Demon's Souls (2009, PS3)

By doubleEXP / April 28, 2010

When I got this game I'd heard it was excellent, I'd heard it was hard, and I'd heard I better get used to seeing "You Died" a lot. I thought I was prepared. I was not.
   The first several nights of trying to learn this game I was on the verge of taking it back to the store and demanding a refund. It just seemed harsh beyond reason. However, bit by bit, I started to make progress. I learned how to roll, how to block, when to sprint, when to make a regular attack, when to make a strong attack, and the importance of positioning. The game became comprehensible; admirable even, in a brutal way. For, even after mastering your basic moves and learning the movements of the enemies in the first area, they can still kill you quite quickly if you take them lightly. You learn that every death is, ultimately, a result of something you did (or did not) do, and so each death becomes a learning experience. The game is not cheap, you just need to adapt.

   This is a game about killing demons and taking their souls. You will slay (and be slain by) both the rank-and-file demonic denizens of a world gone mad and the demon lords that hold the key to moving on to the next areas. Every move and every moment has weight. Every death is harsh, but every victory is that much sweeter for it. When you first learn to roll past and then backstab an opponent that used to trouble you, well, the feeling is great. When you finally master a shield-bash followed by a riposte it is among the most satisfying feelings you'll get from a videogame.
   The graphics are excellent and the animations are crisp, which is crucial in a game of inches like Demon's Souls. It also helps with atmosphere and immersion. While the actual amount of narrative is thin — it is not pounded into your head with endless voice-overs and cutscenes — it is there and it's compelling. There is a sense of mood and place in Demon's Souls that's rarely achieved in a videogame. What makes it even better is you are almost always in control; you rarely sit there just watching the screen like in so many other modern games that are cutscene-heavy. When you do, the scenes are brief, well done and they have impact. Similarly, the music is sparse, but the music you do hear is quite good. The sparsity of the music is actually quite important, since listening for audible cues from the environment is key. Often the only sounds you'll hear will be the rushing of the wind, the tinkling of water, or distant crickets. Then, when you hear the sound of shuffling feet, your heart will be pounding. The voice acting that is in the game is by and large excellent. The scenery is epic in its ability to convey a world overrun by demons and the collapse of medieval civilization. What makes your role in the game work is that you come to feel that you are really there, part of something big. After all, you are there to kill demons for a reason: if you fail the fog will spread and the demons will consume the souls of every living being left in the world. You're not going to let that happen are you? The few sane characters that you do meet are realized well, and help further your feeling of being in a world on the edge of extinction.
   In many ways this game is like a combination of a really good survival horror game, a really good action-adventure game, and a really good ARPG. This game is better at making you feel like you are playing a role than most modern self-called RPGs are. Yes, there are stats in this game, and yes there is gear (and gear upgrades), but those things are secondary in importance to player skill. And in that respect — the reliance on player skill — the game feels more like an action-adventure or even like a fighting game. Only you don't fight in a tiny area or a fighting ring. You are fighting in a compelling world full of nooks and crannies, traps and dead-ends, vast vistas and claustrophobic tunnels. In addition to all that, this game will surprise you, even scare you for a moment, like a good survival horror game will. You really need to experience this.
   Most importantly, your progress as a player in Demon's Souls is a very satisfying one. From mastering your moves (and when to use them), to upgrading your stats, to upgrading (and even transforming) your weapons, every facet of the mechanics has been carefully balanced. The character creation system is incredibly robust allowing you to pick from a variety of starting classes and a gender, and then giving you complete control over the facial features of your character. It is very powerful and I spent hours tinkering with the possibilities before settling into my character of choice. You then have a brief tutorial adventure which helps you learn your first moves and collect your first souls and then... You will more than likely die, and that's the way the game wants it.
   However, death is no excuse for slacking off in Demon's Souls. When you die you enter soul form. Soul form, at first, seems like a pure negative: your appearance becomes ghostly and your hit points are capped at half the amount you had in your living form. However, you move very silently while in soul form and you can find an item to mitigate the amount of hit points your life total is reduced by. So, soul form is not all bad. In any event, trust me: you'll get used to being in soul form.
   After the tutorial you will awaken in the Nexus. The Nexus is a history-rich hub populated with characters that have varying degrees of relevance to your adventure. The single most important figure in the Nexus is the Maiden in Black, whom you will come to know well. She and others in the Nexus will teach you about the game, the world's history, and your role in it.
   There are so many ways to play this game. You could create a character that is focused on magic, or a character that specializes in dual-handed melee combat, or a character that fights with a shield in one hand and a one-handed weapon in the other, or you could focus on archery to a large extent, or you could focus on stealth... And there are many nuances that you can choose to develop as you move forward. The great thing is the game is so well designed that you can viably pick just about any route and expect to have success — if you develop your skills to the point where you are able to make your character build work for you. The game hands you nothing, you have to earn it. However, the fact that there are multiple ways to play makes the experience even richer.
   If you have heard about this game — that it is good but that it is too hard — do not be dissuaded from getting it. Get it. Give it at least four or five play sessions before drawing your conclusion. Accept that you will die and you will die often at first and it will be easier to take. I guarantee you, if you stick to it and develop your skills, within a week you will undergo a transformation that you probably haven't undergone in videogames in years, if ever. This is easily the best videogame I have played in years. The learning curve is steep, but the rewards are commensurate. If you own a PS3 and you are tired of easy/vacuous games and yearn for a truly hands-on videogame cut from the cloth of old-school gaming (but with current-gen graphics) then this is it. This game gets better the more you play it, making the experience one that is sublime. This is the first game of this generation of consoles that has come this close to perfectly combining the power of this gen with the mechanical excellence that has always marked the most satisfying of videogames. It truly is that great.