IGN Review of Demon's Souls
Guys like me that have been into gaming since before there were even graphics to bitch about have often hopped on our high horse and proclaimed today's games to be so coddling and hand-holding that one can't possibly get the same sense of accomplishment as the experiences in the days of yore. It's a bunch of old man chest thumping (for the most part), of course, but games going back even to the days of the NES often lacked the ability to save progress or even continue if you burned through all your lives. Demon's Souls isn't quite that hardcore, but it is a wonderfully unique experience that delivers a risk/reward setup that most games couldn't even dream of trying to match.
Just how punishingly old-school is Demon's Souls? That's something that's rather hard to quantify without actually shoving a controller in your hands and just letting you play it for yourself, but nearly everything about the game's no-nonsense approach to delivering the action can be summed up in one very simple example: you can't pause the game. Ever. If you're in the middle of a pitched battle against enemies that can and very often will end your life in just a single hit or two, you'd better hope that whatever weapons or restoratives you have in your inventory are already mapped to the d-pad slots, and even then it'll take a bit of luck to get through some encounters.
Let me expand on that a little further. When you do bring up the Start Button menu, the one that gives you access to inventory, equipment and the status of both yourself and the world's light/dark tendencies, your character can only run around; all your other actions are used to guide the menu navigation. Those light/dark tendencies? They determine how tough enemies are in a level and dying can cause the world to shift to dark, meaning the game can get harder if you die too much.
Are you getting a sense of the kind of stacked odds that are against you? This is not a game for those that milk their savegame states or reset the console when something goes wrong. In fact, Demon's Souls almost constantly auto-saves, so that recent death or munching on those items or accidentally killing off one of the main vendors in the game? Yeah, that's all permanent. You can't sell your old equipment for cash (which, by the way, doubles as experience, so you can level up your character, his or her existing equipment or buy new weapons and armor, but rarely will you have enough cash to do all three). Oh, and perhaps the most amusingly brutal part of the Demon's Souls experience? If you die, you lose all that cash/experience (unless you can run all the way back through the level to where you died and reclaim your soul with all those enemies you killed off now alive and thirsty for fresh blood).
There's no bank, no second chances, no way to put off the inevitable. You will die in this game. When in this soulless form, you'll be permanently stripped of a chunk of your life meter. You will lose all of your cash, and you will hate that every once in a while it's because you got pushed (okay, you accidentally rolled) off a cliff. But you'll keep coming back because the game is quite simply one of the best on the PlayStation 3.
Those two main themes might seem at odds with each other. How can someone who has been cut down hundreds of times, been attacked by an ultra-powerful strike from an enemy he didn't even see coming, ganged up on by four or five guys that could by themselves probably end a game, how can they possibly call this a must-have experience? It's not just fogey nostalgia powering the absolute love I have for this game, I promise; it's the almost euphoric feeling that will come from finally besting one of the end-level bosses and raking in tons of cash along with a free pass to head back to The Nexus, the game's hub world and only real place of safety. There's a blissful sense of relief, of knowing you've overcome all those ridiculous odds to triumph, and to the victor goes the spoils -- except in this case the knowledge of enemies and their tactics often weigh more heavily than any purse of spare souls coughed up by a slain boss.
This is Demon's Souls' true gift -- a glimpse into a world that is so bleak, so downtrodden, so weathered by the passage of time and malevolent or all-powerful forces that it seems utterly hopeless... until you fix it. You'll meet your end plenty of times while doing it, but each death in Demon's Souls is a neatly packaged learning experience. For every cheap slip down a chasm or tumble over the edge of a staircase that sends you plummeting hundreds of feet to your death, there are dozens upon dozens that will teach you the cold, hard truths of this world: nearly every enemy (particularly early on) is a potential life-ender, and a proper defense and careful use of your equipped weapon are paramount in every. Single. Encounter.
