It’s important to disclaim right up front that this review is based on roughly 20 hours of play, and that the game is meant to last approximately 80 to 100.
Demon’s Souls is a tricky game to critique. It’s tricky because it’s a game that almost negates the very core intent of almost every major title released on a game console. The core intent of most games involves creating a novel play system that is familiar enough to rope in fans of a genre, but different enough to feel fresh and approachable, and overall just a fun game that could potentially reel in people who may not otherwise play a game of a like genre. Nowhere in my experience of playing Demon’s Souls was I ever given even the slightest inkling that mass appeal was on From Software’s mind. Instead, I played what felt like designers of mercilessly difficult arcade shooters like Raiden or Ikaruga decided to try their hand at a 3D action RPG. Only I’m talking the really hard arcade shooters whose titles are untranslated Japanese phrases because they would simply fail in America due to their difficulty and lack of an option to continue. While Demon’s Souls isn’t quite as absurdly difficult on its own, it most definitely shares the “merciless” aspect, and that’s unavoidably going to be a point of contention for a lot of gamers.
Not that it matters, but the story takes place in a fantastical realm called Boletaria, which is probably neighboring Narnia and just a few clicks south of the Shire. In this realm, souls are a precious commodity that are what give mankind its clarity and intellect. Well the ruler of the land wanted so much soul power that it drew the attention of some huge horrible demon that was dormant and just waiting for a really power hungry dude to come along. Boletaria must be brimming with human decency because this demon was in slumber for thousands of years. Anyway, you can guess that things start to turn south for the town, and a few heroes show up vying for a shot at the title of World Saver. You (surprise!) are one of them. But, surprise again, you die right around the beginning somewhere. But instead of calling it a day, this really just marks the beginning of your 80-100 hour journey, as you wind up in the Nexus, where creepy people say you can revive yourself if you can slay the mighty demon, but not before slaying his less-mighty supporting cast of demons. So it goes…
You actually begin before this death, with a quick little dungeon romp that has a very minimal tutorial running you through the basics before warping you to square off with a behemoth you have no chance against. Off to the Nexus with you. Once there, you’ll have access to one portal, and a couple NPC’s to talk to. One says, basically, “Hi, this is the Nexus” and lays the score on the table. Beat the demon through that portal, and four more portals open up, which can face in any order you wish. Another NPC says he’ll store stuff for you in case you get over-encumbered, and another sells you said stuff. You’ll note that the Nexus, like most areas in this game, is notably huge, has moments of beauty, but also a comfortably safe “fantasy” feel to it. You’ll also get a glimpse at the game’s only messaging system here, where my first message was “This is where the real Demon’s Souls begins.” More on the messaging in a bit, but this portended the start of a gaming experience that is so polarizing that it’s simultaneously deplorable and laudable.
The prior tutorial run reveals nothing. Sure you run around, you hack up enemies, you collect their souls and use those souls as currency, and it all is how you play the game, but you also run through that tutorial thinking “This could potentially get boring.” Oh no… no no no. You see, this game has a system in place that is downright brutal, and this game’s primary driving force is one of accomplishment. You see, when you warp into that first realm, you have to be damned careful not to die. When you do, you don’t get to fall back on a checkpoint a few rooms back. You start right back where you began. And with that new beginning is the return of every monster you just killed. And also with that new beginning is the loss of all the souls you collected from said killed monsters. Souls, as it turns out, double as both your currency for buying equipment and your skill point upgrades. So you lose what serves as experience and money rolled into one. There is probably some greater thematic undertone to this idea, but I am too feeble to note it here. The point is you have a lot at stake when you die in this game.
But die you will! For this game has some vicious foes who can easily eviscerate you in a couple hits if you’re not careful. Some will also pierce right through your shield with a gigantic spear. With one hit. And he will look right through your dodge-intending dive roll and pierce you anyway. Then you will try again, and fail again. And again. And again. Until you reach the huge boss guy, who will also kill you, and you’ll have to deal with spear guy a few more times, not necessarily mastering his ways.
But not all is lost! The game is vicious, but not unfair (even if it teeters dangerously close to it). If you can manage to get back to the scene of your death, you can touch your steamy bloodstain and regain all your lost souls. This winds up leading to a slow but assured progress, as it combines with the fresh set of souls you collected getting back to that spot. Of course, if you die trying to get there, you’ll lose all those old souls forever, as the new steamy bloodstain is the only one that will be around. Frustration sets in when you fail to reach the boss and lose all the souls you had getting to that dude.
This system is where Demon’s Souls will scare off or discourage many people. The game touts a huge amount of hours of play, but having played it for a fair amount of time, it seems most of that time will be spent reclaiming lost souls, and not really exploring the five game worlds. Not that it’s meant for exploring. The core structure is as follows: Enter realm from Nexus, struggle to reach and kill boss, return to Nexus, spend souls, rinse, repeat. It’s not like there’s a sweeping epic tale to unravel here.
And on that, don’t expect too much on the presentation side of things. As stated earlier, the environments look good, but nothing that hasn’t been seen before in several other titles. There’s the dungeon, the castle, the dragon, the cave, the lava… you’ve seen it all. There is also almost no music at all. Only the Nexus and boss battles get music, and it’s not bad, making its absence all the more felt. The story has a neat little twist on it, but take a step back and, while you’re dead, that just makes you a ghost knight out to save the world as opposed to just a flesh n’ blood knight out to save the world. There are even points within the environment that will take you right out, like running over a corpse and letting the Havok physics engine let you kick and swirl that corpse around like it were a scant five ounces. However, the bosses were always a sight to behold, and generally the most fun battles of the game.
The multiplayer aspect is also novel, but one that never really struck a major chord with me. Players can leave “messages” on the ground that other players will see. These can be as simple as “Beware of very formidable foe ahead,” to more specific tips like “Use arrows on next enemy,” to straight up lies like “Treasure ahead” on a cliffside. You can also touch other players’ steamy bloodstains and be treated to a ghost vision of how they died. However, unless they fell off a cliff, you’ll most likely just see a guy strafing around, lifting his/her shield, and then collapsing to the ground. In theory, it would be a fun hint system, but it usually just shows people stabbed, and you can usually see who stabbed them from where you’re standing.
So this brings us right back to the challenge that would bring people back for more. You’ll either be on board for the high difficulty and massive consequence for dying, or you won’t. The heightened risk in just progressing deep into a level will either exhilarate, or repel. There’s no softening up to this game. It was either made for you, or it wasn’t. And that’s why it’s so difficult to criticize this game from any objective standpoint whatsoever. It seems kind of trite to say, basically, “You’ll love it or hate it,” but it’s important to say because it seems Demon’s Souls is a “Love or Hate” game by design. All I can really tell you is try it. Either the hard boiled challenge will be a breath of fresh air to you and be a satisfying 80-100 hours, or it will become about two hours you want back.
+ Visuals are solid, and bosses look plain spectacular.
+ The focus on raw challenge means no nonsense gameplay, which may be that fresh experience some have been lacking in their gaming diet.
+ The sense of satisfaction in making real progress and beating a boss (along with his level) is pretty great given the tall hurdles you have to jump just to get there.
– The focus on raw challenge, which includes the risk factors, may be the deal breaker for many. The sense of reward is there, but that may just not be enough for some people.
– The presentation itself is pretty bland. Overly familiar locales and a very clear lack of regard for story may mean players looking for an epic fantasy adventure should look elsewhere.
– Online component is novel and unique, but doesn’t really add all that much to the game.