Demon's Souls Review
When the game first launched in Japan, we were immediately impressed by the number of high scores and widespread critical acclaim. Ever since, we’ve been aching to get our hands on this ultra-promising PlayStation 3-exclusive RPG from developer From Software and Atlus, a publisher that has continually catered to the hardcore role-playing fan for many years. Demon’s Souls is no exception, as it’s deep enough to satisfy even the most ardent and dedicated fan and challenging enough to make even the most capable sweat with nervousness and frustration. Therefore, I need to make something abundantly clear right from the start: if you are a veteran RPG fan and have always embraced titles that are the very epitome of depth and overall difficulty, this really is the game you’ve been waiting for. If you’re one of those people who have said in passing, “gee, I think I might like to try an RPG some day,” Demon’s Souls is not the introduction to the genre you require. No, this is a reward to the loyalists; to the true fans who will undoubtedly crave every ounce of this production.
Although From Software hasn’t exactly provided the industry with the latest and greatest in terms of cutting-edge visuals, Demon’s Souls impresses in a variety of ways. It’s the attention paid to every last detail that makes the game breathtaking; each enemy is beautifully drawn and designed, and the vast majority of the environments are meticulously crafted. It’s too bad that so much of the game is so very dark, but it is required to present the player with the appropriate atmosphere. And it’s not like your adventure will be marred by repetitive features; no, there’s a wealth of pretty landscapes that gives the title an appreciated amount of visual diversity. You may be seeing the same environment many times over (simply due to the inherent difficulty), but that’s not a graphical drawback. Animations are always fluid, there’s very little in the way of frame rate hitches, and so many of your foes are wonderfully intimidating. This really is one of the better-looking games of the generation.
The sound is equally impressive, as the voice acting ranges from solid to excellent and the sound effects are both crisp and satisfying. I was even happier with the sound balancing; for some reason, there has been a significant lack of balancing in even high-profile titles this generation. But the music, effects and voice acting all blend together very well in Demon’s Souls, although I still wish more effort could’ve been put into the soundtrack. The good news is that each set of tracks seems to match the mood and attitude at all times, but perhaps we could’ve used more variety; a larger sampling that would’ve added another level of immersive intensity to our adventure. But besides that, the professionally implemented sound really does a great job of enhancing our enjoyment of the game. When a particularly dangerous enemy charges and leaps, and you desperately block and attempt to move and counter, the sound doesn’t betray you. It’s right there with the action; the cries and grunts of effort clash nicely with the weapon strikes and parries. The magic effects are quite nice, too.
But of course, the gameplay sits above and beyond all the technical achievements. Without it, we’re left with a pretty game that sounds great…but plays like hell. And who wants that? Well, despite the stiff challenge – which I will get to in just a moment – the developers have given us a reliable movement and action mechanic that won’t take long to learn, but a good deal longer to master. I do have a few problems with some of the limitations in combat, though; this game strives to combine aspects of straightforward third-person action titles with hardcore RPG assets, and it’s no easy task. On the one hand, you’re wondering why your character isn’t quite as capable as a hero in a standard third-person shooter would be. On the other hand, you have to recognize that with the added depth of something like Oblivion, it’s tough to have the best of both worlds. And the biggest problem I had is with the collecting of Souls and how they are used, but for now, let’s just tackle the basics.
An ancient evil is once again plaguing the world and it’s up to you to return this monstrous demon to its prison deep below the earth. During your seemingly impossible quest, you will die many (many, many) times, but unlike most any other game you’ve played, this doesn’t mean you’ll simply try again. No, you will return to your home between worlds; the Nexus, which acts as the central hub for the adventure. It’s here where you can purchase and upgrade items and equipment, enhance your character via statistic increases and new abilities, and access new lands that require purging. The problem is, when you die, you must wander about in spirit form until you have erased the evil from any given land; you can also use a special item that will restore your body to its physical goodness. See, you will be limited – you will have less health, for instance – when in spirit form, so everything becomes that much more difficult. This is one of many reasons to exercise extreme caution when moving through each environment.
There are many different classes to choose from at the start, including Knight, Magician, Priest, Barbarian, Wanderer, Soldier, and more. Obviously, the stats and attributes are different for each, and you will play the game differently depending on which class you choose. This is standard RPG fare at the start, but you’ll soon realize that traversing the same areas over and over will become par for the course. See, every time you die, you will be returned to the latest Archstone (this serves as the gateway between the “above” ground and the Nexus), and all the enemies will return as well. You will keep what you gained – sans any Souls you collected – and if you performed any necessary tasks, like hitting a lever to raise a portcullis, those will remain complete. But here is where things become tricky: as I just said, you will lose all the Souls you’ve gained, unless you go back and touch your own bloodstain. Return to the place of your former demise, touch it, and they’re all back.
