Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Demon's Souls

Post-Launch Review
Demon's Souls
Developer: From Software / SCE Japan Studio
Released: February 2009 (JP) / October 2009 (NA) / June 2010 (EU/AU)
Played: story complete in 36h52min


The greedy King Allant brought prosperity to Boletaria through a dark ritual powered by souls, but Boletaria was soon enveloped by a Deep Fog that cut the nation off from the outside world. Many entered the fog, but none returned - until Vallarfax of the Twin Fangs escaped and revealed to the world that King Allant has reawakened the Old One, and Boletaria has been overrun by demons. A lone hero manages to penetrate the fog, and now fights to return the Old One to its slumber before the whole world is overtaken by the fog...

At Launch

Demon's Souls was quite well received with average review scores of 89%. Many reviewers were impressed with the game's high, but fair, difficulty, where the player learns the game's intricacies by failing. On the other hand, plenty of critics acknowledged that, despite its fairness, the game's high difficulty was not for everyone. Reviewers praised the game's combat, music, graphics, and art direction, and especially the innovative online system integrated into this single-player game.

Post Launch

The Japanese version received a couple of patches to fix bugs and rebalance a few items/spells. These patches are included on the disc in all other releases.
North America received a limited Deluxe Edition, and Europe received a limited Black Phantom Edition. Both include an art book, soundtrack CD, and strategy guide.

I've actually owned a copy of this game for about a year and a half - bought it six months before I even got a PS3, because I found an original copy (not the Greatest Hits one) for only $10 and I knew it was getting hard to find. Anyway, it took me forever to actually start playing it - even though I'm a very experienced gamer, knowing Demon's Souls' reputation as one of the hardest games ever made was a little intimidating. I worried that repeated deaths and replaying content would get me  frustrated and feeling like I'm wasting my time.

Now that I have started playing, those fears were completely unfounded.

I understand now what people mean when they call Demon's Souls "hard but fair": if you take things slowly and cautiously and spend time observing the environment, you can do very well for yourself. Maybe this is partially because I know the game's reputation, but I started as a knight and took care to always block enemy attacks to see what they could do before I started swinging my own sword. In two hours I only died three times, and one of those was mandatory as part of the tutorial.

A mandatory death might sound bad, but the tutorial is actually really excellent. To start, you're given tiny bits of information just a little bit at a time - press R1 to attack, and then you get a chance to try it out. Press L1 to block, now try it out. The tutorial doesn't teach you everything, just enough to get started - you'll have to check the manual for some other important info. Once you have the bare-bones basics down the game starts pulling tricks on you - for example, you eagerly rush forward to pick up some loot, and then you're attacked from behind. But in the tutorial you can absorb a few hits, so these completely un-narrated experiences teach you to be cautious, to always watch your back and move carefully.

Then you get annihilated by a demon that's way too powerful for you, so you can learn that some enemies are just too strong for a beginner.

After you're introduced to the Nexus, the only hints you'll get are the ones that players leave for each other through the game's (amazing) online system. You can leave hints at any time, selecting from a restricted but wide variety of pre-selected messages, which will appear as text on the ground. I found that, at least early in the game, these messages are often quite helpful - "behind you" might be a prompt to look in a corner for hidden treasure, or a warning about an upcoming ambush. Some players are quite clever with the restricted choice of terms. Using these hints, the occasional co-op player summon, and my fear of the game's reputation, I died only twice in the two hours after the tutorial, both to the same strong enemy I was learning to defeat. After I beat the first one, I soon fought three more that didn't kill me once.

Part of the way the game encourages you to learn is with a tangible penalty for death. When you first die, you transition to soul form - when you're without your body, you have less health (you can revive with a certain rare item or by killing a boss). Yes, the game actually gets harder when you die. You also lose all the souls you've collected (you keep your gear), but you have a chance to reclaim them - the souls stay on the ground at the place of your death as a bloodstain, and if you can make your way back without dying again, you can reclaim your lost souls. Additionally, if you die you're sent back to the beginning of the area, and all the enemies respawn. This can seem hopelessly discouraging at first, but there's actually a benefit: having been through the area once, you now know the layout and patterns, and by the time you work back to your bloodstain and reclaim your lost souls (experience/currency), the fighting has actually earned you more souls than you had when you died. This helps to frame death as a learning experience, since you'll gain more souls than you would have had you not died.

The various areas are very atmospheric and well designed, each feeling distinct from one another. The only music is in boss fights, so while exploring you hear only the wind, your character's armour, and the enemy's movements. Graphics quality is sometimes unspectacular and the colour palette can be oppressive in some areas, but the art design is pretty strong, with moody lighting and interesting architecture and level layouts. The best design and visuals are reserved for the player character, NPCs, and bosses. The player's gear has a huge variety in designs, different materials are very well distinguished, and character animation is excellent.

