Review: Demon’s Souls

God, Infamous is a terrible game. I’m sorry, I know this is supposed to be about Demon’s Souls, but I’ve been playing a lot of infamous recently after finally beating Demon’s Souls and…

I’ll explain.

Infamous has this mechanic where areas of the city are controlled by gangs. What this means in practical terms is that people will shoot at you from rooftops. A lot. With unerring aim at great distance. This makes traversing the city a pain in the arse. So you do side missions to get rid of them that involve fighting way too many of them in a closed space. Then you die. Then you respawn 10 feet away and get to try again, you’ll probably beat it second or third try.

Later on they make you ride a bus that’s getting shot at from every angle by Bad Men with rocket launchers. It is not possible to turn quickly enough to deflect a rocket from someone you weren’t already looking at. So you die, and restart, and beat it after a few tries. At no point in this rigmarole do you ever start to feel like you are having fun.

In Demon’s Souls you will spend 15 minutes navigating a level, only to get stabbed like a dumbass because you forgot to stop blocking long enough to build your stamina back up during a fight, costing you all of your accumulated souls (money) half your maximum life (if you were in body form) and will have to start the thing over from scratch. You will be really mad for about five seconds, but then you’ll stop caring because the level has reloaded and it’s time to go again. Infamous is not a hard game. It is a frustrating game with cheap enemies and a poorly thought out control scheme, one in which you will die frequently with no penalty and eventually triumph. But Demon’s Souls, Demon’s Souls is a hard game.

There’s been a lot of bitching in recent years regarding the supposed superiority of “old, difficult” games over “new, easy” ones. A lot of this is just people failing to realise that they sucked at games when they were eight, but there is a grain of truth to it. Remember when games used to be hard? Remember Ghosts n Goblins? Remember Contra? Of course you do, through the stupid veil of nostalgia. Those games were punishing and unfair because they depended on milking people for quarters at the arcade. Demon’s Souls is similar, but has a significant difference: It is completely, 100% fair.

Demon’s Souls will never fuck you over by turning the camera to face a wall when you so badly need it to face a foe, it will never make you escort a brain-dead NPC through a minefield, instantly failing you when the schmuck dies. There are no timed missions, there are no terrible platforming segments, no teleporting or respawning enemies. It always, always gives you a chance. If you died, it’s because you didn’t take it. The tools for victory are always available, you simply have to find and use them.

Demon’s Souls is a game with a stupidly punctuated title set in the fictional land of Boletaria. At some time in the past the abuse of the ‘soul arts’, magic that used souls as components, caused Boletaria to fall under the shadow of The Old One, a Cthulhu-esque being of unlimited power that hungers ceaselessly for souls. The Old One sent out its demons to retrieve souls for it and everything turned very shitty for the people of Boletaria. The Monumentals, an order of monks tasked with preserving reality, sealed The Old One up again but could only keep him imprisoned by allowing their life force to be slowly drained. Centuries passed and all of the Monumentals, save one, died. The Old One is once again trying to break free, and it’s up to you to stop it. Or aid it, if you feel like destroying the world.

You will spend a lot of the game in The Nexus, a place that is both the entrance to the Old One’s prison and a kind of grease trap for wayward souls. The Nexus is where you do most of your RPG-type stuff. You can store and retrieve items, upgrade weapons, buy ammunition and spells, and most importantly – upgrade your stats. Each of these tasks can only be done by talking to a specific NPC in the Nexus, and these NPCs can be killed. That’s right, if you were so inclined you could kill the Maiden in Black (who upgrades your stats in exchange for souls) right at the beginning of the game. The game would then be impossible to complete, but you could do it nonetheless. Character creation is a simple affair. You pick a class, gender and appearance and off you go. Gender does actually make a difference in Demon’s Souls, a lot of armour can only be worn by Males or females, but it’s perfectly possible to beat the game as either. You class determines your starting stats (all of which can be upgraded at will anyway) and your starting gear. Some items are not easily obtainable at the start of the game, so pick carefully (the MP regeneration ring is particularly useful.)

Demon’s Souls is divided into 5 worlds each consisting of 3 levels and 4 bosses (the 4th boss is typically separated from the 3rd by a very short segment). You always restart at the beginning of the world unless you’ve killed a boss, in which case you appear at the archstone of the last boss you killed in that world. You start the game in body form, changing to soul form once you die. In soul form you have drastically reduced HP but deal slightly more damage. You can regain your body by killing a boss or using a stone of ephemeral eyes, an item of medium rarity. In addition, every world has a “tendency”, on a scale of black to white, that can unlock certain paths and spawn different enemies on pure-black or pure-white. Dying in body form moves a world towards black, which also makes all of the monsters in that world stronger. You want to spend most of your time in soul form.

