirror’s Edge, they’re no slouch, either. There’s nothing wrong with the controls, it’s just they take some time to get used to.
All of these gameplay elements are great, but why are we fighting for souls? We’re not just using ice magic because they’re immune to fire, and the backstory for Demon’s Souls is actually pretty good. Most action-RPGs are part of a subgenre where the gameplay tends to speak, not the dialog, but Demon’s Souls puts a fair chunk of story in. The ruler of the kingdom of Boletaria, King Allante XII, awoke an ancient demon known as “The Old One.” As you could guess by the ominous name, this guy is not the happiest of dudes, and he’s spread a fog that’s creeping across the world. As an up-and-coming hero, it’s your job to help defeat The Old One and return the world to its previous state. Or, you know, you could do the opposite.
There’s not a whole great deal of dialogue in the game, but what’s there is quality, and it is voice acted well. Those who played the Asian import version will not find any significant differences here, as the translation from that version stays mostly intact. All of the characters have the nice British accents that play so well in classically-styled games, and I really have no complaints about them. Same goes for the sound effects and music – they all do their job adequately well, and while the game features a two-disc soundtrack with it, I’ll admit, I probably couldn’t pick out any of the tracks from a certain point in the game. None of them stood out to me.
Graphically, the game is not unimpressive, but it’s slated for release within two weeks of a title like Uncharted 2, which pushes the PS3 to such a level that Demon’s Souls looks a bit shabby in the same release window. The big monsters are big and scary, and it’s a technically sound next-gen title. The most impressive part of the graphics (and the sound) is the fact that they provide superb ambiance for the game. They might not be as impressive as titles like Killzone 2, but they do a good job doing what the developers intended to do – I really felt like I was in the Kingdom of Boletaria. One absolutely fantastic aspect of the game is that the character is fully customizable through a bevy of sliders. Players who have made characters in Tiger Woods 10 or other EA games with “Game Face” will be right at home as there’s the same level of customization. The character that I was running around with? A giant blue guy with fish-like features. What? I don’t like my characters to be pretty boys. Much like the sound and the story, there’s nothing here for me to complain about, but aside from character customization, there’s not much that stands out in the game graphically.
All-in-all, Demon’s Souls is a game every PS3 RPG fan should buy just to say that they own it, just to say that they’ve played it. It’s up to you as the gamer to figure out if an incredibly difficult, incredibly unique game is the game for you. For me, the experience of just playing a game that has these features not seen anywhere else is worthwhile. As I said in my introduction, I wish I didn’t have to assign this game a score. I wish I could just supply the text of my review for you to take the game on its own merits because Demon’s Souls is such a unique game that it transcends traditional rating.