Demon's Souls

A true sense of achievement, in many ways, is the key behind any game. Though each new adventure is essentially a means to occupy our tiny brains, one of the few saving graces of the human race is that there are still those who continually strive to better themselves. The innate desire to overcome challenges and prove some form of worthiness is not only recognized, but wholeheartedly absorbed into the philosophy of From Software's latest RPG, Demon's Souls. This is the sort of game that will leave you in awe of vast, powerful enemies for only a few seconds before depositing you directly in their path to be torn apart by forces you can't comprehend. The game is relentless, remorseless and, without even the merest shadow of doubt, absolutely brilliant.

Demon's Souls

As with many believeable fantasy adventures, the story begins with a selfish human king, Allant XII of Boletaria, whose thirst for power led him to awaken the Old One, a powerful demon that inevitably brought ruin to all of Boletaria, in the form of mystical fog and great hordes of demons. Since this disaster, many brave knights have travelled to the kindgom in search of a way to put the Old One to rest once more, but it's down to you to actually see it through. Guided by the mysterious Maiden in Black, you operate from a central hub called The Nexus, and travel into different lands in search of powerful demons to slay. After character creation (an editor and a choice of class, including magicians, royals, knights and more) and a brief tutorial which sets the scene for the game (primarily because your character is killed, one way or another), each world features levels, of a sort, that players can explore in traditional RPG fashion. The main aims include collecting items, defeating minor enemies and looking for various keys, bridges and levers that reveal a path through the land. If an area is successfully traversed, there's reliably an immense demon waiting to tear you to pieces, and if you fail, you can expect no leniency.

Highlighted in every review of Demon's Souls ever written, the difficulty of the game must be discussed. Simply put, it is a necessary evil. Even the generic enemies in the game will stand a chance of ending your adventure if you make a mistake. Forget your guard or stumble near a cliff and you could find your character dead in an instant. Unlike many modern games though, there's no option to save your progress and return to a more convenient moment before any mistake, and the game doesn't allow you to mysteriously reappear on the nearest platform. Instead, any character death in the game will mean the following: souls carried will be deposited on the ground in the spot where your character stood moments before death, while your character returns immediately to The Nexus (or nearest Archstone, the portals to and from The Nexus). If your character was alive, in body form, they will now be in soul form, which normally carries with it a 50% health limit. What this means is that precious souls, used to level up your character, are now stranded part way through the level, you have a weakened character, and the best bit: every enemy, excluding any bosses already beaten, will have returned to block your path. Perhaps better still, if you fail to reach your bloodstain to collect lost souls, and die again, then those original souls will be forever lost. Suspecting that this may not be the greatest encouragement to try the game, the other side of the coin must be examined.

Demon's Souls

Though the punishment for failure may seem extreme, there are aspects of the game that offer total redemption. Firstly, any levers or switches that the player may have reached will still be active, and thanks to some clever level design, this means that players who reach far enough into an area will likely not need to repeat all paths again. For example, the first level in Boletaria castle features two towers, one on either side, and a main gate. Initially, only the left tower is accessible, and the route to the top is perilous. However, the player will first be able to unlock a quicker route to the top, followed by traversing the dangerous path from one tower to the other to unlock the main gate. Behind the main gate lurks Phalanx, the first major boss of the game, but failure to beat this beast will only result in the player needing to enter the main gate once more, with no need to re-visit the towers. This style of structuring is present in every level and will greatly cut down on any feeling of frustration. In addition, the bloodstain with dropped souls is an excellent second chance that will frequently allow players to regain what they had once lost, despite the difficulty of reaching the required area, and it's certainly useful for correcting any of the more silly mistakes. However, the sense of achievement is unquestionably the redeeming feature and one of the main reasons that Demon's Souls is so enjoyable. When you finally break through to the end of a level, with a boss strategy that finally works, you are rewarded with vast numbers of souls and other important items, accompanied by a feeling of elation, relief and satisfaction so intense that it is simply unrivalled in any other game. It feels like the equivalent of the Beat Zico trophy in Wipeout HD, every time a boss is defeated.

Demon's Souls

Another most-successful aspect of the game is the online gameplay interpretation, which offers further help with the difficulty of the game. The first thing that will be obvious to new players are the messages that appear on the floor. Initially, only those left by the developers will be obvious, but upon entering the main game, gamers will be able to read messages left by other players, offering tips and suggestions on how to proceed. For example, arriving at a dimly-lit archway, a message on the ground said simply "Right", which was all the warning required to anticipate the ambush, in the form of a demented demon dregling. Many important treasure items will be identified by player messages too, but there are of course those who seek to cause mischief, for example by suggesting walking off cliffs to secret hidden treasure, but a rating system helps to weed out any hints with cruel intentions.

