Back in October, Demon’s Souls had a relatively quiet release in the US; it didn’t come with the hysteria usually reserved for big game releases like your Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto games, it was simply… well, released. Shortly thereafter, reviews started appearing on gaming websites, and the results were that Demon’s Souls is good. Very good. So good in fact that it won numerous awards, including IGN’s, GameSpot and GameTrailers’ ‘RPG of the Year’ award, and not only did it win that award with GameSpot, but they also gave it the most illustrious award of ‘Game of the Year’. Needless to say, I was very intrigued. Bearing in mind this game had beaten off competition like the mighty BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins. Developers FromSoftware had made something special, something people said was cripplingly hard, but still incredibly good and addictive. I write this review at 6:30pm GMT, I started playing today’s session of Demon’s Souls at 1:15pm, and I didn’t realize where the time had gone until my stomach started to groan. It goes without saying, Demon’s Souls is good; very, very good.
Now despite the fact we here in the UK usually share close windows of releases with games, this is one of those occasions in which if you wanted to play Demon’s Souls you’d have to either import it or wait for a release date (which at first many thought wouldn’t actually come). I chose to wait, not out of choice though; when the game came out I was relatively broke and unemployed, so I had to be somewhat frugal, especially when it comes to the at times pricey matter of import games, and honestly I wish I made the investment as it would’ve helped me wittle away those hours (but at the same time it would’ve probably prevented me from actually searching for employment). The game was released here at the end of June, so this is a somewhat belated review due to both release and of course the time which I’ve sunk into playing it. I’ve completed the game once and I’m still not done.
Demon’s Souls is a jRPG by name, but its grounding seems almost western in nature, what with the medieval architecture and olde english dialect. The story itself is relatively light, you are a warrior who has decided to enter the troubled kingdom of Boletaria, a fictional European locale steeped in a rich history but torn asunder by an ancient power known simply as ‘The Old One’, in a desperate search for power, King Allant, the ex-ruler of Boletaria brought a fog which engulfed the lands after his attempts at channelling souls caught the attention of The Old One, and in turn Allant was consumed, and demons were unleashed, who feasted upon the souls of mankind, and those left soulless were doomed to insanity.
Though the story is light, and most of the dialogue takes place within the Nexus (a hub in which demon slayers may rest and develop their skills), it honestly doesn’t matter. The world is so incredibly engrossing, beautifully dark in its design, and constructed in such a way that will keep you on your toes with each and every turn, never knowing what may lay in wait.
Now if you’ve read any reviews or even descriptions of Demon’s Souls, you’re pretty much going to hear the same thing from every person, and this review is no exception; Demon’s Souls is indeed an extremely hard game, brutal even, not for such a long have I played a game which is so crushing in its difficulty. One may question though “how can something so difficult to play be so good at the same time?”. The answer to this is simple, because even though Demon’s Souls seems almost leviathan in the task expected of you, and the world so punishing, the game is never unfair. It’s expertly crafted so that every aspect of the combat and the build of your character determine your success. When you die in Demon’s Souls (and you will die often), you’ll get frustrated, but at the same time you’ll have learned what you did wrong, and know what to do when you get to the same point again. And although dying is part of the natural order, you quickly realize that you need to be careful, and every action whether it be stepping off a ridge or the swing of a sword must be taken into hefty consideration. Combat isn’t about who can swing their weapon the hardest; it’s about timing and execution, every action is beautifully animated, and enemies can be both unpredictable and deadly in their riposte. And no, you can’t simply sit behind your shield and wait for the right time; your equipment wears and needs to be repaired, and there are some attacks you simply won’t be able to block. You can dodge some attacks, but time it wrong and you’re going to take the full brunt, and that can be the difference between life and death.
