Games have gone soft on us. Guitar Hero coddles you with a no fail mode. Prince of Persia has abandoned death in favour of second chances. Super Mario Bros. plays itself. We've become the fat populace of WALL-E: all play, no work, unaware of the harsh world outside our comfortable machine-made cocoons. Demon's Souls, finally available in Europe after a long trek from Japan, is an abrupt awaking from your gaming dream back to a nightmare reality where you can die, and dying is a bad thing.
With the focus firmly on gameplay, the story is light and unintrusive: the kingdom of Boletaria, a grim fairytale world reminiscent of medieval Europe, has been cut off from the rest of the world by a thick, colourless fog, while demons attack its residents, feeding on the souls of men. Many try to venture into Boletaria to find out what is going on, but none return. Now it's your turn to try. That's the extent of the plot. From here on, you venture through the various regions of Boletaria, ridding it of the demon infestation. Even your motives are unclear: your character is mute, and it is up to your interpretation what exactly they are after.
By now you will be well aware of the game's harsh, unforgiving reputation, and even with that preparation, the initial difficulty of the game can be disheartening. Even the game's first enemies, post-human zombie-like creatures, must be handled with care. It's immediately apparent that this is not a game you can hack and slash your way through, and meathead gamers will be suitably punished. Thoughtful use of dodging, shielding, parrying, and backstabbing will get you far. Use of ranged bow or magic attacks is encouraged for whittling off enemies from a distance. A stamina bar ensures you plan your actions carefully: jamming the attack button will quickly leave you exhausted and unable to defend yourself when the enemy takes his chance to give you a receipt.
Ten job classes offer flexibility for any playing style, though they serve merely as starting points from which you can train your character in any direction you wish, so new players shouldn’t fear being bolted down to any particular path. The soldier class is well balanced as a “bit-of-everything” character for those who want to sit on the fence. Knights attack and defend well but are lacking in the luck stat. Hunters perform well at range with their bow and arrow, as will mages with their magic spells. Royals are the most powerful starting class, but at the expense of being the most costly to train further.
In a clear warning of difficulties ahead, the initial tutorial ends by placing you in a must-die confrontation (okay, it is possible to survive if you have the skills, but you don’t). Post-death, your soul ends up in the Nexus, a netherworld that links the kingdom of Boletaria through a series of portals – i.e. a central hub. Being dead, you are now in “soul form”, which doubles your troubles by reducing your health bar to half of its original amount. To return to life and full health you must defeat any of the bosses within the game’s five areas, at which point your health bar returns to full capacity.
This is easier said than done. Bosses are located at the end of gruelling levels in which there is no room for error; if you die, you restart at the beginning of the level, with all enemies respawned. And, yes, once you manage to return to human form, dying within any level returns you to soul form, complete with the health bar penalty. Even more is at stake: killing enemies nets you “souls”, which you can use to purchase items, learn spells, or improve your character and his or her weapons. But should you die, you restart the level with all of the souls you collected stripped from you. Mercifully, the game allows you to reclaim these lost souls if you can make it back to the place you last perished without dying a second time. This is a nail-biting affair; if you do die before you make it there, your souls are lost permanently.
And you will die often. Demon’s Souls punishes the careless, and is even mean to the careful. You are almost expected to die, as you learn the pitfalls and traps of a particular level, becoming wiser and less likely to repeat the same mistakes the next time. Enemies lurk around dark corners, waiting to ambush the fool who rushes in. A dragon may descend upon you as you are halfway across a bridge. Get too close to an innocent looking enemy and it may paralyse you, leaving you helpless and short work. You die, you learn.
One small consolation is that the levels feature unlockable gates or changeable scenery which will then remain this way no matter how many times you die. These function as shortcuts to later points in the level, which ensure that you don’t have to trawl through the entire level every time you die. Some levels have intelligently placed shortcuts that make the experience more forgiving, though others will still make the slog to the boss a challenge.
