With a new generation of consoles coming into their own, the lifespan of the PS3 and XBox360 is rapidly coming to an end. It's not quite as monumental as the end of the PS2's lifecycle, which is arguably the single best gaming console ever made! With the PS3 and XBox360, our console games started to have consistent online functionality, and with online functionality comes a sad side-effect: a game's life-span is finite. I can always go back and play my favorite PS2 games (like Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 3, Ace Combat 4, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Gran Turismo 3, and Devil May Cry) and have pretty much the same experience that I had the first time I played. But I won't be able to do that with some of my favorite PS3 games, because some of them have online features that won't remain active forever.
As long as my PS2 is functional, I can always go back and re-play my favorite PS2 games.
PC gamers have been dealing with this problem since the dawn of the internet, but they have work-arounds. PC Games can be modded to support direct TCP / IP connections in order for their online communities to stay online. Hypothetically, you could keep your favorite MMO alive for yourself and your circle of friends in this fashion. But with console games, there are much more significant technical hurdles to overcome, and when the producer shuts down the servers, that is basically the end of that game.
And that is exactly what is going to happen some day with my favorite PS3-exclusive: Demon's Souls.
Every console has its defining games - those games that are reasons for owning the consoles. The original PlayStation had Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid, the Nintendo 64 had Goldeneye, the Dreamcast had Shenmue and Soul Calibur, the XBox had Halo, GameCube had Resident Evil 4 and Eternal Darkness, the PS2 had Shadow of the Colossus. For me, Demon's Souls is that game for the PS3: the game that makes owning a PS3 worthwhile.
Demon's Souls is a game that completely redefined the way that I think about gaming. My ideas about how a player can interact with a game world and with other players were completely turned on their head with this game. So I want to take a moment to pay tribute to this masterpiece of interactive art with a full review while its servers are still up and running. And maybe - just maybe - I can sell a copy or two to some new players.
Deep and addictive hack 'n' slash action
The gameplay is based on a simple control configuration in which weapons are mapped to the left and right hand and controlled with the left and right shoulder buttons (respectively). The design is reminiscent of a simplified version of FROM's other major game franchise: the mech-combat sim Armored Core. Weapons equipped in the right hand have a basic attack and a heavy attack, and weapons or shields in the left hand have a block and heavy attack (sorry, lefties, no left-handed characters for you!). These basic controls are very simple, and any player can start hacking and blocking away as soon as they pick up the controller. But more advanced controls and variations in weapon functionality make this seemingly-simple combat system very deep.
Each weapon class has different movesets, ranging from the slashing of a sword to the thrusting of a spear, to smashing of a giant hammer. And shields (and some off-hand weapons) have an advanced parry feature that allows you to stun and counter an attacking foe to land a critical hit. You can also attack while running or out of dodges in order to keep a foe guessing. Mastering these various features takes a little bit of time, but it is immensely rewarding when you finally have the skills to go toe to toe with a giant, butcher-knife wielding skeleton with confidence. But don't get overconfident, because this game will punish you for every mistake!
With patience and practice, you'll soon stand confidently before the Vanguard that killed you in the tutorial.
If you die, you lose all your accumulated souls (i.e. "experience"), and must restart the level from the beginning! But there is a shining glimmer of hope: you have one chance to reach the spot where you died in order to recover your lost souls. If you get there, you get everything back, as if you never died. But if you die again before finding your place of death, you lose it all!
Demon's Souls became famous - in part - due to its brutal difficulty. This game does not hold the player's hand like many modern action games do. There are no button prompts telling you when to attack, block, or counter your opponents; no quick-time events; no checkpoints; no auto-regenerating health. When an enemy gets a clean hit on you, it will suck away large chunks of health (maybe even kill you in a single blow). And if you screw up, the enemies will be right there waiting to land that critical blow! This old-school level of difficulty can be off-putting for many players. It was for me, at first.
But as you play - and as you die - you start to realize that the game is also very fair. There are rules and limitations imposed on the enemies as well. Just as you have stamina and MP, so do they. Just as they can parry your attacks, so too can you parry theirs. And with a couple clean blows of your own, your foe will fall, vanquished, before your feet, crumpling into a lifeless ragdoll for you to kick around the level if you so chose.
You'll see this screen often. But every death will be a learning experience,
and you won't make the same mistake again.
