Demon's Souls (PlayStation 3)

The RPG Grows Up. And Kills You.

by Coop

Game Demon's Souls

Platform PlayStation 3

Genre(s) Role-Playing

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.

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  • 00.19

    just don't know if i'm going to have time to play this in 2009. perhaps early next year, but for now, it's on the backburner.

  • damedakorya

    The reason for grading is a site that doesn't understand. It seems to grade it only by one's particular hobbies. It doesn't serve as a reference at all. For instance, if he grades Mario, it remarkably becomes a high score from other sites.

  • yersi

    This is a poorly written review by a person who completely failed to understand the game's premise and appeal. Demon's Souls is a game that rewards a careful and deliberate playing style, and once you're past the first level the game isn't really all that hard as long as you don't drop your guard and take unnecessary risks. In short, if you find the game very frustrating you're playing it the wrong way.

    What the reviewer doesn't get is that if there was more margin for error when playing the game the whole weight and mystique of the setting would be lost. The mortality of the main character plays a crucial part in creating the game's atmosphere and the brutal intensity of the combat.

    My suggestion to the reviewer is to completely scrap this mess of a review and write a new one that does the game justice (maybe also grow a pair of balls? :)). Seriously, I'm a pussy who plays horror games on easy and I was still captivated by Demon's Souls until the end, so I don't think the game is all that inaccessible if approached with the right mindset.

  • yersi

    Have you even played the game? As I said, it isn't even all that hard if you play the game the right way and take advantage of the tools that the game gives you. Griping about DS being too hard because you cannot just hack and slash your way through it is like saying Gears of War is impossible if you run and gun and don't take cover.

  • 00.19

    maybe the reviewer should grow a set. then go back to playing a man's game: wii sports resort. mayhaps you've heard of it?

  • Smitty

    OK, so I'm not going to question your manhood or the size of your testicles, but from all the great things I've heard about this game from people who own it and from reviews I've read of the import, 6 is probably a little low considering gamervision just gave WET a 7.5...

  • Spacecowboy

    Holy pandemonium batman! Don't question the reviewer, just read it...take it for a grain of salt and move on. If you disagree, say so and play the game yourself to see if you agree or disagree.

  • Sarah

    @Spacecowboy: Thanks for being the voice of reason!

  • Sean

    What place has the voice of reason on the internet?

  • Makyo

    for those who like the game (or, apparently, love it so much they want to marry and it and live happily ever after), how does a low review score affect your enjoyment of the game? even if it was a poorly written article (which for the record i don't believe this is) how could that possibly offend your delicate sensibilities enough to feel the need to trash the reviewer? get over yourself, play the games you like, ignore the games you don't, and be done with it.

  • Karkarov

    I agree that most of the comments detracting from the review are inappropriate and rude. I apologize for questioning Coop's journalistic integrity as a reviewer it wasn't called for and I was wrong to do it. However, that does not change my opinion of the review or my feeling that the 6/10 is an unjust score. A score given primarily because the game was not played to a reasonable depth and the multiplayer functions were not experienced first hand only read about.

  • kibles

    We argue our points against what we view as wrongful reviews because we want more people to experience the game that we love. If a game is given a 6.0 with a ludicrous reasoning (in this case, because the game is too hard for people who only hack and slash) we are disturbed since we believe other gamers will see this score and think "well that game must suck, so I won't buy it". 00.19's first post was a good confirmation of that point.
    In this situation, I believe the reviewer had a handicap, as Yersi had pointed out, that he did not take into account when assessing the game's interior. I presume he believed that Demon's Souls was unforgiving because he was not playing correctly (slashing quickly hoping for a hit, then getting killed because of his folly actions). Instead of rating the game down and then closing with the statement of "not everyone will love this game, but those who do will adore it", Coop could have rated the game higher and then put several warnings regarding the difficulty of the game within the review. However, the promise of utter satisfaction for gamers who love/will love Demon's Souls was listed as an after thought, which is simply poor reviewing.

  • Still Remain
    Still Remain

    Coop's latest RPG was probably BioShock, because the MC could cast fire and bolt.

  • Cowboy_Bebop

    As someone who has spend 120+ hours in Boletaria, it's clear to me that the reviewer stupendously overrated the difficulty level because he was unable to embrace Demon's souls concept of death and to play the game like it's supposed to be played.

    This game is 'hard' but not because of the huge damage regular enemies can inflict or the shear number of deaths when facing bosses. It is hard because you need to change what you instinctively think is 'right'. Forget what other games taught you.

    Don't cling to the souls you've gathered, don't cling to life. Demon's souls only punishes those who keep struggling when they shouldn't.

  • BloodDoll

    Yeah I bet you like Halo, CoD4 (a game for noobs, not hardcore fps players) and probably will like L4D 2. Demon's Souls is a great game. your review isn't very good. I agree with a few points like the multiplayer. It could have been more if we could just invite our friends without going out of the way. I will never understand why the experience is better if it's a stranger to the point of excluding an option to just invite a friend in instead of an idiot stranger that I don't know, and don't want to know or play with, but the difficulty of this game doesn't seem to be a point to argue and thus give it a lower score, if any part of your deduction of "points" is based on that specifically.

