Once upon a time, games were designed to kick your ass. Either they were arcade titles hungry for quarters, or difficult console games determined to show you how miserable life could be before save points. We’ve come a long way since then; autosaves, checkpoints, regenerating health, and generally easier games have lulled some of us into a state of security. Demon’s Souls, on the other hand, is going to change all that. There are a few modern games that really are brutal, and this action RPG is destined to take the crown from Ninja Gaiden and its legendary boss fights. It may be a PS3 game, but Demon’s Souls is as old-school as it gets. Is it worth wading through the pain to get to the meat of the game?
Demon’s Souls takes place in the fantasy realm of Boletaria, a country where the ominous Old One has awoken, stealing human souls and creating armies of demons to take over the land. It’s a dangerous place, but many mercenaries and heroes have seized the opportunity for adventure. That’s where the player comes in – character creation lends a wealth of options to our would-be hero. Starting classes range from full-on action characters to wise mages, and everywhere in between. Once a class has been chosen, however, progression is entirely up to the player, meaning that a wizard could train strength and dexterity every time they level up. It’s a great system, although the freedom it allows could end up leaving people with unplayable characters. It’s the first way Demon’s Souls tries to screw you over, but thankfully, it’s one of the only subtle ones.
The rest of the time, Demon’s Souls will just throw horrible monsters at you. Stepping into the first level in the game, you’ll be presented with not one, but two dragons. Fighting these is a stupid idea, so running past them is a good option – until one of them decides it’s time to attack you. Of course, it’s possible to come back to each level after they’ve been completed, but even a high level character should balk at the sight of two building-sized dragons bellowing fire in their face. And they’re not the only problem, either – every map is filled with enemy soldiers, zombies, wolves, and other nasty foes, not to mention traps… This game pulls no punches, and death will happen often. Levels consist of large stages to push your way through, each ending with a terrifying boss fight that will require swift thinking and combat skills. While Demon’s Souls is primarily an action game, every encounter has an element of problem-solving to it – different characters will have to approach each stage differently. A strong knight could fight his way through a crowd of soldiers; an archer, on the other hand, would be best served by sneaking around and picking them off from behind. Regardless of what class you choose, though, you’ll be dying a lot.
However, death in Demon’s Souls isn’t a game over. In fact, players will probably spend most of their time “dead”. When a character dies, they simply lose their body – they can still function fully in “spirit form”, a ghostly version of the character who can still fight like a living adventurer, albeit with a stunted amount of HP and a decidedly lighter complexion. The real punishment in death is losing soul points, which operate like experience points. There is also a system called Tendency, which is similar to a morality gauge. Light Tendency will reduce the strength of demons within levels, making combat easier and experience points more plentiful. Sounds great, except Dark Tendency makes more difficult monsters appear in levels that drop better loot. What to do, what to do?
Online is where the game’s unique features really shine. When you die, your corpse leaves a bloodstain. This bloodstain can be touched to regain all of the souls you lost by dying there; a bit like a corpse run. However, these bloodstains don’t just appear in your game – they appear all over other players’ games as well. Touching a bloodstain belonging to another hero reveals their death animation in full, serving as a warning to other people trekking through the dungeon. Messages can also be left for players to find, leaving hints and tips for particularly hard fights or puzzles. These comments can be upvoted, meaning that good ones stay visible and stupid ones disappear, a la Reddit or Digg. The online features don’t stop there, though.
Online play in Demon’s Souls is unlike anything else on the market today, for better or worse. It features no matchmaking and no server lists, so modern conventions are entirely thrown out of the window – instead, sociable players have two options: search for a player in need, or break into someone’s world. Cooperative play brings characters together with an objective, i.e. kill the boss. The matchups are within ten levels of each other; other than that, they’re entirely random. The same goes for versus play, although it’s a lot more interesting: you can literally force your way into someone’s game, where the objective becomes… kill or be killed. The defending player will have to complete their objective or face their attacker, and the invader must stop their prey from completing their objective. Attackers only have one shot at this, alleviating any possible chance for griefers to target one player over and over, and even the most cunning invading players will have to be careful. The game sets you up with players within ten levels of your character, meaning you could waltz in on three people enjoying a co-op game who also happen to be much stronger than you. The balance between these online modes is fantastic, as well as unique. While it doesn’t have any sort of friends list, the options presented are intriguing.
While the hacking, slashing, leveling, and dying sound like they belong in an NES cartridge, the presentation of Demon’s Souls fits right in on modern consoles. The graphics are stunningly beautiful in places, with rolling vistas and majestic castles looming in the distance. The characters, both playable and unplayable, are extremely detailed, and everything animates wonderfully. Demon’s Souls truly makes use of the PS3′s hardware, and the contrast between each level boasts artistic brilliance as well. The music is quite good too, albeit a tad generic in spots. The visuals, on the other hand, impress consistently – Demon’s Souls is a treat for the eyes.
Demon’s Souls may make you throw controllers. It could possibly make you hate everything you’ve ever loved. It will probably make you yell curse words very, very loudly. It’s also some of the best fun to be had on the PS3. It’s difficult by design, and it never really feels cheap; every problem has a solution, and the journey is undeniably fun. A game that uses the same points for buying items as it does for leveling up (yes, Souls are currency as well as XP) may sound like an exercise in torture, but Demon’s Souls may just make a sadomasochist out of you.