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A monstrously difficult, but incredibly rewarding RPG

Gamers often decry the lack of challenge in modern gaming compared to the games of old, with quicksaves, regenerating health, streamlined mechanics and difficulty selection. While one could argue it's a result of a growing audience and that these measures serve to remove frustrating "false difficulty" in games, it's true that there is an effort in games to hold your hand and appeal to a wider audience. Demon's Souls is a game that kicks those conventions away in favor of unrelenting difficulty and an appeal to hardcore gamers, and what makes it work so well is that it doesn't have to employ any cheap tactics to keep the game hard, and how great so much of the game works even if you took away the challenge.

Created as a spiritual successor to Kings Field, Demon's Souls comes from Japanese developer From Software, known for games like the Persona series. While it is a Japanese RPG, it is not a traditional JRPG, and feels much more like a Western RPG in conventions. You have a dark and atmospheric story based in what appears to be a twisted middle earth, with a custom created hero and a focus on skill in combat just as much as on your class and selected skills. 

What separates Demon's Souls from other RPG games is in just how the challenge is implemented. Souls are used as both currency and experience within the game, allowing you to level up abilities and purchase items, but there's a catch: When you die, you lose the souls you have accumulated, and if you cannot reach the spot where you died before dying again, you lost them forever. Since dying brings you back to the start of a level and respawns all the enemies, you must be careful not to die again or lose everything you have earned. This provides a risk/reward element, where players can choose to explore a level further for even greater rewards, or spend what they have and return. Souls cannot be stored either, though the player will come across certain variants of souls that will not be lost until activated.

As mentioned you are sent to the beginning of a level when you die, but once you defeat a boss you gain access to a checkpoint within the area as a starting point for the next level. To get players exploring further, many levels also have minibosses that disappear permanently (easing the challenge) and shortcuts activated by exploring side paths that can make the trek back to a boss or dead body much easier. 

When you die you also lose your body and go into Soul form, which gives you half your current health (can be boosted with certain items). This might sound cruel, but in Soul form you also have higher damage and do not risk invasion or loss of world tendency, which can make things significantly easier. If you can get world tendency for a level cleared up enough, enemies will be significantly easier and certain events will occur allowing you to meet certain NPC's or find some hidden items. Of course when the world is completely dark, you can also cause certain events, and while enemies are more frequent and harder to fight, you gain more souls and better loot. As a bonus, many of these events happen as a result of holidays or the online integration, which is very clever on the part of From Software and brings the community together better.

The online integration is unique and unlike the multiplayer integration of other games. Players can leave pre written messages to others warning or tricking them on certain traps and upcoming enemies, and players who are helped by the message can "like" (so to speak) the message to make it more likely to appear in other worlds and help other players. Online isn't limited to just messages though, you can see ghost forms of players running around and completing objectives and if you find a blood stain on the ground you can see the final moments of a player who has died, which can serve as a warning, especially in an area where bloodstains are frequent. Of course this is mainly the indirect method of online player, and just one set of options available to players connected to the internet.

The more direct form of multiplayer exists through two variants: Co-op and PvP. The co-operative play is initiated by summoning a player in soul form to your world as a human. Players in soul form lay down a sign with their stats and ranking by other players, and are then summoned to help you. When you defeat a boss or you die/they die, they return to their world and return to human form, and you can rank how well they did. You can summon up to two allies at a time, but there is no voice chat or invite system, which normally would be a negative but in this case it fosters an atmosphere of isolation, even in a multiplayer environment, and keeps chatter from distracting you. Co-op is especially helpful if a player decides to invade you and steal your souls. While the odds are usually stacked in favor of the host (with his higher health and ability to summon allies), the invader is not under any danger by enemies in the level and can set up an ambush up ahead. Whoever wins the battle gains the souls of the other player, and if the invader wins they regain their humanity.

The game does have something of an indirect karma system, but it doesn't do much except affect one or two character events and change the darkness in the worlds (which aren't even directly affected by your alignment). Regardless of how good or evil you are, you can always help or hinder other players and gain the same side missions and have the same end goal as everyone else. You do affect certain dialogue that comes your way, but since the player cannot make any meaningful decisions in conversation (or even speak at all) it's not a big deal. In fact the game doesn't do much in the way of meaningful decision making, you can simply choose to do quests given to you or ignore them, and should make an effort to avoid angering NPC's (as they will attack you repeatedly if you do so until they die). There is a binary decision towards the end that affects what you gain on New Game +, but it's not affected by anything you do before that point.

What might be the most creative aspect of the game has to be the world that was crafted and the atmosphere surrounding it. Each level is widely different from each other, and they all have this sense of dread and desperation. From the Valley of Defilement, a horrible toxic slum, to Boletaria, a fallen kingdom full of possessed soldiers and demons, to the Tower of Latria, a haunting prison with a terrible story behind it. These levels are all connected through the Nexus, an area that serves as the main hub for merchants and NPC's (though some can be found throughout the worlds you go through), and the reason you cannot pass on to the afterlife when you die. Even as the safest place in the game where you can do your business without fear of enemies or invasion, it stills has foreboding and a dark history behind it, and other players can still serve to make it creepier by dying in the area (through a fall or angry NPC) and leaving their bloodstain. The level design is superb and full of hidden secrets and side paths through to your main objective, but still focused and easy to find your way in.

Enemy design is also appropriately creepy and amazing, with the varying enemy types you encounter all fitting in within the levels you encounter them. The bosses all require different strategies, and a few bosses even require you to utilize the level or fight them in a unique way. The best bosses in the story are the ones with a unique story behind them, from a miracle worker who turned to the demons to a fallen king; there is fantastic design in the aesthetics of the bosses and in the combat as well. Minibosses themselves also happen to be varied, with Black Phantoms being particularly terrifying to fight (if rewarding) and dragons requiring patience and quite a few arrows and spells to take down for a hefty prize.

The combat is tense and forces the player to think strategically in any encounter. Players can dodge, parry, block, backstab and use heavy or light attacks, all of which affect your stamina. When you have no stamina you cannot run or block, and must be careful to not overwhelm yourself. Players can also use magic and miracles (which also has its own bar and must be refilled with magicka restoring items, much like health), which can be earned by finding spells throughout the world or learning them from the magicians and priests in the game, each requiring different levels of intelligence to use and forcing you to pick which ones you have on hand for a situation. There is a lot of thought going into battle, and often players must plan out an encounter or try a new approach, though skill is also a major factor since even with planning there's nothing saving you from a missed block or an unfortunate parry from an enemy. In PvP the combat is at its highest, well balanced and allowing any approach to work.

It does have a few issues, but considering the budget and niche focus it is a stellar achievement. The camera is occasionally finicky (which is especially noticeable in small environments where it can jump around), there are times when the game relies on trial and error and one hit kills over true challenge, and the story seems to hang in the air but doesn't have a major urgency to it. Overall though, these are minor problems in an amazing game that deserves your attention. If you are a Playstation 3 owner pining for a hardcore experience or amazing killer RPG, this is the game for you, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who has the patience or skill to go through it

Comments
  • Seeing as how RPGs are my favorite genre, I've always felt the need to play this game despite its hype of being incredibly difficult.  If it's in your top 3 RPGs, then I think I'll go ahead and play this.  I want to prepare myself before I even think about trying Dark Souls.