Demon's Souls Review
An action-RPG that takes no prisoners. It's bold, brutal and brilliant, but certainly won't be to everyone's taste despite its undeniable quality
On the surface, From Software’s action/RPG Demon’s Souls is the embodiment of contradiction. It reverts back to the ruthless days of 8 and 16 bit gaming whilst introducing some of the most innovative features seen in the current generation. It’s simplistic dungeon-crawling premise is a mere smoke-screen for layers of fiendish intricacy. The morbidly oppressive atmosphere is simultaneously the reason why it’s so immersive. It’s relentlessly punishing, yet unrivaled in the gratification it can offer from overcoming a seemingly impassable obstacle. It’s harsh, but once you’ve learned how it works - it’s fair.
In short, Demon’s Souls is a rare exception in an age where players are a spoiled bunch, tactfully being spoon-fed our gaming experiences. So let’s make one thing perfectly clear, this is not a pick up and play title. It requires patience, practice and ‘through gritted-teeth’ levels of perseverance. Though if you’re willing to invest these attributes into Demon’s Souls, remorseless torment with eventually give way to great reward.
It’s perhaps fitting to mention Demon’s Souls weakest element first - the story. Strangely for a game that is heavily comprised of conventional RPG elements, it doesn’t rely on a strong narrative or excessive dialogue throughout. Instead, the player is sent out into the unforgiving world uncertain as to what to expect, armed only with an underpowered primary weapon and a vague back-story.
A thick, colorless fog has engulfed the land which is now prowled by demons, your task essentially being to slay them and restore peace, etc. Fairly run of the mill stuff admittedly, but it’s not the plot itself which demands attention. It’s the environments surrounding you, the hazards they present, and how you choose to (if you have the intestinal fortitude) overcome them.
Although having been developed in Japan, Demon’s Souls game-world, Boletaria, is heavily modeled on typical Western fantasy: huge fire-breathing dragons, colossal ogres, flying gargoyles and all manner of swords and sorcery awaits. Whilst on paper it may sound worryingly familiar (a repeatedly used setting for hack-n-slash titles, RPG’s and endless Tolkien inspired fiction), Boletaria’s overarching feel is unique - and although constantly somber in tone - lovely to look at. From crumbling castles to twisting gothic architecture and rain soaked valleys; each expertly crafted location is atmospheric in its own right and demands to be explored despite your foes best efforts to prevent you from doing so.
The main hub-world (and the only safe haven), The Nexus, serves as a portal to these five other distinct and contrastingly treacherous lands which are then split up into three or four sub-levels, each of which contains armies of undead soldiers, misanthropic creatures and colossal boss monsters. Defeating each section’s end guardian will yield a Demon Soul, and harvesting all of these will allow access to the game’s final boss. Simple right? Think again. What may appear to be an elementary case of ‘seek and destroy’ soon reveals itself to be a relentless gauntlet of galling challenges and constant set-backs.
Danger is prevalent in Demon’s Souls, compounded further by the punishing regulations enforced upon death; an occurrence that you’ll have to become used to and fast if you want to make any meaningful progress forward. If you die you’ll be placed all the way back at the start of that sub-level, and if that wasn’t motivation enough to hone your survival skills, all the enemies you’ve just dispatched of will have respawned. You’re going to have to train and train hard.
First and foremost, attempting some good old fashioned God Of War style hacking and slashing simply won’t cut it here. Each encounter has to be carefully considered and approached with caution. Measured combat tactics are the only way to prevail as you’ll undoubtedly be punished for casual mistakes, thus resulting in certain death and a long trek back to your point of death.
What sets Demon’s Souls apart from other games is that even the most common of enemies, if misjudged to be a pushover, can and will kill you in a matter of hits. A heedful attitude is your friend here, and your armor and weapon load-out should always be reflective of that. Preparation and patience is the key to survival and Demon’s Souls rewards tactical forethought. Without this mentality instilled, frustration will undoubtedly sour the experience, which considering how much it has to offer for the perseverant, really would be a crying shame. It’s a game that will force you to adapt to its style of play, or it will teach you the hard way.
As death is such a frequent occurrence you’ll inevitably be seeing a lot of the same area and fighting the same enemies repeatedly. Thankfully, combat, although at times feeling unforgiving, is a well balanced affair.
As touched on, button bashing will result in a near instant death; so every swing, stab, shield deflection and spell must be applied in the correct situation, with each world throwing new hardships your way to keep you on your toes. Although Demon’s Souls is an action/RPG, it’s certainly a far cry from your typical combo-centric gameplay that many third person titles revel in.