The sense of pervasive dread and creeping tension is flat-out amazing, and may well contribute to the dizzying highs experienced when you've beaten a particular level. No game in recent memory has rewarded smart, careful play and punished overly-gutsy or foolishly heroic actions quite like Demon's Souls. It's not cheap or unfair, really, it's relentlessly stern, and like a drill instructor, the repeated sapping of all your hard work that seems like the game is just punishing you eventually clicks and you see those deaths for the key bits of training they are.
Chances are, though, even after hundreds or even thousands of deaths, you won't ever really know the breadth of what the game offers in terms of character classes, variety of weapons, rare drops, different equipment trade-offs or particular spells. That's because, even with an incredible wiki formed by importers that picked up the game when it was released in Asia a while back, there's simply too much to do in this game to get it all in one go.
Much of this comes down to the game's flexibility; both long- and short-range battles are important, though going about them is completely up to you. Want to be a magic user that roasts enemies from afar? No problem. Want to be an armor-clad brute that pulverizes foes with weapons no ordinary person could pick up, much less swing effectively? Easily done. Ah, but do you want to be someone in-between, a poker with magicks and a slicer with blades? Or would you like to use a bow? How about enchanted weapons? Each of them has a role to play, and if you choose to adhere to that role, you can jump into the startlingly unique online mode, which I'll get to in a second.
Let's delve a bit into the depth of the melee combat for a second, though, because it's ridiculously varied. Each weapon has its own animations for normal and heavy strikes, and those change yet again if you wield them with two hands vs. one. If you toss a shield onto the other while one-handing a weapon, you're able to block incoming attacks or even bat them away with a parry, which opens the enemy up to critical strikes. Some weapons will allow you to block and strike, while others require both. Along with the differences in play style come the stat requirements and practice with attack speeds, damage dealt, the ability to dodge and roll... Are you getting the idea here? There's more in just the combat alone to give players a reason to go through the game more than once.
Again, though, the game simply rewards choice. When upgrading your stats, any class can pour souls into any of the eight governing categories. Yes, you can start as a bruiser, but if the urge to cast a few spells or outfit yourself with protective miracles (think white magic vs. the "dark" of spells) hits early enough, you can make that happen. The catch, of course, is that with every buff to your stats, your Soul Level goes up, and thus the requirement for pouring more souls into any category increases. Remember too that souls are key to leveling up and buying/repairing/upgrading equipment. Same goes for buying new spells or miracles. And, of course, if you die, you lose that pool of cash/experience.
While the game is certainly playable all by one's lonesome, it's not the true Demon's Souls experience. For that, you'll have to explore the game's quirky and seemingly limited online mode. There's no voice chat. There's no text chat. There's no lobby, no matchmaking system (at least in the traditional sense) and no out-of-game invite system. No, to find people in Demon's Souls, you'll have to make use of Stones, and these too are guided by some particular rules. By dropping a stone while in a non-corporeal state, you can leave a marking on the ground for those that are still alive, allowing them to pull you into your game where you'll earn souls, but you can't pick up any other items. When "whole", you can recruit others to help you get past particularly tough levels or take on bosses. In either situation, you'll have to make use of only a simple gesture-based communication menu by holding down the X button for about five seconds (or using the slightly wonky SIXAXIS shortcuts), but they work surprisingly well and add to the slightly ethereal, disconnected feeling of the worlds.
The online implementation is definitely Japanese in that it doesn't embrace full, real-time, voice-based communication between players, but there are unique touches too. As you play through the game, you'll notice other players in the area fighting their own versions of the same monsters. These white wisps are reminders that you're only a fragmented dimension away from being able to play with them, and when they die, the last few seconds of their life is recorded as a bloodstain you can touch to play back their final moments -- often serving as something of a warning when in new areas. The only way to reach across these dimensions outside of joining someone's game is to leave a sometimes cryptic message built from pre-written sentences that can warn of upcoming danger or indicate a good guy around the bend. These, though, can also be dropped as particularly evil little "help" messages that encourage players to jump blindly off a ledge in search of treasure only to meet their death if you so choose, but a voting system does help weed out some of the less honest bits of help -- unless of course a bunch of equally evil people recommend the false message too.
