There are few game developers as varied as From Software, who has created everything from fast-paced mecha games to bizarre card-based RPGs and horror games. Their very first game, however, was the PlayStation 1 RPG known as King's Field, which was a first-person action-RPG that was known for its harsh and unforgiving difficulty. King's Field would actually kill players within the first 10 seconds of the game if they were not cautious, although most of the game tended to be fairer than that. Demon's Souls is sort of a next-gen spiritual successor to King's Field. It may not be played from the first-person perspective, but it's an action-RPG and, perhaps more importantly, it has the potential to be quite difficult. Hidden under that difficulty is one of the most rewarding and addictive RPGs available on a current-gen console.
Demon's Souls is set in the kingdom of Boletaria, which used to be a successful, thriving kingdom due to its king's ability to use the power of souls. The kingdom fell into darkness one day when a mysterious fog shrouded it, trapping everyone inside with a group of terrible demons. Countless heroes have entered the fog that shrouds Boletaria, but all vanished, never to be heard from again. Your character is the latest hero to venture into the mist. Unfortunately, his venture is short-lived, and he promptly meets his death at the hands of a giant monster. He is revived in the Nexus, a mysterious limbo between life and death, and tasked with figuring out a way to solve Boletaria's problems and seal away a terrible creature called the Old One.
Players can customize the character's appearance and starting job. Each character in the game has a specific job, ranging from knight to royalty, but it doesn't have a tremendous impact on your character build. Each job begins with different equipment and a few nice perks, but this only determines how you'll function early on in the game. You can start out as a melee character and decide to focus entirely on magic and miracles instead. Likewise, you can begin the game as a magic user and decide that bows or swords are more your style. It's up to players to decide how they want their characters to evolved, and there is no wrong decision when creating a character. However, certain starting jobs do seem to be better than others. I began as royalty and cruised through the early part of the game by using an elementary magic spell, while I would've had a more difficult time as a melee class.
Once you've created your character, you begin to adventure inside the lands of Boletaria. Each land is populated by demons and possessed humans, who want nothing more than to kill your character and devour his soul. Demon's Souls is an action RPG, so players are expected to use their combat skills — not just high stats — to win. Melee combat depends on stamina conservation and learning when and where to attack your enemies. In addition to the common RPG health and magic bars, your character has a stamina bar. Each melee weapon in the game has two attacks: a fast attack and a strong attack, performed by using the shoulder buttons. Fast attacks are fast but use more stamina, while strong attacks are slower, but you're less likely to fritter away your stamina. The reason to conserve stamina isn't to attack, but to defend.
You see, defense is very important in Demon's Souls, and without stamina, you can't properly defend against enemy attacks. Your character can defend in three ways: blocking, dodging or parrying. Blocking has your character raise his shield, which lowers the damage you take from attacks, but it also decreases your stamina regeneration. Dodging allows you to roll to avoid enemy attacks, but it takes a hefty dose of stamina, so you're going to want to dodge instead of block. Some enemies can still hit ridiculously hard, and it's far better to avoid attacks than absorb them. Parrying is a combination defense and attack. By pressing the parry button just as an enemy is about to hit your character, you'll parry the attack and knock him off balance. An off-balance enemy is vulnerable to a riposte, which is a special counterattack that does ridiculous amounts of damage. The downside is that parrying requires very precise timing; if you miss, you'll have a sword in your face.
Magic and ranged combat, on the other hand, is a bit different. Magic is divided into both deadly combat spells and healing miracles. You need to equip a wand to use it, but all you have to do is cast the spell, and its effect occurs. You can blast enemies to ashes to raise the dead with these spells, but once your MP is gone, you're helpless. Ranged combat, which takes the form of bows and arrows, is a bit different. The game goes into a first-person view and allows you to target enemies ahead of you. There's no other ability in the game that offers this sort of control and range, and even the best magic spell pales in comparison to a bow and arrow's range and accuracy. Bows require arrows, though, and each shot uses up an arrow. If you have poor accuracy or a string of bad luck, you may find that your bow to be quite useless.
Demon's Souls is rather unique in that it is an RPG with a high emphasis on skill. Despite the vast number of builds in the game, players are expected to have a good set of twitch abilities and solid strategies in order to survive. If you're going to play a melee character, you will need to master parrying and dodging in addition to managing your stamina. You can't wade in and start hacking and slashing, unless you want to get smashed by skeletons. Likewise, magicians and ranged fighters need to have high stats and good knowledge of how to control enemy aggression and avoid attacks. Even when you get magic spells that crush entire groups of enemies with a few blasts, you'll need to keep your wits about you. It's very rare to find a "win button" situation in Demon's Souls, and players are expected to realize that, at any time, one wrong move can lead to death. The game gets easier as you gain access to more abilities and strategies, but a good amount of that comes from the player's increased skills. It's also interesting that the game gives you a fairly wide playing field when it comes to tactics. Enemies are just as vulnerable to damage as you are, and it's unspeakably satisfying when you exploit the level design to trick an enemy into falling into a pit.
Your goal in each level of Demon's Souls is to find your way through the levels and defeat powerful demons that lurk within. Each level has unique features that help them stand out; some levels may require you to explore mazes or deal with dragons that stalk the level and breathe fire on you at every chance. You can encounter poisoned traps, deadly pitfalls, ambushes full of explosive barrels ... the list is nearly endless. The layout of the level never changes, though, and once you've learned the level, you can actually use the traps against enemies. If you're being menaced by a dragon, you can find a safe spot and snipe it with arrows. If you have a powerful enemy chasing you, you can lure it into a trap. The levels work both for and against you, and the design is interesting enough to make most of the levels very memorable. There are a few duds, but they're not enough to ruin the experience; they're just a little blander than the others.
