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Demon's Souls (PlayStation 3) artwork

Demon's Souls (PlayStation 3) review

"Some other challenging RPGs are enjoyable, sure, but they're a different sort of affair. They're tough because you haven't prepared yourself sufficiently or because there's an unavoidable attack that will always drain away most of your life. In stark contrast, Demon's Souls is tough because everything is completely fair, because every disaster is technically avoidable and because every enemy can kick your ass if you let your mind wander."

No one would ever make the mistake of calling Boletaria a perfect place. The realm slowly is succumbing to a dark mist. It creeps over the land, turning the once-fertile fields to barren wastelands, the gorgeous women to hags and (one might assume) the happy little puppies into ogre chow. In short, everything that's good in the world is disappearing and everything that's bad is multiplying like lazy metaphors in a poorly-written video game review. You probably don't give a crap about any of that, though, because let's face it: the plot in these RPGs pretty much all winds up the same in the end. Some brave hero will battle against tremendous odds, risking his life and nearly dying a thousand times over at the hand of demons most foul.

In Demon's Souls, though, there's a difference: your hero will actually take that extra step and die for his cause. Repeatedly, he will die. Or she will, if that's the way you roll. Then, shortly after that first death, there will come a second one, and a third and a fourth... probably all before you've cleared so much as a single stage. That's just the way things work in Boletaria.

You've heard similar things said about other games, though, about other fantasy kingdoms. You've heard about this one huge boss in that one game who clobbers heroes with a continent-sized fist. Maybe you've even witnessed such things for yourself, like when you finally reached the villain at the end of Final Fantasy VII and found yourself unceremoniously squished between colliding planets because you hadn't bothered to earn the most powerful spells and equipment. Games like that are enjoyable, sure, but they're a different sort of affair. They're tough because you haven't prepared yourself sufficiently or because there's an unavoidable attack that will always drain away most of your life. In stark contrast, Demon's Souls is tough because everything is completely fair, because every disaster is technically avoidable and because every enemy can kick your ass if you let your mind wander.

See the difference? You absolutely will if you play the game. After creating your character, you'll be plunged into a tutorial stage where it's actually possible to die. Kiss your loved ones now, while you still can. Then enjoy yourself as the game walks you through the surprisingly intuitive control scheme and equipment process, throws you up against a variety of weaksauce enemies and then, just when you're starting to feel pretty good about yourself, leaves you to face a hulking beast with an ax the size of a car. He crushes any stone pillars you might decide to hide behind, catches you with the sharp side of his weapon and sends you flying like a pumpkin from a catapult. Crimson looks pretty on the stone walls.

Shortly after confronting that demon, you appear in the massive tower known as the Nexus. The mists that are choking much of the land haven't properly infiltrated this area. You're very fortunate to have arrived in a relatively safe environment where you can stock up on healing items, weapons and spells. You can actually do a lot of fantastic things throughout the course of the game, except that when you first arrive you likely don't have any souls and can't do squat. Mostly, that's because you're still dead.

Death in Demon's Souls isn't the end, though. Instead, it's a foregone conclusion and a frequent stop on the bumpy road to glory. Unless you're a fantastic player, there's every chance that you'll spend more of the game dead than you will alive. When you use certain items or defeat a demon, you'll be revived and can trot around the world in fleshy style, but that's bound to change sooner or later. Then you'll revert to your spirit form. Instead of feeding worms, though, you'll spend your not-quite-eternal rest doing what you (sort of) do best: hunting demons.

Predictably, demons are a focal point in Demon's Souls. Reaching them is no cakewalk, however. The inhospitable world outside of the Nexus is divided into five regions. After completing the first portion of the first region--a task that can at first seem Herculean and may be more than some players can handle--you'll be able to enter any of those five areas whenever you like. Then you'll find that when you clear part of a given region, you've only just begun your conquest. There are still two more chunks to complete within each zone, each as devious and distinct as the first, each populated by a demon of incredible power.

On paper, none of that really sounds all that different from any number of other action-RPGs. If you toss in Hyrule Field and eliminate the whole demon motif, it could even describe beloved fare such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and its successors. So, just what is it that makes Demon's Souls so different and so difficult?

First there is the combat. Thanks to a system that depletes your energy reserves every time you hack, block, dodge or take damage, even the weakest of your enemies can cut through your defenses and ruin your day. Your adversaries work within the same constraints, but they tend to have the advantage of numbers. For an example of how all of that plays out in-game, suppose that you're battling a skeleton on some stairs. He hacks at your shield and you deflect the blow, but your stamina meter drops dangerously. Then you take another strike to the shield and as you stand there in a dazed state, an archer fires an arrow from further up the trail. That's most of your life meter out the window. Dangerously close to death, you manage to roll to the side but the action takes the last of your remaining stamina. As you clumsily lurch to your feet, the skeleton cleaves your skull with his blade and you're returned to the area entrance for a brief lapse of judgment that unfolded over the course of only a second or two. Any souls that you gleaned up to that point are lost.

