Demon’s Souls [Available on PS3]
ESRB Rating: M
Number of Players: 1 to 4
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: From Software
Release Date: October 6th, 2009
Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, amongst other franchises, have one glaring commonality: they’re freaking hard! They make even the most masochistic gamers cower as they crawl to corner and thumb suck, only to return minutes later to the source of their anguish for a fiftieth attempt at achieving victory. A few releases this generation have pushed that envelope, but none quite as much as the PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls and its punishing combat. When every enemy encounter breeds the possibility of seeing the dreaded You Died screen, you know this is a tough action RPG. No one is an exception, I promise. Demon’s Souls isn’t interested in being your friend; never was and never will be. The makers of Armored Core have brought us an experience to test every fabric of our concentration and capacity to take a beating without going crazy. If either fails, your custom hero will suffer.
Click to watch Justin’s video review.
Demon’s Souls earns its challenging stripes thanks to enemies that are anything but pansies, even those you first meet. Underestimate any seemingly innocent situation, and your ticket to a quick death has been punched, yet therein we also find the reward of the game. With each inevitable defeat, there’s something to be learned. Whether it’s a greater understanding of enemy tendencies, what they’re vulnerable to, or simply how not to approach them;; it’s all invaluable information. Being a Demon’s Souls expert doesn’t promise you survival though. The slightest slip-up is all it takes to know you’ve been defeated once again. Lose thousands of souls as a result, and you just might scream bloody murder.
Souls are the cornerstone of this RPG, the key for you to amount to anything in this universe. Before acquiring any however, there’s a modestly extensive character creation wizard of sorts of work through. Gender, class and a borderline obscene number of facial attributes are customizable. It’s interesting how height and weight aren’t, but my guess is that From Software kept those out of the formula to prevent potential combat imbalances. Either way, gender and cranial appearance are fine and dandy, but quite literally the entire Demon’s Souls experience is self-contained in your class. The ten total range from soldier, magician (my primary), to the temple knight, and it’s wise to actually read the manual because it’s not obvious how they all play. I won’t even throw out any suggestions since the possibilities for character evolution are seriously far-reaching. My first character is a magician because I enjoy the arcane arts, but I could’ve just as confidently sided with the temple knight, priest or even royalty.
Anyway, back to souls, or demons’ souls to be more accurate, which are the game’s commodity. They’re added to a running total upon each enemy kill, and can be exchanged for helpful things just about whenever you please. The catch is that by dying, you may forfeit that number forever. If you manage to return to the location of your demise, you’ll encounter a bloodstain remnant of that defeat, which can be touched to scoop them all back up. Tension rears its ugly head even then, as they disappear completely if you’re fallen again. Bring them back to the Nexus, or run into a local merchant, and those souls can be redeemed for valuable goods and services.
Ok, the Nexus, another new concept. It acts as a hub to all the different regions of the kingdom of Boletaria, where Demon’s Souls takes place. But it’s not as if these demons are conveniently here for your violent pleasure, as fun as that sounds; these hostile creatures came from somewhere, and that somewhere happens to be an ominous fog that’s eating Boletaria for breakfast. Years ago, a group of mystics (monumentals) sealed away a treacherous demon hell-bent on mankind’s extinction. But like any typical RPG plot arc, stupidity end up reawakening the bloody thing. It’s your job to re-impose what was intended to be an eternal slumber. At the onset, you’re summoned to Boletaria and shoved into a makeshift tutorial area in which you’re taught the fundamentals of your class. The proceedings are straightforward, as you ‘re able to practice attacking, item use and defensive measures, but the end doesn’t have your interests at heart. Unless you’re playing a New Game + file, the boss will kill you and make the Nexus your new home. It was built so phantoms (soul-less Boletarians) could have the chance to reclaim their bodies and exact vengeance on the demon army, but chance is the key here. That doesn’t discourage you though, the big bad gamer, thus begins the quest to not only be revived, but purge this fog.
That is done with the DualShock 3’s four face and shoulders buttons, or whatever PS3 controller you fancy. Actions are all conveniently mapped, so it doesn’t take long to gain a feel for everything. The right two triggers perform basic and advanced attacks; whereas the left pair has you defend and attempt to parry enemy engagements. It’s vital to become intimately acquainted with the stamina meter though, as it determines how much you’re able to do in the span of seconds. Commands aside from simple walking drain the green bar, and if it ever depletes, you’re a sitting duck. You can’t block forever, nor endlessly swing whatever’s in-hand, knowledge that adversaries exploit to the fullest. The face buttons have a say too. Triangle toggles between the standard weapon and shield, and dual-wielding or two-handing a single weapon; Circle is your evasion card, and Square can use health or magic replenishments, toss out offensive items, or boost a combat attribute. Simple controls are meaningless however if you don’t hold onto gathered souls. Just imagine how gut-wrenching it is at the start to eventually see that number in the lower-right crack 2,000, only to see it evaporate because of a lapse in judgment, surprise ambush, or even more infuriating…falling to your death. Each is possible, and then some.
