Note: This review is based on the Japanese version of the game.
Demon’s Souls never had a chance.
I came to this epiphany sitting in an Akihabara café perusing Famitsu issue 1053’s listing of the highest selling games in Japan for 2008. Aside from Monster Hunter Portable, the top ten are all Wii and DS games, and you can probably guess what they are. Mario Kart, Wii Fit, Wii Sports, and Pokémon all destroyed the likes of Metal Gear Solid 4 and Fallout 3. Mario and Sonic at the Beijing Olympics on DS crushed Persona 4 and Valkyria Chronicles.
Whatever conclusions you draw from all this, one thing is absolutely certain: accessibility and familiarity count for a lot in the market these days. Thus I cannot feel surprised when I consider how little Demon’s Souls has been marketed. It may very well be a case of Sony not kidding themselves. Quietly selling out at a few game shops in downtown Tokyo, the game has gotten remarkably little attention for an original franchise PS3 RPG. Famitsu panned the game for being too hard, which should be your first clue. See, the cover art for the game box features a knight slumped in a corner, arrows embedded in his shield, head down, exhausted. It is only after you play the game that you realize just how appropriate this image is. Consider the kind of gamer you are. Are Wii Music and Nintendogs staples of your game library? Or does that top selling game list strike you as unjust? From Software’s latest offering falls into the latter category, and is not for the faint of heart. This game will chew you up and spit you out.
Demon’s Souls is a dark medieval adventure. It is basically an open-ended action RPG with real-time combat, a fully customizable avatar with ten different classes, and stat leveling and skill acquisition. Killing enemies nets you souls that are used for, well, everything. Stat boosting, weapon forging, magic spells, items — you name it, you’ll need souls to get it. For a Japanese game, Demon’s Souls really feels like a WRPG. What really sets the game apart from most others, however, is its staggering difficulty. Was Persona a bit tricky for you? Did Ninja Gaiden 2 seem cheap and unfair? You ain’t seen nothing yet. You could take Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Megadeth, cram them all together in a possessed blender, and the result would not be as brutal as Demon’s Souls.
I’ll put it simply: You will die. A lot. Then, you will die some more. Every time you die, all of the souls you gathered will be lost in a bloodstain at the point of your death. If you die again before you make it back to that point, they are lost forever. Enemies can kill you in just a few hits, and they will often gang up on you, sneak up and jump you from behind, or snipe you with arrows and firebombs. Your character is not exactly Ryu Hayabusa either. If you take a typical hack-and-slash approach to combat, you will die hilariously fast. Every dash, every evasive move, every swing of your sword takes stamina, which needs time to recover. Block for too long and your guard will be shattered, at which point you will likely get impaled and killed. When you die in human form, you come back as a spirit with only half of your max HP. Dying in a game normally evidences that something was too difficult for you, and this game responds by making things MORE difficult. All saving is done automatically by the game, and portals back to the nexus world (the game’s safe zone and hub for stat boosting and shopping) are few and far between. The game auto saves when you die, and it does it fast too. I tried pulling the plug on my PS3 right after getting shanked by a zombie, and it STILL saved. Oh, and every time you die, all the enemies respawn.
What I really like about Demon’s Souls is the fact that it is one of the few games that manages to instill a genuine sense of dread and panic in the player. It’s what Resident Evil games tried to do before RE4. You are not a 1st Class member of SOLDIER or a genetically engineered super soldier who can destroy tanks with hand grenades: You are just a guy with a sword and some armor. Other guys with swords and armor can kill you in one hit if you’re slow. The difficulty is amazingly well integrated into the game’s atmosphere and theme. Imagine if you yourself were actually facing down some giant monster in a dark cavern. You would be terrified and probably get killed in a few seconds, which is what usually happens in this game. It’s amazingly consistent. When you see some armored knight with a spear, you have to stop and think about how you will approach; one wrong swing and he’ll skewer you. You can’t just hold down dash and run everywhere in a new environment; you have to walk carefully, because a pit trap could end your game, or an ambush could catch you with no stamina.
Frankly, I love it. Not since my NES days of trying to beat Contra without the Konami code have I had this much fun. The learning curve is steep, but with time you really do learn and you feel like a badass. The combat physics are fantastic and realistic. A good parry and you can murder enemies with one strike. Whether you’re headshotting ghouls from the shadows with a crossbow, duel wielding scimitars against enchanted skeletons or incinerating phantoms with fire magic — every kill is visceral and must be earned. After you die about fifty times or so, you’ll be a killing machine. Unfortunately, not many gamers have that kind of patience these days. Demon’s Souls is not a very accessible game. I predict numerous people buying the game, getting owned, and then running to their Internet forum of choice to complain about the “bad game design” or “cheap” enemies.
Demon’s Souls is not cheap. It is punishing, but also unique. Particularly the online co-op is executed in an original if flawed way. Interaction with other players is usually passive. You will see ghost-like shadows of other players who are in your current stage. You can also read and leave messages on the ground. Sometimes these are very helpful, like “watch out on your left!” If someone gives a thumbs-up to your message, you get your health back, so be generous and praise others regularly. You will also see bloodstains, which show where other players have died. Touch the stain and a silhouette will actually show that player’s death. This may not be a good way to inspire confidence though; many times the silhouette mime shows the player walk into the next room and just fall over dead. “Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t go that way…” I would think to myself.