The actual gameplay is initially quite frustrating. Your melee attacks consume a hefty whack of your stamina bar and you can typically make only two or three swings before it is depleted and has to recharge. When you have your shield raised, damage is dealt to stamina instead of health but stamina regeneration is decreased. This turns combat into a delicate juggling act where you must strategically raise and lower your shield to try and minimise the time for which you are vulnerable while still having enough stamina to actually hit the guy you’re fighting. When you die, and you will die many, many times, you lose all of the souls you have accumulated to that point and a bloodstain is left on the ground where you fell. In the online mode you can actually see other players’ bloodstains, touching them will allow you to see the last few moments of their life, possibly warning you of dangers ahead. After dying you have one chance to get your souls back. If you can reach your bloodstain and touch it you will regain all the souls you lost, if you die before reaching it then you create a new bloodstain with your current souls and all the old ones are lost forever. This is what I meant when I said Demon’s Souls is hard, but fair. To regain your souls all you have to do is achieve something you have already demonstrated that you can do, that’s all. If you can’t repeat a performance on demand then it’s hardly the game’s fault, is it? You’ll eventually reach a point where grinding souls becomes quite easy, so it doesn’t even matter that you lose your bloodstain. But for the first half of the game or so it really matters.

A word needs to be said about the art direction. Demon’s Souls is an ugly game, both in graphical fidelity and content. Its textures and models are below what you’d expect from a AAA title these days, but its surprisingly subtle use of colour and bloom (yes, I am using the word bloom in a positive light) not only makes up for it but lends the whole thing a stylistic flourish that is rarely accomplished. The lip-syncing is pretty terrible, but there’s not enough dialogue for it to matter. What little dialogue there is is competently-acted, but with some pretty weird inflections. Not really a detraction but not amazing. Oh, and your character is probably going to be hideous. The character creation screen hilariously features a ‘gender’ slider, allowing you to make your guy more masculine or feminine regardless of your selected sex. They all look awful, but you’ll be looking at the back of their head most of the time anyway. The enemy designs are also hideous, but in a good way. There are no tall, white-haired bishounen as antagonists in this game; You’re fighting demons, son, and they damn well look like it. An array of goblins, plague-doctors, trolls, dragons, skeletons and fat guys in funny hats all line up to splat you messily, and damn they look nasty. It’s a good thing too, since most of them will kill you in about two hits. Oh! And there are mind-flayers who actually suck your brain out, how cool is that?

Japanese game developers are often criticised for not knowing how to design levels, either structurally or aesthetically. A certain odd-numbered RPG in a long-running series comes to mind. What From Software have done with Demon’s Souls is an astounding achievement: they have created a world that both looks like the decaying ruins of a doomed civilisation and is also a sequence of coherent video game levels. You’ve really got to see it in action to appreciate it, but trust me when I say that the Boletarian Palace has some of the best level design I’ve ever seen. And the bosses, oh the bosses. To return to how incredibly fucking hard this game is, virtually every single boss will kill you in one hit, but that’s ok. Demon’s Souls, like modern Zelda games, understands that the mean dude at the end of the level is not the real challenge: the real challenge was getting there. The easiest boss in the game (to fight properly) is the first one: Phalanx. To win you really just have to set your sword on fire and run around like a lunatic, slashing at targets that present themselves. On every other boss, you are expected to cheat. Perhaps cheat is the wrong word. You are expected to analyse the mechanics of the game and come up with a solution that allows you to win without getting slaughtered in two seconds. I’ll give you some examples.

The second boss, Tower Knight, is a gigantic bastard with a really powerful ranged attack who also has the ability to one-shot you in melee. The easiest way to fight him is somewhat counter intuitive: If you run up to him and start attacking he will smush you with his shield. What you have to do is immediately roll through his legs and stab his ankles as he tries to turn around to face you. When you stab his ankles enough times he falls on you and kills you if you didn’t dodge in time, but if you do dodge then you get to stab him in the face and win. I have, on several occasions, brought 500 arrows to a boss fight and just kept plinking away from the maximum possible range, tucked behind some tiny piece of cover that just manages to shield me from most of the boss’s ranged attacks. I have exploited the pathfinding AI to trap bosses on pieces of terrain and slowly poisoned them to death over ten minutes.

At one point you fight a boss who is blind, and it is terrifying. If you run, he’ll hear you and kill you. If you attack form the same angle too many times, he’ll find and kill you. It’s this wonderfully tense game of pricking a bear over and over again, hoping the thing will bleed to death before it inevitably gets you.

The game expects you to play like a bastard, to exploit every possible advantage. And if you don’t it is more than happy to grind you to pieces. I haven’t even touched on the truly innovative asynchronous online mode, but I think I’m going to stop there. Demon’s Souls is an extremely hard, highly enjoyable, highly replayable, fantastically designed game. There is simply nothing else like it on the market today, and for that reason alone it deserves your dollar. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch the Dark Souls trailer again. This is one sequel I’m prepared to forgive.

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About nooneiverse

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