Rolls right off the tongue
Games aren’t hard these days. I’m not really going to ruffle anyone’s feathers with a statement like that. Sure, there are examples of games that are quite difficult, but the large majority of major releases have a difficulty curve level enough to build a sky scraper on. But there are two different kinds of difficulty: legitimate difficulty and asshole difficulty. Most hard games have a mixture of both, but the asshole difficulty stuff usually comes from poor design decisions or bugs. Demon’s Souls’ difficulty is different in that the asshole difficulty is intentional, and it revels in it.
Demon’s Souls is a 3rd person dungeon crawler developed by From Software, some Japanese dudes that don’t really deal in weeaboo paraphernalia. Apparently, it was developed as a ‘spiritual successor’ (what is the deal with this phrase in the video game business?) to a previous series by the developer called King’s Field. I’ll have to take their word for it, having never played or even heard of said series. It’s only on PS3 as well, so sorry, poor Xboxen, you miss out on a pretty sweet game.
Like most dungeon crawlers, it’s all about getting loot, raising your stats, and overcoming increasingly difficult situations. The currency of the game is souls, which you acquire from killing enemies. You can use the souls to buy weapons, armour, level up your character, and buy spells. Using one resource for pretty much everything in the game creates an interesting dynamic. Do you level up, buy a spell, get more gear? It’s a genuinely difficult decision to make, rather than just building up enough cash to get the next best thing.
An unusual part of Demon’s Souls is the level structure. Most dungeon crawlers are fairly linear, but Demon’s Souls has 5 different worlds that you can attempt in any order, although there usually is a recommended order in guides and whatnot, but they’re not super important. Each world has 4 sections, and if one section becomes too difficult and you’d like to try another level, you’re free to do so. Some levels have a very dark and somewhat unsettling atmosphere. It’s not quite horror stuff, but you will feel vulnerable and alone. There’s very sparse use of music too, so it’s usually up to ambiance to set the mood. The sound design isn’t as good as something like, say, Limbo, but it’s still quite effective.
Stats from leveling up and gear play a very important part in Demon’s Souls. Don’t expect a simple set of stats; like many Japanese games, it falls into the trap of stat complexity. They affect everything from movement speed, to health regeneration, what items you can use, how much armour you can wear, what types of damage you can do, how much that type of damage is increased on a weapon depending on what primary stat is uses. It’s all very confusing, and you will refer to a manual or guide frequently.
One of the major elements of Demon’s Souls is soul mode. If you die, you lose your body, your collected souls and you’re sent back to the beginning of the level. You’re also revived in soul mode with 50% of your regular health. The only way to regain your body is by killing a boss or using a rare-ish item called Stone of Ephemeral Eyes. Yeah, you can’t just pick up your body Diablo style and continue on your merry way (you do leave behind a blood stain, however, which you can find to recover your lost souls), you have to kill a god-damn-boss. Doesn’t sound very fair, does it? And you have to do it with half your health! THIS GAME IS SUCH AN ASSHOLE. There is a ring that you can use to increase your health in soul mode though, which you can find quite early on.
Increasing the difficulty at fairly annoying times can come from the most unlikely place: the online mode. Demon’s Souls is essentially a single player game, yet it has this bizarre online component that kind of straddles the line between co-op/MMO and Singe Player With Benefits. If you’re in meatbag mode, you can use an item to summon other players in soul mode (2 players max, I think) to your ‘world’. Once there, they can assist you in defeating thine enemies, earning them some souls and reviving them once they help you kill the boss. But, if you’re in soul mode, you can use an item that allows you to ‘break in’ to other player’s world, allowing you to kill them in the game’s version of PvP. Like everything else in Demon’s Souls, it’s very cutthroat and unforgiving. The players that have invaded are called “black phantoms” and are ignored by the enemies in your world, meaning they can lead you in to some sticky situations that seriously stack the odds in their favour.
It’s probably the only part of the game that I genuinely dislike. While dying in Demon’s Souls is almost always expressly your fault, and improving as a player or adjusting your strategy usually allows you to progress, Black Phantoms can bust in at any moment and kill you at the most inopportune moment. A lot of the time, you need to adjust your gear so that you are effective in PvP, but I’ve come across many situations where that just wasn’t possible and I was faced with defeating a player that was more than prepared for a fine cup of Kicking Your Ass. Since you can’t get attacked by other players in soul mode, it lead to me playing in meatbag mode offline and soul mode online, which you can’t just switch between either, you need to quit out and log in to PSN, then load your game.
Aside from that, you can leave messages on the ground which you can compose from predetermined words and phrases (You can’t just write whatever you want. So sorry, dudes that just want to write “cock” everywhere.) which other players can rate. Another player rating your message heals you, so leaving a well placed message warning of an ambush or a precarious cliff can be quite useful.
Combat works pretty much how you’d imagine it. You’ve got swords, axes, spears, shields, all that stuff. You hit crap, it dies. You just have to choose between a regular strike, and a heavy, slower strike. You’ve got a targeting system you can engage by clicking down the R3 button, but you don’t need to use it all the time, it just helps with blocking and makes you a little more accurate when you’re trying to hit stuff. When you cast spells, you have to switch to a different, wand type weapon to use them, so you can’t attack with melee weapons in between spell casts, you gotta plan that shit out. On top of the usual health and mana bars, you’ve got a stamina bar, which is quickly becoming a staple in this sort of game, for better or worse, but it works really well in Demon’s Souls.
Attacking too much will drain your stamina to a point where if you try to block, you’ll become staggered and sometimes your guard will get broken entirely, which can seriously fuck you up on a boss. Planning out your strikes in preparation of an enemy’s attack so that you have plenty of stamina to block it or dodge it is always a concern. Combat becomes this strange exercise in nervous clairvoyance, predicting your enemy’s movements and reacting accordingly, rather than just attacking and ‘reacting’ by healing yourself when your health gets low, because normal enemies can almost always kill you without too much trouble if you’re not careful. You can’t just use a potion in the middle of a fight without interruption.
Those of you worried about value for money needn’t fret; the game can be played through infinitely, increasing in difficulty every time. There’s a variety of items you can create by using blacksmiths and you WILL end up missing a ton of cool items that you’ll want to find on the next play through. There’s a myriad of secrets that will take several play throughs to discover. Demon’s Souls is perhaps the best value for money that you’ll experience on this generation of consoles.
Probably the best part of Demon’s Souls is the feeling of accomplishment. You spend the game in a constant state of hyper alert quasi-panic and the idea of dying half way through a level seems unthinkable and defeatist. The need for survival is reflected in your heart’s pounding as you try your hardest to survive, exploiting anything you can to do so, from terrain to ranged weapons. When you actually do die, it’s such a punishing feeling that you can’t help but scream “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK”. Many of you that attempt this game for the first time might become frustrated to the point of turning the console off and throwing the disc out of the window, but once you’re rid of Demon’s Souls, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. Demon’s Souls has a strange, alluring power that makes you want to play it and defeat it, even if you hate it. But, once you hit your groove and the frustrations become merely obstacles, that hate will become love. You will love this game. I love this game. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play it.