R1 will swing your weapon with R2 dealing out a cumbersome but damaging power attack. L1 raises your shield with L2 offering a risky but rewarding parry if pulled off correctly, with square being employed for various items and consumables you’ll find along the way. It’s an effective system that again adheres to the game’s initially deceptive simplicity, which subsequently reveals its depth through play. As you can assign two weapons to both your right and left hands - as well as learn and remember spells and miracles - finding the right balance is of paramount importance, with a vast scope for experimentation.
Players will seek a combination of melee, spells and ranged attacks to suit not only the relevant situation, but also their own individual style of play. As beneficial as forethought can be however, Demon’s Souls will never let up. You’ll still die many times as is often the trial and error nature of the game. However, if you’ve learned to accept this fact and haven’t become too dispirited from moral-sapping failures, you’ll dust yourself off and fight on.
Whilst many RPG’s suffer in the combat department and vice versa for action titles with ill-conceived leveling up options, Demon’s Souls just about manages to get both right, albeit with some typically brutal stipulations. Defeated enemies will boost your overall soul count which also doubles up as the game’s currency. Upgrading weapons, purchasing items and generally leveling up your character all require souls, making them a precious commodity.
The heart breaking thing is, that when you die you’ll lose all the souls that you collected up to that point. You can retrieve them if you make it back up to the place where you died, but meet your end again on the way back and they’re gone forever. It can be enough to induce controller throwing bouts of anger, make no mistake, especially when you’d harvested enough to level up and potentially defeat a particularly challenging boss only to lose them all in vain. Couple this with the fact that upon death you’ll return in soul form with half the health that you had when alive, and you’ll often want to sob with self pity. It’s difficult yes, but it’s so damn good, no matter how despondent you become you’ll drag yourself back up, and who knows, eventually you may get there.
Overcoming the odds is where the joy of Demon’s Souls lies. Success is remembered in times of anguish and heartily savored when it eventually arrives. Finally felling an enormous boss that once seemed nigh on invincible will give you a feeling of accomplishment that generic battles in other games simply can’t compete with. Sure it may have taken blood, sweat and tears, but through skill and determination you pulled through. At times it’s a hark back to the ‘good old days’, when death in a game meant counting your losses and starting all over again, despite the anguish of defeat.
Of course, just because the developers have ramped up the difficulty it does not automatically make it a great game (quite the opposite can also be the case). Demon’s Souls also has some highly innovative online features which sets it apart from the crowd. Black and blue eye stones allow players to invade and aid people respectively within their own level range. This means that blue phantoms can be summoned and players can co-operate and help each other at difficult points in the game. Or alternatively, black phantoms can invade and make their victim’s lives even more of a misery by killing them, thus undoing all their hard work. Although obviously co-op and PvP (player vs. player) battles are nothing new, in the unforgiving world of Demon’s Souls they can offer some much needed help or a further challenge respectively to those that seek it.
Although PvP can satisfy cruel-hearted and competitive minded players, through co-operation is where the Demon’s Souls online experience really shines. As well as the aforementioned summoning of other players as blue phantoms to help out, the implementation of a message system means that are true sense of community exists.
Players can leave each other pre-written messages forewarning of traps, enemy ambushes and locations of valuable items, resulting in ‘we’re all in this together!’ sense of camaraderie. These messages are also often left to humorous effect, a welcome bit of light relief from the otherwise foreboding atmosphere of the game. Ghostly figures of other warriors roam around the worlds in real time, and although not offering any physical help (as a blue phantom will), it’s a strangely comforting thought to know that there are others out there struggling against the odds just like yourself. These inclusions add to an already rich atmosphere, and are an intriguing and inventive slant on multiplayer interaction.
Demon’s Souls certainly won’t be to everyone’s tastes. If you prefer a casual gaming experience then avoid it like the plague - it will most likely drive you to distraction. You’ll need to invest time and effort, as well as accepting that fact that you’ll die and die often, resulting in a repetitive slog through already challenging areas. However, if you’ve become disillusioned with the comfort zone that many developers let us bask in these days then this is the game for you. You will get angry, but you’ll collect yourself and press on. You will become disillusioned, but in perseverance you’ll find a sense of reward that is practically unrivaled on current-gen consoles. And at times you’ll curse and swear that you hate it, but deep down, no matter how unforgiving it can be, you know you still love it. There’s nothing quite like Demon’s Souls, just be prepared as to what you’re letting yourself in for.