Review: Demon’s Souls

DemonsSouls.jpg I’m going to dispense with the usual review intro “BS” and just say what needs to be said here: Demon’s Souls is the RPG of the year. Period. End of story.

I know 2009 has a few months left in her and a few more notable RPGs still to come, but this game is so beautifully crafted, so tightly balanced, so devilishly difficult and so refreshing with unique ideas that it’s difficult to fathom any game being able to even match it in quality, let alone surpass it outright. Hell, you’d be hard pressed to find a deeper, more polished RPG within the past decade — I certainly haven’t been this enamored with an RPG since Baldur’s Gate II!

It may sound like I’m overselling the game here, but I can’t hide from the truth, and the truth is Demon’s Souls is a genre-redefining experience and a pivotal game launch for the PS3 that we may very well look back on a couple years down the road and see as a defining release for Sony’s console.

OK, so I’ve sort of gone backwards here, giving you my final conclusion before really telling you about the game. But what can I say… it’s just that damn spectacular! But I’m sure you want to know what makes it so spectacular, right? Well, I’ll tell you.

Demon’s Souls, positioned as the spiritual successor to King’s Field, is a true RPG, first and foremost. Most games these days — particularly on consoles — like to consider themselves real RPGs by slapping a leveling-up system onto an action game template (Oblivion and Fallout 3, although great games, immediately come to mind). But does anyone still remember what RPG actually stands for? If not, Demon’s Souls will surely remind you.

More than any other RPG I’ve played in years, Demon’s Souls is a pure “role-playing” experience. The game does have a story to it – you are a lone hero chosen to save the kingdom of Boletaria from an ancient beast known as the Old One and the horde of demons it has unleashed upon the lands – but except for occasional NPC interaction and the rare cutscene, this is a game about embracing your role as humanity’s savior, carving your own path through the kingdom’s many perilous dungeons, and forging your own personal story within the game world.

At the beginning of the game you get to choose from 10 different character classes (typical roles like Priest, Knight, Hunter, Magician, Barbarian, Thief and so on) and customize your adventurer using sliders to adjust facial features to your liking. Your choice of class gets you started with a base template of stats, equipment and abilities, but from there you are free to develop your character as you see fit.

By slaying demons and harvesting souls – the currency for everything in the game — you are able to purchase “soul levels” from the Maiden in Black back in the Nexus, the main hub area where you have access to merchants and the five archstones leading to each region of Boletaria. Each soul level you obtain increases an attribute of your choice — be it strength, endurance, dexterity, intelligence or whatever — enabling you to build the hero you want to be. There are absolutely no equipment or stat restrictions on any class. If you start as a Barbarian but want to develop spell-casting abilities, you are free to do so, and vice versa. That’s what role-playing is supposed to be about!

Dispatching foes to collect souls couldn’t be any more satisfying, either. I’m sure you’ve heard all the hype about how challenging Demon’s Souls is, and it’s true. This game will chew you up and spit you out if you aren’t prepared. But the game is remarkably fair and balanced with its difficulty. The high degree of difficulty actually stems from the realism of the combat mechanics. You have to play Demon’s Souls as if you were really the one delving into some foreign dungeon, carefully probing the darkness ahead and constantly keeping a look out for traps and ambushes. Then when you are waylaid by a nasty enemy (or group of enemies) you must use smart combat tactics to block/evade/parry enemy strikes, figure out enemy weaknesses and exploit every opportunity you get to break through the enemy’s defenses.

Yes, this is an action-RPG, but if you are expecting it to be some button-mashing hack-n-slasher like a Diablo or Sacred II you are in for a rude awakening, let me tell you. Demon’s Souls’ combat is much more nuanced and skill-based. Whether you are slashing with your sword, blocking an incoming attack with your shield, or rolling to evade an enemy, every action you take saps away some of your stamina, and if your stamina runs dry you are left defenseless until it regenerates. Therefore you must learn to be judicious with your attacks.

