Demon’s Souls Review (2009)

Defeated again, I suppose. Image:  Bliptalk

Defeated again, I suppose. Image: Bliptalk

I’ve been at this a while – now that Dark Souls III is out, maybe it’s time to look back at 2009 me – writing about the first game in the series, Demon’s Souls.

Still interesting to read, for me, anyway – boy was I wordy.


06 OCTOBER 2009

Game: Demon’s Souls
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Atlus, USA
Platform: PS3
Price: $59.99, or $69.99 for Deluxe Editon
Pros: Gorgeous, addictive, depth of play
Cons: Scale of difficulty is pitched high

PART ONE – September 2, 2009

In a rare twist, Atlus has informed us press-types that there are no embargoes on this game. We can talk about it freely, and fully. We could even review it if we wanted to. Boy, I wish. I just got the press-copy yesterday in the mail, so there’s no way I could be through enough of this game to give a quality review.

However, I can preview the first part. Spoil it, if you will. So, if you do NOT want to know anything about the first part of the game, do not read any more. I MEAN IT! You’ve been warned. 🙂

Demon’s Souls is a game for the PS3 system, published and localized by Atlus, originally developed by FROM Software. It’s releasing October 6th, so be ready. Because it is one hell of a ride.

From the opening score and the well-produced voice over, I found myself exclaiming (in my head, of course), “Wow, this is what Oblivion WANTED to be.” The visuals are simply stunning: mountains are craggy and realistic looking, the vistas are panoramic and the big giant demon-monster at the end of the opening credits? Scary as all get-out. The PS3 really does this game justice, especially on a big ole TV screen. The music is a bit overdone, but it does send the message of, “oh crap, the world is DOOMED” right to your ears. From the official Atlus blog, we can see what Demon’s Souls is about:

King Allant the XII, the last king of Boletaria, searched tirelessly to expand his might. The Nexus, a great ice shrine nestled in the mountains, bestowed the power of the souls onto him, bringing prosperity to his kingdom. Still unsated, he returned again to the Nexus, where he foolishly awakened the Old One from its eternal slumber. This long forgotten evil, now wrought upon Boletaria, plunged the realm into darkness and fog. A mighty demon horde poured into the kingdom, devouring the souls of men.

Champions from other realms learned of Boletaria’s fate and sought to deliver the kingdom from evil; none would return from the cursed land. Called upon by a mysterious maiden in black, you go forth, the last hope for humanity in a place lost to demons and darkness…

All of the above is voiced by a woman with a vaguely European accent, while the sweeping vistas and scary monsters fly on by. You’re dropped right into the character creation screens, which are a bit on the overwhelming side, especially since players will have no clue what kind of stats will best advantage them in gameplay. I went with my standard: female magic user with purple hair, named Squiff (long story). You could REALLY spend some time in this tool, and I did spend a fair amount tweaking everything from the size of my nose to the upturn of my eyes to the pigment and lighting of my skin tone. I’m guessing that folks with talent and time could make a character look just like them. I found the gender selector to be a joy of progressive thought, as it allows a player to move a slider along a continuum from male to female. This is the first time I’ve seen that done, and I have to applaud the developers for their foresight.

So, purple-haired magician woman in hand, I went into the Tutorial, which is a series of corridors/caves. You’re introduced to basic moves like short, quick attacks to stronger, but longer attacks. Using the left shoulder buttons lets players guard (L1) and parry (L2), which when timed right allows a player to riposte, generally a killing move that looks awesome.

Players are also introduced to locking on (an awkward right stick press) and changing weapons and magic (if applicable) as well as using herbs that can be found by examining corpses and remains – woohoo! On the floor are pretty little red shiny areas that are messages from the developers, giving players helpful hints and teaching valuable Tutorial lessons. You learn about blood stains (touch them and you can watch the death scene of the given spot’s blood “donor.” This comes in handy later in the game as you can hit a bloodstain and find out where the baddies might be shooting arrows, for example.

