For many, Demon’s Souls will be like Marmite, with its love it or hate it appeal. That’d be fine except many gamers will be struggling to get the lid of the damn thing. This RPG game’s tutorial gives you a few weak enemies while going over the controls and just as you start to think ‘this isn’t so bad,’ a boss appears and kills you in one hit. Welcome to Demon’s Souls, meatbag.
In this dead Soul form, your health is greatly reduced and you’ll have to defeat a boss to get your body back. To avoid going insane, it’s best not to think of yourself as ‘dead’ in the traditional sense. You’ll be spending most of the game in this state, so just get on with it.
Dying sends you to the Nexus, which is the game’s hub where you upgrade or buy weapons, buy magic skills or upgrade your stats. Although you can only do the later after defeating a boss. From here you select which area you want to travel to. The first castle you arrive at is impressive in scale and detail, but any sense of hope dwindles when a huge red dragon arrives with a mouth full of corpses. That’ll be fun later. Much, much later that is.
This is where the game really starts to show its true nature. You won’t exactly be storming the castle, just slowly shuffling your way forwards one kill at a time. You’ll die again soon (even though you’re already dead) and be returned to the start of the level with all your Demon Souls removed but any items still intact.
Seeing as Souls are the game’s currency for weapons, magic and levelling up, this is super-harsh. Although, if you can get back to where you died and touch the bloodstain, you get them back. You’ll have to kill the same enemies to get there though. Die before and they’re gone forever. You might want to take a different route and leave them if it’s too tough. Occasionally a lever will open up a shortcut in the level so when you die you’ll be able to skip through a chunk. It’s possibly the only nice thing the game will do for you. There’s a risk/reward balance you’ll have to judge for yourself. You can run back to the beginning of the level and return to the Nexus if you want to spend what you have before you lose it, but you can’t bank them anywhere.
Nipping back to the Nexus is essential to upgrade items and level up whenever you can afford it. Every time you go back to a level all the enemies resume positions. Yes you need a supply of souls to progress, but when it’s such a struggle and so time-consuming just getting back to where you last died/turned tail you might get sick of looking at the same areas for hours on end. The distance you travel through the levels isn’t great; they’re pretty small come to think of it. But the stop/start nature means progress will be torturously slow throughout. The shortcuts are a godsend, but the balance still feels overly harsh for the sake of being the game’s ‘selling point.’
You can’t pause the game at all, not in the inventory or even by pressing the PS button. While the game’s clearly aimed at shut-ins, even they might have to answer the phone or open the door for the pizza guy. Another example of the game being harsh for the sake of it.
In general, killing Demons like soldiers, zombie miners and flaming lizards early on isn’t actually that difficult if you remember to block and attack at the right time or use the right spell. Moves at your disposal are typically bland for the genre. Yes I know it’s not supposed to be Bayonetta but the simple quick attack and thrust attack gets old fast. Brave players might fancy their chances of using a late parry to open up enemies to a critical strike. Obviously, you’re getting a faceful of steel if you mistime it.
The stamina gauge is critical to your success as it depletes with sprinting, blocking and attacking. A couple of heavy thrusts and one block can be enough to drain it and stagger you, leaving you open to some serious damage. It feels like it’s taking the piss a bit to be honest with the epic amount of time you’ll be staggered. The auto-target comes loose far too often too. When locked-on you can back away from an enemy, however it frequently detaches and makes you turn away instead, leaving your back open for a good skewering.
Boss fights will have you shitting your pants initially as you’ll look at them with all the hope of taking down a double-decker bus with a biro. However, if you know their weakness, you’ll make short work of them. The lance-spewing blob and his scores of mini-blobs aren’t keen on fire for instance. Don’t get smart though; as by the time you get to the giant spider you’ll have to rely on the good old ‘stab, dodge and run’ tactics.
A few hours in you’ll get access to Spells and Miracles from two vendors in the Nexus (they’re hidden to the sides on the ground floor). Spells are offensive magic such as blasts and fireballs, Miracles are based around topping up health and providing supporting skills. You’ll need to find a wand first (a Knight with a wand couldn’t look more ridiculous by the way) and naturally, magic points run out pretty quick.
You can choose your avatar class at the beginning of the game, with both ends of the scales represented with barbarians, spellcasters and the inbetweeners. The Knight is a decent every-man for beginners. You can edit appearances and mess around with forehead sliders and the like before you slap a helmet on and never see his face again.
There are some points of the game that are excellent and hopefully other developers will borrow for other games. At any area you can leave a note for other players: warning them of ambushes, alerting them to items or suggesting an enemy weakness. You pick from a list of set phrases rather than typing out your own, presumably to work across language barriers. Some people can abuse the system out of spite and the ‘recommendation’ system doesn’t have a nero-style thumbs-down option, just a positive. So a hint with zero could be a lie, or just new.
The interactive bloodstains will show you a red ghost of how another player died nearby. It’s usually by falling or getting stabbed, but it could be due to a hidden trap too. One useful replay showed how a crate full of boulders that I was about to smash open to crush some nearby enemies would of killed me too. One thrown explosive later, lots of flat enemies and me staying alive (well, in Soul form).
These features are a fantastic addition to what is really a single-player game for the most part. There’s a decent community on many online forums willing to provide support to newcomers too. Don’t forget the rest of the world has had the game for ages as it struggled to find a European publisher.
If you see a white ghostly image, that’s another player running around too. Sometimes you’ll be able to team up with dead players if you’re alive (and vice versa). A great idea, slightly let down by you being unable to invite friends and having to hope you randomly find someone. A not so great idea are the Black Phantom players who can cross between realms and basically body-jack you, robbing you of your hard-earned solid human form. It’s super rare, but does actually feel like a genuine mugging.
Try before you buy?
The challenge and online assistance aside there’s very little you’ve not seen elsewhere. The combat is overly simple and the character development depth isn’t particularly deep. The graphics are able to shine better outdoors as the interiors are shadowy and generic to a fault rather than being traditional and atmospheric. The plot is the usual pish about shadows and evil fog across the land yadda yadda. It barely turns up though to be honest. There just doesn’t really feel like there’s much incentive to play the game other than the personal satisfaction of being able to beat such a notorious challenge.
On the plus side, even ten hours with Demon’s Souls will make you a better player of any game in the genre. Or it might break your will completely.
- Messages and replays left by other players is groundbreaking brilliance
- Rare moments of hope occasionally pierce the darkness
- You can always rent it first
- The endless repetition will put many players off
- The unforgiving structure feels like it’s there to pad out what would otherwise be a short RPG
- Overall aesthetics and plot feel very generic
The Short Version: I could try and ‘save face’ and play it safe and follow suit and give it a nine for its brave design and legendary unapologetic harshness. But at the end of the day, other parts of the game are distinctly average and the game is a relentless slog that will only last ages because of its obsession with making you do everything over and over again. The online support embedded into the game from fellow players is a brilliant touch though.