Demon’s Souls is a PS3-exclusive game that revolves around your death. Your first death comes about ten minutes into the game after a perfunctory tutorial level (in a Hopeless Boss Fight moment), after which you are revived in “Soul Form” to battle the demons infesting the unfortunately-named kingdom of Boletaria. Alternating between Soul Form and Living Body Form is the core mechanic of the game and sets the stage for much of the game’s tension, since while you are in Soul Form your hit points and attack power are both reduced, so you want to be a Living Body most of the time. However, you have to earn the right to your body in a number of ways: by killing a major demon, by helping somebody else kill a major demon, or by killing another player who is in Body Form.
Multiplayer in the game is handled seamlessly – there is no continuous multiplayer component (either cooperative or competitive), but you can see the ghostly forms of other players fading in and out of your world, reminders that you’re not the only poor bastard getting killed out there. Players can leave messages for each other in the form of glowing notes on the ground, which are selected from canned phrases like “The true Demon’s Souls starts here” and “I told you so.” Players also leave bloodstains on the ground when they die, which can be viewed by other players like a grisly highlight reel. The bloodstains serve a dual purpose: they serve both as a warning to upcoming threats, and also give a feeling of schadenfreude when you find a bloodstain at a difficult spot that you were able to clear without dying.
While in Soul Form, you can offer your assistance to living players, leaving a mark that allows the living to summon Soul Form players into their game. This assistance is often crucial for defeating bosses, and also benefits both parties – the Soul Form player gets his body back, and the living player gets help clearing a difficult stage.
The other way to recover your body is to invade a living players game, hunt him down, and kill him. This brings you into the living player’s game as a “black phantom,” which makes you hard to detect and also prevents enemies from reacting to you, since you’re effectively “one of them.” I haven’t invaded or been subject to invasion yet (since I’ve been dead most of the time), but I look forward to my first humiliation (or, less likely, victory).
That’s a lot of exposition about the game mechanics, but it’s necessary to set the stage for further commentary. The game is exceptional in many ways, especially for a game in 2009: its extraordinary difficulty, minimalistic narrative, and tight design.
I’ve already covered the difficulty aspect to some degree, but the amazing thing about it is that as the game progresses, you “level up” as a player as much as your character in the game does. Unlike many RPG’s, just buffing your stats and upgrading your equipment isn’t enough to win – even with the best gear and high stats, you can be killed in the blink of an eye if you do something stupid. Besting the game’s challenges is immensely satisfying in a way that few other games can match, especially considering that I’m not normally the type of gamer who loves obscene challenges (Ninja Gaiden Sigma made me want to punch my fucking TV).
In the tradition of old-school games of the NES era, the story of Demon’s Souls is minimal: bad king summoned demons, the kingdom is fucked, please help us out. Your character doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, and other characters don’t even react as if he does – the other characters in the world simply project their assumptions and desires onto you, which makes the game feel even more lonely and morbid than it already is. And as much as I like a good story in a game, I don’t miss it at all in Demon’s Souls – it’s all about the gameplay, and the endless struggle against dark forces and the desperate fight to maintain your living body or regain it.
All this punishing difficulty and lack of story would be worthless if the game design wasn’t tight, but luckily, it is. You’re dropped into a hub world (the Nexus) and, after beating the first level, you’re able to tackle the five stages in any order you desire. You collect Souls from the monsters you defeat, and these souls serve as both the game’s currency and the mechanism for leveling up. As always, there’s a catch: if you die, you lose all the souls you were carrying, and they’re left lying on the ground in the spot you died. You have to return to the place you died to recover them, and if you die again in the process, those souls are gone forever. It adds yet another layer of tension to an already nerve-wracking game. The controls are tight as well – despite the RPG elements, Demon’s Souls is an action game as well and you’ll need Devil May Cry-style chops to survive.
The game, while awesome, has several flaws. First, of course, is the difficulty: sometimes, the encounters are just too puzzle-like. Often, there is no way to determine an enemy’s weak point or patterns without just wading in and getting killed, and sometimes you’ll be set up for an ambush that is almost impossible to survive without foreknowledge. The enemy AI is fairly rudimentary, and many encounters are broken by the expedient of just using a bow or a spell to attack the enemy from outside its visual range. In fact, some bosses can be defeated simply by standing out of its attack range and plinking away with a bow (to the tune of 100-200 arrows). This takes away from the tension of the game, though it feels like you’re getting one over on the game, since the deck is usually stacked against you. Finally, there’s no way to sell items or even convert useless ones into something more useful – if your character is male and you pick up female-only equipment, for example, you can just keep if forever or throw it away. It’d be nice if there was something you could do with unwanted equipment.
Overall, Demon’s Souls is a fantastic game, if you can get past the first couple of hours (I died about 20 times on the first level). It’s one of the most unique games of this generation, and one of the finest action-RPGs I’ve ever played.