You start the game fighting on par with the zombified grunt enemies that you encounter. They can kill you just as easily as you can kill them. The challenge comes primarily from being outnumbered. You should quickly learn not to engage large groups, but rather, try to isolate enemies and pick them off one at a time. You'll learn to be slow, careful, and deliberate in all your actions. You'll start to play defensively, studying the enemy for their patterns and weaknesses so that you can strike them when they are most vulnerable. In that deliberance, you start to realize that every enemy can be defeated, and every obstacle can be overcome! You start to feel that if you died, it was because you screwed up, or because you got sloppy.
And then the game starts throwing new challenges at you. Traps, pitfalls, poison, bigger enemies, and - of course - bosses will all stand in your way. These threats will be introduced gradually as you make your way through the different worlds so that you have an opportunity to learn from them and survive - unless you go straight to the last world, in which case, good luck! For example: world five (Valley of Defilement) may be one giant poison and plague swamp, but assuming you already spent some time exploring world 3 (Tower of Latria), then you will already have experience dealing with poison in a much safer and more controlled environment.
The bosses are big and intimidating. But they all have weaknesses for you to exploit. Each boss is unique, and requires different strategies to defeat. They feel like appropriate payoffs for the game's exceptionally-designed levels, and they will crush you like a bug if you're not prepared to face them.
Enemies and bosses are consistently challenging even after you've leveled up,
making the ability to summon allies very important to the playability of the game.
And unlike its successors, the difficulty of Demon's Souls remains consistent throughout, even after you've leveled your character and obtained better weapons. Enemies and bosses still hit hard, so one screw up can get you killed - even against enemies and bosses that you know like the back of your hand. Part of this is because armor can't be upgraded, so damage reduction never gets as high as in Dark Souls.
Messages and ghostly apparitions of
other players can provide hints.
Souls in others' worlds
The online functionality that the servers enable is elegant and innovative.
The message system (much like the rest of the game) is simple and elegant, as well as functional. Players are rewarded for leaving helpful hints, and useless hints will eventually disappear.
The ghostly apparitions of other players and their bloodstains left by death provide a sense of shared struggle, as well as hints of impending threats. But they also can create tension, because they are a constant reminder that other people are playing, and at any moment (if you are human), one of them can invade and attempt to murder you. One minute, you can summon an ally to help you kill a boss; the next minute, that same player can appear in your world as a hostile phantom. It adds unpredictability to the game when you are human. Exploring the levels becomes all the more tense with the knowledge that you can be invaded at any moment.
The real elegance in the game is how soul and human form work. When human, you can summon other players to help you and are unimpeded by penalties, but you can also be invaded. When in soul form, you can be summoned into other worlds, but your max health is reduced. You can also invade other players while you are in soul form. Killing a boss or another player while in soul form will restore your own corporeal body, allowing you to seek out help in your own world and more easily progress your game. These systems are much simpler than Dark Souls' complicated online mechanics that have different rules for summoning, covenants, and so forth. And Demon's Souls online rules feedback into one another in a much more believable way.
Helping other players defeat bosses, or killing the other players, are both methods for restoring your physical body.
And the fact that the enemies and bosses remain challenging throughout the game means that every player has a strong incentive to remain in body form, and so they have strong incentive to use all the game's online features!
This does have the downside of making the game's online functionality much more critical to progressing in the game. You can still beat the game by grinding to power-level your character, but when the servers are inevitably shut down, the game will become prohibitively difficult for many players, and much of its charm will be lost.
The World and Character Tendency features are a bit less developed, but still fit in with the other mechanics and themes. They both add pseudo-permanent consequences to the player's game actions. It's just too bad that they aren't better explained within the game itself, and that the interface for reading them is a bit ambiguous. Reading the manual doesn't help much. It would have been interesting if FROM had gone ahead with their original plan for Character Tendency, as it would have only further reinforced the feedback loops between the various features (assuming it could have been properly-balanced).
The game doesn't explain its World and Character Tendency features,
You'll have to look at the manual, but that still doesn't explain much.
The fact that world tendencies are adjusted by the average tendency level on the server is also annoying, since it can be difficult to manipulate tendencies in order to experience all the game's content.