Messages aren't the only contact with other players though, since playing online will frequently allow you to see ghostly images of other players running through the same level. It's seamless stuff, and slightly haunting, but it can be quite useful to see how fellow players are tackling a similar situation. In addition, bloodstains will be visible from other players too, and by touching the pools, the final moments of the fallen player can be watched (again in a ghostly image) providing a useful warning of any fearsome enemies ahead or jumps that are simply too far or high. The online features don't stop there either, since it is possible for players to completely jump from one world to another, either by offering themselves as a summon, in which case the player arrives as a Blue Phantom, able to assist until the end of the next boss fight, or by invading as a Black Phantom, intent on killing the other player. The latter experience is avoidable with the right tools, or by playing offline, for those that would rather not risk invasion by others.

Demon's Souls

The game isn't all about its difficulty and online play though, since Demon's Souls is built on many of the finest RPG traditions, and some superb combat. Players can equip two combat items in each hand, allowing say a sword and magical catalyst in one hand, and a shield and bow in the other. Armour can be added for head, torso, legs and arms seperately, and rings can also be worn to add extra status effects. Combined with a limited spell and miracle memory, the result is a fine balance of equipment burden, attack power, magical ability and defence, which must be carefully tailored for the situation. For example, wading through the toxic swamps in the Valley of Defilement without poison and disease resistance would be daft, while climbing the Tower of Latria without magical defence might be suicide. It isn't just equipment that is customizable though. By collecting souls and offering them to the Maiden in Black, who seductively suggests that you touch the demon inside her, you can increase your soul level, and add one to any of your key statistics, adapting your character to be strong in any area you choose.

As you explore the desolate worlds of Demon's Souls, you meet merchants, carving a living from the last remaining shreds of resource, each keeping their distance from the worst demon life forms, and the last of a formidable warrior force, reduced to merely a few lone knights intent on putting the Old One to rest. Besides these few brave survivors, only the twisted, demented remnants of a decayed society remain, with soldiers intent on destroying anything that crosses their path, workers that know nothing but continual mining duty, and mutated freaks infested by poison and disease, all ruled over by powerful demons. Though some enemies can be loosely separated into categories (short range, magical, infectious, etc.), every encounter type will be different and tactics must evolve accordingly. In Demon's Souls, there is no shame in using a tactical retreat to lure enemies into the open, or using ranged magical attacks to avoid powerful melee attackers. The same is true for the boss fights, each of which is likely to have some crucial weakness. If you can find and exploit that weakness, the fight may be quicker and more painless, though still never easy. Since players can develop their character entirely as they choose, placing the focus on phsyical combat, speed, magic or whatever they favour, there will likely be fights where players will simply not be suited for the easiest combat method, and will have to adapt their strategy to accommodate the weakness. For example, fans of melee attacks will find certain flying dragons trickier than those that elected for ranged magic, but their skills will be formidable against Old Hero beyond the Shrine of Storms.

Demon's Souls

In a game as enjoyable as Demon's Souls, the visual side could afford to be 1990s sprites with basic colours and little texture, but no such shortcut is taken, and Demon's Souls is instead a beautiful game. Beauty, not in the sense of a glamour model on the front of a magazine, but in terms of a forgotten magnificence, replaced by suffering and turmoil lit only by the tiny glimmer of hope your character offers to the inhabitants of The Nexus. Things might not be as dazzlingly spectacular as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, but everything about Demon's Souls echoes the cries of life extinguished by the demon hordes. The entire landscape mirrors the waning hope of the last survivors in Boletaria. The different settings are absolutely incredible, varying from thick dank fog in the Valley of Defilement lingering over poisoned swamps, battered walkways and islands now home only to fallen soldiers, through to the sharp, vicious skies in the Shrine of Storms, where majestic rays glide through the skies sending dangerous stoney spikes jetting towards the ground where you stand.

Most impressive, besides the incredible atmosphere conjured by the unique visuals, is the magnificent sense of scale. Everything feels as though it were built for an entirely different world where creature size has no limit. It's absolutely breath-taking, much like Shadow of the Colossus in terms of the size of castles and the beasts that roam freely throughout. Demon's Souls presents some of the most colossal, powerful enemies ever found in a game, and these aren't just reserved for the latter stages of the game. Within an hour, players will likely have come face to face with an incredible red dragon, whose detailed scales and wings could easily be missed as players desperately try to get past, and only another hour or so later, players encounter an enormous knight, whose feet are as large as your character. Even with such huge lifeforms, and even when the entire screen is filled with dregling enemies, the game never blinks, and continues to hurl ferocious enemies at the screen with not a moment of pause to consider that, in this rare case, maybe the player would actually like it if things went a little slower. Of course, the timing of attacks and defence is so essential, that it's crucial the game keeps up its frame rate, and it does so admirably.