The game adds to the feeling of isolation by leaving you in the dark about most of the game’s mechanics. It is up to you to work out how to store away equipment when you can no longer carry all your loot. It is up to you to discover how to learn spells, repair weapons and use specific items. Though heavy on stats, certain menu screens can be teasingly light on description, creating the overall impression the game is not here to hold your hand. Beyond the initial “this is how you run, attack and defend” tutorial, the game leaves you very much alone to work things out for yourself.
One of the intended side-effects of this is that a rich online community has developed, with deep analysis of the game and its ins and outs. There is no shame in consulting online guides such as the astonishingly extensive Demon’s Souls Wiki, as alone you will barely scratch the surface of this game. Atlus even has an official wiki for the game, encouraging gamers: “Demon’s Souls is a game of shared learning, a game that engenders community and cooperation. The challenges that lie ahead in the Kingdom of Boletaria will be easier to overcome if we all work together, so we’re asking anyone with something to contribute to please come forth.”
Examples of deeper levels of understanding include the world and character tendencies. Both your character and the world itself have a tendency towards black or white, and your actions will influence that tendency. The tendency can be influenced in many ways (you’ll certainly need a guide to understand it all) and also in ways outside of your control. Whiter tendencies make the game easier, but enemies drop less loot and fewer souls, while blacker tendencies have the opposite effect. With some effort, you can work towards a Pure White or Pure Black tendency, which will then have additional effects on the game world. Thankfully, online guides help to make sense of all this.
Online communication is also encouraged within the game itself. Scattered across the floors of levels are tips and hints which other players have left for each other. Expect no warm comfort from these messages, however; they are all anonymous and created from set keywords. If anything, these notes from long-dead nameless warriors will make you feel even more alone against the world.
Despite the overriding theme of loneliness, other players are ever-present in your game, visible as faint ghosts, playing in real time. These ghosts too are anonymous, and you are helpless but to observe them, with no form of interaction possible. If a player has recently died in a nearby area, you can touch their bloodstain and watch their ghost re-enact their death. Sometimes this offers useful information on how not to progress. At the very least, it is a constant reminder that death surrounds you.
Multiplayer is possible through various soulstones that allow you to bridge into the worlds of other players. There is no lobby, so who you end up with is fairly random, and it is especially difficult to arrange to play with friends. At least in the multiplayer modes you can see the IDs of the other players, but with no form of online communication beyond some emote animations, you can expect your PSN inbox to become flooded with messages, often irate.
Using the “black soulstone”, you can invade another player’s game, immune to all monsters, with the task of taking them down. The prize for your troubles, should you kill them, is all their souls and a return to human form. You must be in soul form, and they must be in human form. It’s nerve-wracking for the invaded party; imagine being at a particularly tough section of the level, and then suddenly seeing an alert that another player has invaded your game, intent on making your life even more miserable.
In human form, you can recruit up to two other players (who are in soul form) to aid your progress in a level. These players arrive in the form of blue phantoms, and you too can offer your services in a similar fashion by using a blue soulstone. This is mutually beneficial: the summoning player can make progress where he was unable to do so alone, while the summoned players receive a share of the souls gathered, and return to human form upon completion of the level.
A final form of multiplayer enables a player to invade another player’s world as a red phantom. Unlike the black phantom, red phantoms must be welcomed in order to invade. This agreed form of PvP has even higher stakes: the winner goes up a level, and the loser goes down a level. At higher levels, the cost of levelling up is so high, this truly is risky business. But for the confident player, this adds to the excitement.
While the difficulty of the game may be harrowing to RPG virgins, the game is surprisingly welcoming in terms of micromanagement. One issue I typically have with RPGs is that I rarely feel confident to craft my character in a certain direction, or to get them a particular piece of equipment, in case there is something better on the horizon, or in case I ruin my character permanently. Demon’s Souls, however, actively encourages you to spend on your character’s development, because your souls can be lost so easily, and there is no bank to safely store them in. Thus you either spend them or lose them; there is no sense in stockpiling for a good occasion.