Interactive storytelling at its best
Online features aside, one of this game's greatest strengths is in the way that it expresses itself and its story. Demon's Souls isn't so much about the moment-to-moment details of its plot as it is about establishing a large and complicated world with a rich history. It doesn't quite reach the level of world-building perfection that its successor, Dark Souls reaches, but this game world is still loaded with detail.
But this detail isn't obtained through the same methods that other games usually employ. Whereas other RPGs like your Final Fantasy, your Elder Scrolls, and so on like to tell their stories via rote exposition (non-interactive cutscenes or text-dumps from characters or text sources), Demon's Souls lets the world itself tell the story. Sure, there are characters that will provide small chunks of expository dialogue, but they won't ramble on and on for an hour about specific details or give you explicit instructions. Instead, they offer vague hints, and let the player discover the rest of the details for themselves. You won't spend hours sifting through dialogue trees at every NPC that you come across.
Item descriptions offer context and a sense of meaning within the game's world and history.
Little bits of lore and history are revealed through interactions with NPCs, by carefully observing the game world, and by reading the descriptions of items that you collect. Every consumable item, piece of armor, weapon, magic ring, and so on provides a short little story that provides clues and insight into the game world's history, the world's rules, and the relations and exploits of the various heroes and other NPCs that play a role in the game's events. These items, thus, feel like they have significance and meaning in the game, rather than just being tools to a means. This is video game storytelling at its best: building a world that feels tangible and lived-in, and then letting the player be a part of it.
It's the levels that really shine
And the place where gameplay and narrative combine is in the game's level design; and here is where Demon's Souls truly shines!
The levels of this game are all expertly designed. They are long, grueling, and require extreme patience and engagement from the player. You need to be very aware of your surroundings at all times. But the levels also provide a sense of gradual progress. Even though you lose your souls when you die, you maintain any items that you've collected. So even if you keep dying, you still have the weapons, armor, items, and consumable soul items to use to keep improving your character. In addition to that, each level has clever and organic shortcuts that can be opened to speed up your progress when you inevitably die and have to go back through the level.
But the levels aren't just functionally well-designed; they are also artistically well-designed.
Each level creates its own unique visual styles with different color palettes and atmospheres. Some are big and open, others are constrained and claustrophobic, and the themes range from castle corridors, to deep ore mines, to Inquisitorial prisons, to oppressively-toxic swamps. Each has its own sense of beauty.
The levels will further encourage patience, deliberance, and careful observation.
Light and dark also play a significant role. The character has a glowing stone attached to his or her belt, so you can always see in the immediate vicinity. But beyond the glow of that stone, some levels come near to pitch black, making it hard to spot traps, pitfalls, and enemies waiting for ambush. The levels themselves teach deliberance just as much as the gameplay mechanics.
And as good as the levels look, they sound even better! The ambient sound effects are fantastic and effective at conveying the game's themes and mood. Levels sound intimidating and oppressive! Ominous sound effects like the chime of a Mindflayer's bell or the notification that a phantom has invaded are distinct and recognizable sounds that can send you into a Pavlovian panic when you hear them.
Since FROM wrote the game in English and recorded all the original dialogue in English (inserting Japanese subtitles for the Japanese retail version), localization is not an issue. Most of the NPC characters are well-acted and add to the atmosphere, in that many of the NPCs treat you as insignificant. The opening narration is phenomenal at setting the mood for the game! And the original music soundtrack is one of the best scores of any game ever! The only audio complaint is with the repetitive dialogue, especially when leveling at the Maiden in Black or dumping equipment with Stockpile Thomas - both of which you'll do often! Yes, I know I "have a heart of gold", just take my dead weight loot and shut up, already!
Speaking of Stockpile Thomas, there is a maximum item burden in this game, so you can't carry an infinite amount of items. You'll have to routinely stop back in the Nexus to unload your excess baggage before moving onto the next area. It can be annoying and tedious, but it does provide a sense of having to prepare and equip yourself for a given area that makes each level feel like a little adventure, a sense that is sorely lacking from Dark Souls.
Best level ever?
Perhaps one of my favorite video game levels ever is the Tower of Latria - particularly the prison in the first section. This level's hazardous maze-like structure, Gothic architecture, Inquisitorial torture devices, dark lighting, minimalistic soundtrack, tough enemies, and methodically-perfect pacing all combine to build and maintain an edge-of-your-seat sense of tension.
