From Software’s punishing Action RPG is like no other
Of the prolific video gaming developers in existence, From Software most likely didn’t enter the considerations of many a gamer’s minds. From Software’s back catalogue of work ranges from the King’s Field series on the Playstation to the likes of Armoured Core, stretched across a far wider range of platforms. For many, none of these titles have earned the developer’s acknowledgement in the consciousness of the modern gamer as being excellent, a visionary force driving innovation in a somewhat stagnant period of creativity. Though for myself, and no doubt many others, this changed with the release of the action RPG Demon’s Souls in 2009 in Japan and America, and 2010 in Europe. Demon’s Souls is an incredible and challenging gaming experience that cannot be found anywhere else and has rightfully earned From Software’s pedestal in the hearts and minds of many Playstation 3 owners.
Under the rule of King Allant XII, the kingdom of Boletaria was once a proud and stoic nation. Alas, a lust for power and greed drove the king toward pursuit of the ‘Soul Arts’ in hope of bringing greater prosperity to the region, inadvertently opening the floodgates for an ancient beast known as the ‘Old One’ below the nexus to unleash the ‘Deep Fog’ over the nation, unleashing a wealth of infernal demons to feast on mankind and drive all those fortunate enough not to fall foul of the beasts insane. Few ever escape the deep fog, with only Vallarfax of The Twin Fangs breaking free and informing other kingdoms of Boletaria’s plight.
As stories go, the tale of the mind-altering miasma is a clichéd one, and certainly the game is not going to earn any awards through its narrative. However, the story remains perfunctory to the gameplay throughout and is told only via a handful of relatively short cut scenes early on and through optional dialogue with some of Boletaria’s residents; ostensibly a conscious design decision implemented to maintain the seamlessness and flow of the game’s action. A seemingly unique interpretation of action at that.
What will become very obvious to you within your first hour or so of playtime is that Demon’s Souls is an incredibly harsh experience. Obstacles within the environments, both artificial and living, have the sole purpose of bringing your existence to a grisly end without compromise, and require a combination of skill and knowledge for you to survive and march onwards from unscathed. Your stamina bar, located towards the top left of the screen during gameplay, is your most important tool to this end; rolling away from or sidestepping streams of magical light, absorbing the impact of a bullish spear-wielding knight with your shield, hacking and slashing away at an enemy at its key moments of vulnerability; all these examples require effective management of your stamina, and until you learn this fact you will die constantly. Adding to this onslaught are the various traps and pitfalls littered throughout the environments ready to hack away at your life bar, and often times murder you outright. Charging into the game worlds with all guns blazing is a sure-fire method of meeting a swift death. Rather, the game rewards those players who are willing to learn from trial-and-error management of its obstacles, those players with the patience to study the patterns of the enemies before them and strike the fatal blow at the right moment.
Safe to say that you will die a lot during your initial hours playing Demon’s Souls, which is entirely appropriate as one of the game’s key mechanics revolves around death. Die in a level, and you will lose all the souls you have obtained during the course of gameplay, (collected from defeating enemies and looting certain corpses) which are used to level up your character’s attributes and purchase and repair equipment, and you will respawn right back at the beginning of the level, with any previously slain beasties brought back to life, ready to claim you and your souls once more. Reach the place where you died last and you can touch your bloodstain to reclaim all the souls you acquired up to that point; die again before reaching your bloodstain and those souls are lost to you forever.
Death adds a further wrinkle for the player in addition to wiping away your perceived progress – your transition from living form to your soul form. Soul form halves your maximum HP, ensuring your encounters with those hell-bent on your destruction are ever more risky a prospect. As raw a deal this may at first seem, there are advantages to playing this way – your attack power is marginally increased, and your stealth capabilities are enhanced from the quietened footsteps you take whilst walking.
It is during these initial hours of uncompromising and punishing experience that you will discover for yourself whether you can stomach the age-old design philosophy underpinning the entire experience, and many will abandon the game entirely in this period. There are no checkpoints for when you die, enemies do not scale downwards in competency the more they oust you, no hints will appear on-screen if you cannot progress beyond a given point. The game stubbornly refuses to hold your hand at all times, and for the type of gamer who does not like being told “you cannot achieve this”, maybe even for the masochists among us, is all the more rewarding for it.
Overcoming a challenge that plagued your gameplay progression is entirely down to you own handiwork
Progress beyond the early teething stages and you will discover a game that allows for a huge variety of tactical methodologies in overcoming the deadly obstacles placed in front of you. Spire-shooting manta rays consistently halting your march from afar? Equip a bow and arrow and snipe away with pleasure. The Call of Cthulhu-esque tentacle monsters demolishing you with their magic whenever you get up close? Sneak up behind them and go for the critical backstab, rinse and repeat if necessary.
