Let me begin by saying this; Demon’s Souls is not a game for everyone. It might not even be a game for you. However, if you can look past the game’s punishing difficulty and sprawling scale, you’ll find one of the best RPGs of this generation.
Demon’s Souls is an action RPG born of an unholy union between Armored Core developers From Software and Sony Computer Entertainment Japan. Best known for their Armored Core mecha action franchise, From Software was also responsible for the King’s Field games, a series of first person action RPGs on the Playstation, PlayStation 2 and PSP. The King’s Field series is notable for several things; its complex, sprawling dungeons, creepy monster designs, wide variety of NPCs and pieces of equipment, and its dark, dreary atmosphere. It’s also quite well-known for its difficulty. Demon’s Souls, planned by Sony and From as a modern re-invention of the King’s Field franchise, shares many of these features, as well as several new innovations of its own.
This is the End of the World
Demon’s Souls is not a happy game. The story opens with a narrator bitterly telling a tale of a power-hungry king taking control of the flow of souls, using them for his own personal gain; by slaughtering humans and monsters alike, King Allant was able to build up vast reserves of power for his kingdom of Boletari. However, as Boletaria grew more powerful, a thick fog spread across the prosperous country, covering the city in an impenetrable wall of darkness. By taking control of the power of souls, Allant awakened an Old God, and with it came an unstoppable horde of demons. From that point forward, adventurers, mercenaries, and psychopaths alike ventured into the fog surrounding Boletaria. Some went in search of lost loved ones, some in attempts to free the city from whatever evil controlled it; and others still sought to plumb the cursed city’s vast reserves of Demon Souls to increase their strength…or worse. This is where your hero comes in.
In a lot of ways, the story of Demon’s Souls is anti-typical of other Japanese RPGs; the game is clearly set in an European-influenced setting, from the environments to the accents of the characters, Demon’s Souls reeks of Western influence. Meanwhile, the story itself seems influenced heavily by the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, dark and gothic with nary a doe-eyed little girl spewing “power of friendship” speeches in sight. That being said, the story in Demon’s Souls isn’t exactly the deepest or most in-your-face narrative you’re going to find in an RPG; it serves mainly as a means of setting the mood and explaining the setting. However, for fans of lore and subtlety, there is depth to be found here; item descriptions, NPC dialogue, and the bosses and level designs themselves reek of atmosphere, and the story explains itself well enough provided you’re willing to pay attention and forgive a few translation issues. The atmosphere in the game is absolutely breathtaking; the silent emptiness of Boletaria Castle is enhanced by the lack of dungeon music, while the inherent creepiness of the abandoned prison Tower of Latria is altered into abject horror by the muffled screams of its lost prisoners, and the ominous bells being rung by its otherworldly guards as they stalk you through its darkened halls.
East Meets West: Boletaria Style
In Demon’s Souls, much like a Western RPG, you play a created character; you choose a gender and a name, edit yourself a face, and then choose a character class. These classes range from fantasy staples like the Knight and Wizard, to more unusual classes like the Royal or the Wanderer. Your character class is absolutely important, as it influences your character’s starting stats, default character level, and what equipment you begin with. On one hand, you could choose a Soldier and you might be gifted with heavy plate armor and a large broadsword, but your character will be unable to use magic for a considerable amount of time. On the other hand, you could pick a Thief and be able to sprint and dodge considerably more effectively than another class, but if you take more than a few hits, you’re a goner. There are also several more “hybridized” classes like the Royal and the Wanderer that allow for more neutral stat builds, but they are generally not recommended for a first playthrough.
As I mentioned in my first impressions article, you begin Demon’s Souls by dying. After creating your character, you’re put through a simple tutorial dungeon to familiarize you with the game’s mechanics and controls, then thrust into a boss fight with the creature pictured above. This monster, referred to as Vanguard, destroyed me in a single hit. After you die, your character will awaken as a spirit in the Nexus, the game’s hub world. The Nexus is a constantly evolving tower full of NPCs to interact with; some appear when you level up, others can be found in the dungeons, and some are there from the start. In the Nexus, you can perform all necessary pre-adventure actions like shopping, item storage, repairing/upgrading weapons and learning new spells. Much like a Western RPG, Demon’s Souls is an extremely non-linear game. After you’ve cleared the game’s first “real” dungeon, the game officially lets go of any semblance of distinct structure; your only objective is to rid the world of the Old One, and however you get there is entirely up to you.