Should your combative exploits falter and an enemy strikes you down, though, don’t worry. Death is an integral part of the game experience. Whenever you die – and you will surely die a lot – you enter soul form and are free to continue your adventure as you were. In fact, you can theoretically complete the game while technically being deceased, which is kind of cool. However, playing in soul form has its disadvantages. For one thing, you lose all of the souls you were carrying (you can regain them by returning to your bloodstain) and incur a health penalty halving your life bar, giving you even less margin of error to work with. Dying repeatedly also negatively impacts the tendency of each world you visit. Monsters become stronger and stronger the more you fail, but at the same time you are rewarded with more valuable loot for braving the tougher circumstances.

Death is also the gateway to the game’s innovative multiplayer component. In order to regain your body and return to the land of the living you must do one of three things: use a special resurrection stone (which are hard to come by), offer your services to another player and help them defeat a major demon in co-op play, or invade another player’s game and take them down in PvP play. But please do not mistake Demon’s Souls for a pared-down MMORPG where you can freely invite friends into your game or voice chat with others. Think of it as a single-player game with multiplayer benefits — in fact, if you don’t want any of the multiplayer you can simply disconnect your PS3 from the PlayStation Network.

Completely disabling the online connection really does ruin the experience, though. Not necessarily because you can’t help/attack other players, but more so because you lose the advantage of the game’s innovative community-based hint system. Even if you aren’t directly connected to another player’s game, you can leave hint messages (from preset phrase options) on the ground pointing to upcoming ambushes, warning of traps or pitfalls, or indicating the location of hidden treasures and pathways. And if you leave messages others find helpful, they can recommend your message which in turn refills your health bar. Another clever online feature is the bloodstain. When a player dies they leave a bloodstain, and if you walk up to a bloodstain and click it you get to watch a replay of their final moments, which can be very informative if there are hidden traps or enemies ahead of you. The replays are often pretty funny too, so if you find yourself frustrated try watching them to relieve some stress with a good giggle.

Another important part of the Demon’s Souls experience is its atmosphere. This game has the nail-biting intensity of a survival-horror game with its ominous, moody lighting, dense fog effects, and haunting aural ambiance. As you delve into crumbling castle dungeons, poisonous swamps and grimy prisons, a sense of claustrophobia and loneliness takes hold, and you can literally hear your heart pounding out of your chest as you press on, constantly looking over your shoulder to see where sudden creature groans and other noises came from. The level and creature designs are phenomenal as well. The levels are absolutely huge in scale and laid out in such an organic way you almost begin to believe they are real places. Same goes for the various monsters and demons populating Boletaria, especially the bosses – they never cease to amaze and terrify.

I wish I could tell you that Demon’s Souls is a perfect game, but come on, no game is perfect. The main issue I see the game having is a lack of accessibility. For hardened RPG vets such as myself and the many other fans who’ve been following this game from the beginning, it’s fairly easy to get into and learn the ropes. But for players used to more forgiving RPGs, the learning curve may be too tough to handle. A friend of mine bought the game today and I’ve actually been on the phone with him off and on while penning this review giving him some tips to help him along. But he’s rather frustrated with the constant deaths and how the game doesn’t really explain many of the subtle details you need to get started. I certainly see where he’s coming from, and can see a lot of folks suffering the same learning curve.

One other small issue I have with the game is its physics system. Overall, the physics are put to great use for satisfying ragdoll death animations and subtle environmental interactions like hanging chains that sway as you pass underneath them and destructible crates that splinter upon being struck. The problem is, dead bodies and debris tend to get stuck on your character as you walk by, which can be very, very annoying. I’ve also noticed that the framerate likes to take a dive whenever the physics system is taxed too much, like if you chop through a large group of crates at one time.

Depending on your style of play and expectation of the game going in, Demon’s Souls’ steep difficulty level and lack of hand-holding may very well scare you away. But trust me, if you stick with it you will be rewarded with one of the finest role-playing experiences ever made. Demon’s Souls is an instant classic!

BuyIt.jpg

Pros:
+ True role-playing character progression
+ Deep, nuanced combat system demands patience and strategy
+ Rich, intense atmosphere sucks you in
+ Creature and level designs are so detailed and organic
+ Brutal but fair difficulty
+ Innovative multiplayer elements
+ Huge game with near limitless replay value

Cons:
– Brutal learning curve not for everyone
– Annoying physics quirks

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: From Software
Release Date: 10/6/09
Genre: Action-RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1-3
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!