Demon’s Souls

In retrospect, the only thing really wrong with Demon’s Souls is the apostrophe placement in the title. Why not Demons’? How about no apostrophe? How can a flying ectoplasm store a spear in its body? How can a Black Phantom roll on poisonous swamps? You’ll get a lot of time while playing Demon’s Souls to think about such metaphysical queries, mostly because you’ll die a lot. Yes – you’ll die. Just like gravity is a fact of life, dying in stupid ways is a hallmark of Demon’s Souls.

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Here’s a tip from someone who spent 60 hours on the game – refrain from throwing your controller at the screen. That’s just stupid, and you’ll need it in about five seconds because you’ll die again and want something at hand to throw. The game is like the little snotty neighbourhood kid who makes rude gestures at you, and when you go to wallop him one behind the ears, he whips out a 200-pound sledgehammer and goes to town on you. Dress up the snotty kid in a goblin uniform, put him in a poisonous swamp, and there you have the Valley of Defilment. Demon’s Souls is a hardcore brutal game which laughs in your face, taunts you and then proceeds to make mincemeat out of you, and then does it over and over and over again.

You may well ask why you would want to return to the game. Two reasons – one, there’s no game over screen. You cannot quit. If you die, you go back to the beginning. There’s no checkpoint, no save, no escape. The second and more important reason – because it is possible to beat the game. Nine times out of ten, the tower knight will kill you in one hit, but the tenth time when you finish him off, you’ll experience exhilaration rarely experienced in video games. It’s for this one reason that I kept going back again and again and again.

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The first level took me 7 hours in my first attempt. The next attempt took me less than an hour. Nothing had changed, except I knew what would work and what would fail, and I hadn’t even levelled up. The game does a wonderful job of inculcating survival skills in the Doomsday method. See something new, adapt; else die. Be aware of your surroundings, learn to read messages and see what other players were up to. The game also has the most innovative online experience, which I will cover in a bit.

Demon’s Souls takes place in the kingdom of Boletaria, where demons have overrun the kingdom and a lone adventurer is going to free the world. The story has been told a million times, yet there is freshness in the storytelling method. You’ll learn of the world through snippets of conversation, meet some memorable characters, and visit some extremely gloomy locales. The game is very open world in terms of what levels you can attempt. Enemies remain the same level as they were throughout, except in New Game+ iterations, where they become a whole lot nastier.

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The variety in the game is astounding in terms of enemy classes, weapons, armour, spells, and potions. It’s a role playing gamer’s paradise in terms of playing style and choice. Enemies come in all shapes and sizes, and I am not kidding about size. There are tiny bloodsucking mosquitoes, and on the other end of the spectrum are large fire-breathing dragons. Each of the five worlds is composed of sub-levels with their bosses. Each boss is unique and can make mincemeat of you in a few seconds. The goal of the game is to the defeat the bosses and get their souls, because they provide great power.

Souls are pretty much everything in the game. They act like your experience, currency and level upgrade points. Each time you gain enough souls to upgrade, you can increase one attribute. The game does not distinguish between classes, attributes and costs. As you level up, the soul cost for each subsequent upgrade increases. It’s a fair system which does not make any class over or underpowered. Souls are also used to buy equipment from a variety of merchants in the game. Some merchants are only available after certain conditions have been met.

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Kill and get souls. Sounds easy, right? Not quite, because when you die, you lose all your souls. You have one chance to get them back, and if you die before that, all your old souls are gone. It’s hard to describe the cry of anguish when you lose your first batch of 20,000 souls. When you die, you not only lose all your souls, but also become a spectre, which means your health is halved and the enemies become stronger each time you die in body form. Yup, let’s revisit that. If you die, you lose all souls, lose half your health, enemies get stronger, and here’s the clincher – you get sent back right to the beginning of the level. However, you’ll soon learn about shortcuts, which will make a bit simpler.

The multiplayer implementation is unlike anything before. During your whole run, you’ll often see white shadows playing alongside you. They are actually online players whose shadows you see. You can enlist the help of up to two random players to help you defeat invading black phantoms or demons. You can even invade someone else’s world and do a bit of one-on-one. If the first time you see ‘Your world is being invaded’ and don’t tremble a bit, you’re made of sterner stuff than I. There is no map and no indicator for the enemy. If he’s cloaked, you’ll only see him after he’s backstabbed you. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a faint red shadow twice your height running towards you with a spear. There’s actually a boss fight, which is really a PvP battle, and you can even be selected to be the boss. Very exciting!

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You’ll also see messages all over the playing field; some helpful, some funny, some totally misleading. These are notes from fellow travellers. You can even rate the messages as a token of appreciation with a tangible benefit to the author. Plus, there’s pride knowing your message is out there helping people not take a step into doom. The final touch is the ability to see the last few seconds of a player. The playing field will be littered with blood stains; clicking on one will show you the last stages of a valiant hero. Forewarned is forearmed, and nowhere is this truer than in Demon’s Souls.

The presentation is a mixed affair. The environments are universally bleak and jaw dropping at places. Enemies are very detailed and completely unnerving. Your first experience with a dragon will be one you will remember for a long time. However, the textures are too bland at places, especially the Valley of Defilement. It looks like the world is a blank slate, and I know it’s not supposed to have much light, but still…it’s a game. Something other than constant lashing rain would have been helpful.

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There are some high points though; the palace is definitely one of them. There’s a point where I could see a village from the ramparts and it looked amazingly life-like, with a small dragon flying overhead, which suddenly gets very large and burns you to a crisp. You see, Demon’s Souls never ever lets you forget that it has a single-minded purpose – to beat the nine hells out of you. The menus are worse; there is a lot of information and they use weird glyphs that all look the same. So you’ll want to take out your manual and decipher. There’s a small hitch though – the game does not pause. Not even when the PS button is pressed. So before comparing weapons, try to find a nice quiet place, else there’s a big spear coming your way.

Demon’s Souls is brutal and it will laugh in your face. However, it doesn’t resort to cheap tricks or require supreme mastery of the controller. Each death is solely because you, as a player, were careless. The fault is completely yours and not because you couldn’t press four buttons simultaneously. The game doesn’t pretend to be your friend, yet it’s not out to get you. It’s neutral. The enemies, on the other hand, are a different matter. There’s a wonderful rhythm in the game when you get things right.

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There’s a certain exhilaration and pride in completing a game which takes time and perseverance to master, which is sadly missing in today’s shooter-infested auto-aim games. The last time I put in so much investment in a video game was Diablo II, and there is a lot in common between the two. I can see myself going back again and again because there’s so much more to do and so many paths to explore. Plus, there’s the matter of 60,000 souls I have to reclaim.

(+) Brutally difficult without resorting to cheap gimmicks
(+) Superb boss fights
(+) Excellent atmosphere and art design
(+) Lots of variety
(+) Unique multiplayer implementation

(-) Graphics are inconsistent and bland at places
(-) Camera and lock-on controls can create havoc at crucial moments

How we score games

Title: Demon’s Souls
Developer/Publisher: From Software/Sony (JPN), Atlus (US), Namco (EU)
Genre: RPG
Rating: M (18)
Platforms: PS3 – Black Phantom Edition w/ soundtrack, artbook,  strategy guide (Rs 3,499)
Reviewed on: PS3

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