Review: Demon’s Souls

Review: Demon’s Souls

Every once in a blue moon, a game comes along and jams a stick into the wheel of the video game world, upending everything we thought we knew about traditional games. In October of 2009, From Software dropped the silent atom bomb known as Demon’s Souls and changed the way we play video games.

Demon's Souls

We Don’t Reward Success, We PUNISH Failure!

For the first few months of its life, Demon’s Souls sat quietly on the shelf bearing nothing more than the occasional glance from a curious gamer. There it sat biding its time until Atlus’ ingenious marketing plan kicked in; word of mouth. Those with enough disposable income to purchase games on a whim that chose Demon’s Souls got far more than they could ever hope for. This treat from Japan’s strategy RPG giant is unlike any other game that has ever been released, ever. Demon’s Souls is far more than just a game. It’s art, it’s a philosophical analogy, and it’s a multiplayer social experiment, but most of all its one hell of a rude wake up call.

From Software, who is responsible for the critically acclaimed Armored Core series, designed this game with only one thing in mind; making it as hard as absolutely possible. I am not going to sugar coat this and try to make it sound easy. This game is not for the faint of heart or easily frustrated. You are going to be knocked down, kicked off a cliff, punched in the kidneys while having your underwear pulled up over your head and being reminded that you’re just a nerd with a controller, and that’s all within the first 10 minutes of the game.

The kingdom of Boletaria, ruled by King Allant XII, has fallen into despair after their ruler’s greed and quest for power led him to use the power of souls to bring about unimaginable prosperity. The kingdom flourished until the ‘Deep Fog’ engulfed the outskirts of the land, essentially severing Boletaria from the outside world. All attempts at communication and entering the fog were met with death. King Allant’s ritual of using souls had awakened the Old One. With the Old One’s awakening, a dark fog swept in and brought with it a slew of demons that hunted mankind for their souls. The fog met no resistance and quickly began to spread beyond the kingdom. No salvation was in sight.

Character Customization

The story really isn’t the main focal point of the game and often times you will even forget that a story exists for any other reason than to drive you to the final boss. You control, via a third person camera, a character that you build from one of the games 10 classes. You can choose from a Soldier, Knight, Hunter, Priest, Magician, Wandered, Barbarian, Thief, Temple Knight, and Royalty. Frankly, some of the classes are so incredibly similar that it’s a wonder they split them into multiple classes because you can build each character the way you want regardless of your starting class. Choosing the right class at the beginning does make your life a bit easier later in the game, however.

From Software wasn’t out to reinvent the wheel here with the character leveling system. Basically, as the name of the game implies, you collect the souls of demons and those become your experience points that are used to level you up. What From Software has done to make the game a bit more unique, is that after every level, it requires exponentially more souls to level up, and trust me, souls don’t come that easily in this game. By the end of the first play through you are going to be needed roughly 2 million souls to rank up once.

Cutting the Tension

There is rarely a moment when this game lets up on the tension. From the beginning, you are put through what I consider to be gaming’s shortest, least informative, and most brutal tutorial. You press start, choose your character class, make some adjustments to skin color, and add a green Mohawk before you are dropped right into the middle of a dark musty hallway. No information, no map, no guide, nothing. You simply walk forward and get attacked by a few ambling skeletons who want to make a salad out of your soul. Once you figure out how to swing your sword and not have it hit the wall, which it will do quite often, you manage to rid yourself of the pestering skeletons and make your way up some stairs. You are forced to figure out how to pick stuff up before you are thrust into a room with an enormous fat, axe wielding demon pig that smashes your teeth out through the back of your skull faster than you can flinch. You are now dead and your body is long gone.

Welcome to Demon’s Souls

Demon's Souls

Body vs. Soul

Demon’s Souls introduces two incredibly ingenious concepts that alter the outcome of the game in ways that are irreversible and often go unnoticed until after it’s way too late. The first concept is that of Body and Soul form. You can play through the game in either form and switch between them quite easily. However, as you can imagine, it is far easier to go from body form to soul form than from soul form to body form. You must simply die. Regaining your body is much, much harder. You have several options for regaining your body. First of all, don’t die! That will ensure that you never lose your body in the first place. However, in the unfortunate even that you die, and it will happen quite a bit, you can only regain your body one of two ways:

1)Slay a demon boss.

2)Use an incredibly rare item.