Mindflayers can instantly end your adventure in Latria.
You'll have to quickly learn patience and deliberance in dealing with them.
The Mindflayers are probably the best example of an enemy that teaches deliberance. You need to know exactly what you are doing, and be precise in your movements and actions in order to get them before they stun you. Their bells still give me chills! It's a nightmare-inducing level on par with the best levels of any horror game! And it all culminates in an ominous climb up a staircase, past a Black Phantom, towards a deceptive boss battle that perfectly epitomizes the level as a whole.
Although the first section of this world (the prison level) is my favorite, the subsequent two sections are also exceptional. The persistent beating of the heart in section 2 is maddening in a way that would probably make Edgar Allen Poe envious. And the final world boss, the Old Monk, is one of the coolest ideas for a boss battle ever: if any other player has a summon or invasion sign down anywhere in the world, the Old Monk may "kidnap" that player to fight as the world boss on the Old Monk's behalf. In addition to being a cool idea in and of itself, this also acts as a mid-game tutorial of sorts, designed to introduce the player to the invasion and PvP mechanics if you haven't encountered them already. And even if another player isn't summoned into your world, the NPC boss phantom will still drop the Black Eye Stone, which guarantees that every player will have the power to invade other players by the end of the game (unlike Dark Souls, which hides its invasion capabilities behind a secret covenant near the end of the game).
The Old Monk can also add drama to the game that can't be written in by the writers. A former ally who helped you slay the seemingly-impossible Maneaters can suddenly show up as the Old Monk's pawn, forcing former friends into a life-and-death struggle. It's just another example of the game's elegant design: both functionally and thematically.
The Old Monk is one of the best boss battle ideas in any game ever.
And it acts as a moderate functional tutorial for the invasion mechanics.
And as fantastic as Latria is, the other worlds are not far behind. Stonefang Tunnel and the Valley of Defilement are close runners-up. And the remaining worlds, though the "weakest" in this game, are still head and shoulders above the level designs of most other games. In fact, the ways in which these worlds must be methodically explored, the fear that is invoked by the game's genuinely threatening enemies, and the ominously indirect story all combine to give this game a bit of a "survival horror" feel. The game is actually scary in both a visceral sense and a psychological sense.
A slightly tarnished jewel
As much as I love this game, Demon's Souls is not without its genuine faults either. Some of these have been fixed or mitigated in the spiritual successors, Dark Souls, but others have not.
Hopping over low walls is sometimes required,
even though there is no indication that you can.
There are some esoteric elements of level designs. There are no jump or climb buttons, but there are some places in the game where jumping or climbing is allowed, and even required! In order to accomplish this action, you just have to run your character into the obstacle that you are supposed to climb over. Seems easy enough, but with no indication or prompt that you even can do this, it can easily lead to confusion and frustration for a player if you don't know where to go or what to do.
The camera can be a serious problem in some places, particularly in the Valley of Defilement. Here, the clutter in the environment can often get in the way of the camera and limit or nullify the player's visibility of the action. I don't know how a PS3-era game managed to make it through quality control without having some kind of transparency applied to obstacles that get between the player character and the camera, but here it is...
Enemies are also not the cleverest bunch. Enemies sometimes can't pathfind to the player correctly and get stuck against walls or in doorways. This is especially true if the enemy needs to go up or down stairs or a ladder to get to you. Archer enemies are also very slow about reloading, which makes it very easy to approach them with very little risk. And once you get to them, they just stand there and let you cut them down! They apparently didn't think to bring a back-up melee weapon with them in case a foe gets in close range.
Issues with ranged weapons abound for both the player and the enemies.
[LEFT] Archer enemies don't have any close-quarters defense. [RIGHT] Arrows often get stuck in invisible walls.
Probably the most annoying issue is with collision detection and hit boxes. In a game that is as punishingly difficult as this, it is very important that the game's physics operate in an understandable way. The majority of the game works well, but there are some areas where invisible walls will prevent the use of projectiles, areas where weapons can clip through walls, and yet other areas where the player can get stuck in or fall through the floor. So ranged weapons are completely unreliable, especially in tight quarters, and sniping is nowhere near as practical as it seems like it should be. This makes dedicated ranger characters (like the Hunter class) feel extremely underpowered.