Each world has its own types of hazards and enemies - when I visited the Shrine of Storms after exploring the other worlds a bit, I faced enemies for the first time that were very quick, forcing me to play more aggressively. In the Valley of Defilement you have to watch out for poison and plague. Many enemies in Stonefang Tunnel are vulnerable to piercing damage, but enemies at the Shrine of Storms resist it. This is mostly communicated by observation and experience.

I mentioned the hint system earlier, but there is one drawback to playing online: invasions. When you're in soul form, you can invade a living player's world, and if you kill them you get your body back - but they can do the same to you. So there is a risk to being alive and online. I really enjoyed some of my PvP fights - long back and forth battles of attrition and stamina management - but sometimes it can get really frustrating. In one area I was burning items to revive because I was having trouble with my soul form's limited HP, but the same player invaded me every time I revived, 3 times in a row. I seemed vastly outmatched, so the only outcome was losing a bunch of valuable recovery items and resigning myself to play the level in soul form. What's even more annoying is that the game won't let you quit if you're being invaded. Can't go back to the Nexus, can't even quit game via the menu (though you can override using the PS button). I guess this is a niche case, but I just finished up what I was doing in one world and went back to the archstone to leave, only to find the "return to Nexus" option grayed out. Huh? And I can't use my archstone shard either. What's going on? ...oh, now the game tells me I'm being invaded. I didn't feel like fighting a PvP match - I was legitimately just about to quit - so I hid in a corner and hoped the guy would leave when he couldn't find me. After watching him search for me for 5 minutes I just force quit via the PS3 menu, because that's stupid. While this is a bit of a niche case, it's disappointing that you can't opt out of PvP but still see other players' messages and bloodstains.

There's tons of stuff to do. Lots of optional areas and kills, and plenty of hidden secrets. The game doesn't necessarily tell you whether you can do something, you just have to try it. As an early-game example: I got tired of dodging the red dragon's attacks on my way to the Tower Knight, so I bought a bunch of arrows and decided to kill the dragon. There was no health bar, but I could tell from my position on the tower that I was dealing damage, because I could see blood. After about a hundred arrows, success! Dragon killed, 17,500 souls acquired - a lot for early game when a level up cost 3,000 and the most I'd had on hand was around 6,000.

You also can't really get "stuck". Once you clear the first areas of the Boletarian Palace, you're free to explore any of the five worlds. If you get stuck on one boss, you can go fight somewhere else for a while and come back with new tactics or greater strength when you're more experienced. Even the extremely difficult final boss of the Palace, who can actually drain your experience with one attack, can be overcome with the right tricks.

There's so much to do, actually, that for some players the game's main draw is in its new game + option. Halfway through the game I'd already started to think about other character builds I might try. It's impossible to collect every spell and weapon in one playthrough - boss demon souls can be exchanged for spells or weapons, but there are multiple options per soul and only one soul per playthrough. New game + lets you keep your character and everything you've unlocked so that you can continue levelling, trying new things, and gathering the gear and spells you missed the first (or second or third) time around. Of course, to compensate, the game gets significantly harder.

Demon's Souls certainly doesn't hold your hand, but there are a couple of things that could be clearer. The main one is soul tendency. The game and other players hint that certain special events or areas are unlocked at white or black world tendency, but doesn't really explain what tendency is or how you can affect it. The manual explains that you can shift tendency by killing certain creatures or by dying in body form, and that tendency affects enemy strength and your stats in soul form. The real trick that neither the manual nor the game tells you is that when you're online, the starting tendency is based on a median of all players each time you log in, but when you play offline the state is preserved between sessions.This is pretty important if you want to deliberately alter tendency to access certain events or affect stats, but isn't mentioned anywhere in the game or manual.

By the end of the game, I was somewhat surprised to find that I was having quite an easy time of things. With my upgraded gear, strong armour, and bountiful HP and stamina, I was dealing plenty of damage while taking very little (and then regenerating what I did take). But from what I'm told, new game + is drastically harder, to the point where you'll probably die in the opening levels and lose all the souls you collected at the final boss. I'll have to see how true that is sometime.

Recommendation: play it. 

Demon's Souls is an excellent action-RPG with a lot of depth and replayability. It's a slower-paced game that will require some patience, experimentation, and willingness to die, but it's fair and very rewarding - it feels great to take down a really tough boss you've been having trouble with. The story and lore aren't thrown in your face, and are often told through the environment or item descriptions - which could be good or bad depending on how you like your stories, but I really enjoy it. What I like best about Demon's Souls is that the game forces you to get better - in your first playthrough it is technically possible to grind past difficulty, but your character build and skill are much more important overall. And the online features are neat and well implemented.
After this much quality, I'm excited to play Dark Souls, which I hear is even better!

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