Demon's Souls Review
If you've heard anything about Atlus' and From Software's action/RPG Demon's Souls', it's probably that it's hard as hell. And, while I did find all the buzz on the difficulty a bit over-hyped (maybe because spending the previous week getting my ass handed to me by Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 prepped me for the pain), I won't sugar-coat it—this PS3 exclusive will make you its bitch faster than a burly cell mate with an appreciation for “purdy mouths.” Its robust challenge, however, is not insurmountable, unfair, or even all that frustrating. In fact, due in large part to a slate of online innovations that help even the odds, Demon's Souls ultimately ranks as one of the more satisfying experiences I've had on the PS3 this year.
So, I have a confession to make: When I said this game wasn't all that frustrating, I was lying. Sort of. You see, for the first several hours—which I realize will be more than enough to get many players ejecting Demon's Souls from their PS3s—it is infuriating. Seasoned RPG fans will immediately be won over by its rich Medieval settings, dark tones, and epic good-versus-evil struggle, but that initial awe will soon be washed away by a “WTF?!” reaction to the game's steep challenge. As the title implies, the game is all about souls, specifically, the souls you'll collect when slaying said demons. These souls are your currency, driving everything from your equipment upgrades to your stats, so they're pretty damn important. The thing is, you lose every last one of these precious, earned-in-blood ethereal items each time you die. You do have one chance to reclaim them if you can make it back to the spot of your last breath—an old school corpse run of sorts. However, seeing that Demon's Souls believes checkpoints are for pansy-asses, you'll rarely make it back to that point alive.
You'll experience death and soul loss a lot during the game's formative hours, but those brave enough to soldier on will see the tides turn around hour four or so. At least that's how long it took me to realize that hacking and slashing—usually my play style of choice for this genre—wasn't going to do much more than land me at the start of a level, pissed-off and soul-less. Where many games don't begin to punish button-mashers until they reach the first boss battle, Demon's Souls doesn't tolerate the style at all, even when facing its very first zombie knight. Whether you're up against a sewer-patrolling thug or a towering fire-breather, evading, blocking and parrying skills are paramount to your success. Diving into any battle headlong will kill you fast. But taking the time to master the art of blades, spears and magic will yield some of the most satisfying battles you've ever encountered in an action/RPG. The real trick to these battles feeling more rewarding than aggravating is that enemies are skilled, but not unfairly overpowered. So, rather than feeling you've been cheated with each death, you simply feel as though you were outmatched by a superior warrior, one that's taken the time to learn their trade before blindly rushing into a fight.
In addition to mastering your blood-letting craft, taking advantage of Demon's Souls online options will also benefit you on the battlefield. The game is played online, all the time, in a unique way that I hope to see adopted by future games. When a player dies, he leaves behind a bloodstain in everyone else's' game. Clicking on some poor bastard's gruesome puddle of gore yields a brief, ghostly animation of their final moments; so, by watching how others bought the farm, you can alter your strategy and avoid the same deadly mistakes. Additionally, players can leave preset messages, offering tips, warnings and advice. I can't tell you how many times I avoided plummeting to my death because some kind warrior had scribbled a forewarning of the bottomless fall ahead. Online functionality also allows for some cooperative play against especially brutal boss battles, as well as the ability for gamers to attack each other under some very specific circumstances. While these latter two options felt only mildly compelling, I found the bloodstains and messages to be extremely well integrated, not to mention very helpful. And again, future console titles would benefit greatly from similar integration.
Without these inventive features, Demon's Souls would still stand as a solid niche title that I'd recommend to the most dedicated dungeon-crawling fans willing to put in the time to learn the intricacies of the combat. However, the impressive execution of the online help system is something everyone should experience. It's not only a notable design achievement, but one that truly aided me on my quest for cursed souls. If you have the patience to witness the untimely deaths of those now reduced to bloodstains on the cobblestones, and heed the warnings of other brave warriors, you may discover a completely new way to enjoy a genre that hasn't seen a notable gameplay innovation in years. After experiencing Demon's Souls, I can hardly imagine playing similar such titles without the benefit of this user-shared information.
Despite my ultimate appreciation for a learning curve that initially had me pulling my hair out, and love of the online features, I still would've liked to see Demon's Souls be a bit more forgiving. The simple addition of some difficulty scaling options would have ensured more gamers check out a great game in a genre that's been grossly under-represented this generation. As is, it'll likely be adored by those who go out of their way to embrace it, but ignored by anyone intimidated by old school difficulty. Still, those in the former group can count on collecting souls, slaying gigantic dungeon-dwelling bosses, and forging a battle-savvy hero unlike any other. Oh, and if you do find yourself in this punishing world, keep a look out for my puddle of blood—it may save your life.