Demon's Souls

The music in the game serves to amplify the feelings exuded by the visuals, and acts very subtly. This isn't the sort of game with a familiar boss theme, and unique music for each level. Instead, with rare exceptions made for particularly poignant battle scenes, only the sounds of the environment and any other creatures met will be heard outside The Nexus, which lends the game a further level of believeability. It's strange, but perhaps obvious, that a totally fantastical adventure becomes more realistic, through careful choices such as this, than say a skateboarding game where music plays throughout and random invisible people shout "Rad!" and add up points for you. The only recurring musical theme in the game lies in the central hub, The Nexus, and is a quite delicate and beautiful piece, conjuring an incredible sense of despair. Elsewhere, the wind, ripping across the cliff edges, and subtle effects like wolves howling in the distance are the games soundtrack. Voicework, though occasionally repetitive when speaking with key characters in The Nexus requiring multiple visits, is excellent on the whole, and never out of place. There are no unnecessarily chirpy people or daft accents. Instead, every character seems to fit with the world around them, either scrounging for survival, pinning their hopes on one last hero, or giving up entirely. The voicework is a great indicator of the impressive job Atlus games have done in bringing Demon's Souls from Japan to an English-speaking audience.

Criticism? Well, there has to be some I guess, even in a game as magnificent as this, and there are just two points that need mentioning. The first is somewhat silly, having little or no impact on the game itself, but does detract slightly from the believeability (which might seem like a strange concept in a fantasy game, but it's all about consistency). When a normal enemy is beaten, their corpse falls to the ground and lies there, avoiding the mysterious disappearences seen in games of old. However, as your character steps over the fallen, the rag-doll physics employed seem a little over-excited. The process of simply walking over a fallen enemy often sends them flailing across the ground as if their puppet strings had just been tripped over by a small puppy. It really isn't a major issue, but it would have been nice to see fallen enemies with a more weighty feel, akin to the thumping impacts of the combat. The second, marginally more serious point is the initial difficulty curve. While Demon's Souls simply wouldn't be the same without its relentless, rock-hard difficulty, the very earliest level (excluding the tutorial) could perhaps have benefited from a little more leniency, and perhaps the option to change character classes in the early stages, to avoid being stuck with an unfortunate choice. That said, perhaps Demon's Souls has it just right and, once again bearing consistency in mind, it does nothing to cater for the instant-satisfaction generation. Perhaps the early introduction to difficult foe is a necessary warning to those who rent the game first - do not buy the game unless you're willing to stick with it until it works.

Demon's Souls

For gamers in the UK, Demon's Souls will currently require the extra step of importing the game (PS3 games like Demon's Souls aren't region locked, so there's no risk in importing), but even if it wasn't remarkably easy these days, it'd still be absolutely worth it to try out a game as superb as this. Demon's Souls has taken many by surprise and is perhaps one of the most impressive exclusives on Playstation 3. The fantastic world might be depressing in many ways, but you'll want nothing more than to stay for hours at a time enjoying the delights it has to offer. The bosses might be relentlessly punishing, but the feeling of elation and success when they are finally beaten is unmatched, and if it's not hard enough for you, this lengthy game can be played again in New Game+ mode, with bosses that are harder still. As a warning, for gamers who play simply to enjoy the stories, to switch off after a hard day and not for the challenge, Demon's Souls isn't a safe bet, but for anyone who wants to be tested, to prove themself against a tough game, then Demon's Souls is, by a comfortable margin, the game of the year.

Game details

Game logo

Publisher:

Atlus

Developer:

FromSoftware

Players:

1

Online:

1-4

Release:

2009-10-06

Trophies:

38

Review summary

Gameplay:

Incredibly challenging and immensely satisfying

Graphics:

Magnificent creatures and incredible landscapes

Sound:

Powerful voicework, superb effects and haunting music

Lastability:

A highly enjoyable adventure with great replay incentive

10.0

Meteoric

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Wheatley

Okay, listen, we should get our stories straight, alright? If anyone asks - and no one's gonna ask, don't worry - but if anyone asks, tell them as far as you know, the last time you checked, everyone looked pretty much alive. Alright? Not dead.