Thursday, September 9, 2010

Demon's Souls

Demon's Souls is not a typical game. You probably heard as much. Basically, it's a game will beat you over the head with a hammer until you either flee in terror or grab it by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Christ, this game is hard.

Demon's Soul's is set in the fictional kingdom of Boletaria. Now you see, Boletaria's having a bit of a problem. That is, it's being overtaken by a curse of sorts, which is bringing demons into the land, who in turn are stealing people's souls. The soulless husks that remain hunt down the living and kill them too. In another words, you should definitely cross Boletaria off your list of places to visit. But the curse won't stop at Boletaria. It will eventually wrap the entire world in its embrace.

Here's where you come in. Or rather, where you would have, if Demon's Souls was a happier game. Pressing "New Game" from the main menu lets you pick a class and customize your character's physical traits (it's actually surprisingly extensive). Your class determines your starting equipment and stats.

Unlike the many other heroes who have tried and apparently failed to save Boletaria (and indeed, the entire world) from the evil, you're here to end the curse. Unfortunately, you're not quite as a badass as you think you are. The tutorial, should you choose to complete it, ends with you facing off against a boss twice your size who can slaughter you in a single hit. Naturally, you die (unless you ARE as badass as you thought, and manage to slay him, in which case your life is instead ended via a swiftly delivered claw to the face from a dragon). Your soul is tied to the Nexus, a spiritual realm.

The Nexus serves as the game's hub. You can't do much until you beat the game's first boss (who is deceptively easy), but after that you gain access to leveling up, and a few more NPCs appear. In the Nexus you can find a base level blacksmith, Boldwin, who will sell you some basic equipment, and repair or upgrade any that you already have. Tom acts as a storage, and will hold onto any items you don't want weighing you down during your quest. You can also purchase and learn some miracles and spells (heavenly and devilish abilities, respectively). Finally and perhaps most importantly, you'll find the Maiden in Black in the Nexus, an innocent enough young woman who does most of the housekeeping duties, and buff your stats in exchange for an ever-increasing number of souls. If you're playing online (more on that later), you can view leaderboards of the top players in various categories, such as much trophies earned, most souls obtained, etc.

Forming a half circle of sorts in the middle of the Nexus are several archstones; each representing a game world. Demon's Souls is set up in a very straightforward way. Each world is separated into a few stages, which in turn each contain a demon to be slain at the end of each stage.

Generally speaking, the only living things you'll encounter in Demon's Souls will try to kill you at some point, if not at first sight. But there are some NPCs trapped or in peril in some of the stages (you can get glimpses of them during the loading screens) that you can help out for benefits. Sometimes, after being helped they'll end up in the Nexus as merchants of some sort.

Now, Demon's Souls' notorious difficulty comes from a number of things, but I suspect what drives lesser players away most is the amount of repetition forced onto you. Even though it's technically an action game, Demon's Souls is a game that, above all, requires patience.

Souls are a big part of Demon's Souls, as the name would suggest. A lot of people have lost theirs. You lose yours, and will lose it many more times. Enemies lose theirs when slain. You often find them lying around. Demons have them, and you must take them. Souls, souls, souls. But also, they serve not only as currency, but also as EXP points and upgrade components, in the case of demons' souls. Everyone wants, them everyone needs them. As you travel through worlds, slaying all stand in your path, you'll collect varying numbers of souls. If you can get back to the Nexus in one piece, you'll be able to spend those souls on repairs, stat upgrades, and new abilities and equipment. Everything seems to cost an arm and a leg though, so you'll have to be choosy with how many souls you dedicate to what. Will you blow all your stash on a couple stat upgrades, or spend them on much-needed repairs, and beefing up your equipment?

Souls can get you everything you need in this game, but here's the big catch: If you die, you lose all of them. You still keep whatever items you had on you at the time of death, but all your precious souls are dropped. However, there is a single ray of hope. If you fall in battle, you can restart the stage, and try to retrieve your dropped goodies, with no strings attached. But, every time you restart or leave a stage, all the enemies respawn, so depending on far into the stage you died, some players may be saddened to realize they're better off cutting their losses and trying a different stage. Furthermore, if you die, you come back in soul form (you start off in soul form after being slaughtered in the tutorial), which cuts your HP by 50%. If you don't use a certain item to regain your human form, the only way to get back to full fighting form is slay a demon.

You can't store souls, so you will often find yourself faced with a gamble. Here's the scenario. You're standing right in front of the boss gate, with 5,000 souls that you've collected over the course of your progress thus far. You're not confident you can beat whatever awaits beyond the gate, but if you do, you'll get your human form back, and be rewarded a brand-spanking new demon's soul, very valuable. You feel it would be safer to run back to the Nexus and do some spending to prepare, but if you leave you'll have to fight your back through the stage, as the enemies will have respawned. Will you take on the boss and risk losing everything, or run back to the Nexus with your tail in-between your legs?

Now, the mindset that Demon's Souls beats into your skull is the expectation that you will die at some point or another. With this in mind, do you still choose to fight the boss, almost expecting to come out in a body bag? It's foolhardy, and here's where the repetition comes in. Demon's Souls is almost a game of trial and error in this respect. Rushing forward, sword at the ready will most likely get you killed. Enemy ambushes, traps, and bottomless pits await you at nearly every turn, to the point that you learn to never walk into a new area without your shield raised. But similarly, playing Demon's Souls is like gambling, all or nothing. It's all about knowing when to quit, and when to press on. When you devote 45 minutes to a single stage, carefully progressing through it, only to slip up once and die at the very end, losing all your souls, all that time is basically wasted (unless you picked up some nice equipment along the way). The reality of this sinking in is probably what has proved to be the most frustrating aspect of Demon's Souls.