At the end of the Tutorial, you face a boss, which I thought was pretty clever. I’m thinking, “hey, they’re going to have me use all the things I just learned to defeat this boss.” Then, I realized that this “boss” was really a ringer. I was never meant to survive. Doesn’t matter HOW well I learned the basic moves – not only did I die, but they WANTED me to die. What other game kills you at the end of the Tutorial so you can begin the actual game? That’s what I thought.

Ending up in the Nexus, I began to see that this wasn’t what Oblivion wanted to be. This game is what Oblivion had no idea even existed. The Nexus is where you start your game, as a dead person. The object, so I’m told by another dead warrior, is to travel to places, fight demons, and collect, you guessed it, Demon’s Souls. When you do this, apparently you might get your body back. Maybe. I’m not too clear on this as I can’t seem to get to the first Demon.

When I say I can’t get to the first Demon, what I mean is that the first level is so incredibly difficult, and so foreign to me as a gamer, that I can’t seem to get through the whole thing without dying. Repeatedly. I’ve touched my own bloodstain three or four times now. What i find absolutely compelling, though, is that I want to keep playing. Most games, if I was this frustrated this early on, I’d stop playing. I might even write a clever post about games that are too hard for old guys like me. But not here. I’m compelled to play this game. I’m really honestly interested in honing my strategy, skills, and equipment into the perfect set of “stuff” to see me through the level. Because each time I attempt it, I learn something new about how to approach this game.

First off, I’ve learned not to hack n slash. This will kill me. In addition, relying only on ranged magic spells will kill me as they run out and I need to then rely on a sword, which then isn’t good enough to get the bad guys who are far away and lobbing fireballs at me. I will die. Not locking on to my foes will, ultimately, kill me. Not remembering where, exactly, that guy waiting in ambush is will, in fact, kill me. I will continue to start from the beginning of the level each time I die. Which, in most games, is overly frustrating. In this game, for some reason, it’s motivating me.

So, the title says First Level. Honestly, I’ve been through the first level ALMOST to the end about 20 times. In fact, it wasn’t until I reached maximum frustration and watched a 4-part walkthrough on YouTube that I realized that I’d not been fighting the main boss Demon, but getting fried by some random giant dragons NEAR the end. Ugh. A couple of tips – if you find yourself having trouble, try a Royalty class character. The magic replenishes magically, with a ring you get, and you’ll not lose all your items each time you die. Just a tip. Just sayin’.

Regardless, I’ll keep playing this, and keep writing about it. Because, honestly, a 1500 word article with a score on it will do you no good. Those will all tell you to go buy it and tell you the story and then tell you about the battle system, etc. But you already knew that stuff. What I hope to do is to help you experience some of this game, through my eyes and hands, so that you can make a well-rounded decision about buying this game. I have a feeling I’ll be a while playing this game, so as you purchase it and get to where I am, be sure to stop and say hello. And touch my bloodstain, please.

PART TWO – October 6, 2009

By now, you’ve seen the videos, the screenshots and the buzz surrounding Atlus’ latest PS3 game, Demon’s Souls.

You’ve heard about the really amazingly cool deluxe edition and pre-order bonus artbook and CD that has me itching to purchase it, even though I have the reviewer version of the game.

You’ve heard about how brutally difficult it can be. You may even have heard about how it’s really not as hard as everyone makes it out to be. I’m here to tell you that it’s both.

I also want you to bend your mind around this: if you’ve played and enjoyed Donkey Kong, Frogger, Super Mario Brothers or any of the dozen other old school platformers out there, you’ll dig Demon’s Souls. I’m sure you’re wondering if I’m talking about the same Demon’s Souls that you might have been anticipating. It is definitely not a platforming game. It’s an action RPG with decidedly old school learning curve, with no hand holding and no support system for being a n00b. Demon’s Souls is incredibly unforgiving, and the one hit kills aren’t koopa-cute, but this is your daddy’s old-school gaming.
Let me explain. Demon’s Souls is, first and foremost, an incredibly beautiful, well-produced, fantastic game for the PS3. The stunning vistas, dark corridors and clever sound cues all go a long way to keeping me coming back for more. Personally, I don’t like the precision of the old school platforming genre. I’m not a huge fan of endless grinding, either. So, why am I still finding myself drawn to this interesting amalgamation of the two?