A Field of Corpses
The combat in Demon’s Souls is generally pretty standard dungeon crawler fare; you have two hands, and you can equip two items to each hand, one main weapon and one backup weapon, easily swapped between by a tap of the D-Pad. My usual setup was to equip my main melee weapon and my bow in my character’s right hand, and a shield and a spell catalyst in his left; allowing close-range and long-range combat, as well as defense and spellcasting. Other players may choose other ways of handling things, though; there’s really no wrong way to do it…that is, unless you decide to try and run through a dungeon dual-wielding shields. Each weapon class has its own unique combos and animations, with rare weapons receiving their own specials. You can also opt to wield any weapon with two hands, leading to more powerful, wider-ranged attacks at the expense of being able to defend as effectively. Equipping a light shield also allows you to parry incoming enemy attacks, if timed right, allowing you to unleash a devastating riposte, while careful blocking or stealthy maneuvers can allow you to perform a powerful backstab. Easy to learn, hard to master is the name of the game when it comes to combat in Demon’s Souls.
Now, there’s no point in mentioning the combat in Demon’s Souls if I don’t at least talk a bit about the bosses; it was the design for the boss pictured above that initially sold me on the game, and thankfully, the boss fights do not disappoint. With weaker fare like Phalanx the Shield Slime out of the way early on, Demon’s Souls evolves quickly into conflicts with truly breathtaking creatures like the Storm King, as well as head to head challenges with brutal humanoid opponents. Demon’s Souls also introduces what I believe might be a first in the RPG community; a PvP boss fight against another player summoned from across the PlayStation Network. Truly, the wide variety of boss battles is one of the greatest strengths of Demon’s Souls, capping off each dungeon crawl with a satisfying, pulse-pounding conclusion. What’s also impressive is the variety of ways a player can tackle each boss; while certain strategies certainly work better than others, almost any way you want to take a boss down, you probably can if you’re skilled enough. Well, provided you’re not trying to fistfight the Old God, that is.
Wait…I’m Dead AGAIN!?
Now, reading as far as you have, you’re probably thinking “well, that doesn’t sound so bad,” right? Wrong. Like King’s Field before it, Demon’s Souls is a difficult game; punishingly so, even. This is a game that, without question, wants you dead and makes no attempts to hide its murderous nature. From hazards ranging from a fire-breathing dragon strafing across your intended path to a massive, pitch-black lake of poison, Demon’s Souls will kill you more times than you can count. And frustratingly enough, there is a penalty for dying! As you kill monsters, you are awarded Souls. These Souls act both as currency and experience points; you can “spend” them in the Nexus, as well as at vendors throughout the game’s five sprawling worlds, to purchase new items and equipment, repair and upgrade your weapons, and also to level yourself up and gain new spells. This is all well and good until you realize that whenever you die, you lose all unspent Souls in your inventory. Like in Diablo, you can re-enter the dungeon and find your corpse, recovering any lost Souls from your last death, but also like Diablo, if you die again on the way back to your corpse, you lose what you lost, forever. As such, the game encourages very defensive, structured play during the early stages, until you learn the Evacuate spell. There is truly nothing more frustrating, after all, than amassing 50,000 Souls during a dungeon run, only to accidentally dodge off a cliff and lose them all.
As Dave mentioned in his challenge article some time back, Demon’s Souls is not a game you “get” instantly. Its sprawling dungeons are a throwback to the Roguelikes and dungeon crawlers of old, with numerous branches, ruthless deathtraps, and dangerous enemy ambushes around every corner. The enemies are, to put it simplest, bloodthirsty; there’s no particularly complicated AI at work here, these enemies want you dead, and if they get hit in the process of hurting you, they just don’t care. In fact, in the case of some of the bigger monsters, like the dragon pictured above, they will gladly roast other enemies alive if it means killing you. The level design, especially in some of the later stages, is also expertly engineered to lull you into a false sense of security, then drop a barely-visible cliff or deathtrap in your way at the exact second you’re too relaxed to react in time. The game’s numerous bosses also range in difficulty from pathetically easy to “HOLYCRAPIMPOSSIBLE”, and it seems that From Software doesn’t mind mixing things up a bit, as long as it leads to the player dying. In the first dungeon alone, I likely died a good three or four times before reaching the boss; you don’t want to know how many times I died during my first run-through of the third dungeon.
