Demon’s Souls is a strange game. It came out of nowhere, was nearly overlooked due to a release much too close to Uncharted 2, and turned around to sell extremely well on word of mouth alone. I purchased Demon’s Souls knowing only one thing about it: it’s hard.
From what I understand, Demon’s Souls was brought to the States by Atlus, the same company that created such classics as Ogre Battle 64 (one of my old favorites). If you know that game, you may be familiar with confusing, complicated interfaces populated by numerous tiny icons that you just have to learn through experience. The point I’m driving at is that the interface in Demon’s Souls is confusing and not very streamlined. There’s no learning curve or navigation tutorial, but the more you play the game the better you get at using it. This can be said about many of the game’s features, and while it bugged me at first I can honestly say (being in my second playthrough currently) that I’ve actually grown rather accustomed to it.
Visually, Demon’s Souls looks decent. It’s almost impossible to create a character who doesn’t look like he/she was beaten with an ugly stick as a child, and some of the areas of the worlds are rather gray and bland, but the game has some pretty effects and interesting enemy design. The bosses (the game’s shining moments) look amazing.
If you’ve looked into Demon’s Souls at all before reading this review, I’m sure you’ve heard that it’s rather hard. It’s not just hard—it’s relentlessly unforgiving and impatient in its constant quest to kill your character, you, and your dog. This is something that you should know before making the purchase, but it is definitely not something that should scare you off. Not to beat the already dead horse, but I’d like to give a few examples of just how unforgiving this game is. Slain enemies reward you with souls, which are used for both maintaining equipment and purchasing upgrades to your base stats. When you die, you lose all your souls. In RPG conventions, you would expect to have to make your way back through the level and find your corpse to regain your lost souls, and that is possible here. The kicker is that every creature you had killed before dying will come back to life; you essentially start the level over. If you die before you make it to your corpse, those souls are lost for good. You need the souls, too, because killing enemies is the only way to obtain them. Gone are the days of selling useless items for extra cash. Oh, yeah, and you can’t pause the game (which can prove quite dangerous when coupled with bosses who often can kill you in one hit).
Have you decided to buy Ratchet & Clank instead, yet? Hold on, now. In my review of the 2008 version of Prince of Persia, I said that extreme difficulty seems to be a bit outdated and meaningless in next-gen gaming. How is this any different? In Demon’s Souls the difficulty is largely attributed to your own failure to stay alert and adapt to circumstances. If you fail to learn from your mistakes, you fail to succeed in future endeavors. In this game, it works beautifully well. You will learn to be careful, to check corners in areas you’ve already mastered, to stock up on arrows just in case. Learning pays off in the end, too.
Every time you down a boss in Demon’s Souls you feel as if you’ve actually accomplished something. It’s a feeling that I believe has been absent from gaming for quite some time. The bosses are epic, in the true sense of the word (as opposed to an Internet catchphrase sense, in which everything is “epic”). These are some of the most difficult and imaginative bosses you will ever see, and probably have seen in years. There is a boss that summons another real player to fight you, instead of fighting you himself. There is a boss that can lower your base stats permanently with each successful hit. And of course there are numerous bosses that simply test your skill, adaptability, and tactics within the game’s reach. These encounters will leave your knuckles white and your palms sweaty, but when you complete them you will cheer out loud in triumph.
I suppose I should also give you a rundown on how the game plays. Not to over simplify it, the combat is just like playing Zelda. You lock on, you block and dodge, you attack, and you cast spells. That’s the long and short of it. What it really comes down to is how you mix these moves together while managing your stamina bar (which gets used up a little bit when performing any of the mentioned feats). If you run out of stamina, you pretty much can’t do anything. However, the game is an RPG and so stats also come into play. There’s a strategy to that as well. Do you spend your souls to repair your equipment? Upgrade it? Restock on healing grasses and arrows? These are all worthy sinks for your wallet, but most of your souls will go into increasing your base stats to improve your health, damage, resistance to various elements, weight you can carry (extremely important, that one), etc. Add in an interesting crafting/upgrade system using stones and ores found in the world and it’s easy to lose hours just managing all your junk.
The game itself is separated into five worlds, all connected by a hub safe town called “The Nexus.” It’s rather interesting because you can visit the worlds in any order you deem worthy, which makes for some interesting strategy once you learn which aspects of the game you are and aren’t good at.
Demon’s Souls has done something with online multiplayer that I’m beginning to think is rather ahead of its time. No game is going to copy this system, despite the system being extremely fun and working great for Demon’s Souls itself. When in Online Mode, players can leave glowing messages on the ground containing tips for other players to read. They are extremely helpful in warning of dangerous falls and enemy ambushes even though some people will try to trick you and get you killed with them. You can also check the bloodstains of fellow players to watch the last five seconds or so of their lives, a handy tool in checking what trouble may lurk around the next corner. For the tougher bosses, it can be helpful to summon a few fellow players to your game, though if they die they will be immediately kicked out. Last but not least, you can invade other players’ games and attack them in hopes of scoring whatever amount of souls they may be carrying. The Online Mode is great, and even though you are usually playing alone, you never actually feel like it.
I didn’t even mention the game’s story, but that is mostly because I doubt it has ever been fully comprehended by man. The story is confusing, and rarely pointed to, but it does provide a nice setting for the five twisted worlds you will be dying repeatedly in. If you own a PS3 and are itching for an action adventure game, RPG, or just a chance to relive the days when games contained both serious risk and serious reward, Demon’s Souls won’t do you wrong.