It would take little hesitation to label the Japanese as malicious and sadistic after contemplating the extensive list of punishingly difficult games they’ve produced over the years. The more experienced gamers among us will no doubt recall frequently spending their pocket money to buy ‘just one more’ continue in Contra, feeling inferior over Devil May Cry 3’s ridiculous Hard Mode, or dismissing the almost-impossible Ninja Gaiden as nothing more than some programmer’s cruel joke.
Demon’s Souls is the latest edition to this unwritten list of masochistic torture, and while it will whittle most who play it down to the last shreds of their patience and sanity, those who fight bravely to persevere through the almost insurmountable odds it presents will discover one of the PS3’s most rewarding, captivating and visionary titles seen in recent years.
Contrary to the RPG genre convention, the storyline in Demon’s Souls is neither particularly strong, involving, or actually all that relevant to the gameplay. Set in the once prosperous kingdom of Boletaria, a powerful demon, imaginatively called The Old One, has shrouded the land in an evil fog. This plunges everything into demon-infested darkness and disarray, and as the only hero foolish enough to single-handedly take on such an abomination, you set out to banish The Old One and restore order and pretty much save the world.
Starting a new game presents a fairly traditional character selection process, involving choosing a class for your hero, giving him a makeover and a bit of facial cosmetic work, and assigning some points into various attributes like strength, endurance, willpower and luck. All of this is quite superfluous though, but not in a bad way: instead of being confined to your original choice, Demon’s Souls allows the hero to alter his speciality as he progresses, meaning a melee-based Knight can easily shift to a magic user without too much hassle, or add magic to an already polished melee style.
Regardless of how you decide to play Demon’s Souls though, within minutes of starting off you’ll experience something that will soon become second nature: a quick, brutal, and almost unavoidable death at the hands/claws/teeth of an enormous demon. Instead of respawning at having another go at this particular beast though, your hero finds himself in the Nexus, a sort of purgatory and portal to the various areas of Boletaria which serves as the hub for the rest of the adventure. But hold on a minute: he’s dead, isn’t he?
Yes, playing as the recently deceased soul of our hero will take up most of the gameplay time in Demon’s Souls, and not just because of the insane level of difficulty.
Before we get into this though, this would be an opportune time to mention that this isn’t a title you’ll want to have a crack at alone; and again, not because of the stupid level of difficulty. Rather, Demon’s Souls allows players to connect their world of Boletaria to other players online, though not in the traditional sense of multiplayer gaming.
Each player is essentially trying to finish the game on his/her own mission, but other gamers can affect your game in a variety of innovative ways. You’ll see ghostly versions of these characters roaming around your world, although you can’t interact with them directly: they’re actually playing the same game, fighting the same monsters, and dying the same ways you are, but in a world of their own. The interaction element comes in though when these players leave rune-like messages throughout the land for your assistance, a feature that’s not only useful but is also implemented remarkably well.
So, if you know there’s an enemy ambush up ahead, you can select “Enemy ambush up ahead!” from a list of commands and leave this message on the ground for others to find. These messages are then rated by other players, with the better ones hanging around longer (also giving the ‘writer’ a health bonus) and the useless ones fading away far quicker. Sadly, these messages are all pre-written and there’s no room for creativity, but this keeps things neat (and swearing-free) and gets the job done well enough.
Building on this ethos of interaction and innovation, Demon’s Souls also allows players the ability to join up with other characters in order to tackle quests together. The mechanics used here are quite inventive too: You see, when you die in Demon’s Souls, you’re resurrected at the Nexus (as previously mentioned) in Soul Form, where you have half your health but more attacking power. To reclaim you physical body, you need to either use a rare stone to magic yourself whole again, or defeat one of the larger demons that plague the land.
Now, a player in his physical form can summon one or two players in Soul Form to join him to help kill the tougher enemies, and once such an enemy has been vanquished, the lead player will earn his fair share of souls (the currency in the game) and the others earn back their bodies. Not a bad deal.
As if this isn’t enough, gamers also have the ability to invade another player’s game as a phantom, an evil apparition that’s only goal is to kill the opposing player in order to claim some bonus souls. This mechanic is fantastic as it not only allows for many tense moments for the attacking phantom player, but also for the player fighting for his own skin.
As for the core gameplay itself, Demon’s Souls features what initially appears to be a rather simplistic combat system. A strong/weak attack coupled with a block and parry move may seem basic at first, but it only takes a few savage beatings from an angry demon to realize that this isn’t a hack ‘n slash title like Diablo, and that it’s going to take some skill to live past even the tutorial.
Every attack made uses stamina, and this needs to be conserved so that gamers don’t run out at the crucial moment thus leaving themselves vulnerable to attack. This makes every strike a conscious decision rather than a quick button-bashing reflex, and it’s a big part of what makes the game so damn punishing. Whether you’re fighting a horde of goblin-like minions, or a giant demonic knight that stands a few stories tall, you need to be remarkably careful about every move you make.
Contributing to the difficulty level is the vulnerability of your character: apparently even a suit of armour can only take a couple of hits from even the weakest enemies before allowing you to succumb to death. Healing items abound though, but these are to be used sparingly considering how crucial they are during more serious battles. Of course, defensive attributes can be upgraded, by there’s no avoiding the fact that it takes a particular kind of patience and perseverance to conquer such a testing title.
Speaking of difficulty (as if we haven’t mentioned this already), you’re going to die playing Demon’s Souls. A lot. In fact, you’re going to have to swallow your pride and just accept the fact that more than half of your time in Boletaria is going to be spent trying to resurrect your mangled corpse. Death is never technically unfair though, but be warned that you’re unlikely to encounter a game with more inherently frustrating workings than this.
From a nuts ‘n bolts perspective, this is not exactly a title that’ll justify your purchase of a 50” LED screen and a 7.1 cinema surround sound setup. While there is a good level of scale and some fairly daunting bosses, textures are often on the wrong side of bland and character animations can be jerky and forced at times. Even the items and weapons are forgetful, although in a game where the focus is gameplay and simply staying alive this isn’t much of a gripe. Sound design fits into the same category, and there’s nothing to either make or break it, but we can safely say that you should get used to the various sounds of death that the game will repetitively play for you.
In conclusion, we’re in two minds over a final score for Demon’s Souls. On one hand the unique gameplay mechanics and exasperating difficulty make it quite a niche title that we won’t recommend to your average player, but the innovation of said mechanics and intense challenge that the game provides make it something we think every gamer should have a go at.
Simply put, if you don’t like having your gaming prowess questioned at every corner or taking the time to really learn the intricacies of a game, this isn’t a title for you.
But, if you’re willing to let Demon’s Souls suck you in, maul you repeatedly and spit you out ready for more, this (in its own right) is a groundbreaking title that any mature and patient gamer needs to experience.
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