One neat feature in Demon's Souls is that your world is connected to other players online. Each character has a unique version of Boletaria, but players can alter the game world by leaving messages, which are transferred to the worlds of other online players. If you're about to approach an enemy ambush, you may find that another player's note warns you about it. Hidden treasures or neat tricks can also be pointed out. Perhaps the only frustrating thing is that these messages are limited to pre-created text. While this prevents the obvious abuses, it makes it a bit frustrating when you're trying to leave a warning for other players, and the best you can write is, "Enemy ambush up ahead!"
The layout of the world doesn't change, but Demon's Souls worlds will alter depending on your in-game actions. Each of the game's five worlds has a "world tendency." The actions you take in the game alter the world's tendency toward either black or white. Evil actions alter the world toward black, while good actions move it closer toward white. Depending on your current world tendency, the events you encounter in the game will change. Certain items are only available if you see an event in a certain world tendency, and in order to get everything in the game, you'll have to play through the game multiple times to see all of the possible world tendency events. Furthermore, the tendency of your world has an influence on the enemies inside. Enemies in a white world are weaker but give fewer rewards; a black world makes your enemies stronger but they're also worth more. While it isn't technically required to do anything with world tendency to finish the game, players who are looking to master the title will have to spend a lot of time learning how to best keep the world in its chosen color.
Death is going to be a major part of your experience in Demon's Souls. The most hardcore of players are not only going to die, but they must figure out when and where to die in order to see everything that the game has to offer. A player begins in his regular body, but when he dies, he reincorporates at the start of the level as his soul. This spirit functions identically to the human body, with a few minor differences. The most obvious is that the phantom version of your hero has greater attack power but roughly half of the HP. On the plus side, dying again in spirit form has no side effects on either your character or the world around you. The only things that the player "permanently" loses by dying are the souls that he's collected from defeated enemies. If the player can reach the spot where he died without dying again, he'll be able to regain all of the lost souls. Assuming you can survive the relatively easy trip back to where you died, your loss will only be the time spent traveling back.
The thing that makes death in Demon's Souls so unique is how it plays into the game's multiplayer mechanic. Two living beings cannot adventure together. A living character serves as the focal point for an online match, and by examining a mark left behind by a dead character, the living character can summon and assist him. These characters adventure alongside the living human. If they survive the stage, or if the living human casts a certain spell, the dead will be revived, along with a healthy dose of extra souls for their trouble.
On the other hand, dead characters can also play into the game's PvP mechanic. Dead characters can invade the games of other players by using an item. Invaders are tasked with hunting down and killing the player who "owns" that world; doing so earns them a revival and a healthy dose of souls. Most of your interaction with other players is going to be through this phantom form, which means you'll want to spend some time in it. It's possible to avoid all of these mechanics by playing the game offline, but the game loses a lot without the online interaction. You miss out on a fair portion of the game, and you get nothing but safety from the occasional invading player.
Despite all this, death can be incredibly intimidating in Demon's Souls. It's so difficult that most players will probably die during the tutorial, never mind the course of the game. Around every corner hides an enemy ambush or some kind of fiendish trap. A player who is foolhardy or unlucky is likely to die over and over again before finishing a level. This is where Demon's Souls biggest "flaw" comes into play. If you're not a gamer who enjoys the risk of dying or who gets easily frustrated when the game stacks the odds against you, you'll probably find Demon's Souls to be extremely aggravating. Death is rarely unfair, but a number of deaths can feel rather unfair, and it takes an extremely skilled player to get through a stage the first time through without wandering into fatal situations. The end result of all this difficulty is that achieving things in Demon's Souls is extremely rewarding. It feels fantastic when you slay a boss, escape an ambush, kill a powerful enemy or find a rare treasure. That sort of feeling isn't for all players, though, and those looking for a more casual or lighthearted action-RPG may feel overwhelmed.
Demon's Souls is a nice-looking game, and the art direction does a lot to help it stand out. Some of the character models are bland and simplistic, though, and a lot of your own equipment and armor is pretty unmemorable. The levels are interestingly designed, although a lot of them gain personality from the layout rather than anything about the stage itself. The music and audio in the game are quite good, with the exception of the voice acting. A lot of the acting ranges from bad to hilarious Z-movie quality, so it is sometimes difficult to take the plot seriously. Fortunately, Demon's Souls isn't really a game you play for the plot. There is some reasonable voice acting in the title, but a large amount of it sounds strange and out of place.
Quite frankly, Demon's Souls is not a game for everyone. The mechanics aren't the most intuitive, and the game clearly expects you to put a lot of effort into learning how everything works. The difficulty level is punishing at times, and death is almost inevitable. Players who expect to breeze through stages will find themselves quickly dying as they haplessly wander into an enemy ambush. If you're willing to take the time to learn Demon's Souls, it can become an exceptionally fulfilling experience. Making your way through the difficult dungeons is often exciting and fun, and it's difficult to match the sense of satisfaction you get from crushing a boss or escaping a black phantom. The online capabilities really add a lot to the game; being able to call in other phantoms to help is a great idea, and the added tension that comes from fearing an invasion keeps the levels from becoming dull, even if you've already played through them multiple times. For those willing to put in the effort, Demon's Souls is perhaps the most rewarding RPG available on the PS3 and easily a must-have for any PS3 owner who doesn't mind a bit of difficulty and death.
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