Also, there is little confusion when it comes to weapons and armour; you won’t be overburdened with choices. There is an ideal number of equipment items, such that each piece of equipment is clearly distinguishable with clear reasons for choosing any particular piece. It is easy to tell what works for a particular situation, and there is an opportunity to try most items out. There is also a tradeoff to consider: the stronger weapons and armour will be heavier, with your character able to wear only a certain amount, according to their endurance. In addition, heavy equipment will slow your movement down, so you need to strike the right balance between strength and manoeuvrability. Different weapons will also have unique swing animations, thus a player may prefer a weapon that can make swift jabs over a stronger weapon that takes ages to swing. In a narrow corridor, a player may prefer a spear for forward thrusts over an axe that would just clang against the walls. Thus a lot of decisions are made based on playing style, before stats are even called into question. Deeper strategy comes into play when considering the various bonuses that equipment offers. Players may chose, for example, to combine a sword that hits hard but slowly drains their health with armour that slowly regenerates their health to end up with a combination with all of the benefits but none of the drawbacks.
Demon’s Souls is a cold experience, which occasionally borders on survival-horror levels of scary. The setting relies on a gloomy Macbethian atmosphere, but also borrows from various other cultures, including clear Japanese influences. The skies are bleak, the architecture has crumbled, and the recommended brightness settings will have you leaning forward to see. There is very little music, and your speakers are more likely to blast gusts of wind, echoes of footsteps upon stone, and the groans of the possessed. Long after you have completed this game, you won’t remember the story, but you certainly will remember the world.
Dialogue, too, is at a minimum. Of the very few characters who have anything to say to you, most have very little to say. Your mute character, in addition, has nothing to say in return. Even rarer are full-on cutscenes: the number of cutscenes that actually further the story can probably be counted on one hand. The focus is thus clearly on you and your own quest; a one-man show.
The bosses themselves are spectacular, and very distinct from the game’s otherwise intentionally tame presentation. While regular enemies are small and not always inspiring, the bosses are far more traditional and in line with other action games: big, extravagant, and usually requiring some unique strategy to defeat. Some of the larger bosses are larger than the screen can handle, and evoke a special sense of dread: “If I had trouble with normal enemies, how do I handle that?!”
Your first sight of a huge enemy comes in the first level: after dealing with measly possessed soldiers for the majority of the level, you reach a vantage point where, from across a cliff, you spy two massive dragons lazing in the distance. Later in that same level one of the dragons launches an attack on you, and your only option is to run for your life. It’s the game’s cocky way of saying “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” Things certainly get far crazier, with even larger dragons, giants, kings, fire demons, and humongous flying creatures to take on, making for breathtaking conclusions to gruelling levels.
Eventually you will defeat the ultimate final boss, who has been noted by many players as something of a pushover, acting more as an opportunity for you to vent all the frustrations the game has caused you. To reach this moment requires many hours of investment, but the adventure does not end there. A new game + mode puts you back at the start with all your stats and equipment intact – but the enemies are 50% harder than before. Indeed, each subsequent playthrough ups the challenge, making for a lengthy gaming experience, especially coupled with the support of an online community and the draw of PvP. Beware, though: the higher you go up in level, the fewer people are online to play with, with the crazy-high levels a rather isolated experience.
In all, gamers should not be scared of Demon’s Souls. The hype about its difficulty may have pushed more gamers away than it has attracted, but rest assured that this non-hardcore gamer found the experience thoroughly captivating and rewarding. I am not one for a challenge, and I prefer games with a strong story, but Demon’s Souls drew me in and had me addicted. Sure, it is tough, but that’s the selling point. More importantly, it is fair: if you learn from your mistakes and take advantage of the online community, you will improve, and soon levels that took hours to complete become a breeze, and you'll wonder why you had so much trouble to begin with. That’s the idea – actually having to work to win. Sadomasochism is of course only part of the appeal; gamers will also me mesmerised by the chilling game world, and the silent online multiplayer is an experience unlike any other online game offers. This game is recommended to any RPG gamer, hardcore or not, and, beyond that, I recommend it even if you aren’t sure about the genre, because a game this special may just convert you (or beat you into loving it).