Demon’s Souls Review
Here There Be Monsters
I have braved the dragon-guarded ramparts of the Boletarian Palace, delved deep into the labyrinthine Stonefang Tunnels, and crept through the dark, foreboding dungeons of the Tower of Latria. I’ve explored the crumbling ruins of the Shrine of Storms and even trudged through the festering marshlands of the Valley of Defilement. I’ve died more times than I can count, but even death is no escape in From Software’s Demon’s Souls. In fact, it’s just the beginning.
I have to admit, my initial appraisal of Demon’s Souls was fairly skeptical. My previous experience with From Software’s work was not particularly favorable, and initial screenshots didn’t look terribly impressive; in fact, I had originally written the game off as a generic medieval fantasy that was likely going to be unbalanced and dull. And the bizarre title continues to confuse me to this day (why not call it Demon Souls? It would certainly make a lot more sense and make for a much better logo without that little apostrophe.) But the game did not simply fade into the limelight as I had expected; rather, it became more and more prominent and I was forced to pay attention to it. Rave reviews from Japan, testimonials from members of RPGamer’s forums, and an unusually strong endorsement from the game’s North American publisher, Atlus, slowly brought me around. And then I had an opportunity to play it in July, and my opinion was immediately swayed.
Demon’s Souls is the biggest and best surprise I’ve had all year. A dark and frightening visual style, terrific use of sound and music, sharp controls, and one of the most unique uses of multiplayer elements ever imagined all help to create one of the greatest RPG experiences this console generation.
The game takes place in the kingdom of Boletaria, where an ancient and powerful evil has been awakened. Consuming the entire country in a thick, impenetrable fog, hordes of demons now infest the countryside, feasting on the souls of the few humans who remain. Brave adventurers from across the land have journeyed to this accursed place, and you are among them. But none survive for long, and their souls soon find their way to the Nexus, a cathedral patroned by a mysterious maiden in black, where all those whose corporeal forms have been lost to the demons congregate. It is from here you set out to reclaim Boletaria and your own life.
While a small handful of cutscenes and bits of dialogue permeate the game experience, the majority of the story is told just by playing the game. The story is experienced rather than told, and it’s a refreshing change of pace from the dialogue-heavy RPGs that one generally encounters. The game provides you with a basic backstory and then sends you out into the world to see what’s become of it, and it can be a harrowing experience. Former soldiers of Boletaria have become servants of the demons, and once majestic feats of architecture have become little more than debris. Wretched, miserable slaves toil ceaselessly while others rot in dank, moldy dungeons. Both the visuals and the audio work diligently to provide a dark, gloomy atmosphere, and this more than anything is what makes Demon’s Souls so memorable. It isn’t a complex story, but there’s more than enough to ensure the player constantly feels frightened and alone in a dangerous and unforgiving world.
The game begins by having you create your character using a generator similar to what you’d find in a western RPG like Oblivion or Mass Effect. You also select a starting class, which determines your initial stats and equipment. From there, you’re thrust into a short tutorial level that ultimately ends in a brutal death, at which point the real game begins.
Demon’s Souls is all about memorization, as every time you die, you’re placed back at the beginning of the level, and the enemies you fought up to that point will all be exactly where they were. Learning where they are and how to deal with them can take some patience, but it’s rewarding as well. Every so often you’ll encounter a switch or lever that will make a permanent change to the environment, often opening up a shortcut, so successful progress is rewarded as you go. The game can be brutally hard at times, but simultaneously, once you’ve figured out how to progress, repeating the process is incredibly easy. In fact, you’ll wonder why it was giving you such a hard time to begin with. At the end of each level lies an enormous, powerful boss that must be defeated in order to move on. While most of the levels are impeccably designed, a few of them are extremely long and lacking in shortcuts, which can be frustrating if the boss is giving you trouble.
Of course, dying isn’t entirely without penalties. When you die, you lose all the souls you haven’t spent yet, which are used as both experience and money. You also lose your body, putting you in soul form which comes at the cost of half your total health, which can make it even harder to progress. Luckily, you’ll find an item that can negate much of the latter penalty in the very first level, and any souls you lost can be recovered if you can reach the point where you died. Of course, if you die before getting there, those souls are lost forever, but luckily they’re also fairly easy to come by, so it isn’t likely to be a big loss. All the items and equipment you’ve found also stay with you, so you don’t have to worry about losing anything important. There are also several ways to restore your body, including defeating a boss, so you won’t be stuck in soul form forever.