So yea, don’t die. Not only does dying suck, it actually alters the outcome of the game. In the menu you will see a screen with a glowing statue surrounded by 5 glowing doors. The glowing statue reflects your soul tendency. When you die in body form within a level, your soul tendency will drop. If you die in soul form, nothing happens. That may not sound too bad, but in true Demon’s Souls punishing form, once your soul tendency drops towards black, it is incredibly hard to raise it back towards white. Certain crucial game items, characters, and events will ONLY occur/appear if you have pure white soul tendency. Soul tendency is very akin to ‘Karma’. Having white soul tendency rewards you very slightly with a special item, and an increase in attack power. However, having black soul tendency will reduce your max HP to 90% in soul form, but at pure black it drops your max HP to 60% in soul form. That’s not the worst of it, either! Having black soul tendency also makes the game significantly harder. The enemies are more aggressive and they have a lot more HP. So basically, dying makes the game harder, so don’t die!

Soul tendency is also linked to something called World Tendency. Each of the 5 levels in the game operates on different world tendencies that are independent from each other. Similarly to soul tendency, dying in body form plummets your world tendency towards black. Pure white can ONLY be achieved by completing the levels in body form, but once you die and send your tendency spiraling towards black, it is impossible to raise it back to white.

World tendency also has an effect on the world as well. White world tendency will make the enemies easier and fewer enemies will appear, but they will have fewer rare item drops and produce a very low number of souls when killed. Black world tendency on the other hand makes the enemies much tougher and more of them are around, but they drop oodles of items and they hold the largest amount of souls.

Essentially this game punishes you for dying!

Misery Loves Company

This game, as I have said, does not hold storyline in a very high regard. That’s not to say that the storyline is lacking or not worthwhile, because it entirely is. It just doesn’t get a lot of attention.

Demon's Souls

The game is centered around a small cathedral-looking room called the Nexus. Get familiar with this place because you are going to be here an awful lot. This seems to be the only place left where the living can reside safely away from the threat of the demons. Your main character interaction will be with a lady simply called ‘The Maiden in Black’. Her eyes have been gouged out so she is lacking the ability to perceive her surroundings. This actually comes in handy for those who want to test out the strength of a new weapon. All you have to do is approach, smash her skull in, and look at the damage number that pops up. She will lay on the ground for a few minutes before dusting herself off and hoping right back up to guide you on your way.

You will meet other tormented souls like the lovely Stockpile Thomas. He is like the guy who decides that the appocolypse is the best time to start hoarding everything and become a jerk. However, Stockpile Thomas is a bit friendlier. He offers to hold on to all of your stuff for you so that you have access to it at any time. Basically, he’s your rent-a-storage pack mule.

Other characters will begin to populate the Nexus as you progress through the worlds. Some characters are simply there to take up space, but others provide magic spells for purchase and weapons. Certain characters, or NPCs, will populate the Nexus and alter the outcome of the game. Keep a wary eye on several of them because leaving them unattended in the Nexus can have disastrous results and really muck up the rest of your game.

Weapons

This game is a ‘build your own weapon’ type of game that requires you to collect copious amounts of stones to forge new weapons. There is absolutely no guidance on how to forge and what to combine. You are just out there shoving crap together all willy-nilly in the hopes that something awesome will come out.

The different stones have different effects so you can kind of guess as to what the outcome will be, but it gets insanely tense when you take a weapon that you have found that is pretty decent and decide to upgrade it. There is a chance that it will spit out something amazing, but there is also the chance that it will get stripped back down to its absolute base model.

Once you have the system relatively figured out, forging no longer becomes the challenge. Items in this game, at least the worthwhile ones, are damn near impossible to come across en mass. However, level grinding is such a joy in this game because of the tension and the pay off.

Pressing On

The shining point of the game is the 5 worlds that you will enter. Each and every world feels utterly miserable and desolate, but is entirely unique from the other 4. The game does not dictate in the slightest what order you have to progress through the levels, but you will very quickly discover that some are much less forgiving than others. However, you are plunged into Boletaria Castle and have to work your way all the way through the first demon boss before you will allowed to return to the Nexus and do any sort of leveling up. This is a brutal start to the game because you will amass quite a collection of souls that you will more than likely end up losing several times. Here is where the frustration can set in.

When you die, regardless of body or soul form, any souls you have collected will drop in a quaint little pile exactly where you die and wait for your return. Unfortunately, if you die before make it back to the point where your pile of souls, they are lost to the eternal ethereal realm forever… basically you get the shaft. There will be times when you are carrying around hundreds of thousands of souls when you get toss off of a cliff and end up losing them all.

It sounds easy to get back to your pile, but we haven’t even gotten to the meat and potatoes of the game.

