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• Demon’s Souls

developed by FromSoftware, published by Atlus, Bandai-Namco
1 player / PlayStation 3 / 2009.2.3

Sony clearly didn’t know what they had on their hands when they produced FromSoftware’s Demon’s Souls, opting not to publish it outside of Japan. It’s easy to see why: the game has an oppressive difficulty; it doesn’t explain itself very well; and it isn’t as flashy as its contemporaries. Ultimately this lack of confidence in the title would come back to bite Sony when it unexpectedly became a cult classic, earning a reputation for being a hardcore action RPG.

Soon afterwards FromSoftware created a spin-off called Dark Souls that would no longer be exclusive to Sony’s brand, by which time the Souls series was primed to explode in popularity. It just goes to show that sometimes hits can come out of left field. Sadly, many would not get to experience the game that started it all.

Back Story

Like classic RPGs you make your own character, and the back story of the world is what sets the tone. King Allant, the ruler of Boletaria, dared to awaken the Ancient One. Unleashing a terrible curse upon his kingdom and mankind, yada yada yada, you have taken it upon yourself to go there and slay the demons that threaten to expand to neighboring kingdoms. It’s generic fantasy stuff, but it gets the job done. The NPCs, who mainly serve as vendors of items and magic, are all very understated yet still manage to star in their own little side-stories over the course of the game, which is a nice touch.

Class & Combat

Demon’s Souls’ class system is flexible. While you begin by choosing a specific class, it only determines some base stats and your starting equipment. You can level up however you like and equip almost any item (with some differences between genders). You can enjoy melee and ranged combat, where stamina plays a central role and lends it much realism. Every time you swing your sword, absorb a blow with your shield, or dodge roll out of range, you consume stamina. And the more weapons and armor you’re carrying impacts the speed at which your character moves, which is of vital consideration. Unlike Dark Souls, you also have a magic meter to limit spell use.

One thing that kept coming back to me in playing both this and Dark Souls is how much of the combat boils down to the same basic strategy: bait an enemy to attack, dodge and wait for their attack to finish, counterattack, flee. Lather, rinse, repeat. Granted, this isn’t always the case, but for many of the grunt-sized enemies and bosses this certainly applies. Despite my reservations, the combat remains enjoyable throughout the game as it always tests your reflexes and pattern recognition.

Souls

This is the game that introduced many of the Souls series’ trademarks, most importantly a new kind of risk and reward. Basically, every time you kill an enemy you acquire precious souls (experience). If you are killed, you drop whatever souls you were carrying on that exact spot, marked by a blood stain. Upon revival you can return to the blood stain to retrieve the lost souls, but there’s a catch. When you respawn so do all the enemies, and if you die on the way there, your new blood stain replaces the old one (along with any souls it once contained). It’s easy to die, start fresh with zero souls, and die again trying to recoup all your hard work, leaving you back at square-one. On the flip-side if you manage to survive long enough to bring your souls back to the Nexus it’s incredibly satisfying.

You can also leave memos for other players, see a brief glimpse of how other players died by touching their bloodstains, and engage in some online co-op or PVP if you want to.

The Nexus

Demon’s Souls’ world is broken up into five isolated areas accessible from a central hub called the Nexus, where you’ll interact with NPCs and level up. The order in which you complete the game is left entirely up to you, which had the unfortunate side-effect that I spent an inordinate amount of time finishing all of Boletaria (including what is the game’s true final boss) before moving onto the others. Since the game is already difficult from the very beginning, the stiff challenge presented in the later stages of Boletaria did not dissuade me from thinking I should stay the course instead of coming back later.

Each area is quite distinct from the others, and while they don’t feel anywhere near as connected or expansive as the world of Dark Souls, they usually contain clever unlockable shortcuts that allow you to skip sections on future runs. And you’ll spend much less time backtracking as you can simply warp between areas once you reach new waypoints.

Graphics

One of the first things that drew me to Demon’s Souls was the knight character, one of several you can create at the game’s outset. Despite countless fantasy games on the market, surprisingly few have offered players the chance to suit up in realistic medieval armors. Having grown up fascinated by medieval warfare and knight’s armor in particular, it was great to see a fantasy game where the armor design was true to the period for once, without the usual gaudy fantasy flair.

The most striking thing about Demon’s Souls is its art direction. This is dark fantasy or horror fantasy done right. The settings and creatures may not be flashy, but they’re all the more convincing in their drab lighting and color. Each location and new enemy you encounter feel dangerous and will put you on edge. Sadly this fantastic atmosphere tinged with horror didn’t carry over to the other Souls games to the extent it could have.

Most of the NPCs as well as your own character look a bit like mannequins and lack customizability. You can’t give your character facial hair, for example. Furthermore the NPCs don’t even move their lips when they speak. Another problem is the poor frame rate in one or two areas in the game, but it runs at a healthy frame rate most of the time. Aside from the frame rate issues these never detract too much from the experience.

Music

One of the choices that feels a little strange at first is the lack of music outside of boss battles. This gives the game a more realistic and immersive tone that allows the sound design to shine in certain levels. In particular, the prison section in the Tower of Latria is filled with the screams and moans of the imprisoned, broken up by the eerie ringing of bells carried by the guards. Besides, it might get irritating if the same music were to play on repeat for hours on end as you explore.

Challenge & Replayability

Demon’s Souls is known for being a tough game, especially for players just getting their feet wet. However, there are certain aspects of the game that just aren’t communicated to the player that make the game more daunting than it needed to be. A quick overview of some of the Wikis online might help you sort things out, like World Tendency, which is one of those insane game systems that sets this one apart from others.

For replayability the New Game + makes the game harder and harder the more you beat it. So if you find the first time through wasn’t tough enough, you can keep going until you hit your limit. Or you can simply start over from scratch with a completely different kind of character in mind, and your experience will likely be quite different.

Final Thoughts

In many ways the Souls games hew closely to FromSoftware’s early PS1 role-playing games. The key elements tying them together: the importance of stamina to all actions; dark fantasy settings inspired by Dungeons and Dragons; and a threadbare plot, were all present in King’s Field (1994). However, where those games all felt sluggish and had cumbersome first-person views (I don’t exactly have fond memories of renting King’s Field back when it was new), Demon’s Souls’ action is fast and responsive in the third-person. And where the earlier games failed to render realistic settings and monsters, Demon’s Souls’ areas are brilliantly executed and feature some truly great enemy designs. You might say that the technology finally caught up to FromSoftware’s original vision.

If you’re a fan of a good challenge, or simply the Souls series in general, you should definitely check this one out if Sony and FromSoftware ever give it an HD re-release.

PROs:
+ Incredibly challenging
+ Thrilling combat system
+ Outstanding dark fantasy / horror fantasy art direction
+ Unique on-line features

CONs:
– Incredibly challenging
– Combat / enemy ai lacks variety
– Poor frame-rate in some areas
– Limited character maker
– Online features won’t last forever

Official website (Atlus)

Official site (JP)

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