It’s been asked before, in the philosophy of games debate that rages on amongst critics, if players should ever die in a well made game. It’s a strange statement, that’s to be sure, since few could actually name a title where they haven’t seen a “Game Over” or “You Are Dead” screen, and the games that do incorporate some sense of immortality are usually lambasted for it (the recent Prince of Persia comes to mind). However, it’s still worth thinking about, because if good games immerse the player, than there is nothing more immersion-breaking than character death.
In other words, it seems like the median of the two schools of thought – one thinking that death is overdone and one thinking that it’s necessary – is to have the fear of death, but hope that gamers never actually experience their mortality. Games like Shadow of the Colossus do a fantastic job balancing this concept, creating an experience that can be difficult, with the possibility of the player dying, without resorting to one-shot kills, or trial-and-error game design.
No matter which side of the "death in games" argument you’re on, Demon’s Souls does it wrong.
The name of the game in Demon’s Souls is immersion; something From Software took very seriously when they developed the action RPG. The kingdom of Boletaria, on the whole, is extremely gritty and dreary, from the moody plot to the shadowy environments. This is aided by stellar graphics, which attempt to replicate reality as closely as possible. The story starts off by giving players a brief introduction to the game world. It’s a dark place, where nowhere is safe from horrible, powerful demons. After a short introductory video in which players learn about King Allanti XII awakening “The Great Old One,” it is up to a powerful adventurer to lull the beast back to sleep.
This is done by slaying all of the demons of the world, which actually manages to be more difficult than it sounds. Horror fans likely perked up at the mention of the “Great Old One,” as it is a reference to author H.P. Lovecraft’s lore. Throughout the game, it looks as though the style was influenced by the Cthulhu Mythos, with disturbing monsters that look straight out of the author’s writings. The bosses, in particular, look wonderfully horrifying, from large, winged demons to disturbing mounds made entirely of corpses.
Once in control, the player is given access to a character customization screen, which asks him or her to choose from ten classes. Already, things might seem a bit overwhelming. Some, such as the Soldier, Thief, Magician, or Hunter, should be obvious to anyone who has ever played an RPG, while others, like Royalty and Wanderer, aren’t as self-explanatory. After choosing a class, the player is given access to a character builder, which allows for a great deal of customization in terms of facial structure. Strangely, while the game has dozens of sliders for warping everything from the bridge of the nose to the space between eyes, it’s extremely hard to get anything to really look good, and any amount of tweaking usually creates freakish looking beings. With enough work, marginal success is rewarded – something that quickly becomes a staple in Demon’s Souls.
After this, a short tutorial lays out the basics of the gameplay. The left trigger and bumper are assigned to the left hand slot item, while the right buttons handle the right hand. Generally speaking, the left hand will hold the player’s bow or shield, and either fire an arrow or block and parry. On the right, weak and strong attacks are available, which drain different amounts of stamina from the bar that sits below the health and mana on the top left. Clicking the analog stick targets a foe, the square button uses an equipped item, and circle dodges. Triangle, if the player is of the magical breed, is usually tied to a spell. If not, it changes the player's right hand-slot item to be a two-handed item, making blows more powerful. This is what the tutorial teaches the players before killing them, and throwing them headfirst, kicking and screaming, nude and defenseless, into one of the hardest games they’ve ever played.
Their corpses land not in heaven or hell, but in the Nexus, the game’s limbo. Death isn’t the end of life in Demon’s Souls. No, things aren’t that straightforward. Instead, it lands the player in the game’s hub, where he or she is able to purchase items, level up stats, and choose to visit different levels. Health is lowered, souls are lost, and the player respawns back at the beginning of the level, with all of the enemies once again standing where they once were.
When Demon’s Souls was announced for localization by Atlus, the game’s online capabilities were immediately surrounded with critical praise and intrigue. It’s easiest to describe it as a single-player game that is played wholly online, taking the promises Peter Molyneux made about Fable II and actualizing them on the PlayStation 3. It also sounds a bit like Valve's mysterious "Crossplay" title, which promised to mix together cooperative play with a single-player story. In some ways, the online capabilities are entirely passive. When a player dies, he leaves a puddle of blood that can be accessed by others who come near the location of his death. By pressing X, the last few moments of the deceased’s life is shown, be it death by a trap, a fall, or a blade. This serves as a warning, by showing where ambushes lay in wait or traps sit ready to spring.
Leaving glowing messages on the ground is an extension of this idea, and players can, at any time, choose from a long list of phrases to write on the floor. Already, players have found unique methods to teach fellow adventurers ways to survive in the cruel world of Demon’s Souls, by using phrases like “Attack!” near objects that need to be slashed to be activated, or “Continue forward” when a hidden path lay over what appears at first to be a suicidal fall. These phrases can be recommended to assure that no one abuses the system, but that hasn’t stopped a few from sneaking in bad advice. This interconnectivity works wonders to make Demon’s Souls feel like a truly next-generation game, bringing a single-player experience online in a wholly unique way.
There are more traditional forms of cooperative play, and even those are given a good once over to assure that they fit into the dreary world of Demon’s Souls. When a player is nearby, he shows up in a ghostly form, wandering around and completing tasks without interfering. A player that has his human body can summon up to two of these undead by leaving a glyph on the ground and inviting these souls into his game. There are stipulations to this that come in the form of level restrictions, a lack of voice chat support, and the inability to invite friends, but it works for help taking down a particularly hard boss or just clearing out a group of enemies. After the boss is defeated, any players who didn’t have their corporeal bodies are rewarded with flesh, and returned to their own world.