Why is this important? Because Souls are everything. You use them to purchase, upgrade and repair equipment, learn new abilities, and even upgrade your statistics. This is the biggest problem with the game, in my eyes: because it can often be a slow process to accumulate lots of Souls, and because you constantly have to decide how you wish to use them, forward progress sometimes slows to a crawl. Do I spend my Souls on a new spell or do I buy a new piece of armor? And if I lose all my damn Souls and I have to backtrack to where I died, can I even touch my Bloodstain and get out of there alive? Furthermore, because Archstones are few and far between, you’ll often have to contemplate the distance you travel: “how much further can I go? I’ve got all these Souls but if I die way out here, it’ll take a long time to get back and I’ll have to fight through all those enemies again without being able to upgrade…’cuz I ain’t got no Souls.” This is the frustrating dilemma that continued to plague my time with Demon’s Souls and there were times when I just felt helpless and hopeless.
Ah, but this is where the game shines, believe it or not. The combat is extremely well done; you can block, parry, dodge roll, and execute several basic attacks, including a powerful lunge. If your equipment is significantly damaged or you’re out of Stamina, you’re in serious trouble so you always have to keep an eye on both. Enemies will attack in a number of different ways, and each foe seems to be designed for the express purpose of providing you with a new challenge. Really, this game is about satisfaction. Upon completing your first area and taking down your first boss, you will actually feel as if you’ve accomplished something. I actually sat back in my chair, put the controller down, and stretched with a smile. “I did it” is the only thing that went through my brain, and I haven’t felt this level of satisfaction (in the game world) in quite some time. Of course, I was about ready to drop the controller again – this time in utter despair – about an hour later, but hey, that’s what makes this game so well-rounded.
And if you’re feeling a little outclassed and a little down, you can always try to bring in a friend to help you out. The online aspect of Demon’s Souls is crucial, just because you often feel alone and outmatched in the dark, intimidating world. When logged into the game’s servers, you will get the benefit of seeing other players’ bloodstains (hmm…someone died here, but how?), and you will often see the ghostly outlines of those players as you move forward. Even better, players can leave important messages on the ground for other players to read, and they are immensely helpful early on. “Watch out for the ambush ahead.” “Use fire on this next foe.” And you can write stuff as well. Teaming up with others should really help to even the odds, too, so don’t be afraid to summon another warrior to assist; there’s no shame in asking for help. You can only work with other players who are within 10 levels of you, but don’t worry, there should be plenty. Plus, there’s always a lot to learn, and you may be surprised by how little you know even after several hours of play time.
It’s typically a joyous challenge to engage in combat, but I do have one major problem: in my eyes, you have to get way too close to lock on to a foe. This is a definite issue if you’re primarily a ranged attacker – I chose to be a Magician, for example – and it doesn’t seem to make sense that I have to be within ten feet before I can target an enemy. This constantly got in the way and allowed foes to gain the upper hand too easily. Furthermore, when locked onto a foe, I think the camera sits too close; other enemies like to make a habit of leaping at you when thusly engaged, and that can be intensely annoying. Remember, it will be quite some time before you can stand up to multiple foes – besides those easy ones right at the beginning – with confidence, so one-on-one battles are typically preferable. I’m also not the biggest fan of the character taking time to eat a health item; these few seconds will often translate to death because it’s not an instant rejuvenation like we had in old RPGs. This is more accurate, of course, but in a land of magic and dragons, are we really going for a simulated feel?
But now that I’ve got all that out of the way, I have to say that most any die-hard RPG fan will not only enjoy Demon’s Souls; they might actually place it atop a pedestal and say, “this is what I wanted out of the current generation!” It’s a huge step forward for Atlus (not necessarily in terms of overall quality, but in terms of embracing a new, next-gen feel), and they balance some freedom with the linear aspects of old-school JRPGs. After completing the first area, you can choose to go to any of the other worlds and attack them in whichever order you wish, and each environment is large and expansive. There’s typically only one way of completing each level, but they’re so huge you almost get fooled into believing you’re playing something more sweeping and expansive. And in many ways, you are. There are tons of different enemies, tons of different ways of playing with each of the classes at hand, and yes, tons of ways to die. But if and when you succeed you will be filled with that aforementioned satisfaction and you will have that urge to make your character better and better. It will take time. It will take dedication. But the rewards are absolutely undeniable.
For what it wishes to be, Demon’s Souls hits the mark. Perhaps the audience in question is too niche to yield huge sales, but I’m confident in expressing my praise for this production and I expect many gamers to reward Atlus for this effort. I still think you have to be too close to lock on, the parrying is a mite too hard, and the Soul accumulation seems to dictate the entire game (you’ll spend a loooong time staring at the screen, wondering how best to spend them). But outside of this, the combat is extraordinarily well done, the available classes are all distinct and require extensive experimentation, the game looks and sounds fantastic, the enemy roster and landscapes are diverse and beautifully designed, the bosses are legitimately frightening, the challenge is high but the payoff is huge, and above all else, those who get sucked in will be there for a very, very long time. If you fit the description of a hardcore RPG fan, there is no other game out there that will give you more bang for your buck. Plain and simple.
It’s a winner, folks. A big one. But only if you’re a part of the intended audience. Please do bear that in mind.
9/8/2009 Ben Dutka