At E3 in June, I got a brief look at Demon’s Souls, the crazy hard Japanese action-RPG being brought to North American shores by Atlus U.S.A. I liked what I saw and thought it looked unlike any other role-playing experience in recent memory, but the demonstration left me with many unanswered questions. Last week, Atlus PR guru Aram Jabbari treated a handful of journalists to a live stream game demo, where we were able to watch as he played the game alone, cooperatively, and participated in some player vs. player action. For over an hour, Aram answered questions while trying not to die, and I now know much more about Demon’s Souls. As a result, I am even more intrigued by what might be one of the most unique, challenging, and rewarding games of the year.
We first got a look at the Nexus, which is sort of a hub of NPCs where adventurers can access new levels, forge weapons, and level up. The non-playable characters seem not to stay in the same place all the time, so we watched Aram wander around a bit to find the Maiden in Black. She allows you to level up when you redeem souls, which you collect upon killing foes. Souls are both your experience and your currency in Demon’s Souls, so you need to use them wisely. Sure, you could spend a whole lot of souls to get a great new weapon, but it will be meaningless if you can’t level up enough to finish your next quest. That sort of trade-off is interesting, and adds another layer of strategy to the game. Also in the Nexus is the blacksmith, and he is the one to go to if you need a new weapon, or want to combine items. The types of weapons and accessories you equip will depend on how you want to play the game in regards to both your class and your tendency.
Tendency is the Demon’s Souls version of morality, but there are two different tendencies, both of which will significantly affect your game. Character tendency gets lighter or darker depending on how you treat others; for example, breaking into another player’s game and killing him will make you darker, while assisting a friend cooperatively will lighten your character tendency. World tendency is based on story events in your own game, and will affect which areas you can access and items you can use. As I previously mentioned, there is a class system in play as well, with ten different classes to choose from when creating your character; however, no matter how you start out, you can become any kind of player you want to be throughout the course of the game.
We only got a brief look at character creation, but it seemed fairly deep, with the player being able to control many features—including making a very feminine male or masculine female, which should lead to some interesting androgyny. Aram messed around with facial features to create the ugliest man alive, then brought “Mr. Horseface” into the game to show us how the character would appear in action. Personally, I love character creation, and with a game this deep, I can easily spend over an hour just making a great adventurer.
Like many games in the genre, Demon’s Souls has several bars on-screen, one of which represents your hit points. However, what I didn’t know was that when your health bar is half full, you will lose your body and become “dead”, while still being able to do some things in soul form. It was actually reminiscent of some recent games of Dungeons & Dragons that I played, wherein a character’s HP reached zero, and though he was not technically dead yet, he had to jump through some hoops to be revived. Demon’s Souls isn’t quite the same, but as a soul, you will need to perform some quests to get your body back. One way to do this is to break into a game of a living player and kill him; you can also kill a level boss, or do so in another player’s game during co-op play. As Aram stated, with the game being as difficult as it is, “you will spend a great deal of time dead”, so losing your body isn’t the end of the world, though you will need to loot your corpse to retrieve experience. Players will simply need to be aware of what they can do with and without their bodies.
One of the things that was most intriguing to me personally was the use of messages and bloodstains in the game. As I reported during E3, players can leave words of warning in another player’s game, letting him know that there’s a tough boss ahead, or a strategy for taking on the next part of the level. As it turns out, there are templates for these messages, so you can’t just write whatever you want and display it in another player’s game. Though it seems limiting, it is probably for the best, as I can easily see gamers taking advantage of the ability without any limits; it also appeared that there were more than enough templates available to convey information to others. There are a fixed number of messages that can be displayed at once in each game, and they will stay there until pushed off by new ones. Players can also “rate” helpful messages; if you leave a good note, and someone else gives it positive feedback, some of your health will be restored the next time you play the game. We got another look at the “bloodstains”, which serve as a tutorial of sorts and allow you to learn from the mistakes of other players. The bloodstains and notes are not a gimmick, and actually add a lot to the game, ensuring that every gamer will have a different experience.
Of course, what you probably really want to know about is the multiplayer aspect of Demon’s Souls. The game has a full single-player campaign with at least 20-40 hours of gameplay and a ton of replay value, but co-op and versus modes help make it more unique than your average action-RPG. Up to three people can play cooperatively; as I stated earlier, you can offer yourself to another player in spirit form, and that player must allow you to enter his or her game before you can jump in. Players must be within certain levels of each other for co-op play, which helps maintain balance. You can bring friends into your game to help you get past a difficult boss fight, but being pulled into another player’s adventure will give you more chances to gain experience and get your body back. In co-op, players must stay within the same region but can wander anywhere within, so it won’t suffer from the annoying camera problems that Fable II’s co-op had. If you die while hosting a game, your friends will be booted back to their own games, and you will have to try again. Luckily, you don’t have to worry about a cooperative player turning on you, since there is no friendly fire during co-op play.
On the other hand, you could simply break into another game, attacking the player. This will also give you a chance to regain your body, but there are risks involved with versus gameplay. First of all, if you break into another adventure and that player is currently involved in a co-op session, you will suddenly find yourself facing two or three players, not just one. Additionally, like with co-op, you must be within a certain level range, so if you’re a high-level character, you can’t just break into a new player’s game and annihilate him. Another thing to keep in mind is the fact that if you break into another game and are defeated, you will lose a stat point, which at higher levels translates into thousands and thousands of experience points. As Aram succinctly described it, it’s a “significant kick in the balls”. You can’t be invaded if you’re already dead, and you can’t break into another game while alive.
My final impressions of the time I spent watching this game being played were that if Demon’s Souls works like it is supposed to, it’s going to be one of the most interesting games of the year. It’s a hard dungeon crawler, but extremely rewarding, offers many completely different ways to play, and on top of the fairly lengthy campaign, has a ton of replay value. With New Game +, ++, +++, and so on, Demon’s Souls gets harder every time you beat it, and any given region could take between 15 minutes and two hours. Luckily for PS3 owners with decreasing hard drive space, the game does not have a required install, and the load times are still fairly brief. Atlus even improved upon the original version by making the game’s interface more intuitive, so those who held off on importing will definitely be rewarded for their patience. Demon’s Souls launches worldwide on October 6, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes one of the best multiplayer experiences on the PlayStation 3—as well as giving PS3 owners the hardcore RPG they have been waiting for.