By Arthur Augustyn / April 25th, 2015
|Publisher||SCE Japan, Atlus|
|Release Date||October 6, 2009|
|Age Rating||ESRB – Mature|
This review was written by Arthur Augustyn
“This is where the real Demon’s Souls begins.” It was a note left by another player in the world of Boletaria. I had just defeated the Tower Demon, the second boss of From Software’s 2009 sleeper hit, Demon Soul’s. It was a difficult boss fight compared to what I had accomplished thus far, but that made the relief so much sweeter. I wasn’t sure what to make of the note. Was it a taunt or a warning? The path in front of me was blocked. I would be forced to enter another world from the hub known as The Nexus. I wasn’t sure which world specifically, and there was no indication from the game which might be the best choice. I was at the point of the game where there would no longer be any hand-holding. Maybe this independence is what Demon Soul’s is really about. Or maybe the future fights would be significantly more difficult, and these bosses I’d triumphed over were the easy part. Maybe the insurmountable challenges that waited for me ahead were what Demon’s Souls was really about. There are countless answers that can be given to the question “What is Demon’s Souls really about?” I didn’t know what the answer was at the time, and playing the game now — nearly six years later — the answer is still ambiguous. Demon’s Souls can be many things, and all those things at once. It’s not a question that has a single answer, it’s a combination of many nuanced answers. Demon’s Souls is a marvel of a game, and that’s why it spawned a franchise, catapulted a developer into stardom and arguably changed the industry forever.
My first time reading that note, it was a warning of mystery. Demon’s Souls is known for obfuscating many things and letting the player discover the world and its mechanics on their own. For the first two levels, you can survive on general video game logic. There’s an attack button, there’s a block button, you have health, you have stamina, there are healing items, there are enemies, there are bosses, there are save points. These are general terms that even people who don’t play games can understand. Beyond that, there are many more mechanics that anyone who’s played an action adventure game or an RPG should be familiar with, but the hard part is identifying them in the game. For example, weapons have a damage type: slashing, piercing and bashing, but these are represented through icons; not plain-language text. Knowing which icon represents which stat is something you just have to figure out. It might sound like an unnecessary contrivance, but, when you think about it, is a spear really going to do any type of damage other than piercing? Is a sword really going to do any type of damage other than slashing? Demon’s Souls assumes the player has a level of intelligence to keep up with these sorts of things. It’s nice that the developer doesn’t think the player is an idiot, and, in the event that your attention drops and you miss something, you’re able to pull up a “Help” bubble on the menu screens for further information on all of your items.
Help bubbles will only get you so far, though. After the second boss, things get strange. Trying to progress past that point prompts a message that demands the player slays an archdemon before continuing. There’s no explanation of what an “archdemon” is, where they are or if you’re even capable of slaying them. What’s worse is that, if you try to venture off into the other worlds made available to you and figure it out on your own, you’ll likely stumble into other mysteries. Some questions I found myself asking included: “How come my weapon isn’t doing any damage?” “Why did I contract the plague?” “Who are these red-outlined characters that do way more damage than normal enemies?”
These questions can easily be answered with a Google search, but Demon’s Souls is meant for a particular type of gamer; one who misses the mystery of games. Demon’s Souls won’t ever sit down and explain what’s going on in its world, which may cause some frustration, but also makes each genuine discovery more satisfying. It’s a game meant to inspire a period of gaming before the Internet when your only resources were your own mind and those around you. The game replicates this through a note system that connects with other plays through the PlayStation Network. Players can leave notes on the ground that will show up in other players’ worlds, and, if they believe those notes are helpful, they can upvote them, which increases their likeliness of showing up in other worlds. These notes will likely leave tips on how to defeat bosses, or warnings of what types of ailments may plague you in future areas. Notes are restricted to key phrases that only end up being a sentence long so they don’t spell things out for you, but they give you an idea of what to expect. When you realize that everything in the world has an upside and a downside, including bosses, you get into a groove of trying out different strategies to manipulate the world to your advantage.
For example, the first boss of the game is an enormous jellyfish-like creature with smaller mob enemies that fall off of it. The obvious strength of this boss is that you can’t get anywhere near it, since the smaller enemies will immediately attack you. However, this also makes it vulnerable to AoE fire attacks since all of these enemies are bunched together (meanwhile, firebomb pickups have been dropped all throughout the level for you). All of the bosses have an exploit similar to this, but the strategy will always require a degree of skill, so they never make a boss fight inconsequential through a cheap exploit. When the design is at its best, it feels like a natural evolution of the Zelda series which popularized the “puzzles in action combat” design. Demon’s Souls boss fights are the best parts of the game, and it knows it, too, since the game is packed full of them, with roughly 16 bosses total.
