Genre: Role-Playing / Action
Reviewer: Ryan Newman
Overall: 9.5 = Must Buy
Few imports have caused as much stir in recent years as From Software’s Demon’s Souls. Discussed and praised for months on end throughout the Internet, Demon’s Souls is a breed of game rarely seen these days in that it is as punishing as it is rewarding. It is also an extraordinary example of a title that has found itself in PlayStation 3 systems across North American without having a proper region release. Thanks to Sony’s laissez-faire attitude towards region protection, and two versions (Chinese and Korean) sporting English voice-overs, subtitles, and menus, it has been since heyday of the Sega Saturn and original PlayStation that I can recall a game so heavily imported.
Atlus announced their acquisition of the North American publishing rights for Demon’s Souls in May of this year. Aside from polishing the translation, they also included extra goodies as part of their Atlus Spoils program. The game comes in a “Stop Importing It” deluxe edition in addition to a standard edition. The deluxe edition is packaged with an official strategy guide, limited to this edition and coming in at over 150 pages, as well as a slipcase that features the melancholic art of the import edition. If you pre-order either version, you will also receive an art book and a 24-track soundtrack. Now some bad news for all you importers: aside from missing out on all of the extras, you also cannot connect to the same server as domestic players nor will your character saves transfer over. If you’ve waited to grab a copy, or are just hearing about it now, all you need to do is decide which version to pick up.
A mysterious fog has appeared throughout the lands of Boletaria’s northern kingdom. King Allant XII rules over an eviscerated realm, its people under constant siege by demons from the fog and madness from within. The Old One’s awakening was the catalyst for the invasion, and since its fog has been unleashed, hordes of monstrous creatures have been devouring the souls of men. All of those who lose their soul also lose their mind, and the chaos is spreading. A sole warning has made it to the outside world, but all those who seek to aid the kingdom are lost during their journey through the miasma. You are the latest to step forward and brave the danger, setting forth to face the Old One and its minions.
An adventure first needs an adventurer, so your first order of business is to create a character by setting your appearance and rolling your class. The customization options aren’t bad, which include the ability to choose sex as well as adjust for body type and facial features by using sliding scales. Despite looking rather garish during the creation phase, the characters are quite pleasant once they are adorned with their weapons and armor. Next, you choose to play as one of several pre-made classes: soldier, knight, hunter, priest, magician, wanderer, barbarian, thief, temple knight, or royalty. Each class has their own attributes, namely their starting conditions and proficiencies for certain types of armor and weapons. For example, the royalty class starts with the lowest soul level but has the “soul arrow” spell while a magician two spells in their retinue, “water veil” and “flame toss,” but is less agile. The difference in armor is also important due to how the game’s physics convey momentum: your character actually feels sluggish when wearing heavy armor, running at a slower pace and coming down harder when tumbling. A class can adapt to use unorthodox equipment by leveling up one of the numerous attributes: vitality, intelligence, endurance, strength, dexterity, magic, faith, or luck. If you find that your class is unable to properly handle a large shield, then a few bumps to endurance will eventually allow you to use it without any penalties. After setting up your character it’s then time to explore Boletaria and the game’s ethereal hub, the Nexus.
The initial area you find yourself in isn’t the open world that you might have expected. The majority of the game does open up fairly quickly, actually, just after defeating the first minor boss. Each of the five levels are broken up into various sections, with minor and a major bosses in each, and there are some spots that are unlocked either through victory, an item, or by your soul tendency. Your soul tendency reflects your actions throughout the game towards both non-playable characters and other players. Demon’s Soul, unlike most console role-playing titles, has a rich online component that allows you to terrorize or aid other gamers.
If you are worried because you have a poor connection, then rest easy, because the game can also be played offline. If you can connect, then I highly suggest keeping your connection on, because the online component is a fantastic complement to the single-player experience. You will get a glimpse of how others play a role in your campaign during your initial visit to the Nexus by seeing the specters of other players flitting about and reading messages left by others. Heeding warnings is important, because you are a ghost the first time you are in the Nexus. You are substantially weaker in soul form than you are in physical form. Being a ghost does have its perks, though, chiefly the ability to directly assist or harm other players. A set of stones allow you to set markers down to aid living warriors requiring assistance, thereby earning your physical form back, or invade another player’s realm, resurrecting yourself by defeating them. Your actions will also lead to encounters with special characters that may result in them helping or attacking you. The result of the alignment system is that replayability is greatly increased, as you will find yourself experiencing the game differently as a hero, a maniac, or a natural wanderer that cuts both ways. You are only doing yourself a disservice if you intentionally segregate yourself from the rest of the community.
The online component isn’t limited to combat. Although it’s nice to help a friend or a stranger with a troublesome demon, or take someone else a notch, connectivity provides aid in several forms. A proactive way to assist is by leaving your own messages to alert others to treasure, hidden passages, ambushes, and drop-offs. Each message is made up of a handful of pre-made selections, which ends up being a great workaround for avoiding on-screen keyboards while not spoiling anything for the readers. Messages are also ranked, though I found all but a handful to be worthwhile. Players also help by dying. Puddles of other players’ blood activate replays of the character’s finals moments, with specters disappearing into chasms and falling from invisible blows; again, enough information to help but not enough to spoil anything. The aids may seem like a minor point, but they actually do a fantastic job of creating a real sense of camaraderie and community while also giving the world a bit of life. The fact that the game is difficult doesn’t hurt either, as exploration, in addition to combat, must be approached with a light touch that is as informed as possible. Any faltering on your part and you will find yourself back at the Nexus or at one of the archstone spawn points.
