From Softwareís latest creation is a spiritual successor to its King's Field RPG series which has been in hiatus since 2001. In this sense, a bleak fable leading towards demon genocide has been way overdue. Luckily, this battle is certainly one worth fighting and is a real highlight for the PS3 in 2009.
Demonís Souls begins by introducing players to its character creation tools and starting classes which determine initial attributes and equipment. Both have an acceptable degree of flexibility to suit most players' preferred style of play. Magic builds, Melee builds, Stealth builds - all work equally effectively in Demonís Souls. Just donít expect any creation to cross into the realm of the uncanny valley as character models can be rather unsightly up-close.
A small tutorial level then introduces the player to the controls and basic combat mechanics of the game. In essence Demonís Souls is a third person dungeon crawler; however, many separate elements come together to make it extraordinary. The difficulty has already become legendary but it is so essential that diluting it would destroy the experience. Enemies can kill you remarkably easily but by doing so it instils the player with a feeling of trepidation and caution which elevates a mindless battle to the realm of the greatest of strategic duels where every victory is its own reward. This is a key factor of Demonís Souls greatness. Players are forced to dispel the modern game conventions of convenience they are used to. You must play according to its rules or you will never succeed. With your shield held high, waiting for the right moment to attack you learn to never underestimate your foe.
Of course in a world filled with risk one must have a reward and the eponymous title of our game provides the clue. The souls of your vanquished enemies work as the games currency and experience system. Souls can be used to purchase items, restore weapons and most importantly level up your characterís statistics. Enemies also provide various items and equipment to help aid in our battle.
Death is routine in Demonís Souls and it is introduced almost immediately when the tutorial is brought swiftly to an end by an axe wielding giant who will turn 99.99% of players into gristle within the first 10 seconds. Nobody says that dying is easy and in Demonís Souls the punishment can be severe. Death in a level places you back at the start, respawns all enemies and the loss of all souls you have gathered. If you are able to reach your body again without dying you can reclaim your souls. Die in the process and they will be lost forever. The word Ďmaddeningí is probably an understatement when this happens; however, as with everything within Demonís Souls, it serves a purpose. Players will quickly learn to understand why they failed and with their next attempt hopefully reap the rewards of success.
From Software has added one final twist to this concept with your character having two separate forms. Initially your character will be in human form having full health. Yet if you die, you will be forced to play in Soul Form with only half the health of your human form. Items can negate this punishment to a degree but you will find yourself in Soul Form for the majority of the game as resurrection can only be accomplished by defeating bosses or via a rare item.
Such punishment adds further emotional resonance to the trials you face and by being placed in a situation of such risk, players will often question whether to proceed, potentially facing a boss or play it safe by returning to the Nexus to spend their souls. This risk/reward mechanic flows through the game's very core with you often having to ingeniously question the limits of your own greed and curiosity.
Demonís Souls uses a central hub called the Nexus to give players access to the 5 realms of Boletria on offer. Each stage can be approached in any order after having defeated the first boss and subsequently resurrected. Artistically, the Kingdom of Boletria in which Demonís Souls is set has been beautifully realised with the initial scope of the levels breathtaking to behold. All the worlds differ significantly from medieval castles, decrepit poisonous swamps to magnificent prisons chained together in a hypnotic matrix stemming to the horizon. This certainly helps to keep the exploration of Demonís Souls a gratifying experience with the search for new vistas always compelling you to move forward.
The level design has been expertly crafted by allowing detours for exploration while maintaining a distinct linear structure. Every step forward will usually move you closer to the Arch Demons at the end of each level so getting lost is a definite rarity. From Software has obviously noted that boss fights create a significant difficulty spike, so a majority of the levels cleverly work on a Ď360 degreeí basis with the levelís arch demon being located in close proximity to the main spawn point. Short cuts can be opened near the end of the level so if the player does fall victim to a particular boss this will not result in having to traverse entire levels again.
The online component of Demonís Souls is truly revolutionary by inventively integrating the experiences of all players simultaneously. While online you will see the ghostly apparitions of others drifting by, fighting their own battle beside your own. While players cannot communicate directly a sense of community is created typically only found in an MMO. Players can leave messages on the floor detailing dangers ahead while if you touch a playerís bloodstain on the floor you can see a replay of their final moments potentially giving you further clues as to how to avoid an untimely death. The cherry on top of online functionality is the ability for other players to join your game and allow you to co-operatively defeat demons together. Players in soul form can leave a mark in their own game and if a player in human form comes across this marker in their game they can summon them into theirs for assistance. On the flipside, players can force their way into your game with their sole mission being simply to make you a corpse. Fear is an emotion that is arguably lacking within the RPG genre and by enabling players to enter your world it is really present.
Overall, Demonís Souls is an experience like no other that has the capability to drain you emotionally yet always leave you on a high that results from victory. For some, the difficulty will simply be a mountain too steep to climb. It can be argued that its methods are simply too blunt or archaic. Yet such criticism is trivial compared to its achievements. Demonís Souls is that rarity of a game that recognises its intentions and audience with such clarity that it was always destined for greatness.
Text by Adam Barnwell
The other Demon's Souls review is here