Demon's Souls comes to the US, thanks to Atlus, riding a considerable amount of hype from the import community. The Asian version of Demon's Souls had a lot of English text built in, so there have been positive impressions of this game running for quite some time. I'm happy to say that the hype was warranted. Atlus has cleaned up the interface and made the necessary grammatical changes to help with the steep learning curve in the beginning of the game. Make no mistake, this can be a brutally unforgiving game and may not appeal to everyone, but this is definitely the type of game that was needed to expand the PS3's library.
Difficult to compare to other games, Demon's Souls is best described as an action RPG. It's a dungeon crawler that's kind of light on story yet not even close to a loot-filled Diablo clone. There is lots of stat building to define your character type, but success is really dictated by the skill of the user. 10 character archetypes are available at the start of the game, as well as a deep set of tools for physical features. I had just as much trouble trying to create someone good looking as I did in Oblivion, which I guess is fine since that's what we have games like Aion for.
Once your character is ready, it's time to get introduced to the world through a small tutorial. Like any RPG worth its salt, you are forced into a early defeat to set up the story. Unfortunately, this will not be your last, even though the rest of the deaths will not be scripted. Now's as good a time as any to tell you that you will be spending a large percentage of your time dead in this game. When you leave the tutorial, you arrive at the Nexus. The Nexus is a place where your soul continues to thrive even though your body is toast. It also acts as the game's hub.
In this semi-deceased state you only have half your total health. You'll use talk to the people in the Nexus to buy and upgrade weaponry, spells, and increase your stats. Your long term goal is to drive back the Demon forces infesting the world, but your short term goal is to return to the land of the living and recover your health. To accomplish both of these goals, you'll enter one of five worlds through the Nexus hub. Each of the five worlds is then broken down into subsections with bosses in each (these worlds are commonly referred to by number, like 2-1 and 3-3). Take down a boss and you get your body back as well as take one more step towards your long term goal.
Sounds easy enough, right? Cue evil laughter. Well, you're already starting world 1-1 with half your total health, so good luck. If you die, you start back at the beginning of the stage; you lose all your souls (basically the currency for the game); and all the demons you previously defeated are respawned. You essentially start over. This process repeats as you try to survive all the way through the boss and hopefully recover your lost souls along the way. You don't earn xp from fights, so there's very little benefit from having to redo sections of the game. Your only hope is for some equipment upgrades or souls in the form of items, since you don't lose items or equipment on death. Ultimately your skills have to develop to overcome the stage.
Upon beating the first boss and reveling in your new solid state, you'll unlock the rest of the game. Demon's Souls is a very unusual, but welcome, mix of single and multiplayer online. While you can't invite a friend to play through the game co-op, there is a constant mix of multiplayer in your single player game. First, there are the player notes. Anyone can leave a glowing message on the ground as a hint for other players. They'll give advice like "ambush ahead" or "enemy uses fire". These appear in everyone's world and can be rated for helpfulness by the rest of the community. Second, players that are dead can place a glowing marker on the ground for living players to invite them into their world. This dichotomy of living and dead can work together to kill the stage boss serving each others' goals. Lastly, a character in soul form can intrude on a living character's world in an attempt to assassinate them. If successful, they get their body back, a truly evil form of PvP.
The combat system really strives for realism over hack and slash. Shields have to be held at the ready to be effective. Blocking, striking, and dodging all take away stamina. No stamina means no action, and no action usually means death. Weapon strikes, for and against you, do a lot of damage. Bosses and some regular enemies are absolutely capable of one-hit kills. Walls actually impede your melee accuracy and strength, and they along with other objects wear down your weapon durability. It can be frustrating at times. It's easy to get overwhelmed. Rolling makes you temporarily invincible but uses up stamina. Blocking the guy you are locked onto works great, but you have to manage the others that are surrounding you and attacking your exposed back side.
So while the battle system is challenging, the rest of the game design is pretty spectacular. The graphics are great. The demons are all uniquely designed. The levels are good looking, but what's really impressive is the size and design. There are multiple paths within each stage, and exploring every part can be very time consuming, not to mention dangerous. There are places you can't survive on the first romp through a stage that you'll revisit later. So, there's reason to return to even stage 1-1 later in the game.
This game is a perfect example of review scores being subjective. The review text here lays it all out for you, but ultimately your mileage may vary. I found Demon's Souls to be very addicting, especially when you make full use of the multiplayer features. There's no way to sugar coat the difficulty though, and even I had to put the game down for a couple days just to take a deep breath before going back to it. But, the things that draw you back in are the superior level design, morose artwork, and engaging gameplay.
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. Bosses are enormous and fearsome.
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 weaponsslashing, thrusting, and crushingand certain weapons are better against certain foes.
Defeating them will take wit and skill. Defeating them will take wit and skill.
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.
Summary (1-5 scale):
MUSIC & SOUND
+ Terrific atmosphere.
+ 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.