Demon’s Souls Review
Demon’s Souls Review
By: Joseph Thomas
For Playstation 3
Yes, Demon’s Souls was released back in 2009, but I write this review now for two reasons: One, its spiritual successor, Dark Souls, is being released in less than a month, and everyone should be excited; two, the Demon’s Souls servers are scheduled to be shut off on October 11, 2011, so if you haven’t played Demon’s Souls and want to get the full experience, you should really get a copy, like, now. (It’s $20 tops as a PS3 Greatest Hit! No excuses!)
(Update: Atlus has just announced that, despite the impending release of [the apparently impossible] Dark Souls, the Demon’s Souls servers will be staying open until 2012. Score one for the good guys!)
Crafted deep within the bowels of the earth by an angry group of misanthropic assholes, Demon’s Souls is here to punish you. Its world is incredibly grim and well realized; its gameplay has depth and polish; it is absurdly difficult in parts; and it is goddamned frustrating. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki and From Software have this message for gamers: “Here is a beautiful, unique, and involving video game experience. Work for it.”
On the surface, Demon’s Souls doesn’t appear extraordinary. A colorless fog has overtaken the land of Boletaria and, with it, hordes of demons more than happy to turn the Boletarians into their insane and violent minions. You play a highly customizable character, free from the constraints of a personality, who attempts to cut through these demons in order to take down the Old One, the son-of-a-bitch responsible for this whole mess. Boletaria comes alive through beautiful level design and epic art direction that suggests a huge, terrifying world.
If that all sounds fairly standard, that’s because it is. Something special happens at the end of the tutorial (calling it a ‘tutorial’ is being generous): a really big demon bumps you off. You know a game is special when it starts out with you dying (e.g., Mass Effect 2), but Demon’s Souls takes this a step further. You play the majority of the game dead. Killing you this brutally and early on is the first great psychological tactic of Demon’s Souls: you are going to die. A lot. And, while dead, you take a big cut in health. Oh, and your enemies are stronger. There are only two ways to reclaim your physical body: defeat a demon, or use a somewhat rare item. But don’t expect to hold onto it for long.
You begin by selecting a class (Soldier, Knight, Magician, Thief, etc…), but no matter what you choose, you’ll tailor your characters’ traits however you choose; for example, a Barbarian can become an expert of magic, and Royalty can be turned into a STR tank. You then suit up and hit the streets of Boletaria to do battle with many horrifying creatures. Many of whom, even basic enemies, can (and will) kill you in one or two hits. Keep your shield up. All. The. Time.
The second great psychological tactic of Demon’s Souls is its online features. When dead, you will see the “souls” of other dead players (read: 95% of all Demon’s Souls players) duck and weave through your game world. When alive, another player can invade your game. Sometimes they need your help to take on a difficult section or a boss; sometimes they want to do battle in PvP. The first innovation reminds you that you’re never alone in the dark world of Demon’s Souls; the second keeps you on your toes.
But oh, I know. It can be frustrating. It can be controller throwing-frustrating. It can be throw the controller at your roommate’s head-frustrating. It can be controller snapping in two, boarding a flight to Japan, and stabbing the From Software development team in the eye with the jagged plastic edge-frustrating. It’s rare to play a game that absolutely punishes you for failure in the way Demon’s Souls does. And for the most part that doesn’t bother me. But when you’re ten feet from the end of a level and an enemy (not necessarily a boss) appears and kills you in two hits, my blood boils. My only major complaint about this is the backtracking. I’m okay with being punished for my lack of vigilance, but imagine the former scenario occurs: you must now replay the entire level. You’re armed with greater knowledge in order to help you to survive, and often the game has been kind enough to open a shortcut for you, but still, being forced to replay some levels ten-fifteen times can be seriously infuriating.
But with frustration comes satisfaction. Getting your ass handed to you ten times by a boss, only to, on your eleventh try, figure out a new trick and hand the boss his ass is truly ego boosting. (Finally beating that motherfucking dickwad Armored Spider asshole has gone in my “Best Video Game Experiences Ever” mental folder.) And the feeling when you beat Demon’s Souls is near indescribable.
Demon’s Souls doesn’t just want you to play it; it wants you to be good at it. It respects you enough to offer you a massive challenge. In turn, you have to respect its mechanics and master them in order to continue. It’s harsh, but fair – and harsh for a reason. If, say, Modern Warfare 2 is your old little league coach, Demon’s Souls is Joe Torre.
Audio – Demon’s Souls shines in the audio department. An evocative if generic orchestral score sets the game’s epic, foreboding mood. During the gameplay sections, cold, minimalist ambient music mingles with various sloshing, creaking, cracking, snapping, screaming, laughing, weeping noises – mostly heard echoing from afar – to create one of the most memorably unsettling soundscapes in recent memory. The voice acting ranges from wooden to effectively menacing.
Graphics – The visuals of Demon’s Souls are a triumph of art direction over budget. Each level of the medieval setting is grisly and unique. Each is extremely claustrophobic, but at the same time suggestive of the huge, monstrous world about. Vast ruins, hillsides, and towers lie in the distance and add to the game’s disturbing atmosphere. Character models – especially during combat – can be a bit stiff, and some players might be perturbed by the complete lack of facial animation, but once you pass through a fog archway and come face-to-face with the 100+ foot tall, beautifully detailed Tower Knight, graphics are not an area of Demon’s Souls most people will complain about.
A lot of modern day blockbuster video games are like getting a handjob: satisfying, but not hard. Games like the Modern Warfare series are all too happy to hold your hand from checkpoint to checkpoint and subsidize their often unsatisfying single player experiences by offering robust online features; Demon’s Souls gives the middle finger to this design philosophy. It integrates its single and multiplayer modes into an extremely satisfying experience, but only for those willing to play by its rules. Its success is heartening. While it has by no means posted Call of Duty numbers, its 1.2 million+ sales have allegedly more than tripled Atlus’ expectations, and its online servers have received several extensions due its surprising popularity. It isn’t for everyone, but for those with the patience, it is a glorious experience – bring on Dark Souls.