The lights are on
Developer: From Software
Release Date: October 7, 2009
Pros: Innovative multiplayer aspect of the game, stunning visuals, slew of classes and weapons to customize your ideal hero, refreshing challenge, incredible bosses in scale and look, world tendencies mix up a typical run, New Game + furthers the challenge and content offered
Cons: Tough....like really tough...like old NES games where everything wants to end you tough, very trial and error, shotty camera in narrow spaces, targeting issues with multiple enemies, there is no pause button, added difficulty due to lack of item/equipment explanation
These days games are very forgiving. Regenerating health, numerous checkpoints, and laughably simple bosses prove to be the norm in a lot of recent titles. Demon's Souls proves to be as hard to say as it is to play. Giving flashbacks to the old NES days where an easy mode rarely existed, Demon's Souls offers a refreshing challenge that can be a title worth bragging rights upon completion.
What's this about?
King Allant used the power of souls to bring about a time of prosperity and hope to his kingdom of Boletaria. Unknowingly, the king awakened an ancient being known as "The Old One" that unleashed a dense fog to cut the kingdom off from the rest of the world. Anyone who entered the fog never returned, but one person made it out and warned the world of their kingdom's plight. So like a good little hero, you go charging head first into the fog with little regard for your own well being...cause that's obviously what a hero is suppose to do.
The plot is expanded upon in the beginning of the game, but not really addressed through the main portion. You have some interaction with various other heroes and talk with the vendors discussing their own personal stories, but you never really invest any emotion with any of the characters. The character I got closest to was the blacksmith and that was only because he had to repair my armor for my x-thousandth death. The game basically sets up a plot then literally says, hey, go kill demons. Needless to say the story of this game, though mildly entertaining, left a lot to be desired.
Through the stages of Demon's Souls...there is no music. This is actually a smart move as I imagine the tunes would get incredibly old the 20th time I would be attempting a stage. The only music that cues up is a haunting melody in the Nexus as you shop around and a simple tune as you enter a boss fight. The Nexus tune feels in place but the boss music is nothing to get you pumped up to...well...die. The title track isn't too shabby, and I'm sure a happy upbeat tune would ease the frustration along the stage, but in general the music is nothing to praise or despise.
Some voice acting is also placed in for the different characters you bump into along the way. The most annoying of these being Maiden in Black, who recites the same chant every time you "level up". She speaks in a 'thee' and 'thy' manner in a bizzare dialect that actually made me shake my head the first time she spoke. All of the other voice acting , including our dear Maiden, is not too terrible considering this is technically a Japanese RPG, but the few patrons you speak to are believable and not too over-the-top.
One look at a dungeon or boss battle and it is pretty evident that the game is a real spectacle to behold. The environments catch your eye as you explore and..well...die in each one. Dark dungeons are haunting and the frightening details emerge as your light exposes them, the remains of an old castle are littered with skeletons and charred banners, and murky swamps litter the bottom of a grand tower. Each of the five worlds holds something unique and are a joy to explore.
The basic setup of the game is a hack and slash RPG. You start by choosing one of your favorite classes and customizing your hero similar to the way you would create a character in Mass Effect. Though my guy turned out looking like a bad reject from an adventure film, I pressed on with the satisfaction that his gigantic head would be covered by a cool looking helmet. A quick tutorial starts things off, which unfortunately for you consists of just the controls. It tells you R1 will attack and L2 can parry and counterattack, Circle dodges, etc. There are three bars present: Health and Mana do not regenerate, and an Endurance bar that regenerates after each attack and block. I became hopeful as I slashed through the masses of undead until I ran into a giant troll beast that squashed me in one hit. The game just previewed the entire experience: Gain confidence and quickly lose it when you turn the corner. It was a "suppose to die" battle and I was informed by writing on the floor that the true Demon's Souls starts here.