So you might think that dying in Demon’s Souls is no big deal; just respawn and try again, right? Sure, you can respawn, but the consumables you’ve used won’t return, and most importantly you’ll have lost the world’s greatest commodity – souls. Souls are the biggest commodity in the game, you can buy new weapons, ammo, spells and pay for item repairs with them, but most importantly you use them to develop your character; as you carry on through the game you’ll need more and more souls with each additional level. At the start of the game, you start at a Soul Level which is dependent on which class you chose, and it generally only costs you a few hundred souls to upgrade, but as I stand now at a soul level of 104, I need around 64,000 souls to upgrade by only one level. I get more souls from each enemy, now that I’m in my New Game+ state, but they’re now harder, and with greater gain comes greater risk of you losing everything you worked hard, and possibly in one fell swoop.
I could go on about how incredibly testing Demon’s Souls can be on a player, and I know that there are some out there who will simply give up on the game, unwilling to tolerate its unrelenting nature. I know how they feel, I know because I was there too; by the time I reached the second boss who swiftly killed me in two hits, I put the game aside and thought “how the hell am I supposed to beat that?”, but after searching around on the wonderfully comprehensive Demon’s Souls Wiki (which I can’t recommend enough to anyone out there who wishes to master this game), I found some advice, and next time I made my way to the Tower Knight I was optimistic yet ever cautious about the approaching battle, and I took him down and claimed his soul. I can say with all honesty, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a sense of accomplishment from doing something in a game.
Demon’s Souls success doesn’t lie solely on the gameplay and accomplishments, it also has one of the most innovative and original online components I’ve seen in a RPG. You can play the game offline, but in doing so you miss out; when you’re online you can see the ghosts of other warriors passing through in real time, and everyone can leave messages on the floor from a prescribed list (which is actually a great way to avoid players trolling). These messages can warn people of upcoming obstacles, falls or even strategies on how to approach certain enemies. You can even mislead others into a false sense of security by leaving fake messages, but this doesn’t mean the world is littered everywhere you step with them; people can rate messages, and low rated messages will disappear. Not only that, but people within your range of Soul Level can assist you in your quest, they can leave blue signs on the ground and you can summon them to lend a hand, doing so gets them souls, and of course lessens the load of an otherwise overbearing boss. Not all is camaraderie in the world of Demon’s Souls though; just as you can summon others to help, people can invade your world as a Black Phantom, and attempt to kill you and take all your souls, when this happens a message will flash on your screen and they will hunt you down in your own world, from this point on you’re left to defend yourself, it’s exhilarating and unique, and adds to the feeling of ever looming threat and the prospect that while the world you inhabit is your own, there are others there to both help and hinder you.
I could honestly go on about Demon’s Souls, it’s truly a magnificent game and one that no PS3 owner should go without; more to the point, Demon’s Souls is important not only as an RPG with its incredibly innovative online features, but for games as a whole. I remember a couple of days after playing it, I was speaking to someone about and said “I’ve not played a game so hard since the original MegaMan games” and it dawned on me that I wasn’t just being facetious, I genuinely hadn’t. I’ve been playng video games for nearly 20 years, and I can say with all confidence (and this is where I start to sound old) that games simply aren’t as hard as they used to be, and this isn’t a good thing. What’s a game without a challenge? It’s a moving picture which you can make little characters move around with no consideration of actions or consequence within the world (hence why we get so many people exploiting certain game mechanics, in order to achieve something few others have). A lot of people mistake difficulty for how long you have to grind to build your character’s level up, or even by the achievements or trophies included with the game. Demon’s Souls does have its trophies, but compared to the colossal sense of achievement that comes with slaying that mighty foe that once eluded you, they are nothing. Demon’s Souls is a hard game, but it’s all the richer for it. Why? Because you have to work hard in Demon’s Souls if you want something out of it; people afraid of a challenge need not apply, but those looking for a game that will test their mettle, and their aptitude as a gamer cannot go without playing this. When you see those credits roll at the end, you’ll feel both relieved and satisfied that you’re now one of us few who can proudly proclaim “I have beaten Demon’s Souls“, and when they’ve finished you find yourself back in the Nexus with all your stats and equipment, and the world’s that bit harsher with stronger enemies and higher stakes, and you can’t wait to do it all again.
My only complaint; every other game’s going to feel like a walk in the park after this…