Key to extracting the most value out of the tactical options available to you is your choice of character class and how you level up his or her attributes. Ten different classes are available to choose from at the start of the game, and each nudges you towards a certain style of combat. Logically, magicians are adept at long distance, high damage spell combat, yet suffer from low durability and are easily disposed of up close. Barbarians deal high strength based damage and have a high vitality to soak up several hits, yet lack defensive armour and the stats required to learn supporting magic and faith based abilities.
Thankfully your choice of how your character levels up is not a predetermined process, and is flexible enough in Demon’s Souls to eradicate such starting weaknesses, meaning your character is never left hung out to dry if you find your natural play style hampered by the obstacles encountered across the game’s five worlds, which will happen fairly often initially. Levelling becomes considerably more expensive as you continue onwards however, subtly introducing a further layer of risk-reward tactical choices.
What transcends the game beyond the traditional third person action RPG and into the lofty echelons of excellence is its online capabilities, and is a major point of innovation in the game and the genre as a whole. All the opportunities offered b
y connecting Demon’s Souls to the internet serve to alter or add new tactics to an already vast array of options.
Upon connecting online, you will notice messages left by other players in the levels that will inform you of upcoming dangers, the nature of a nearby item, the best weapon or spell to use against an enemy etc. By pressing select you can leave your own message to help or hinder other players, potentially healing yourself if another player ‘recommends’ it. Interacting with red bloodstains allows you to witness the final silhouetted moments of another player as they meet their end. A blue eye stone allows soul form players to leave a marking in the worlds of similarly levelled living players to summon that player to the host’s level so that they can tackle the various dangers together. The black eye stone allows a soul form player to invade a living player’s realm as a Black Phantom with the purpose of slaying the host player to collect souls and resurrect your body, and the red eye stone allows a living player and a soul form player to duke it out with the consent of both individuals.
Using the tools you want from the very many available to you to overcome the game’s considerable challenges invokes an incredible sense of achievement and euphoria that is rarely generated in many of today’s titles. Deaths rarely ever feel cheap – it is always your own lack of knowledge or preparation, or even your own inadequacies in handling the multi-layered control scheme and your vital statistics, that is responsible for you being sent back to the start of a level. Finally overcoming a challenge that plagued your gameplay progression is entirely down to you own handiwork, not some arbitrary gameplay modification introduced by the game because you were struggling, and this enhances the enjoyment of the game tremendously.
Admittedly, a lot of the game’s impact would be diminished were it not for its visuals. Whilst not existing on a technical level equivalent to modern graphical powerhouses like the Uncharted series overall, Demon’s Souls brandishes superb animation within its cast of characters. Of particular highlight are the evil minions encountered across each game world, whether it is the dual-wielding katana skeletons gracefully lunging forward to slice you in twain, or the fat ministers deftly wielding their axes before mercilessly driving them down into your skull and OH-KOing you. Many of the enemies you will encounter in the game convey an image of dreadful power thanks to their animation and complement the sense of hopelessness and dread the game desires to invoke.
Artistically the game’s visuals seem to draw inspiration from European gothic horror and some aspects of Pagan folklore – from dreary, darkened, blood-soaked box rooms littered with rotting corpses of the deceased, poorly constructed shanty towns sat atop poisonous swamps harbour infestations of rats and flies gnawing away at yet more corpses, to ancient tombs containing the very image of Death himself indulging in occultist ceremonies with a gluttonous beast known only as the Adjudicator guarding them at its helm. All the game’s locations seek to heighten the player’s sense of dread through its use of visuals and their high difficulty, an issue where the game succeeds admirably.
Complementing the sour mood is the selective implementation of the musical score. Interestingly, there is a complete absence of music throughout the different levels, climatic boss battles being exempt from this trend. It’s just you, the grunts, growls and laughter of your enemies and your own psychological palpitations. Boss encounters are entirely different, in that the music denotes the atmosphere almost single-handedly. The musical scores themselves are quite simple in their flow and construction, which mimics the bosses’ single-minded pursuit of your death and torture perfectly. It is an awe-inspiring experience to clash with the boss of World 1 level 2 whilst an operatic choir bellows ominously in the background. You’ll understand me if you reach this point.
Demon’s Souls is a rare gem awash in a sea of unsightly old stone for those who can stomach its old school, no-holds-barred design philosophy. From a time when games love to focus on cinematic set-pieces, story-driven gameplay and constant handholding, Demon’s Souls is a wonderful tribute to a golden era of games that sat on the opposite end of the spectrum. It flies in the face of many philosophies applied to modern game creation, and is an utterly fascinating ride for anyone who can appreciate it.
The Bad: Trial-and-error gameplay is not for the impatient or easily frustrated