In fact, the disconnected nature of Demon's Souls' online interactions helps encourage the kind of break from social norms that being anonymous online has done in message boards. You can be a complete ass in this game and delight in the misfortunes of others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ability to invade other people's games as a Black Phantom. When giving in to the Dark Side, you can entice enemies to attack the player, and of course can do it yourself, effectively ruining their careful exploration. There's a level limit to keep end game Black Phantoms from just rolling up and insta-killing newcomers (you can't even interact with other players until you beat the first boss and get the necessary stones), but toward the end of the game, ten levels can mean the difference between some wildly different bits of equipment or spells depending on how characters have been leveled up over the course of their travels.
Late-game Black Phantom invasions can result in completely broken equipment, a variety of status effects being applied and some absolutely epic fights... or they can be over in seconds. Of course, in a nice bit of Karmic Revenge, any Black Phantom that dies by a means other than a player loses their Soul Level, making watching one of those jerks falling off a cliff feel that much more satisfying. By the same token, one could choose to redeem themselves by using their immunity to enemies to kill everything in sight and then sacrifice themselves at the end of a level to the player they invaded, but I wouldn't count on that happening too much. For those that dedicate themselves to seeing the "bad" ending of the game, another stone will allow them to duel with other players while wagering souls pre-battle.
The differences in any of these states, from Blue (helpful) to Black (invading) Phantoms, to Soul (dead, but dealing more damage) or Body (alive, but attracting more enemy attention and doing less damage) Forms means you can play the game in a variety of ways. If you factor in the shifts that can happen when going from Dark to Light tendencies in a particular world (some areas will only open up once an area has completely bend to one end of the spectrum), what was already a deep game becomes a chasm of replay value, adaptability and reward.
It also helps that playing online will allow you to see more of the world, which is in and of itself one hell of a treat. From Software has built for themselves one of the most imaginative takes on a traditional medieval-style "Western" universe I've ever seen. The idea that this is a traditional swords-and-sorcery adventure with dragons and wizards and such will fade a bit the first time you see some of the more whacked-out creature designs (and no, I'm not going to spoil them; seeing some of the monstrous bosses in this game for the first time is something everyone should get to experience unfettered), but the sheer scale and use of clever level design to help reveal areas that you'll either eventually get to or visual callbacks to where you were a few hours back are amazing indeed. That the game supplies multiple "shortcuts" to earlier areas as a reward for exploring in some levels is welcome indeed.
That's not to say all those huge dragons and massive, crumbling castles are rendered absolutely flawlessly, though. Yes, the game's detailed, normal mapped textures and clever enemy designs all move with either listless shambles or surprisingly quick darts, but in great numbers -- particularly when there are a lot of extra objects used as clutter or to break up what would normally be a big, empty space -- the framerate can take some serious dives. These are usually brief, and things return to the normal 30-ish frames a second of the game, but be forewarned that they can hit in particularly intense sections on rare occasions.
The audio, likewise, can be a little inconsistent. The game was already localized for the most part, so Atlus didn't have to do much in the way of translation. This also meant they used the same voice work heard if people imported the game months ago, and as anyone who bit the bullet and bought the game early from overseas, some of the conversations can be amusingly amateurish. For the most part, though, the main characters are all voiced well enough, and when they are bad, it's more chuckle-worthy than offensively bad. An anime-style dub this is not.
Thankfully, though, the music and effects are stellar, with the latter offering all the clangs, splinters, groans, screams and ghastly sighs one would hope for in an adventure like this. The music is arguably the most powerful source of the game's slightly depressing feel, simultaneously culling emotions like fear and depression while mixing in just the slightest bit of hope. Even the Nexus, a place that becomes a source of refuge, plays a somber, melancholy series of plucked strings endlessly. That said, it's weirdly fitting; you'll likely feel a bit more morose than in most games until you've finished off a boss, but even just the few week break I had between the import, review and final retail versions of the code made hearing those familiar strains feel almost soothing.
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