    I'm tired of these babies games like Mass Effect and Killzone 2 and all these games people love. THey are all too easy and I like a challenge. If you played any old NES games you'd know that there are a lot of similarities between this game and those older classic games. If you can actually play a game, you'd learn from your mistakes when you do die in this and when you go back at it again, much like the old NES games where you had to restart an entire area with all the enemies back, and use what you learned to progress past the point you died. I mean this is basic stuff from older games, I guess a lot of newer games are unfamilar with. I'll be writing about you on Raptr, so check it out. I'm keeping info on critics who rate good games bad and bad games good. You've been one of those critics... guy that gets paid to play a game and cites a few games to compare to but fails to mention classics. Maybe current gaming to you involves frequent save points and beating games in 2-4 hours. Sadly most games coming out are that easy to beat. Have you tried Shadow Complex? I have. 2-3 hours to beat. Sad. You'll like it though.

  • Maatisan

    I got an account on here just to say, wtf kind of reviewer are you? The game is hard so you take off 3 points? Everyone knows going into this game, or anyone who has chosen to buy it that it is made to be extremely hard. This game was made for the perfectionists that want to kill bosses without taking a hit, this is for the gamers that spend hours obtaining the best armor weapons in oblivion yet on the highest difficulty can still be killed by a bandit. I'm sorry to say, but most of the gaming community has received the game well because they understood what it was from the get go. I'm sure the majority of people that play this game aren't sado-machochists like you say either.

    As for all the jerks that say how does him writing a bad review about a game we love deteriorate our experience, LISTEN UP THIS IS THE REASON: Bad reviews which misunderstand the games they are playing give low scores, casual gaming readers look at these scores and do not even bother to read the review, gamers which could potentially love this game will not buy or rent this game because of a bad score. No buying the game = No more creation of such a game or similar types of games cause the world of gaming revolves around making a profit.

    Sorry but the world needs more demon's souls and not the next fps which will revolutionize fps, I'm sorry to say but shooting someone with a gun with a cross hair in the middle of ur screen no matter how many lighting effects/cool monster designs/or landscapes is still the same.

    Also Coop, don't pick up a game which doesn't appeal to you in the first place and write a review on it, it's just unfair to the game, it's like me hating racing games, deciding to play one and giving one of the best racing games a 6/10. You know this game is a hard game, a game which kills you over and over, you picked it up, wrote a review on it and gave it that 6/10.

  • raist3d

    I must say, though I am still sorting out the game and have played about 3-4 hours only and the "restart from beginning" was starting to get to me a bit, the game design does offer some partial escape, partial continue from it so that seems to be alleviated.

    I was showing a coworker a red dragon I saw before.. and I decided it was best not to go there.. .but showing him we decided to go there and see what would happen. I am not going to say what happened, but let's say it had me laughing hard, as a game that really says "be stupid, then die, stupid." It's a game that to me seems to inspire respect, so far.

    And I must say that I think Maatisan iis spot on. A lot of games are allocated marketing money nowadays based on a metacritic score. It's sad but true. If this game went down in history for having a bad score while other crap floats to the surface, that's just unbelievably unfair.

    If I was the reviewer, I would double check and ask for a 2nd opinion in the review. I think the reviewer's opinion matters as far as showing that someone not willing to put the time to develop the game skills or may not be as hardcore, goes, but I don't think it reflects what many would be interested in.

    Keep in mind in this game being dead is not like in Wow where you are helpless and all you can do is run to your corpse. In this game death is a meaningful, active playing state. And as for the multiplayer - NO, I don't want to be able to have chat nor friends from the list. I think the thing to understand here is that this game is an experience and having ghosts around which you may see doing something that may be even the solution to something you have in front of you, the messages, and the fact it's all from "who the hell knows" just adds to the atmosphere that you are in a new spooky different unknown world.

    This is clearly to me a design choice and I whole heartedly support it. The game just wouldn't be the same if you just brought in family 'N friends.

    And this is to me what this game represents so far - an un compromised set of design choices to take the game in a certain game design taste and direction. Just because you don't like that direction shouldn't mean you should rank the game as bad. It's just not for you.

    Designing games by reviews and casual appeal is what has gotten us the myriad multitude of wii-crap games (not saying you can't have a good well designed party game, you can, but I don't want to play a party game).

  • Steriotyp

    Wow, for the first time reading a review online, I actually like it. Taking the time to explain your thesis on the game in an articulate and provocative manner is great. While I disagree with your final score, I couldn't agree more with your posting. Well played,


  • CraftBeerIsTasty

    Spot on review. I'm stunned how many people are embracing poor game design and calling it a smart return to hardcore difficulty. This game is an over-dense mess of statistics, less-than-helpful menus and arcane rules that punish the player. A crappy lock-on that doesn't work with multiple enemies in the room, or puzzlingly de-activates in the middle of boss battles? Check. A draconian auto-save system? Check. Hours of grinding that can be undone with a single cheap death? Check.After spending hour after hour, killing the same two or three enemies so I can repair my armor and buy enough arrows to chip away at a boss that doesn't even keep a lock-on, I'm moving on. Sure, it's hard by design. Poor design.

    This game earned its 6 out of 10.

  • RPG Pro
    RPG Pro

    Very good article but one thing comes to mind when I read something like this. This is as close to a real RPG on a console as you can get. Anyone ever play Everquest 1? Try running from one place to another for a half hour to reach a bank or fall off a boat and swim for two hours to reach land. Or camp one spawn for 40 hours to get 1 drop out of 40 for an epic weapon. Or die near impossible to beat mobs and never get your body or your equipment back. Yes you die ALOT in this game, but it doesn't hold a candle to a real RPG offered on PC's. With many games out on the consoles that promote camping, hack and slash button mashing it is refreshing to play something that you actually have to put thought and time into. Fable 1 and 2? Trash and ez. Oblivion? please. FFVII? Good game. Demons Souls? Ownz!!! Just my 2 cents.


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