One final wrench thrown into the difficulty is World Tendency. World Tendency, or WT for short can move between Pure White and Pure Black, depending on certain things you do, and can make your life easier or harder. White tendency makes enemies a bit easier, and also makes certain rare items appear. Black tendency causes powerful Black Phantom versions of enemies to appear, though it too offers some opportunities to obtain rare schwag. Both can open up new areas, or cause certain NPCs to appear. Killing demons shifts the world towards white WT, while dying (in physical form, rest assured) or killing certain NPCs will shift it to black.

WT can also be affected when you're playing online. Demon's Souls' multiplayer is a little different from other games. If I could sum up the online aspect of the game in a single word, that word would be "indirect", probably. As you play, you'll likely see three things.

First, you'll see messages on the ground, written by other players. If it's your first time going through a world, it's a good idea to take a look at these, as it's fairly likely that they'll provide valuable insight about what you're up against. For example, the first boss, while not especially difficult by any means, is a push over if you use fire. I was notified of this by a message I encountered as I traveled through the first level.

Second, you'll probably see bloodstains on the ground. When interacted with, they'll replay another player's final moments before being felled by some unseen force. Sometimes this too can be excellent forewarning; like, for example if you see a player's ghost walk across a bridge, only to fall through the bridge to his death, you can surmise that the bridge will collapse if you follow in their footsteps.

Third, you might see ghosts of other players randomly pop in and out of your game. Personally, this scares the crap out of me, especially in dark places when I'm already tense, expecting an ambush around the next corner.

Demon's Souls can be played in both PVP and co-op, but only under certain circumstances. Specifically, to initiate a co-op game you need to be in physical form, and to initiate pvp you need to be in soul form. Early on, you'll receive two stones, the White and Blue Eyestones. If you're in soul form, you can use the Blue stone to drop a marker on the ground soliciting your services. Other players who are in body form will be able to see your marker and, if they haven't yet killed the demon in the given level, summon you to help them kill it. You'll then appear in their game as a Blue Phantom. The White Eyestone can be used by the host to either send away Blue Phantoms, or by Blue Phantoms themselves to return to their world. Encountering a Black Phantom in your game may net you a Black Eyestone. In soul form, you can use this stone to invade another player's game and try to kill them. If you succeed, you regain your body.

That's Demon's Souls' multiplayer, in a nutshell. Atlus has also hosted a few online events in the past which affect your world tendency (like pushing you to Pure Black WT on Halloween).

That's enough talk about the concept. Let's talk a little about about the gameplay. If I didn't mention it earlier, Demon's Souls is an Action-RPG. It takes both sides of this hybrid seriously. You can cast magic, attack with weapons, block, parry, dodge, sprint and roll in real-time, but none of this matters if you don't have the stats to provide for your plan of attack. Under your MP and HP bars sits your Stamina bar. Each swing of the sword, each attack blocked, every second spent sprinting, every dodge roll costs Stamina. Effectively managing stamina is the key to every combat situation. If you go in swords swinging, you'll be too exhausted to block or evade the enemy's retaliation. But likewise, if you turtle up and sit there blocking the whole time, you won't have any stamina to counter-attack.

There are quite a few different weapon types in Demon's Souls. There's bows, magic, swords of varying sizes (from shortswords to greatswords), spears, , shields, halberds, polearms, katanas, rapiers, daggers, and even throwing knives, to name some. Obviously, various weapons have different pros and cons. Large swords are powerful, but slow. Bows and magic require a steady supply of ammo and MP, respectively. You can equip a different weapon in each hand, provided you have sufficient stats to wield both effectively, and also opt to use both hands on your right hand weapon, increasing its attack power by 50%. Personally, I like to use straight swords, either dual wielding them or paired with a shield. But the point I'm getting at here is, you're not lacking options when it comes to methods of dishing out pain.

In terms of visual presentation, Demon's Souls is just okay. The graphics themselves are quite serviceable, but nothing to write home about. The object physics can be a bit wonky, and I've known the game itself to glitch on occasion. Fortunately, the game auto-saves your progress literally all the time, so you can quit whenever you want and not have to worry about losing anything. The load screens are also of reasonable length.

In terms of overall presentation, Demon's Souls strength lies in the delivery of its theme. From the moment you start the game up and are greeted to a CG cutscene that begins with a corpse being carried through the air, and ends with a knight being greeted by a gigantic dragon with two mouths, you know this is not a friendly world. Corpses are everywhere, and you can practically smell death in the air. Most of the environments are darkly lit (thank god for your light crystal), the future never, ever seems to stop looking grim. When you think about it, the air of hopelessness can make you wonder why you're pressing on.

And perhaps here is where Demon's Souls' greatest strength lies. It forces players to find the strength to continue not from the game, but from within themselves (as cheesy as that sounds). The feeling of accomplishment that you get as you remember all the hardship is pretty significant. If that's not it, search me. But Demon's Souls is obviously doing something right if, even after dying at the hands of the Armor Spider demon after an hour spent fighting through the stage to reach it, I still can't wait to have another go at the game. A 8.5/10