Prepare to die for the first time.
When I was yet a student in college in the year 2009, perusing my local GameStop in between classes, I came across a place holder for an unknown-to-me title called Demon’s Souls. I’m a sucker for intriguing titles, regardless of the logic they may or may not make (Infinite Undiscovery, anyone?), so this game, at the minimum, piqued my interest. The cover art, too, grabbed my attention–a weary or dead (most likely dead, though I didn’t know at the time) soldier clad in heavy armor seated haphazard against a stone wall (on the standard edition, the same soldier enflamed in blue light). So, without doing any major research into the game (but having enjoyed other Atlus published titles), I pre-ordered my copy of Demon’s Souls. When the game released in October of the same year, I learned firsthand the trials and tribulations of FromSoftware’s then latest masterpiece.
Demon’s Souls drops you in to its dark world without a clue of how to progress. The only logical path is to trudge ahead, gear and life in hand. You swat away at the enemies you face, not particularly a troublesome battle. “Hah,” you say, overconfidence thick in your voice. “This is the alleged difficulty? I’ve barely taken a scratch!” That is, until you great that first bastard of a boss, which very nearly instantly kills you. It is a hopeless battle, one you are meant to lose. That’s okay–you shrug off any intentional deaths. You smirk until you realize that the entire game is meant to be that difficult. Once you made it through the levels of grieving, you fully understand the potential of Demon’s Souls.
This isn’t a game for the weak. Ned Stark warns: “Winter is coming” in his now famous dialogue from the A Song of Fire and Ice saga. To gamers, FromSoftware now simply says: “Prepare to die.” You may scoff at my ignorance from when I purchased the game (though after I pre-ordered, I did do thorough research), as we are all familiar with FromSoftware’s brutal difficulty by now. I knew Armored Core contained some difficult battles, but, really, not much of their other franchises compare to the brutality of the Souls games. Back then, you may have been forgiven for being unable to survive the difficulty. Now, you really have no excuse.
Demon’s Souls, resurrects the player and sets them in a hub of sorts. Within the hub, the player can interact with a number of NPCs: a blacksmith, a storage character, a mysterious woman with the power to strengthen your character, and more. From the center of the hub, known as the Nexus, a rounded staircase that is split meets together at its peak. Along the stairs, the player is offered portals into different areas of the world. Each portal guided the player to a new set of difficulties, enemies, and bosses to battle.
Gameplay within Demon’s Souls will be familiar to those who have played any Souls game. R1 and R2 control attacks, L1 controls blocking, holding circle sprints, and pressing it rolls. From there, gameplay became a sort of trial, error, and memory system. Each time I died, I had to remember where the trap, stray arrow, or hidden enemy came from. I needed to learn the nooks and crannies of the map in order to deduce where future enemies might lurk. Still, it usually wasn’t enough. And even when it was, I would find myself face-to-face with a boss whose intention it was to ruin my day.
Now let me speak about the true reason we love FromSoftware and their Souls games: boss battles. At points throughout each portal, the player comes face-to-face with a boss. This usually takes place at the end of the present section the player is battling through. For example, once the player makes his/her way into the keep at the beginning of the first stage, the ‘first’ boss Phalanx lurks in the darkness. Each boss is really unique of each other, and there is a large number of gigantic demons to battle, each more unforgiving than the last.
But let’s not mistake the game for wielding only difficult boss battles. No, Demon’s Souls gives every enemy the capability to kill the player. A casual swing from the very first enemy in the game is enough to take a large chunk of health from the player’s health bar, and it’s easy to be surrounded and massacred by even the weakest of enemies. Strategy and caution is necessary to navigate the depths of Demon’s Souls, especially for first time players.
Now, in order to make progress a tad easier, the player can collect souls from fallen enemies and large souls from bosses. Different amounts of souls can also be obtained by searching the environment for shiny items. When the player has collected enough souls, he/she can give them to the black maiden at the Nexus and distribute them among whichever stat he/she so desires. Depending on the class and how you’ve already spec’d your character will dictate where you should probably put your souls. That said, the game never forces you to put your points in any stat; you have free reign. That said, one of the major catches and/or selling points of Demon’s Souls (depending on your idea of cool, fun, or enjoyment in difficulty) is that when you die – and, as I’ve said, you die a lot – you drop the souls you’re currently carrying. So if you’ve just consumed a boss demon’s soul for 20,000 souls, and you accidentally find yourself impaled by a ghoul, those 20,000 souls are left at your bloodstain. If, heaven forbid, you happen to have the misfortune of misplacing your head in the maws of a crazed wolf dog directly after respawning, then you lose those souls for good. This creates an intense playing field, but it also forces the player to choose how to distribute souls strategically.
The weakest part of Demon’s Souls is its sparsely divvied narrative. That’s not to say that there isn’t a story, but the exposition isn’t always blatantly written. Much of the lore and exposition is interpreted by exploring the scenery, piecing together the information you receive on the Nexus and characters within, etc. So while exposition can be written dialogue, written story, or just written scripts, in general, exposition is also the unwritten experiences the player gleans from exploration. This is both genius and, occasionally, frustrating–depending on your outlook. For me, the freedom to imagine is endless. When given small guiding lines to help you along the plot, you’re quite able to interpret whatever you fancy. That said, if interpretation isn’t your thing, and it certainly doesn’t have to be, then the paltry written story will leave you confused and, perhaps, frustrated.
The biggest salute that Atlus earns with its publication of Demon’s Souls is that the online features have been left intact. On numerous occasions in 2011, Atlus foretold the end of online features. This is a pretty significant part of any Souls game. Players can request the aid of others, and, if you’re dastardly enough, you can invade the world of others. That’s right. You can invade another player’s world and cause more pain. For the most part, this system was okay. The servers weren’t necessarily great, and much too often lag resulted in the death of one party. This, of course, isn’t the worst part. The Old Monk boss fight summoned a random phantom (another player) to assume the role of the Old Monk. Conceptually, this is awesome. In actuality, some players cheated, some were considerably over-leveled, some had an endless number of healing items, and so on. In other words, the boss fight was broken for the majority of the times I battled him. Eventually, I broke through… but the undue frustration remained. Still, for Atlus to continue to allow the multiplayer to live speaks highly of the company and the fan base.
So, with all of this said, the question begs if I would recommend this game? The answer to that is mixed. Yes, I absolutely love Demon’s Souls. It’s easily one of the best PS3 games that graced the console. When I recommend it, and when you read about the game online or hear about it from friends, we all must consider if we are or are addressing the appropriate audience. At least two of my immediate friends played the game for fifteen minutes and never picked it up again because of the difficulty. Others, myself included, feasted upon the brutal qualities of the difficulty. Know yourself and what you prefer, and you’ll know if this game is for you.