Taking place in a dark, foreboding and generally unpleasant world infested by demons and other nasties, Demon’s Souls is an action-RPG that’s very different from many similar titles. Sadly, though, until a European publisher picks up the title, the only option for playing this PS3 exclusive is to import it, either from Japan or the US. This is certainly worth it, though, as Demon’s Souls is one of the most enjoyable and unique RPGs I’ve played in a very, very long time.
Most reviews of this game have always begun with a single fact – this game is hard. This is a fact that I can’t disagree with. Well, not totally anyway. You see, Demon’s Souls is perhaps the single most unforgiving and downright brutal title I’ve ever seen. It treats new players with nothing but disdain and proceeds, with a sadomasochistic streak of hatred, to punish players at every single opportunity. I mean, come on, how many other games kill you off in the tutorial level?
Cor blimey, guv’nor, it’s a bit tough!
This isn’t simply about starting at the deep end as such. Oh, no. Demon’s Souls first smears you in blood and barbeque sauce, ties lead weights around your ankles and then throws you into the deep end of a pool… a pool infested with demonic and ravenous piranhas.
You may think I’m being a little over dramatic, and you may be right, but trust me, this game is, initially at least, very difficult, indeed.
From Software have crafted a title that bears no mind to newcomers or RPG virgins, and even experienced players will feel the full force of the game’s unrelenting difficulty. But why is this, and why is it fun?
Ok, for a start, this game is all about dying, often, over and over, and in many ways. The story involves an evil fog that’s surrounded the land and the reawakening of a great evil demon. This has caused the world to become infested with monstrous creatures and lesser demons. Several warriors have braved this fog to try and slay the evil tyrant, but have, so far, been unsuccessful. This is where you come in.
Step boldly forth
As a lone adventurer your goal is to explore the five large worlds, slaying demons and tracking down the bosses. These are large, powerful demons that need to be slain in order to proceed and do battle with the cause of the world’s perilous situation.
After choosing your starting class, such as the slow and powerful barbarian, well-rounded knight, stealthy thief and other varied options, you progress through the game and kill demons, amassing the game’s single and essential currency – souls. These souls are used for everything, from buying supplies, weapons and armour, to levelling up your character and learning new abilities and spells. This is a very important element, and is both the major source of your salvation and the crux of the game’s real sadistic streak.
You exist in the game in two forms – alive and as a soul (read: dead). As a live warrior you have more health and can make use of the game’s rather unique multiplayer co-op options (more on this later), whilst in soul mode you have less health, but can offer your services to others. To regain your living form you have to defeat a major demon (or help others to do so), which is far harder than it sounds.
Life after death, after death
When you die in the game it’s not actually game over. Instead, you’re revived at the beginning of the level. Any souls you collected before you died (you can also die as a soul) are lost. Well, that’s not entirely true. If you can make it back to the site of your death without dying again, you can regain all of your lost souls. Die before you make this pilgrimage, though, and all those souls are gone. This isn’t easy, either, as all the enemies you’ve killed in the level will all be back and ready for more.
Now, this loss of souls isn’t such a problem at first, but as you progress through the game, and fight more dangerous foes and collect hundreds of thousands of souls, (which you need to level up, as the cost increases with each level), this soon changes.
Should you then lose all these souls, the sense of loss and frustration is something quite awesome to behold. There’s no bank in the game, and so any souls you collect can only be carried around. This leads to one of the most unnerving and frightening game experiences you’ll ever undergo, and a title that forces you to take big risks.
Never before has the fear of what’s around the next corner been so real. In Demon’s Souls, you really do value your life, and the feeling of trepidation you experience exploring and the hesitation you’re overcome by before entering a battle with a new boss is something I’ve never felt in any other game. Add to this the fact that even the lowliest of enemies in the game, right from the very first foes, can easily kill you, and you have a game that isn’t just challenging, it’s almost impossible – almost.
At first you may think the game is unplayable, and sadly, I fear many players will be put off right away. With time, however, and as you begin to get used to things, the game does open up. The difficulty does subside a little, and although the game is always very challenging, you soon become accustomed to it, and while at first the game seems to give you no aid whatsoever, you soon find little glimmers of hope.
Rare items can be found that can transport you back to the Nexus (the game’s safe haven hub) without losing your souls, and other items can restore your character to a living form, eliminating the need to rely on defeating powerful demons to come back from soul form. More powerful weapons can be found and there’s a range of magical rings that can help greatly, with the thief’s ring being a staple of most Demon’s Souls players, as it makes it harder for enemies to detect you.
The first step to increasing your chances of survival is to master the game’s combat system. This is a great setup, and handles in a similar way to Nintendo’s 3D Zelda series. You can wield an item in each hand, and the left and right bumper buttons correspond to each. You can hold a sword in your right hand and a shield in your left, or ditch the shield and go for a magic wand. Weapons can be used with two hands, useful for large swords and axes, increasing their power.
