God of War on God/Titan mode? Nope.
Devil May Cry on ‘Dante Must Die’ mode? Not even close.
Ninja Gaiden Sigma on impossible? Dip it in cocaine, and then we’ll talk.
After sinking in a dozen hours or so, I still can’t even come close to properly labeling the difficulty bar in Demons’ Souls. I had heard its notoriety a while ago when perusing October’s impressive list of debuts, but like many gamers stretching their wallets these days, I chose to await the scores: IGN, Metacritic, Gamespot, among a few others. Going in to the kingdom of Boletaria for the first time, I didn’t really know too much beyond the universally agreed fact that this game was im-fucking-possible to beat, yet it brandished the rare chemical euphoria us gamers feel when we conquer even the most daunting odds. Having not savored that feeling in quite a while, I bit the line and let myself be reeled in.
I’ll come back to the difficulty in a bit, but rather than discuss the list of impressive qualities in this humbly debuted game, I will hit the negatives first as there really aren’t that many. In terms of presentation, the game runs at a steady 30 frames per second, and only slows down when under duress of multiple enemies and particle effects going off at once. It’s only happened to me a few times so far (60+ hours into my main character), but it does distract the player from the task at hand, which can—and will—lead to deadly consequences. Boss fights are thankfully without these slow downs, however, which is one of the very few positives you can rely on when taking on these titans. Frame rate aside, I have seen only a few clipping issues in certain areas, but I feel that’s just nit-picking since all of the environments are brilliantly rendered and, in some cases, excruciatingly detailed. My main complaint comes in the form of enemy AI, but not in the sense of battle or combat mechanics. While many of the games’ bosses are colossal in size and difficulty, almost all of them have an environmental or personal flaw that, when exploited, completely eradicates the difficulty of the fight. In one occasion, the boss would never attack me as long as I stood outside of his aggro range, leaving me free to plug away with arrows until he died. It is a slight disappointment in comparison to the rest of the game when you take into account the tactics required to slay any of the game’s beasts.
Which brings me back to the difficulty…In my life I have only ever been infuriated by the games I mentioned above, but after meeting some of the minions in Demons’ Souls, I look back at those games and wonder why I was so upset, as they pale in comparison to now. Demons’ Souls is not another generic title to be conquered; it is not a game for you to recommend to others looking for a quick jaunt through a fantasy world; this game takes every possible opportunity to anger you, punish you, and convince you that throwing your controller at the TV is the right thing to do. The newly dubbed “casual gamer” need not apply here–only the hardest of core shall prevail in Boletaria. Having said that, the moment you finally topple bosses like the Flamelurker, Penetrator, or the Old God, the feeling of joy, victory and accomplishment is completely unrivaled and one of the greatest feelings a game will ever give you. In between those moments is a dark, insidious adventure into one’s desire to create new curse words to fully express the challenge that Demons’ Souls provides. Having said that, I wish to add analcuntvaginatampon to the list of dirty words you’re not supposed to say in front of your Grandmother.
Oh, and did I mention you can’t pause the game? Well, you can’t. Ever.
Although DS stands apart from the bunch in terms of difficulty, it will still be very familiar to most RPG veterans. Your can choose to be one of ten different classes, each with preferences toward certain attributes such as strength, endurance, dexterity, magic, faith, and so on. As you down enemies, you’re rewarded with the occasional item drop as well as a number of “souls”. These act as the game’s form of currency and can be put to anything from repairing and upgrading weapons to increasing your own “soul level”. Rather than the customary experience bar and leveling system, DS allows you to increase your own stats at any time by spending the required amount of souls needed. But be warned: as you increase a stat, the level of souls needed to increase any stat goes up as well, so make sure you are increasing the most important attributes evenly as the price will become astronomical very quickly.
Demons’ Souls is designed to be a form of open-world RPG within the confines of a linear dungeon crawler. There are five worlds to explore, each with a number of sections. While you can travel to any world at any time, you must finish a section in order to proceed to the next. This allows players the freedom to change worlds when they feel ill-prepared to conquer a section (which happens dozens of times). While this works for a time, there’s a point where you can’t avoid the inevitable difficulty any longer and must dedicate yourself to learning, compiling, stocking, and grinding out the necessary details to overcome whatever obstacle is in your way. Every battle, even the smallest duels (which you will fight many times over since all of the enemies respawn when you die) must be fought with a careful selection of choices: Do you risk attacking when you know you should block? Do you use your last health item when you know there are more enemies around the corner? Do you risk losing all of your accumulated souls in the boss fight, or return to the Nexus and spend them on important attributes, causing all of the enemies to respawn? To its core, Demons Souls is all about the choices you make at every intersection and every battle, and while most of them end in death, it makes those few that end in victory so much sweeter.
A bit about the online component: I have not interacted much with other players, as I tend to rely solely on myself the first time through a game before teaming up, but DS incorporates an ingenious multiplayer component that lends itself nicely to the choice system in place with the rest of the game. While you are in “body” form, other players who are in “soul” form can enter your world as a phantom and can either assist you or fight you, depending upon their soul alignment. If they are a black alignment, they will undoubtedly come after you until either 1) you die, and the other player regains his body form while you slip into soul form, or 2) they die, where they return to their own world still in soul form and you are rewarded with nothing short of a pat on the back. As awful sounding as it may be, your soul alignment will open up opportunities to talk to NPCs and do side quests that lead to some very impressive equipment. So while you may not want to be a virtual dick to other people minding their own business, you must choose to do it if you want that particular axe/sword/spell/etc…Decisions, decisions.
There are many parts of Demons Souls I have yet to touch upon, but that only underlines the sheer amount of content put into this game. While playing as a melee character defines one part of the game, it leaves the entire magic system untouched and waiting for you to discover it the second time through. Even with the knowledge of future encounters and hidden treasures, the adventure is distinctly different and forces you to completely reinvent your style of play. There is no auto-pilot room allowed here like mowing through hordes of enemies in Diablo–you will be tested. You will be tried. And yes, you will be killed. A lot. But as many gamers have already said, this game isn’t for the casual, the lazy, or the lackadaisical. I may hate myself every time I put this disc in my PS3, but there is a part of me that loves the challenge. I suppose that is the Demon’s Soul within us all.