Balance and Player-versus-player fairness
There's also some other balance issues. Magic is exploitative, and the Royalty class starts with an MP-regeneration ring that allows it to turtle its way through any level with little-to-no risk. The item burden also makes heavy armor impractical to the point of being useless, since it limits the amount of loot you can carry and makes dodge rolling very ineffective. The damage reduction that heavy armor offers isn't that much better than lighter armor, so you're much better off maintaining your mobility and avoiding damage altogether rather than tanking your way through a level.
The Royalty class (with its free MP-regen ring) can easily turtle its way through the early game.
PvP is also open to a lot of griefing. Red Phantoms will often have large stockpiles of healing grass that can make them seem practically invincible. There are some weapons that are specifically geared for PvP, but which are virtually useless in single-player, but having an item burden means that it isn't practical to carry such equipment around. This gives invaders a significant advantage over the host, since the invader can optimize his character for PvP, while the host will usually be stuck with equipment geared towards single player combat.
This being said, PvP imbalances didn't bother me as much in Demon's Souls' prime because invading was a practical mechanic that every player could use (and had reason to use). This meant that there was a greater variety of skill and character builds in invading phantoms, which meant that at least some PvP encounters were competitive and fun. If you play the game now, however, most players have moved on, and there isn't much Red Phantom activity except for PvP gankers and the occasional Old Monk victim.
Healing grass spam and lag stabs can hurt the online experience,
but since invading has actual utility, more players are encouraged to try it.
Demon's Souls is beautifully and elegantly designed. Every feature and mechanic (except maybe the slightly underdeveloped Character Tendency) fits together and feeds off of each other in believable and understandable ways, so that the whole game feels like a complete and cohesive whole.
And furthermore, Demon's Souls is a game with real, permanent consequences for the player's actions. If you kill an NPC or merchant, that character is gone for the remainder of the game. If you miss an opportunity to kill a crystal lizard and collect its rare and valuable loot, then you'll have to wait till New Game+ in order to try again. If you die in human form or kill other players, your World and Character tendency will darken, opening some side content and locking others. Even warping into a level without first unloading your excess baggage can result in you overburdening yourself and being forced to leave valuable loot behind. You must prepare for a level accordingly! It's a challenging, but immensely rewarding game.
Most importantly, Demon's Souls is a rare game that realizes it's a game. So many games these days pull the player out of the experience with checkpoints, autosaves, cutscenes, quicktime events, cinematic set-pieces, and so on. They feel less like games and more like movies or guided tours of the levels. But this game takes full advantage of its interactive qualities. It doesn't just tell you its story (as in a book), or even show you its story (as in a movie). You experience the story of Demon's Souls by exploring and interacting with the world. The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. And in the end, you get to use what you've learned to decide the game world's ultimate fate.
For me, Demon's Souls is a watershed game. It redefined how a game could engage its audience, connect its community, and tell a story. It reaffirmed that games can still be games, and not just interactive movies. But its servers won't stay active forever. If you haven't done so already, then do yourself a favor and give this game a chance. Accept that it is going to kick your ass, but put in the time to actually learn how it works. You'll be glad you did.
**Regarding the ratings vs Dark Souls
In both the gameplay and visual department, I noted in my respective reviews that Dark Souls and Dark Souls II were each steps up in terms of gameplay and graphics than their predecessors. However, in this review, you may notice that both these categories are ranked higher than in the spiritual successors. Is this hypocrisy or bias on my part? Perhaps a little... But I do have reasons for these seemingly inconsistent ratings.
In Dark Souls, I included a wild-card "Difficulty" category, and so the difficulty of the game (which I felt was inferior to Demon's Souls) was rated independently of the gameplay. For this Demon's Souls review, however, I felt that it was appropriate to rate the game's online functionality as the wild-card category (since the game introduced these features), and so Demon's Souls superior difficulty rating had to be rolled into gameplay. Hence, the higher rating for gameplay.
Dark Souls and Dark Souls II do have technically superior graphics. However, I gave Demon's Souls a higher visual grade due to its superior artistry.
If you like Dark Souls, then you owe it to yourself to play this game. It may take a while to get used to the lack of bells and whistles, but it's a heck of a lot better game overall than Dark Souls II.
Hopefully, the game's servers will remain open and players will keep playing.
This game deserves it!