First up, it’s gorgeous. I’m a sucker for eye candy and this game is the pinnacle of visual greatness. The environments are lush, from the stunning vista atop the Boletarian castle walkway, to the immense fire breathing dragon demon that flies above you, burning everything in its path, to the deep dark dank caves of Stonefang Tunnel, there’s nothing I’ve seen that compares to this game’s stunning beauty. The animation of enemy and the player’s own avatar is second to none, and supports gameplay at every turn with extras like slowing down and dodge-rolling slower due to carrying too many weapons.
Second of all, it’s addictive. The enemies are in the same place each time, though they may act differently or take a different path to attempt to kill you. The urge to play through just one more time after each death is strong. Yes, death happens. A lot. But that’s part of the draw, and gives this game its legs: not only am I dead, but I have to get back to my spot of death to be able to collect the souls I dropped there when I died. Brilliant and addictive.

Third, and this took me a while to get to, is the compelling storyline. Yes, I said storyline. The story told to me by the Monumental was moving, deep, and intelligent. I long for that kind of emotional experience in games, and this really took me by surprise. The motivation as a role-played character became, for me, that much deeper. No spoilers here, but if you’re getting frustrated with the intensity and/or repetitive nature of the learning curve, stick with it. It gets more and more worth it. The concepts of nexus as world-hub, archstones as portals, and the various nexus denizens (from the world-weary knight to the grumpy blacksmith) do please my story-needs, and make a lot of the die, start at the beginning, die just as you reach the point you need to, rinse and repeat a bit more easy to swallow.

Finally, the online multiplayer holds great promise. I can’t say that I got to play with anyone, due to server constraints and timezones, but I certainly saw a lot of folks playing alongside me. While running through each lovingly crafted world, ghostly and luminous shadows of other players can be seen, dashing along the path you trod, talking to the NPCs in the Nexus and the like. The bloodstains show where other adventurers have died and allow you to replay their grisly end, making them entertaining AND informative.

I’m not going to dissemble and tell you that this game will be something you like from start to finish. In my month with the game I have gone from rapt joy to fierce, razor-sharp hatred to a grudging acceptance of my own failings as a gamer in my attempt to understand this game. As such, here are some gameplay tips, garnered from a long career in the world of the Nexus, boletaria and the other worlds of Demon’s Souls:

Souls = money. It is often worth running ALL THE WAY back to the start of the level, activating the archstone key, and talking to the Lady in Black to level up. Please do this. A lot. Higher level characters just do better, period.
If you’re having trouble with your initial character choice, consider switching to the Royalty class. You’ll get a ring that replentishes your magic powers over time, so you really only need to guard your health.

GUARD YOUR HEALTH. Do not run in and expect to take much damage. Even the least of foes can get in a good shot and kill. Kill. Kill. You. Learn how to guard, dodge, roll, jump backward, and switch from ranged magic and weapons to melee and back. Don’t be afraid to use your health herbs early and often. You can buy more with the souls. See point #1 above.

You will spend most of your time dead. Let it be. This is how you are supposed to be playing the game, mostly.

Get help when you can. I believe that I would have progressed farther if I had someone to play through some of the levels with.

DO NOT TRY TO KILL THE BIG DRAGONS. That is all. They will not die. You will.

I hope this review (part one here), has inspired you to get this game. I think this is the kind of game that shows off the PS3’s abilities to great effect, and will raise your own skills to a higher level, should you stick with it. I am a better player now, because of my trials and tribulations in Demon’s Souls. Games that I had given up on before at the “I’m stuck” point have opened up to me as being much easier now that I have a few more skillz under my belt. Thanks, Atlus!