Each level is a unique experience and requires a massive amount of skill and an equally massive amount of luck if you hope to complete it. There is the Bolataria Castle, Stonefang tunnel (inhabited by lava beetles and drone miners with a huge chip on their shoulder), the Tower of Latria (a place where a modern mental institution looks like Sandals Beach Resort), Shrine of Storms (where every step could leave you tumbling off a 500 foot cliff), and the Valley of Defilement (a giant cesspool of purple poison).

Demon's Souls

Playing this game first seems like you would simply hack and slash your way to the end, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. From Software is requiring a decent amount of strategy in order to beat this game. You must be able to block and time your attacks effectively in order to beat most of the enemies, because death in this game is swift and brutal. Your attacks are weak to begin with while the enemies are unforgiving. Memorizing the level layouts is crucial to avoiding surprise attacks.

Each level has three stages that your progress through and each stage is separated by one of the coolest aspects of this game; a demon boss. These demon bosses intimidating beyond belief and will more often than not require quite a few attempts before you even figure out the key and even more attempts before you master it and get lucky enough to defeat it.

Demon's Souls

These demons are nothing to shake a stick at either! They are enormous death doling machines that will eat your for breakfast. The range from a giant purple blob of shields, a knight 3 stories tall, and a flying parking lot sized manta ray to a giant blind warrior, an obese tunnel golem with a missing kidney, and a pair of flying gargoyles. Each level has 2 ‘smaller’ bosses and 1 demon god at the end. These Demon Gods require the most amount of luck to beat, but they provide you with the largest payoff in souls and items.

Probably the coolest boss battle to hit the video game world can be found about ¾ of the way through the game. You will march up through a tower and meet the ‘Old Monk.’ This boss is not a computer controlled boss, but instead, the game will snatch gamers from around the world who are significantly stronger than you to play as the boss. This concept is simply amazing!

Most of these bosses battles will evoke one of three sayings from you:

1)What the heck is that thing?!

2)You’ve got to be kidding me!

3) Oh, Screw this!

However, you may find that all three of these apply to almost every boss, in that order. Yes, they are that hard.

Demon's Souls

Listening to the Elements

The audio in this game is bar none. The music matches the atmosphere perfectly, despite it being almost entirely depressing. There is constantly something going on and with a 7.1 channel surround system, your ears will not be without something to do. Every sword slash, every bone crack, every tormented scream is perfectly mixed and compliments the audio amazingly. I found myself standing in the Nexus simply to listen to the music over and over. It was perpetually stuck in my head for months.

You’re not alone

Finally, the most unique feature of the game is how the developers have decided to incorporate multiplayer into the game. The multiplayer is a far cry from traditional. As you wander around the world, you will see little pink messages stamped on the floor.

Demon's Souls

These are actual messages written by other players playing the game around the world. You can only select certain words and phrases, but these little messages will more often than not save you from a swift death with a quick ‘Watch out!’ ‘Look Right’ ‘Don’t run’ type message. Or, if you are a bit of a masochist, you can leave messages like ‘Safe here’ ‘Run!’ ‘No enemies’ when in fact there is danger right ahead and lead some unsuspecting soul to their doom!

Demon's Souls

Also, occasionally you will see a message pop up that says “A red phantom has invaded your world.” Basically this means you are screwed. Once you beat the game once and make the right decisions, you are given an item on your second play through that allows you to invade other people’s world and ruin their day. On the flip side, you can invade someone’s world as a blue phantom and actually help them out. This unique style of multiplayer works surprisingly well and brings a fresh take on how interactive games can be.

Demon's Souls

UPDATE: As of March 2011, Atlus has pulled support for the multiplayer servers.

All in all, this is a game that should not be missed by anyone who owns a PS3. Sure, the story is lacking in comparison to other blockbuster titles out there, but with an infinite amount of replayability through the endless NG+ (New Game) modes, you will surely be back for more. The level of difficulty shouldn’t scare you away. Rather, it should intrigue you and make you want to experience this behemoth if for nothing more than to say you did. This is a game that is going to chew you up and spit you out. Lots of gamers are probably going to put the controller down after a few bouts with death and call it quits. Press on and you will eventually succeed. Do not let this game pass you by at all costs!

Pros:

  • A game unlike any we’ve seen before
  • Engrossing atmosphere
  • Risk vs… reward?
  • Innovative multiplayer experience
  • Insane replay value

Cons:

  • Lack of conventional story elements
  • Difficulty level can be overwhelming at first

Score: 10/10

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