Demon's Souls Review

By D.F. Smith - Posted Oct 16, 2009

Demon's Souls is difficult, slow-moving, and relentlessly bleak, a 3D action-RPG where death lurks around every corner. At the same time, though, it offers a lot in exchange for the effort it demands – a beautiful fantasy world to explore, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with surmounting a well-designed challenge. It's possible to build an almost infinite variety of characters, too, which means a second trip through could be like a whole new game.

The Pros
  • Beautiful ruined 3D world
  • Versatile combat and character development
  • Engaging online features
The Cons
  • Probably too tough for many players
  • Sometimes bogs down into a repetitive grind
  • Why no pause button?

If death is the only great adventure we have left, then Demon’s Souls is an adventure for the record books. Death in this game is as frequent as it is inevitable. If you don’t like suffering through a fair bit of trial and error, stay far away.

On the other hand, so long as you’re alright with learning from many, many fatal mistakes, this is a fascinating action-RPG. Though it was made in Japan, it has the feel of an old-fashioned American pen-and-paper game, where the challenge doesn’t lie so much in charging to the conclusion as in finding a creative way of getting there.
       
Demon’s Souls offers enough tools to let you get seriously creative, with a slew of options for developing characters in different directions. So much so that many players may want to try a second trip through the quest, no matter how often they died the first time.

Demon's Souls

After the Afterlife

The story begins like so many fantasy adventures. Evil sweeps over the land of Boletaria, demons haunt the ruined cities, and you’re a warrior from out of town looking to save the day. It’s all by the numbers until the end of the tutorial episode, where a hideous demon kills you stone dead.

Luckily, in this world there’s no rest for the slaughtered. Death simply takes our hero down to the Nexus, a sort of spiritual crossroads underneath Boletaria. From the Nexus, it’s possible to venture out into the five different realms of the game world, and even regain a physical body for a while…although it’s hard to keep hold of for long.
   
Characters can explore the game dead or alive. Flesh-and-blood adventurers have advantages, but so do “Souls” – a ghost makes no noise, for instance, so it’s easy to sneak up and backstab the bad guys.

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Selling Your Souls


That’s one of a zillion different variables to consider when venturing out to kill demons. How your character develops over the course of the adventure is entirely in your hands. You get to pick which stats to build, which weapons to forge, which spells to learn, and which tactics to develop that take all of the rest of it into account.

To fight at close range, build a heavily-armored knight, or maybe a quick skirmisher who can dodge rings around an opponent. For killing at a distance, try a well-equipped longbowman, or a magical sniper with long-range attack spells. Extra-specialized builds can prove incredibly powerful by exploiting particular weapons or spells. Once you clear the solo campaign and feel like trying something new, a New Game+ feature offers a leg up while you go through the process a second time.

Dead Again…and Again

The game world is definitely worth a return trip. Boletaria’s five realms are ingeniously designed, laid out all in one big piece like the castle in Ico. Each is full of hidden secrets and shortcuts that tie different areas together. They’re lovely to look at, too, in their grim and misty way – it’s like a medieval post-apocalypse, with towering castles and shrines that have halfway crumbled to pieces.

Be careful admiring the pretty view, though – every inch of every world is crawling with things that want to eat you. The realtime combat scheme in Demon’s Souls benefits from very responsive controls, but like the rest of the game it rewards a conservative approach. Charging in and swinging away is never a good idea, especially in narrow spaces near ledges and walls. If you’re going to build a character with a focus on melee weapons, you’re going to have to discipline yourself – learn to stick and move, learn to keep up a tight defense. You can’t completely neglect ranged combat, either. Even the toughest tank will encounter situations where it’s better to snipe from a distance, whether with magic or a trusty +5 compound long bow.

Demon's Souls

Phantom Strangers

That’s especially true against a human opponent. There are two sides to online play in Demon’s Souls. One side is passive – players can scrawl messages for each other on floors and walls. These can be surprisingly handy, like a message that says there’s a bad guy scripted to hide right around the next corner. Also, whenever a player dies, they leave a “bloodstain,” which triggers a little ghost-image recording of their final moments. Even when you don’t actually learn anything from watching these, they never stop being funny in a schadenfreude kind of way.

The other side is active. You can play through the whole adventure solo with no problems, but if you like, you can slip into another player’s game as a “Phantom.” Regular Phantoms join the fight and help other players, while Black Phantoms help the demons kill them.

For the most part, the online game is well-balanced and fun. It does a good job matching characters with counterparts on a comparable level -- be warned, though, that the humans behind those characters are usually experienced and very deadly. Sometimes it takes a few tries to set up an online match, but once you’ve made it into another player’s game everything runs very smoothly. The online mode could use more communication options, though. It has basic animations that convey simple messages, but voice-over support would make cooperation a lot easier.

Demon's Souls

Post-Mortem


A few aspects of Demon's Souls’s design do seem pointlessly cruel. There’s no in-game map – if you’d like one, draw it yourself. (It’s a testament to how well-designed the game world is, though, with plenty of easily-identified landmarks, that most players shouldn’t regret this too often.) There’s no pause button, either. Have to go to the bathroom in the middle of a boss battle? Better luck in the next life.

In general, this isn’t an adventure for the faint of heart. You’ll do your share of grinding to build a character before it’s over, and suffer plenty of heart-breaking deaths. Demon’s Souls has its rewards as well, though – beautiful sights, exciting battles, tons of replayability. They’re more than worth the challenge.