The game works like this: You start in the Nexus also thought of as home base where you purchase equipment and spells, increase your stats using souls you collect from dead enemies, and take a breather. There are 5 worlds to choose from, and a set number of bosses (or stages) to go through. If I die at any time during that stage my health bar is cut in half and can only be returned to my body upon defeating the boss...oh and you are returned to the beginning of the stage....oh and all the enemies respawn..oh and those souls you earned must be retrieved from where you died. This is a game that punishes you for sucking. Though your health is lower, your overall damage does increase and the stages do have some switches and levers that give you a straight shot to the boss which you'll spend most deaths working to kill. You learn very quickly that dying in this game is actually part of the game mechanic.
The most interesting aspect in all this is how the game's multiplayer comes into play. Frequently you will see glowing messages illuminating the ground. These contain pre-set messages left by other players trying to convey something to you. One example is a note near some wooden shack that told me to attack, I hit the shack and a series of steel boulders crushed my opponents ahead of me without having to so much as lift my shield. You also see other players' ghosts run by who are in another game experiencing the same hell. Bloodstains can even be viewed on the ground to see how other players died. It's this aspect of the game that truly makes it unique. It possesses that fear of a single player game being the only person for miles and humanity's last hope, while giving a sense of never truly being alone. You can "summon" another player's ghost to help out in boss battles or stage progression in which you will kill the demon and they will get their body back. Multiplayer does work in another way however...PvP. Anytime in body form, a player can invade your game to kill you. This adds yet another thing to be fearful of, as you never know when a samurai chick with a bald head will push you off a cliff.
The main thing this game has been acclaimed for though, is the incredible difficulty. I do admit, this game has been a frustrating one at most times. Though with every boss you end up taking down after the 50th attempt...you get this amazing feeling of satisfaction. Something else occurs as you continue to play through the game, you learn. This seems like an obvious notion, but eventually, the main trouble stops coming from the stages and mostly from the boss fights. Enemies vary greatly in tactics from stage to stage, switching between using ranged or melee to attack. You learn to approach each corner carefully, read the messages for clues as to what's ahead or what strategy to use on a new enemy, and you also learn how to tackle the game in general. The layout and variation of enemies keeps stage progression interesting. Not to mention the world can shift "tendencies" in which it can be a white world where everything is easier but yield less rewards, and the reverse black tendency.
While the core element of the game is impressive, there are so many drawbacks to this game. The camera is a pain often giving headaches as you attempt to rotate it in narrow passageways because failure to do so lets you run right into an enemy. The lock-on targeting works well for one or two enemies, but the occasional fight with multiple foes leaves you cycling through in a panic to attempt a lock on the one attacking you. The lock on and camera even decided to team up and completely screw me up when a particular boss cornered me in a pile of bones leaving me flipping in desperation to find where I was. The boss fights end up being the biggest test of trial and error. It literally has you going back again and again just to figure out which of the three weapons you have worked the best and which got you killed.
My main problem with this game is the horrible job they do in explaining the inventory and equipment system. The tutorial, as stated before provides a very basic control scheme, and a few messages left on the floor in the Nexus possess general tips. But there is little mention of how item management and equipment should be handled. They provide no explanation of item burden and equipment burden, upon you must figure out that heavy armor actually affects your character's speed. No explanation of the what you should do with the boss souls. No mention that magic ignores armor. They don't even tell you how to hotkey certain items, a simple task that I spent a few minutes navigating to figure out. Even the equipment is littered with strange symbols and icons that must be translated from the instructions like I was on a treasure hunt. They don't even make sense: Two horizontal squiggles is strength and two vertical is faith? Why not put a muscle arm and hands praying or something? It's as if someone hands you a table to build with German instructions, eventually I can make this thing work but I would have appreciated a translation to speed my learning curve along. This made the game far more difficult than it should have been in my lack of preparation for battles, and difficulty due to ignorance is quite irritating. Tactics like learning when to use ranged or melee I don't mind not being explained outright, but these obvious notions should have been addressed and not learned after reading a forum.
Though Demon's Souls may have a few flaws to it, the refreshing challenge and incredible stages are worth the experience. While I do enjoy the core idea of the game and innovative multiplayer aspect, there are just too many little things this game could have corrected to make it a better overall game. Those looking for a challenging title and solid RPG, this is a great game to experience...as long as you accept death as a part of that experience.
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