However, the difficulty of Demon’s Souls is a blessing in disguise. Interestingly, the more you play and the more you die, the more you learn; enemy attack patterns become more obvious, allowing you to dodge or parry more easily, while the map design grows more familiar, and several of the “surprise” elements designed to kill an unwary newbie are no longer a threat. You’ll learn which weapon types are most effective against certain enemies…and as your knowledge grows, the game will eventually click. No longer will you fear that skeleton wielding a massive zweihander; you’ve got a mace that shatters bone in two hits. That giant slime? He hates fire. Get a fire spell or enchantment for your sword and watch him die in under a minute. As you learn the game’s subtle nuances, and find ways to exploit them, the true depth of Demon’s Souls reveals itself to you. This is not a game designed to be blazed through in a weekend. In fact, a player’s ability to endure repeated deaths and learn from their own mistakes is perhaps the simplest way to gauge their potential enjoyment of the game; patient players with a drive to conquer any obstacle in front of them will be rewarded with an intensely enjoyable experience, while gamers more grounded in the “instant gratification” school of thought may not find what they’re looking for in Demon’s Souls.
It’s Fun To Slay Together
It’s no big secret that Japanese developers haven’t really jumped onto the whole “online” bandwagon this generation; hell, it’s been three years now and we still don’t have an online co-op Dynasty Warriors game. Despite this, From Software did at least try to bring something new to the table in Demon’s Souls; the Phantom system. As I previously explained in my impressions post, the game mixes single player, co-op, and MMO elements to allow a cohesive game world without any pesky online lobbies. Demon’s Souls supports online co-op play for up to three players over the PlayStation Network, allowing three friends (or strangers) of similar levels to join together and take down bosses. The downside to this is that to join another player’s game, the host has to be alive (easier said than done most of the time), and the people joining his game have to be within ten levels of him; there’s no asking your level 255 buddy to come in and oneshot a boss for you in this game. The game expects you to work together to take down bosses, and they grow considerably more aggressive to reflect this.
As mentioned before, interaction between players is handled almost entirely through glowing runes inscribed on the floor of the dungeons, allowing players to warn each other of upcoming traps, or let other players know they’re looking for a co-op partner. This is definitely not the simplest online integration in the world; there’s no question of that. It’s very silly to have a co-op mode that boots everyone out of the party if the leader dies, for example. The PvP, on the other hand, is handled quite well. All in all, From Software should at least be commended for trying to innovate in terms of online/offline play for the RPG genre, as well as trying to make it fit the game’s story and universe. It’s definitely fun to take on a boss with friends, though, provided the game decides it wants to let you play together at all.
Game Over +
As I said before, Demon’s Souls is not a game for everybody. First of all, it’s not even available on US store shelves, only currently found on import gaming websites like Play-Asia and NCSX despite being completely in English. Completing the game requires copious amounts of time, patience, and ambition; you have to want to win in order to finish the game, From and Sony aren’t holding your hand along the way. While the brutal difficulty and lack of direction might put off some fans of more traditional JRPGs, patient gamers who’re willing to try something new (and get eaten by a few dragons along the way) will find plenty of things to love about the game; the brutal boss fights, the sprawling selection of weapons and armor, using the souls of previously-defeated bosses to forge new, more powerful weapons and armor; the list goes on and on. The story may not be the deepest or most elegantly told out there, but compared to the seemingly endless onslaught of asinine anime cliches being spewed out of games like Star Ocean: The Last Hope, Eternal Sonata, and Blue Dragon, the minimalist approach in Demon’s Souls is a welcome change of pace. And believe it or not, there are gameplay elements I haven’t even touched on in this review; it’s just that deep! My first playthrough of the game clocked in at roughly 58 hours; the only single-player games this generation that even approach the amount of time I’ve put into Demon’s Souls are the XBOX 360’s Lost Odyssey and the PSP’s Dissidia: Final Fantasy.
In the end, while it might not have the production values or graphical “WOW” factor of a mainline Final Fantasy title, Demon’s Souls has easily usurped the PS3’s “best RPG” throne…but with FFXIII slowly approaching, we’ll see how long it holds onto the crown. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a New Game + to finish.
+ Dark, gothic atmosphere with solid graphics and excellent level design
+ Surprisingly competent localization, with few glaring translation errors
+ Breathtaking, challenging boss battles
+ Numerous online options for multiplayer fans
+ Vast array of items and equipment pieces to find, mix and match
+ New Game + feature allows for infinite replayability with increasing challenges
– Punishing difficulty may take players by surprise
– Online functions are not particularly well-explained
– Frame rate can chug in certain isolated areas
– Not officially released in US/Europe
Available now on PlayStation 3 in Japan;
Asian version features full English translation
CERO Rating: D (17+)
Players: 1 (offline) 3 (online co-op)
Completed game as a Thief; began New Game + and defeated several bosses, experimented with online modes and PvP
Final Verdict: For players who love a good challenge, Demon’s Souls is an absolute must-buy, and one of the best RPGs of this generation.