Cooperative play provides the best experiences in Demon's Souls, but the developers refused to allow it to become paramount, instead putting a focus on playing alone, and only using other players for casual encounters. This was a mistake, as it might have helped alleviate some of the other issues, and helped to create a game that's more fun than it is hard. Without voice chat or the ability to invite friends without communicating outside of the game, it would almost have been better if it was just possible to summon AI teammates to help with more difficult portions.
If this path to revival proves too difficult, be it because of particularly hard opponent or the game's somewhat unwieldy infrastructure, another is available: kicking down the door to another player’s world and murdering him. It’s shocking to see a developer embrace something that amounts to greifing in a single-player game. That said, the ballsy approach to game design is something many developers seem to lack, and it doesn’t work against the game. Since being killed by a player isn’t really that big of a deal, half of the game will likely be spent dead anyway. The attacking player, called a Black Phantom, isn't attacked by the enemies that populate the game's levels, so he's able to find a spot to hide and wait for the best moment to strike, killing a player and regaining his body. Being invaded by a Phantom is exhilarating, and gives a glimpse into a potential future for video games in general.
The literal lifeblood of Demon’s Souls are demons' souls. Every enemy’s death results in the player earning a few souls, which can be used to purchase, repair, and upgrade items. If this were their only function then they’d be important, though their value exceeds that of gold in the game world, since the souls are also used to boost stats. To raise health, strength, dexterity, or any of the character's attributes, a gradually increasing number of souls is needed. Upon player death, however, all souls are dropped into a blood puddle, and need to be retrieved from the location that the final breath was drawn. If a player were to fail to get back to this location, all souls are lost.
This aspect of the game shapes the Demon’s Souls experience, and since death is a frequent occurrence it’s hard to ever feel at ease. Some might argue that this is to the game’s benefit, but I hardly find the constant urge to return to Nexus and spend souls to be a good thing. It means there’s no reason for risk taking, since there’s hardly ever any reward. Continuing to fight can only mean one thing: inevitable death, and when it costs souls to do anything, the possibility of losing souls simply isn’t in the cards. It’s easy enough to earn them, since enemies respawn when players return to Nexus, but it’s just a grind for the sake of grinding. Losing souls elicits feelings of hopelessness, and the overwhelming urge to simply quit the game. Technically that’s immersion, but if that’s what it’s like to be in the world of Demon’s Souls, than I’d rather not stay.
Combat, on the whole, is focused on realism. It’s finesse based, so dodging and attacking when an enemy’s guard is down is important. On that same note, a few blows from an enemy means a quick death, so it goes both ways. Each battle varies from class to class and, to a point, weapon to weapon. While a spear might deliver some of the most damaging blows, it’s also unwise to attempt to wield the long shaft in enclosed spaces, since most of the damage will be absorbed by walls and using a dagger might be more wise. That same dagger, however, won’t be as damaging to a group of enemies, so changing to a sword or spear is wise. Sadly, the game never explicitly makes this known, and it’s simply another aspect that is learned through trial and error.
Even after the tactics behind weapon focus are learned, the difficulty is far from over. Expect to die more than you have in any other game, and expect to be screaming expletives at the television half of the time. It’s not necessarily cheap, it’s more cruel, and anyone besides sadomasochists will likely grow tired of the game’s punishing ways. The only thing that really keeps the game somewhat balanced is how the levels are laid out, since working through an area gradually unlocks shortcuts to get back faster. Even so, an expanded tutorial or more of a narrative earlier on would have rendered this complaint irrelevant. But From Software’s devotion to creating a difficult game seems to stand in the way of making something anyone besides their small target audience might understand.
There was a massive amount of potential in Demon’s Souls, but it’s an experience that most people will not appreciate. It’s simply uninviting, and made for such a small niche that it’s impossible to know whether or not it’s an experience you might enjoy without giving it a try. Comparisons to the King’s Field series have been made by a few, with some going as far as to say that Demon's Souls is a spiritual successor to the series. Those comparisons aren't unfounded; both focus on immersion and realism, both have punishing difficulty and a harsh learning curve, and both are ruthless, and don’t take kindly to casual gamers by any means.
Games like this are like the Finnegans Wake of gaming, so overly convoluted and wrapped up in their own complexity that they miss out on grabbing anyone who isn’t already completely enamored of it before beginning. The problem is, this target audience is remarkably small, and there’s no doubt that many of the people highly anticipating Demon’s Souls will be more than a little disappointed once they start the game and see what they’ve gotten themselves into.
I’d love to be pulled in by this world, since it has a certain allure that could lead to a great experience. It has dozens and dozens of hours of gameplay on each playthrough, and vastly different experiences depending on the class and build. The enemy design is, simply put, wonderful, and so many different elements of Demon’s Souls call out to me, demanding love and affection. Sadly, I cannot return its calls. It just goes so far out of its way to be difficult that it misses some key, important elements that would have made it a vastly better game. There's room for difficulty in games, no one is denying that. In fact, Demon's Souls is catered towards this belief. Even so, it goes well beyond appeasing those tired of simple titles, blowing past "hard" and arriving somewhere in-between maddening and infuriating.