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Demon's Souls (PlayStation 3) artwork

Demon's Souls (PlayStation 3) review

"Itís not like Demonís Souls does anything new, or tells an interesting story, or even looks especially pretty. No, in the small amount of time itís spent on store shelves, the game has amassed a cult following simply for being very, very difficult, and there is no denying that it earns every iota of its reputation. Now, I wonít waste your time detailing what a frustrating game can do to even the most hardened player (Iím sure youíve all got stories), but you know when it feels like youíre..."

Itís not like Demonís Souls does anything new, or tells an interesting story, or even looks especially pretty. No, in the small amount of time itís spent on store shelves, the game has amassed a cult following simply for being very, very difficult, and there is no denying that it earns every iota of its reputation. Now, I wonít waste your time detailing what a frustrating game can do to even the most hardened player (Iím sure youíve all got stories), but you know when it feels like youíre playing the WORST GAME IN THE WORLD? And that the people who made it can GO TO HELL? Because how do they expect you to beat a game thatís CLEARLY IMPOSSIBLE? Thatís what Demonís Souls feels like every five minutes.

I often hated Demon's Souls. In my defense, it hated me first.

At its heart, Demonís Souls is simple hack-and-slash porn, as grindtastic and loot-laden as these things tend to be. Were it not for the gameís absurd difficulty, it would be solid but unremarkable, a game to be devoured by the old school RPG crowd and ignored by everyone else. But then thereís that challenge thing to consider. Itís not simply that the game is difficult, though that certainly would have been enough. The gimmick of Demonís Souls is that there are no checkpoints Ė if you die, all of your accumulated souls (experience points that double as cash) are left at the spot of your death, and youíre returned to the very beginning of the level with all of the enemies respawned. The idea is that players are taught to value their lives and are dissuaded from employing reckless behavior.

The aggressive foes of Demonís Souls spell out a fairly clear message from square one, but once you learn to be careful, much of the basic interplay between player character and enemy is quite entertaining. Choosing a class at the beginning of the game is more of a starting point than anything, as all players are expected to master hand-to-hand combat, with ranged weapons and magical spells acting as more supplementary than anything. The melee stuff is made ridiculously balanced through a regenerating stamina bar that drains when youíre attacking or being attacked; you wonít see Demonís Souls to its conclusion without blocking a fair amount, but expecting to simply absorb enemy blows until youíre given an opening wonít cut it. They will break your guard, and from there itís only a couple of hits before youíre down.

Demonís Souls is unforgiving, and by and large, the combat is rewarding enough in the sense that even your generic day-to-day enemies Ė the undead soldiers, the gargoyles, the octopus-faced spellcasters Ė can easily make short work of all but the most cautious of players. It hits you hard at first, but once you fall into a certain pattern, slowly and methodically working your way through levels and never getting too cocky, overcoming the challenges of Demonís Souls becomes arguably one of the most gratifying accomplishments of the generation.

But Demonís Souls takes it too far; I donít think Iíve ever played a game that demonstrated such an unwavering contempt for its players. The game firstly throws too many handicaps at you: You canít pause the game, and youíre forced to come to a standstill every time you want to use a healing item, which often means youíll regain some of your health and then immediately lose it again after getting nailed by an attack you couldnít avoid. Whatís worse is that even the players who understand the intricacies of the combat will be frequently caught off guard by an abundance of cheap tricks and instant deaths that Demonís Souls throws at you for no discernable reason other than to simply piss you off. Players who deviate even slightly from the path of the gameís first level will be confronted by an overpowered red-eyed knight with whom they are in no position whatsoever to fight at that point, and Demonís Souls is full of instances like that, where players are thrust into lethal situations they have no means of being prepared for.

The most frequent defense of the gameís difficulty level is that itís never unfair, which I find odd, because of course itís unfair. Flattening me with a boulder while Iím climbing a staircase is unfair. Burning me to a crisp via dragon breath while Iím crossing a perfectly innocent-looking bridge is unfair. Such instances wouldnít be so bad if they didnít often amount to instantaneous deaths, and even that wouldnít be so bad if the price of death hadnít been so high. But there is absolutely no excuse to pull crap like this in a game with no checkpoints.

As deplorable as its methods often are, Demonís Souls is to be commended for truly making players value their lives. The threat of death and its enormous consequences hangs over you for the entire adventure, and the gameís atmosphere Ė its drab colors, its very few speaking roles, its near complete lack of a musical score Ė has this unsettling, terminal air about it that emanates from every crack of the environment. Demonís Souls is far scarier than most survival horror games, if only because ďsurvivalĒ is so much easier said than done. The sinking feeling youíll experience whenever you hear the heavy breathing of a red-eyed knight is the sort of sensation that should have been instilled by the thunderous footsteps of an approaching Big Daddy in BioShock Ė a game that, incidentally, offered no punishment whatsoever for death and paid the price for it. So on one hand, what Demonís Souls aims for, it undoubtedly achieves.

But on the other hand, is this entertainment? Sitting down to play Demonís Souls is a more difficult decision than it should be, because you know you will be frustrated, and thereís a good chance that youíll play the game for several hours and accomplish nothing whatsoever. I acknowledge that the reward for beating the game is a great one, but is it worth the harrowing journey it takes to get there? Does it account for so much wasted time? If this isn't too much, what is?

It often feels like the game is testing to see how much crap youíre willing to put up with. So hereís a boss whose counter attack can kill you in one hit, right? And his health meter is really long, so long that youíll have to spend fifteen or twenty minutes pathetically chipping away at him before heís down. And then, when heís almost dead, heíll use a healing item and instantly be back to full health! Oh, and the battle is set in a swamp, and if you step in the water, you get infected with the fucking plague. Have fun!

Demonís Souls is a dominatrix; it hurts, but you may take pleasure in this sort of thing if youíre a bitch. The game rewards tests of perseverance with more tests of perseverance, to the point that beating it becomes less about skill and more about oneís willingness to drop their pants and bend over. Anytime the game seems just a little too forgiving, itís only because the difficulty curve is somewhat fractured since players can tackle the levels in any order they want. The only genuine break you get comes at the end of the game, when youíre treated to a laughably easy final boss just before the credits roll. Itís more like a victory lap than a finale; Iíd call it anticlimactic if I wasnít so relieved at the time.

Beating Demonís Souls is likely to be one of the great RPG accomplishments of our time, but if boasting privileges are the only reason you play games, then Iíd find a fresh approach. I can respect what Demonís Souls was trying to do, but Iím glad itís over, and I have no intention of ever returning.

Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (February 13, 2010)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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