You can summon other players into your game to help clear stages and bosses if you have a physical body. If you are in soul form, you can be summoned into other games, and if you manage to help someone defeat a boss, you get your body back. There is also a fantastic PvP system where you can invade other worlds, stalk another player as a black phantom, and then murder them to take their body and get your own physical form back. Let me tell you, it is nerve-racking when someone invades your game because if they are any good, they’ll come after you when you least expect it. If it freaks you out too much, the game is playable offline, though without other players’ messages, bloodstains, and co-op for bosses, the difficulty only goes up.
Demon’s Souls is a tense experience and a lot of fun. If you need a game to hold your hand, look elsewhere; the first boss in this game kills 99% of players in one hit. Some character classes have a shallower difficulty curve than others, however. Royals begin with magic attacks, automatic MP regeneration, as well as decent speed and attack power. Thieves and Magicians are harder to start with. The online lacks voice chat or even text; you can only emote with other players. It is also impossible to summon specific friends and set up your own quests. This is a major flaw from my point of view, and I pray they are planning to fix this for the North American release.
Demon’s Souls is a decent looking PS3 RPG. While miles away from visual feasts like Mass Effect or White Knight Chronicles, Demon’s Souls’ setting design is fantastic. Each of the different fields is massive with a wide variety of environments and buildings. Interiors are fleshed out with destructible furniture and varied spaces and lighting.
Character models and faces are good, but not great. Equipment and armor designs are detailed, with little scuffs and imperfections. Enemy designs are cool, particularly bosses; they are massive, frightening, and diverse. Character animations are excellent. One of the first things you notice when you play the game is your hero’s sense of gravity. Every piece of equipment you put on, every weapon choice and character class has its own weight that effects attacks, stamina, evasions, and defense. Still, don’t expect to be blown away by spell or skill animations. The best word to characterize the graphics overall would be ‘adequate.’
Demon’s Souls has a weak soundtrack overall. Some of the dramatic orchestral themes during boss fights are fun, and background music is quite suitable when it is there. Most of the time, you won’t hear any music at all, so there really is not anything to criticize. Appropriately sinister background tracks during exploration would have really been cool, though I thought the lack of music seemed fitting. Silence is, after all, far more disconcerting when you are wandering around some dark monster-infested cavern. The effect noises are gruesome and grand. I never got sick of the fleshy splashing sound swords make as they carve the hides of human beings.
Wow, that sounded creepy.
The voice work is also passable. It is all English, and the classical style (read: British accents) suits the medieval setting. There isn’t a heck of a lot of it though. Like the music, voice work is rather scarce as Demon’s Souls lacks long cut scenes. NPC’s rarely take much of your time when asking something of you. From a gameplay perspective, I appreciate a game that doesn’t bog you down with half-hour periods of just sitting and watching. Yet when I consider all aspects of Demon’s Souls’ sound, it just is not that impressive.
It’s simple really. King Allanti XII, in seeking power and wealth for his kingdom, accidentally awoke ‘The Old One’ from his slumber and a great fog has spread across the land of Boletaria. Demons have infested the kingdom and soon, the fog shall cover the entire world unless brave souls are able to slay the demons and lull ‘The Old One’ back to sleep. You play as one such brave soul, and your actions may allow you to become Boletaria’s savior, or something else.
Demon’s Souls takes WRPG non-linearity and gives it a JRPG style focus on action. Like Fallout 3 or Fable II, after you finish the first section, you can basically go wherever you want. The game features both character and world alignment systems (called ‘tendency’) both of which can fluctuate between white and black. Alignment affects not only the story, but also the game’s difficulty, spells, accessories, and numerous other character and game attributes. Unlike Fallout 3 or Fable II, you are not going to be spending much time doing things like raising a family, running a blacksmith shop, or completing fetch quests for NPC’s. You shape the fate of Boletaria through killing, slaughtering, or slaying demons.
There is a New Game+, which can be done over and over to New Game++++++++ and beyond. Each time, enemies become more difficult, which you will appreciate by then. While there are some interesting NPC’s and funny moments, it is not the sort of game you play for the story. The plot works more as a really good set-up for an action RPG and is extremely replayable. It is not, however, an amazing stand-alone plot.
Easy to operate, but hard to master. That is the best way to characterize Demon’s Souls’ control. You don’t have any long attack chains or combos to memorize; rather you have to learn how to time parries with your shield, when to evade, and how to backstab properly. Managing stamina also takes practice, and there is no true pause button, so you have to make sure your equipment is set up right at all times. The camera rotates like most action games, and is occasionally a pain in tight spaces. There really is nothing too involved about using magic or switching weapons, but in a game as unforgiving as this, you have to make the controls second nature.
Demon’s Souls may well be 2009’s Valkyria Chronicles; an impressive, original, fresh new PS3 RPG that ultimately has little impact. While belonging to less a niche genre than VC, the frustrating difficulty is sure to turn off many. Sound and graphics considered, the game is aesthetically a few notches below VC.
An improved online co-op and a simple easy mode would widen the game’s audience substantially. As it is, most people will have to suffer many aggravating deaths before they get good enough to really appreciate the game’s detailed, gory combat. Boss fights are a special treat, as each one starts off seemingly impossible — you against a giant steel knight or a huge armored spider — but with tenacity, becomes beatable. Demon’s Souls is easily the most satisfying PS3 game I have ever played. Yet I know that many will never get over that initial hump, and they’ll end up selling the game for store credit to buy Ninja Gaiden Sigma used. Tecmo gives you save points every ten meters and super powerful ninja magic to clear rooms full of enemies if you get stressed. Demon’s Souls gives you an ultimatum; get good, or die.
They just don’t make many console games like this anymore.