Souls are another thing that can make Demon's Souls such a challenge, if only because they're so precious and sometimes don't seem to go far enough. This is an action-RPG, but you don't level up your character in the traditional sense. Defense aside, you must specifically purchase each stat boost with souls. Subsequent purchases of any skill whatsoever ratchet up the cost of each stat across the board. You can level up any individual stat all the way to 99, but with eight stats to choose from and mounting costs for each purchase (not to mention other expenses like items and weapon repairs), that's not feasible for anyone who is unwilling to level grind. Therefore, you have to make choices about how you're going to play and you have to stick to an intelligent plan. Every upgrade can be a painful decision with surprising impact. Do you go through the game as a brute with a big sword? Or do you take the coward's route and fry everyone with mage's fire from a distance? Your choices can limit what weapons and armor you can equip, what spells you can cast and--most importantly--what sort of chance you have when it comes time to go head-to-head with the bosses.

Boss battles are the moment where everything comes together, mostly because you can't "fake it" anymore. Even if you were good at working your way through a stage, even if you turned every lever, avoided every bottomless pit and unearthed every precious weapon, you could come up against a demon just in time to realize that you're nowhere near powerful enough. You'll fight spiders the size of tanks, goblins that can cleave stone balconies in half, towering knights joined by a phalanx of archers... the list goes on much longer than it really has a right to, and what quickly becomes evident is the fact that there's not much room for error either in your on-the-fly strategy or in your character progression. If you spent all of your time focusing on fire magic and now you're going up against a flame demon, well, good luck with that. If you became strong enough to carry a massive sword around with you but your enemy is reducing your stamina with shots to your pathetic shield, prepare to be humbled.

One particularly nice touch is that you don't have to go up against all of those hazards alone. If your character is alive, he or she can also summon a friend from the real world (here on Earth where the dark mist isn't yet a threat) to help with an especially nasty battle or stage. Two friends working together to fell a demon stand a much better chance, but even then death remains a distinct possibility. Boletaria is so dangerous that adventurers even can leave messages for one another that suggest possible ways to overcome upcoming challenges ("use fire on the next enemy," one note might advise). If you come across a spot of blood--and you will if you're connected to an active server--you can also press a button to see how your predecessor failed. There's really no shortage of blood stains.

Other games may present similar challenges but they earn our ire because it so often seems that adjusting to their demands is too much of a hassle. The thrill of it all gives way to tedium and any who manage to endure can brag only that they have a high tolerance level for crap. Demon's Souls avoids such pitfalls by making sure that if you can't conquer a challenge, it's because you're currently rubbish at the game--or at leveling up your character appropriately--or you weren't really paying proper attention. You always have the option to try again. The unspoken challenge lies on the table, taunting you until you pick up the controller and make another run through the offending stage. Who knows? Maybe you'll even stomp all over the boss that slew you during a previous encounter. A demon hunter can dream, right?

"Perfect" is a powerful word that can't justly be applied to anything produced by man or beast. Let's not kid ourselves, then, and try to apply that label to Demon's Souls. It doesn't fit. There are flaws: the occasional spot of trial-and-error in the tricky dungeons, grim visuals and audio that's so perfectly atmospheric as to make prolonged exposure to the game downright depressing... There are even occasional issues with the camera in tight quarters.

The difference between Demon's Souls and other games of its ilk is that even when you're running like hell from a gargoyle that you can't see just so that you can reach a wider platform and swing the camera into view, or when you're creeping along a mountain trail and shivering because Boletarian despair is seeping into your bones and you've started to wonder if you'll ever see another blue sky or a bright green blade of grass, even when you're taking a fatal plunge toward an abyss hundreds of feet below... you're loving every minute of it.

Perfection can wait for heaven. Here on Earth, we have Demon's Souls.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (October 05, 2009)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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jiggs posted October 05, 2009:

nice review. cn't wait to be OWNED!!!
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WilltheGreat posted October 05, 2009:

To reiterate the previous statement, this sounds like a fantastic title. I'm jealous.
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zippdementia posted October 05, 2009:

sounds fuckin' sweet. Thanks for clueing us in, Jace. I'll see if I can't pick up a copy after Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 is completed and the review is in the bag.

Although... fuck... Uncharted 2 will be out by then. And Grad School is going strong... not so strong, probably, if I get Demon's Souls.
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honestgamer posted October 06, 2009:

I clue you in because I care. But seriously... get Demon's Souls. One of the best reasons you'll ever have--or need--to own a PS3 or any other system.

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