Death in Demon’s Souls isn’t like death in many other games. Souls, the game’s currency, are accrued whenever an enemy dies and are used for purchasing, repairing, and upgrading equipment; purchasing spells; purchasing miracles; and upgrading attributes. Souls are everything. When you die, in either physical or spirit form, you lose the souls you collected; unless you make it back to the area where you died and absorb those that were lost, you lose them for good. It can be heartbreaking to find yourself a few rooms away from an archstone, your earliest way back to the Nexus and the trainers, merchants, and blacksmith it contains, only to see yourself keel over from a deathblow. Even if you are in the more robust physical form there is still little the threat of being invaded by phantoms, other players looking to resurrect by killing you. The amount of souls required is increased with each upgrade, so it is imperative that you attain as many as possible - of course, that is easier said than done.
A problem for you is that death is everywhere. There are enemy ambushes, patrols, and traps all over the place. You will eventually be able to hold your own, but it will take patience and practice. The combat system is fairly robust, and it will take time to learn the intricacies of blocking, parrying, countering, evading, guard breaking, and attacking (weak and strong) properly. It’s tough going at first, with the wild lower-level demons lunging at you and swinging with reckless abandon, but soon you’ll be able to deftly switch between one of two left- and right-handed weapons, toss a spell, perform a miracle and deal swift justice to any foolhardy demons. As dangerous as the enemies are, though, it’s the environmental hazards that will have you paranoid.
From Software are a devious lot, seemingly taking pleasure in screwing you over. Ignore a message and you are likely to find yourself three floors down, desperately trying to backtrack to where you were. If you manage to pick yourself back up after a tumble, which is often random (some seemingly deadly falls end well), you will have to rely on memory and wherewithal to get back to where you were because there are no maps. The segmentation of the sub sections helps to alleviate much of the frustration that comes from having no map, and you will be surprised at just how quickly you being to memorize some truly labyrinthine areas in a run or two. The areas are largely open-ended and portions will be revisited after certain qualifications are met, so you will find yourself in the same areas numerous times and slowly recognizing landmarks, walkways, and hallways enough to get yourself around without too much of a hassle. You will also stumble upon alternate routes, which is actually really exciting because of how prominent some of the seemingly hidden paths are – I can’t recall the last time I felt such a sense of adventure. The first time I went through any new area I was rightly hesitant: I crept along with my shield out down every hallway, across every bridge, and around every corner. That sense of dread, mystery, and wonder I felt was like when I fired up Dungeon Master, Ultima Underworld, and Daggerfall for the first time.
Demon’s Souls not only harkens back to some of the best hack-and-slash dungeon crawlers, it also manages to make its own mark. The feeling of yesteryear’s turn-based titles might be strong, but the combat’s console sensibilities inject a real vitality to the experience. The Witcher did a great job of working with a similar approach, but with a faster-paced combat system akin to the later Jedi Knight titles. The throwback style is similar, but Demon’s Souls’ combat is much more involved. You don’t simply run into a situation swinging away and casting spells; instead, there are a myriad of options that present themselves for each encounter that must be given careful consideration. The combat system has few counterparts that I can think of, in terms of both mechanics and consequences, with maybe Way of the Samurai providing the best example as both feature in-depth systems that focus more on survival than flash.
Each encounter in Demon’s Souls has the very real possibility of ending your game. While that can be said of any title, it is especially true here. Attacks, even from weaker enemies, can take off significant amounts of life, a precious commodity while in soul form. You must also rely on your stamina bar to evade, attack, and guard break, which drains quickly, leaving you an open target. Victory is often determined by how you plan your attack as lengthy engagements can become rather messy, with debris and bodies littering the battlefield, as you fumble around and begin to lose heart after seeing your character exhausted. Even after thousands of souls have been gained and you become a demon-killing machine, the game continues to challenge. Unfortunately, one of the constant challenges comes from the camera; while the angles are often good there are moments when items block the edges, and there are times when the camera ‘catches’ on those objects. The locking system can also be a pain, because the same click on the right analog stick will either target a nearby enemy or center the view. If you are at a slight angle while attempting to target a foe that is too far away for a lock, and you will attempt a lock because of how wildly inaccurate loose firing is, you will instead readjust to the new center point – it’s a disorienting annoyance. You always have to have your guard up, be it because of a monster or a fussy control scheme. Even though these problems are by no means a deal breaker, in a game that is so exacting, good isn’t enough.
The disquietness permeates throughout the entire journey. The gritty atmosphere is accentuated by poignant sound effects and some great music: the eerie beeps and boops reminiscent of old sci-fi movies during a mind flayer’s wild rush will have you jumping in your seat. Both are largely understated, which makes them all the more striking whenever the game steps things up, particularly during boss battles. The character designs are also really well done, and they have a certain aura about them that goes perfectly with the game’s despondent tone. As new characters are introduced and find their way into the Nexus, the halls soon fill with the preaching of the world’s evils, their despair, and how they died. Everything is otherworldly, even when you’re in physical form running around a castle, with the general vagueness of enemies and allies accentuating the strangeness. Demon’s Soul, in addition to so much else that it does well, often manages to be a better survival horror title than most full-fledge survival horror titles. In fact, the only downside I experienced was a strange slowdown in the framerate whenever I smashed a lot of barrels, but not when I fought multiple opponents.
Demon’s Souls might not sound like it is for everyone. The lack of many common amenities only adds to an already challenging design, and the online component is both worrisome and confusing to newcomers. If you are one of the worried, then fear not, because the design repays in kind for your efforts – you actually feel a sense of accomplishment as you progress. The online component is also just as much about helping than harming, if not more so. Demon’s Souls, even with its minor camera and targeting issues, is a must for any fan of the genre and one of the reasons to own a PlayStation 3. Highly recommended.
(This review is based on a review build provided by the publisher.)