Manage a Nexus homecoming, and Boldwin is eager to swap souls to upgrade and/or repair your equipment, or sell new items and gear. Thomas sits nearby, happy to hold onto unwanted or currently unneeded inventory. It’s a shame that you can’t sell or exchange anything for more souls, as Demon’s Souls is the first RPG I’ve ever played that doesn’t allow such, but this just makes acquiring that next expensive sword, item, spell, etc. immensely satisfying. Fresh spices (magic restore) alone run 350 souls a piece, which is no squirt of a number when soul farming areas are still inaccessible. I haven’t even taken increasing your soul level into account yet, which is how you evolve. After defeating the first demon boss, Phalanx, you meet the Maiden in. She’s your gateway to leveling up, but makes sure you earn every increase. As of this writing, my magician is level 35, which required around a quarter million souls to achieve. That’s because each of your character’s eight statistics are semi-interdependent. In other words, if your first upgrade costs 500 souls, the next may call for 750, and it doesn’t matter which traits you have or haven’t touched. If you’ve upped vitality (HP, physical defense, etc.) to 20 and never touched Faith, you can expect to shell out about 8,000 souls to transition from 10 to 11 on that. Weapons, armor, items, spells, miracles and soul levels…they all require demon souls, which makes keeping them its own adventure. You might find a significant mass of your inventory from enemy drops, but it’s inadvisable to always count on that. Prepare for a long journey.
Time to discuss the ultra-cool PlayStation Network integration, which makes Demon’s Souls the most unique RPG this generation. If you sign in with an account while playing, the Select button becomes a prized mechanic. I speak the message system, which gives the game a pseudo-MMO feeling. Players linked to the PSN can leave messages that display as a foreign red language on the ground. You’re limited to text presets thankfully, so we don’t have to complain to From Software about rampant inappropriate words and phrases, but even so, those responsible thought of just about everything. You might just have to take time to scroll through all the options before what you wish to convey pops into view. Potential messages range from the simple, though quite pointless “Hi!”, to more valuable advice such as “Beware of the enemy’s fire attacks ahead.” The developers also didn’t bank on players suddenly feeling generous to make this system active. This is where recommendations are potentially life-saving. Press select while standing over another’s message, and you can choose to recommend it to instantly heal the author. That’s why you inevitably see the classic “I’m in trouble–please recommend this message!” plastered all around boss arenas. I initially thought someone was just being a smart aleck, but experience has taught me otherwise. Folks, don’t try to hog all the HP restoration goodness; sometimes you have to give to receive. I’ve certainly reaped those benefits, and while not yet when in absolute need, I’m thankful nevertheless.
Believe it or not, there’s even more to this PSN infrastructure. Demon’s Souls additionally supports cooperative and competitive play. Crazy eh? Neither’s accessibility works as you might initially perceive though. Players can’t just hop onto the Network and look for friends to play or duel with; specific items are necessary. Voice chat also isn’t available in-game, so it’s suggested to use a VOIP application if verbal coordination is desired. No matter, it’s very cool to summon the help of a buddy or three in the event that a demon boss is proving especially demanding. They are brought into your world as a Phantom (soul form), and then play resumes normally. If the assistance helps you succeed, said player(s) is revived upon returning to their Boletaria, and there’s also no penalty for defeat. It’s a win-win situation. On the competitive front, two players can duke it out for valuable souls. The summoned participant fights as a Black Phantom, and whoever wins not only steals the souls that the loser last used to level up, but the defeated party loses that level entirely. Invading someone’s world is also an option, but the risk is much higher, where the benefit of mere revival is less endearing. If the offender dies from the environment or voluntarily returns to their version of Boletaria, a soul level is lost. Nothing adverse happens if the targeted player defeats the trespasser, but why bother if the intended victim can summon help?
At this point, it’s foolhardy to refer to Demon’s Souls as anything but epic. Despite the single-player emphasis, gamers are likely to carry around this heavy package for months, or as long as Atlus and From Software render support. I can’t end yet though, seeing as I’ve avoided mentioning anything about presentation or actual issues. Visually, Demon’s Souls embraces what it is: a dark, depressing world. If lush, colorful, lively RPGs are your muse, this one will disappoint. DS impressively conveys an atmosphere of death, dread and despair. Boletaria is painted with poorly-lit, rundown environments that range from the kingdom’s castle to a disturbing tower prison, etc. The enemies complement this execution. Freaks of nature, ridiculously intimidating bosses, and mad humans riddle the landscape, and then some. The problems extend to a chuggy frame rate, fallen foes that like to get caught in your feet (though they pose no real danger), at times inconsistent hit detection and items that are an occasional pain to scroll through on the D-pad. The same applies to the sound design, which suffers from some character voices that don’t quite fit who they’re coming from. Aside from that, there’s appropriately gloomy music, authentic weapon and spell effects and goofy mannerisms from various enemies. Demon’s Souls isn’t the best that the PS3 has to offer, as Uncharted 2 likely has that crown, but an achievement no matter how you look at it.
I never expected a company primarily known for mech combat games (Armored Core) to be capable of something like this. After all, Demon’s Souls is a radical departure from an action franchise such as From Software’s baby. It doesn’t matter though, because they’ve created a winner here with Atlus, a publisher notorious for distributing limited quantities of their games. That means if you’re an RPG enthusiast, or just love seemingly impossible games, you better hurry while supplies last. Production already stopped on the Deluxe Edition, which indicates that Demon’s Souls might not enjoy shelf life for long. Nevertheless, this out-of-nowhere experience is in prime position for Best RPG of 2009, and certainly in the running for overall Game of the Year. Play it while you can, and prepare to be joyfully frustrated…if that’s even possible.