Review: Demon’s Souls

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It’s nearly winter here. The trees are mostly bare, cold winds rustle dried leaves, and everyone is getting ready to deal with the ice and snow that it inevitably brings. Around these parts, it’s a yearly ritual that brings both pain and joy to our particular corner of the world.

Demon’s Souls comes off as the season of winter pressed onto a blu-ray disc with the freezing rain, white outs, and ditched cars stuck on the side of the road that help define it. It’s usually below freezing and salted ice forms up on your mudflaps like barnacles before breaking away to leave behind a surprise for the person following you, just as an eighteen wheeler did for you a few miles earlier. Many loathe it with the kind of hate that would defrost their cars on their way in to work.

But it’s also the favorite time of the year for others that love snowball fights, ski trips, snowmen, and warming up with a mug of cocoa. I loved it when I heard that my school was one of those closed, usually because the roads had gotten so bad or that the same water main that had broken the year before had done the same thing again. But in our small world, it was a temporary reprieve, and Demon’s Souls is filled with just enough of these to find joy within its brutal season of gameplay.

Demon’s Souls isn’t for the impatient. It’s not for people that don’t want to feel as if they’re inches away from success only to have it often taken away from them at the last second, pushing them even harder if they haven’t broken their controller yet. But it’s not so hard so as to be a masked attempt at humiliating its players. In some ways, it shares a lot in common with an old-school 2D title on the NES, right down to the respawning enemies.

Demon’s Souls’ hardcore attitude refuses to coddle you. Death is as much a part of the festivities as is dispatching the shambling, soulless things that stand in your way. Its deep character development and crafting system, open world hub, provide enough glimmers of hope to string players along and its gothic aesthetics brilliantly stain its fantasy world with plenty of Prozac inducing gloom while leaving you crying at the same time for rolling off of the edge of a cliff while dodging an enemy.

The story is simple: in the Kingdom of Boletaria, Old King Allant has dared to use forbidden magic, inadvertently awakening a demonic power known only as the Old One. As the hero, it’s up to you to journey across five different worlds in an effort to lull the Lovecraftian Old One back to sleep by killing the primal demon in each, all the while slaking your thirst for hack ‘n slash. It’s bare bones stuff, but shrewdly presents everything in-game by using the unique environments as well as its twisted collection of enemies to tell it.

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Picking a character class is only a leg up on how you would like to play the game and how easy it might be at the beginning. Eventually, you will be able to improve your stats, craft new weapons, and purchase supplies in order to tailor your character with the souls taken from your enemies. You might start out as a Mage, but finish the game dual wielding the most powerful swords in the game while wearing its mightiest armor…as long as you’re strong enough to avoid moving like a glacier in combat.

Death is introduced as a play mechanic not too unlike the similar discipline explored in Quantic Dreams’ Omikron. On dying, you’re reincarnated back at the Nexus or the nearest Archstone within each region which can make it a handy travel technique if you don’t want to waste the time in walking back or lack the spell to return. Every death also robs you of the souls that you might be carrying around.

Fortunately, Demon’s Souls cuts you a little slack by leaving a bloodstain behind at roughly where you had died. If you can get back to it and touch it, you can reclaim your undead booty as long as you don’t die again. Death also refreshes all of the monsters that you may have killed in that area just in case you thought that you might only have to walk on back, changing the dynamics of why it’s not a good idea to die while carrying a load of precious, juicy souls.

And you will die a lot, though there’s no shame in that, but its open nature also requires you to exercise a little responsibility. You can easily break your playthrough and make things much harder on yourself by using everyone as a personal target. I started my game over after taking out someone that I shouldn’t have. He had it coming – after all, he shoved me down a hole to die before I escaped to backstab him — only realizing much later that he wasn’t coming back.

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Demon’s Souls doesn’t forgive mistakes and one way it enforces this merciless rule is by saving to only one, unchangeable slot. The game saves when you quit out, when you pick up something, or do something special like kill a massive boss. Since you only have one slot to record your exploits, anyone hoping to see what happens if you kill Ed the Blacksmith for kicks and then hoping to reload later may weep when they discover that the game has forced them to live with the consequences.

One reason why it leaves itself so open to the player’s interpretation of what they should and shouldn’t do lends itself to the World Tendencies that each ‘world’ has depending on certain actions. The more “white” and pristine a world appears in the status menu, the weaker the enemies will be and certain events may open up that weren’t available earlier.

But if it is black, as every world was during Halloween as a special event, Black Phantoms come out to play. These appear as black shadows of certain enemies outlined in glowing red and hit much harder than those they are based on. Ordinary enemies become tougher making each world considerably tougher to overcome. Certain Black Phantoms are downright lethal, able to kill careless players in one or two hits.

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Taking this experience across the network also delivers as much fun and as much grief.

Online, players can leave simple messages based on a preset list of words and phrases warning of dangers ahead or clue others in to the weaknesses of certain bosses. What they scribble in their game is seen by everyone else, although the messages cycle through and are cleaned up on occasion so that hallways don’t look like they were made up of slices leftover from the west side of the former Berlin Wall. Bloodstains of other players will also be left behind for you to touch (although their souls remain theirs) and act as a voyeur of death in watching just how they had died, perhaps helping you in avoiding the same fate.

White phantoms can also be seen for a few seconds at a time, running down hallways or through empty ruins, each one representing a real-life player playing the game elsewhere giving Demon’s Souls’ ghostly ambiance an even deeper sense of vacationing in Hades while playing up its story’s multiversal angle at the same time.

This also has its downside, one that lives up to the hunger for souls and the thirst for power that the story is surrounded with when other players invade your game as Black Phantoms themselves.

The reason why anyone would want to do that is to regain their body and earn some extra souls. When you have your body, you have all of your hit points which is always a good thing since as a spirit, your health bar is crippled. But in defeating a player, you not only earn souls as a reward but it also drains the other player of a soul level for an additional humiliation. Soul levels represent the number of times that you had improved your character’s statistics, so in a way, its your “level” in the game. Depending on how high the lost level is, a corresponding number of souls are given over to the winning invader making it easy to guess why some choose to hunt other players in this way.

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Of course, there are ways to banish the other soul from your game (or simply quit out and play offline), but it certainly adds an undeniably nervous edge to staying connected with a body, if only to see how long you can hold onto it while leaving you to wonder whether it will be lost to a boss or to another player hungry for souls when you least expect it.

But this also opens opportunities for players that want to help others, not only through messages, but by leaving invitations to bring them into a game to aid in taking down a boss as a friendly, albeit bodiless, Blue Phantom. As a Blue Phantom, you can also earn souls for successfully tackling a boss, making it a fun and cooperative venture for both players.

From Software’s flirtation with turning its players into Grim Reapers, first through Otogi and now with Demon’s Souls, has certainly created unique experiences that stand far and away from anything else that asks to serve up evil with the edge of a sword or burned to ashes with a well timed spell. The cold, winter chill that they’ve delivered with Demon’s Souls is not quite as unrelenting thanks to the warm respites that its leveling and crafting system offer in keeping players alive.

And just as Spring creeps up on me every year, so did I start to notice that I was doing a lot less dying and a lot more mauling the closer I came to the end. Brutal bosses fell before a blade sharpened with rare ores wielded in the hand of a stat-enhanced warrior fueled by souls, making this particular snowball fight a little easier to weather, but no less challenging, when it threw the gauntlet down again.

Demon’s Souls
PS3
Atlus / From Software
Rated M for Mature