The old school of hard knocks.
Since the Large Hadron Collider is due to be fired up again in the next month or two, we may all find ourselves soon living out some strange alternate history. Hell, our present may have already been affected by the strange influence of the Higgs boson, and we could already be living in some weird version of our own past. If you need proof, look no further than Demon’s Souls.
[image1]From Software’s spiritual successor to their long-running King’s Field titles, Demon’s Souls returns to the deepest, darkest roots of the (dice-rolling) role-playing genre and obliterates just about every modern RPG convention that we’ve grown used to over the past twenty years. It comes from a different universe where Final Fantasy, Elder Scrolls, Baldur’s Gate, and Dragon Quest never existed. And even though it’s Japanese in origin, Demon’s Souls has more in common with an old tabletop Dungeons & Dragons module than it does a modern JRPG.
The story itself is nothing unusual. Evil demons. Last hope for humanity. Yada, yada. What sets this game apart, however, is its central gameplay concept: You’re dead. Well, mostly dead. Where other role-playing games merely flirt with death, Demon’s Souls goes straight for the jugular. You will die. Often. Even the game’s introductory tutorial ends with your inevitable death. You spend most of the game as a bodiless soul, and while you can reclaim your body under certain conditions, you die so often and so easily that you’ll rarely hold onto your body for very long. Whether in body or soul form, it doesn’t matter; death comes a-knockin’ regardless.
Each time you die, you lose your supply of souls—the game’s currency and experience points—and you’ll have to start the entire dungeon section over again. If you can manage to return to the place where you last died, you can collect your lost souls, but if you die before reaching that spot, those souls are lost forever. As a result, you won’t get far by playing Demon’s Souls as though it’s a mindless hack-and-slash RPG; instead you have to be patient, persistent, and strategic.
This might seem harsh, but it isn’t nearly as frustrating as it sounds. Dying gives you the opportunity to learn from your mistakes and to build your stats without ever feeling like you’re grinding. You’ll end up playing Demon’s Souls similarly to Persona 3, entering a dungeon for as long as your health holds up, gathering as many souls as possible, returning to the hub to outfit yourself, and re-entering the dungeon to try to go just a little bit further the next time.
[image2]You can even learn from other players’ mistakes. Part of the game’s online functionality enables in-game text hints left by other players as well as a clever device whereby you can witness another player’s demise. If you come across a bloodstain—assuming it’s not your own—you can watch a ghost act out that player’s last moments. It’s the video game version of a canary in a coalmine, warning you that death may be close at hand.
The game world consists of a hub—called, appropriately enough, the Nexus—which branches out into each of the five large dungeon areas, which in turn are divided into multiple sections. Defeating the boss at the end of each section allows you to start the dungeon from that spot on your next respawn. Level bosses are awe-inspiring, and look like something out of a tougher, meaner Zelda game. Simply getting to a boss feels like an enormous accomplishment, let alone killing one.
But remarkably, Demon’s Souls never feels whimsically sadistic. It’s like a steep climb up a rocky cliff; if you keep your face to the wall, you’ll eventually reach a summit that smells, tastes, feels, and looks so much sweeter because of how hard won it was. Like a sheer wall of rock, Demon’s Souls is never unfair, just demanding.
Levels are beautifully designed, complete with shortcuts, alternate routes, secret areas, and hidden items. The color palette veers toward the bland end of the spectrum, and texture details aren’t what you might hope, but the design prowess at work is admirable. Levels just feel right. They are built to invite exploration, and each dungeon is distinct from each of the others.
[image3]In addition to the above-mentioned ghosts and text messages, there are also other forms of interaction with players online. Once you acquire certain items, you can enter another player’s game for good or ill. As a friendly intruder, you can assist another player in a co-op mode that lasts only as long as your life does. As an unwelcome guest, you can hunt down and kill another player. Also, you’ll frequently see small, faint glimpses of other players as they run around their own game worlds. It’s an unusual approach to online gaming, but it turns a solitary experience into a surprisingly communal one.
It’s worth noting that the physics system behaves strangely with dead bodies and destroyed objects. Your fallen enemies frequently get tangled up in your legs and broken crates have a habit of flying in odd directions as you walk over them. For such a somber and heavy game, these moments are a real buzzkill. It’s a minor issue—especially in light of how much Demon’s Souls gets right—but a frequent one that gives the whole game a slightly unpolished feel.
Demon’s Souls is one huge trial by fire. The game’s brief tutorial doesn’t teach you much about the game other than a few combat basics. The stat menus and upgrade system alone will take you many hours to learn, and there are few explanations for much of anything in the game. But that’s also the point. Demon’s Souls is a game of exploration, and as such is full of dead ends. Finding your way is a challenge, but it’s also consistently rewarding.
Trying to explain all that Demon’s Souls does is more difficult than the game itself. You’ll spend the first 20 hours just figuring out the basics of how your stats are calculated and the next 20 trying to get acclimated to the upgrade system and online components. It’s a deep, rich title that rewards you for your patience in spades. Defeating a boss feels like a genuine triumph, and the persistent and haunting presence of other players feels like others are sharing your sense of pain and achievement. Despite its uncompromising attitude, Demon’s Souls is a rare and unexpected treat.