Back in ‘09 a close friend approached me and asked if I would be interested in putting in an online order for a game just released in America that I had frankly never even heard of. “What is this Demon’s Souls with its ever so slightly broken English title, and why should I care?” Clearly some investigation needed to be done. Hours of scouring videos, screenshots and reviews later I remained more than a little intrigued. My curiosity had been greatly piqued by what was being lauded by many as the possible bastard child of TES Oblivion and Ninja Gaiden. A venerable pedigree indeed.
Without going too much further I simply want to say that I loved Demon’s Souls. I’ve loved every minute of it I’ve have played to date (and believe me I’m still played quite regularly). To me it is easily the best video game released this generation. To fully quantify why I feel so strongly about this game I think I need to talk about how it appeals to me as a gamer, how it entertains, how it challenges and how it immerses.
At the core of Demon’s Souls, an old heart beats. There is a real throwback to so many of the games that the yesteryears have given us, only now DS gives them an all new modern feel while still retaining that timeless feel. Games nowadays rarely have significant consequences for death. Now we have checkpoints we go back to with all of our equipment, retrying again until we succeed in passing the level. Think back to the good old Megadrive and SNES games. How many times did you come across games where you were given maybe a handful of lives that would see you through to the end of the game? How many times did you get a cool new weapon only to die a moment later and find that it was now gone?
I know games have had to move on from such crushing levels of difficulty, I mean who really wants to sink 80 hours plus into an RPG knowing they would lose everything if they made a simple mistake? What makes Demon’s Souls so special in this regard is that it is the perfect compromise between these two eras of gaming. Death is to be feared alright, death can cause the difficulty of the game to increase, the return of all enemies you have killed, the loss of all your unused souls, a permanent cap reduction on your health till you defeat a boss and you get a one way ticket to the beginning of the level. These are brutal, almost unheard of standards, reinforced and compounded in the confines of a game where it is so very easy to die. For most this sounds off putting and unfair; for me that sounds like a videogame. Victory is a tasteless meal if it is not earned and make no mistake, you will earn every victory in Demon’s Souls and with each your hunger for more will only grow further. This true sense of accomplishment, the feeling that you have achieved what few have struggled to do and countless others have sheepishly bowed out of, is unrelenting in its satisfaction. Few games can boast their ability to invoke this sensation; none do it quite as well as Demon’s Souls.
As you can imagine atmosphere is a huge part of this games charm. The creation of that atmosphere is somewhat difficult to explain however. There are obvious points such as the vast and beautiful yet haunting set pieces on display about the land of Boletaria. Sometimes it really is more than worth your time to take a break from demon slaying to take in the view. What’s interesting is that Demon’s Souls is not an overly story laden game. There is a little exposition at the beginning of the game explaining the state of affairs and what needs to be done, but beyond that there is little else. If you pry deep, finding and talking to the few non violent NPCs, you can learn more about the realm of Boletaria, its inhabitants, those responsible for what has happened and even the nature of the demons you are fighting. It makes for fascinating sub text and yet completely missing all of it takes not one iota away from the experience as a whole. Your role as a silent protagonist sums it up; sometimes there really isn’t anything to be said. Actions speak louder than words.
In fact the games very first action is to get you well acquainted with death. This is the tutorial from hell. Casually are you given instruction of what each button on the controller does as you face off against increasingly difficult enemies, survive this trial by fire and you are rewarded with your very first boss battle mere minutes into the game. The game expects, nay wants you to die here but should you somehow succeed your perseverance is rewarded once again with another attempt on your life except this time its sticks. This is an absolutely magnificent opening to a game, pulling no punches it comes straight at you with all it’s got. It sets the bar so high for itself and continues to surpass that bar over and over again, not just in mere terms of difficulty but in dramatic conflict. The game can and will surprise you from start to finish. An atmosphere capable of pulling dread, panic, horror, disgust and even pride with barely an ounce of subtext. Simply stunning.
Of course no great game is complete without a community and Demon’s Souls certainly has that, benefiting in no small part from the incredibly unique multiplayer experience present in the game. Now when I heard that Demon’s Souls was being released in Europe I was disappointed I would be missing out on a new batch of players as there is no interaction between US and European servers. Demon’s Souls has many strengths but none are greater than its multiplayer. There is nothing else on the market that matches the hectic unpredictability present. Players leaving messages and advice for one another, invading another players game in an attempt to kill and steals that players souls, the silent camaraderie between players when summoned as blue phantoms. It’s remarkable to see how the community has put these mechanics to use. Certain worlds are now designated unofficial PvP areas. Players patiently waiting for an invader, politely bowing before engaging in combat. Of course not all etiquette is so civilised, there’s a rising trend of using the in game messages to express one “opinions” and in some case “desires” with regard to certain NPCs, that and there is also just an awful lot of messages trying to convince people to leap to their doom.
When Demon’s Souls was first released in the US it was not expected to do particularly well, potentially appealing to only a small niche of consumers and for that reason there were no plans to release it in Europe. I don’t mind being referred to as fairly fringe demographic but I like to think Demon’s Souls has a wider appeal then you might first think and I know I’m right. The game did unprecedentedly well in the US. So well in fact that it was released in Europe in June of last year. To those of you who don’t know, Dark Souls, another title from developer From Software that will be released in November of this year, is very much the spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls, possessing many of the same attributes and mechanics.
Clearly the decision to take the franchise cross platform is a massive indication of the popularity of its predecessor. As a fan I await it with bated breath.
These are just some of the reasons why I enjoy this game so much, I say enjoy because as I’ve mentioned before I’m still playing it and will likely do so on and off till Dark Souls is released. If you haven’t given Demon’s Souls a try yet then you owe it yourself as a gamer to track it down and not just beat it, conquer it.