The bosses are a natural crescendo to the action found in Demon’s Souls, but the rest of the game is filled with good moments, as well. The game takes place in a world known as Boletaria that’s shrouded in mythos into which players can easily immerse themselves. What’s great about the lore of the world is that it’s dedicated to staying true to the format of being a game. There are no lengthy cutscenes or drawn out expositions in Demon’s Souls. Almost all of backstory is delivered through NPC dialogs or item descriptions found in the worlds themselves, which means the player’s involvement in the lore scales directly with how much they end up knowing. If you’re like me and just want to play the game for its mechanics, then you can skirt through all of the dialog and still know what your objective is without getting weighed down by long breaks in action. At the same time, die-hard fans can read into clues of where they find items in what worlds, which NPCs know whom and get a general idea of what happened in the mysterious world of Boletaria. It’s a story that doesn’t shove its plot down your throat and rewards those who go take the time to listen to tales of the various travelers they come across and figure out what’s going on.
It’s actually to the player’s benefit to pay attention to NPCs, as they often have optional side quests and storylines that inform the player of opportunities available to them or risks that may impede their progress. In my case, I freed an NPC from a cage, thinking he could help me in the future. Since I wasn’t paying attention to the story, I continued along without giving him much thought. Later, I found that many other NPCs I had run into had been murdered. When I talked to the freed NPC again, he revealed that he was, in fact, an assassin and sent to kill everyone in Boletaria, including me. If I had taken the time to actually talk to this knight, I may have detected his intentions and prevented the outcome. I was still able to complete the game just the same, but I obviously missed out on some characters and potential side quests as a result. This probably contributed to me not knowing much about the world, since I imagine many vital NPCs were killed before I got a chance to speak to them.
Outside of the story, the physical world of Boletaria is something to behold. Even in 2015, Demon’s Souls is a fine-looking game. Each of the five worlds has a distinct style that feels different from the previous environment, but each of them has enough influence from the other four that act as a connective tissue to bind all of them together. It’s truly an achievement in art design that they managed to create such a diverse world that feels like it all comes from the same place. Whether it’s the medieval castles of World One, the Lovecraftian heights of World Three or the plague-infested swamps of World Five, Boletaria is a land of misery and dread that you can’t help marveling at the entire time. You’ll find yourself exploring side passages, not because it’s part of a quest, but because the world is so well realized. There’s never a half-assed hallway or forgotten cell. The designers clearly put time into every surface of the world, and you feel obligated to see every inch of it. This is somewhat at odds with the soundtrack of the game, which goes through the motions of orchestral drama when necessary, but never plays a memorable tune that sticks. Similar to the sound effects in the game, the sounds in Demon’s Souls exist to fulfill a purpose, but they’re hardly what keep you coming back to it.
In all of Demon’s Souls, what really keeps bringing you back to the game is your yearning to understand it. I finished my first playthrough at around 27 hours as a strength-build bruiser, favoring greatswords and heavy armor. I finished the game believing I had seen everything and found the perfect build. However, on my New Game Plus, I found that there were vulnerabilities in my build that I hadn’t realized before. I decided to try a new character that was magic based, and the game was completely different. Instead of rushing into enemies head first, I was staying back and shooting from afar. My play style made me more aware of my surroundings, and I realized there were pathways in the first level I had never wandered down before. There were doors that were locked that I never figured out how to open. I had completed the game, but I still didn’t completely understand it. I decided to press on and keep playing.
Once again I found myself fighting the Tower Demon that had given me trouble at the beginning of my journey. Now, I had the weapons of knowledge and experience on my side. Once again, the Tower Demon fell. As I celebrated my victory, I saw a familiar note. The one that had warned me of what I was getting into. Only now it meant something different. Now I knew what was coming. I knew about the countless hours ahead of me. I knew when to use piercing weapons, or how to increase plague resistance, or who were invaders. That’s not what the message meant anymore. I had learned all of these things, and still I wanted to know more. I had beaten the game, but wasn’t satisfied with my accomplishment. I had found the perfect build and wanted to try other ones. The game courted me to keep playing it, keep tooling with it and keep trying to understand it. That’s what Demon’s Souls inspired.
These were the seeds of a Souls fan. That near-psychotic obsession of wanting to keep playing it. It provided a type of satisfaction that reminded me of the games I played when I was a kid. When you’d buy one game a year, play it to death and know confidently that you knew everything about that game. Demon’s Souls invited that type of obsession, but always had another trick up its sleeve, another mystery you hadn’t solved yet. The fire that started in me is what ignited the industry six years ago. It’s what launched the franchise as a best seller. The industry yearned for the challenge and mystery that the Souls games provided, and that thirst would never be quenched. Playing the game now it’s clear: This is where the real Demon’s Souls began.
Review copy provided by the author.
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