Combat can seem a bit complex at first, particularly in terms of controls, but it quickly becomes second nature. While Demon’s Souls provides players with the typical set-up of health and mana, a third stamina bar plays the most important role in battle. Aside from casting spells and using items, stamina is used for nearly every action. Attacking, running, and blocking all drain your stamina, and if it runs out, an attack from an enemy will break your guard, dealing damage and causing you to stumble, possibly leaving you open to another attack.
Every battle ends up coming down to a combination of strategy and making the most of your stamina. While there are a wide arsenal of weapons and spells available, picking the right tactics for any given encounter can mean the difference between a quick victory and a messy defeat. Sometimes a slow, methodical attack is the way to go, while at other times a full-on assault is the best bet. In one case you may want to use magic or a ranged attack, while other times melee may be the best way to go. There are also three types of weapons — slashing, thrusting, and crushing — and certain weapons are better against certain foes.
One of the most unique aspects of Demon’s Souls‘ combat is equipment management. Unlike most RPGs, the equipment you start the game with may, in many cases, end up being the equipment you end the game with, particularly the armor. Rather than offering more powerful weapons and equipment as the game progresses, all the weapons and armor are balanced against each other based on weight and defensive/offensive properties. A character with high endurance may want to wear the heaviest plate armor he can find, while a mage whose soul levels are placed elsewhere will have to rely on cloth armor. To make things more interesting, while each character has a maximum equip weight, using more than half that will severely hinder your mobility, causing you to run slower and making it harder to dodge. Players will have to find a balance between defense and mobility that works best for their playstyle. There’s a lot more than just stats to take into account when choosing equipment.
The thing that really sets Demon’s Souls apart is how it handles multiplayer. The best way I can think of to describe it would be that, for the most part, it’s passive. The game is, effectively, single player, but other people playing the game can interact with you in order to help you progress. If there’s someone in the same area as you, you may see their shadow in the form of a white spectre. You can watch where they go and see if they’re in combat, giving you clues as to what lies ahead. If another player has died nearby, you can touch their bloodstain to see a red spectre living out their final moments. Finally, players can also leave messages for each other, helpful hints about what lies in wait, tactics to use, or where to find treasure. It’s almost like having a strategy guide built into the game itself.
There is also limited cooperative and competitive multiplayer. Characters in soul form can leave soul signs which can be seen by those possessing a body. Characters whose bodies are in tact can touch these to summon those players into their game to assist them. Souls are shared between all the characters participating, and while defeating the area’s boss will only leave it defeated for the host player, the soul players will be rewarded by having their bodies restored. Players can also choose to invade another player’s world as a black phantom in order to kill them and steal their body and souls. However, players can only do this when they are in soul form, and the player being attacked must have a body, preventing abuse and making it more of a minor threat. There is also a level limit in place on both these multiplayer modes: characters must be within roughly ten soul levels of each other in order to play in the same world, so one doesn’t have to worry about being vastly outmatched or the game being made too easy.
Demon’s Souls is a game that really needs to be experienced in order to understand. Once you take your first step into Boletaria, it will grip you tightly and refuse to let go. Sadly, due to time restraints, I was unable to complete the game before Atlus took the press servers down to prepare for the retail launch; only four bosses remained. Now, like the rest of you, I’m eagerly awaiting October 6 so that I can return to Boletaria and finish what I started.
How long it will take to complete Demon’s Souls will depend largely on how quickly you’re able to complete each level, but my playtime was roughly thirty-five hours towards the end of the game, which would put the final tally at around forty. Atlus’s special edition version of the game comes with a complete strategy guide, which will likely help those looking to explore the game fully. The game has a lot of complexities to it that would be difficult to discover on one’s own. The game is very hard, but not unfairly so; each time you die, you’ll learn a bit more about the level, and you’ll be able to progress a bit further. I was very surprised with what I found in Demon’s Souls. My initial, skeptical reaction to the game’s announcement has turned full circle on me: Demon’s Souls is the best game I’ve played all year.
Addictive, rewarding combat
Tons of ways to customize your character
Unique, passive multiplayer experience
Not much in the way of plot
Some people will complain it's too hard