As you swing weapons, block attacks and run, your stamina decreases. When it’s zero you won’t be able to attack and need to wait for it to regenerate. This doesn’t take long, though, and as you level up you’ll gain more and more stamina, not to mention health, magic and other important RPG stats.
With a tap of the right stick you can lock on to foes and can circle around them, manoeuvring for the right time to strike. This lock on also helps use range weapons such as bows and magic, and there’s also a first-person aiming mode for bows.
Learning the attacks and habits of your foes is essential, too, and you’ll need to block, parry and avoid blows, looking for the right time to attack. Different weapons are useful against different foes, so a great deal of tactical play comes into the mix. This tactical thought isn’t an optional component, though, as it is in many similar titles. If you’re going to proceed in Demon’s Souls, you simply cannot go forth as a mindless button masher; you need real skill and the ability to learn and adapt your fighting style.
Why is the world against me?
It’s not just foes that can hamper your progress, either. The environments have plenty of traps and pitfalls for you to contend with, and with the aforementioned punishment for dying being so stiff, you always have to be on guard for such traps.
Another novel feature is ‘World Tendency’. Depending on your actions (and those of other players online at the time) the world’s tendencies will switch from white to black. These tendencies can alter the various levels, opening up otherwise inaccessible areas, making it possible to meet powerful NPC characters (both friendly and not so friendly), and triggering tendency events. This not only adds to replay value, but also keeps the game world fresh.
World tendency events are often ways to find rare items, and the tendency also affects enemies. White tendency worlds contain foes that are less powerful and more docile, whilst black tendency areas will feature more powerful and aggressive foes.
Message in a bottle
I’ve mentioned the online component briefly already, and this is one of the game’s most notable features. Online support has never been handled quite like this before. Demon’s Souls has no standard online play as such, and so you can’t group up in a lobby and then go questing. Instead, as you wander around your world you’ll see ghostly images of other players running around. As well as this, you’ll also see bloodstains scattered around. Touching these lets you see the last few seconds of the other players life, letting you see how they died. This can be very useful, and can often warn you of dangerous enemies ahead, or traps lying in wait.
The message system is even more useful, and as you wander around you can see messages left by other users. These may be warnings of danger up ahead, hints of tactics to use, or cryptic tips.
By pressing select you can leave your own messages for other players to see. These messages are built up using a selection of pre-set phrases such as ‘Beware the enemy’s ambush’ or ‘There’s treasure ahead’, and if users find your messages helpful they can recommend your message. If your messages are recommended, you’ll get some health back, which is nice. These messages can be a huge help as you wander around, and it’s a novel and well thought out feature.
Actual player interaction is possible too. As I mentioned earlier, when in soul form you’re able to offer your services to other living players. By casting a soul sign message on the floor, other users are able to see this and can summon you as a blue phantom to their game world. You can then fight alongside them and, if you help them defeat a major demon, you’re sent back to your own world and brought back to life.
If you’re a living hero you can also summon others to help you (a maximum of two). Again, this can be of great help when fighting bosses, and it’s a quid pro quo arrangement. You defeat a troublesome boss, and your helpers get some souls and their living forms back. Genius.
However, this player interaction isn’t all hat-tipping and camaraderie. Soul form players can also use a special stone to invade another living player’s game at any time. As a ‘black phantom’ the goal is to find and kill the living player. Do so and you’ll regain your living form, lose and you’re sent back to your own world. This invasion by other players is a constant threat and cannot be opted out of. If you play online and you’re in living form, be prepared to defend yourself at any time.
As you can see, even the multiplayer mode, whilst often helpful, can make Demon’s Souls a nightmare, upping the difficulty even more, and further solidifies the game’s difficulty level, placing it up there with the likes of Ninja Gaiden.
What I really do need to emphasise here, though, is that this really isn’t a problem as it can be in lesser games. Demon’s Souls difficulty is high, sure, but the game isn’t unfair. It doesn’t cheat or impose ridiculous hindrances on you, and if you die it’s always your fault. Boss battles can be excruciatingly difficult, but there’s always a way to win. It’s just a matter of analysing the demon’s attacks and movements and discovering its weakness, or calling in help from other players.
There are some irritating problems present, though, such as a dodgy lock-on camera and the inability to sell any items for more souls. There’s also an issue that can disconnect you randomly, disabling the games online functions, but aside from these gripes, Demon’s Souls is a hugely addictive and entertaining title, not to mention a good looking and sounding one.
If you put the effort in to get to grips with the game (and it does take a lot of effort), you’ll find one of the best RPGs of recent times and one of the best games on the PS3. Let’s just hope the game gets an official release in Europe.