Saturday, September 12, 2009
Review: Demon's Souls
Developer: From Software
# of Players 1 (Online: 1 - 3)
Rating: M (Mature)
Console (and to some extent, PC) role-playing fans have been subject to some pretty darn disappointing games this generation thanks to a few too many developers and publishers playing it safe by merely rehashing familiar anime-style adventures, cooking up oddball battle systems that just don't gel completely or copying top-rated western-style games with a few new ideas here and there. Sure, graphics have improved tenfold this cycle and there have been more than a few memorable games released during this period. However, other than stunning visuals and larger game worlds, not too many of these titles have done all that much to raise any new bars for the genre.
Demon's Souls destroys that old paradigm of spiky-haired amnesiacs, preteen protagonists and samey-same open-world epics completely by melding classic western RPG aesthetics with developer From Software's track record of producing outstanding entries in its King's Field, Shadow Tower, Echo Night and other original IP's. Beautiful, brilliant and brutal, online or off, Demon's Souls is an absolute must-buy for anyone even remotely interested in the genre. I'd go as far as saying the game is worth plunking down the cash for a PS3 for, but my non-fanboy stance dictates me to add that your potential purchase actually depends on what else you want to play once you're done with about 100 or so hours of multiple trips through From's dynamically deadly game world.
Granted, the smarty-smarts out there who've imported the Asian or Japanese versions and have beaten them multiple times will note that the game has its minuscule flaws. But those more hardcore players need to realize that the US version has indeed been tweaked a bit more and the majority of new players won't know about over exploiting certain bosses' weaknesses, "farming" certain areas for souls or those rare bits where you're safe from certain boss attacks. They'll be more concerned about not falling off the edge of the couch or how they're going to crawl out from under it when the game scares them half to death. There's an almost Nethack feel to the game's structure and pacing in that many times you never know what's coming and when it finally arrives, you're faced with dying in any number of ways, but surviving by only one or two.
From the dramatic opening movie with its striking atonal main theme through the helpful tutorial that sets you up for the first of many deaths you'll meet, the game is nothing less that completely enthralling. This isn't your basic hack 'n slash, folks - the game tasks you to play it by the rules it lays down and by the time you're done, you'll be well versed in From's wild world and how to survive it as long a possible. Sure, you can simply avoid dying many times simply by sitting in front of your TV with a walkthrough that notes every last pitfall and life-robbing beastie (which is a lousy way to truly "enjoy" the game), but then you're missing out on just how terrifying (and terrifyingly great) the game can be.
The basic plot goes something like this: thanks to an evil fog packed with soul-eating demons that has blanketed the land of Boletaria, the place basically needs saving and fast. You and a bunch of other would be heroes answer the call and attempt to put an end to the hordes of demons and whatever nightmarish beast that's brought them forth. The game's five massive regions vary is scope, visual variety and challenge intensity, but by the time you reach the sickly maliciousness of The Valley of Defilement, you'll have been well versed in the game's live or die mechanics (yet still in for some very nasty surprises).
Movement and combat are excellently elegant. Unlike Capcom's fun yet frustrating Monster Hunter games with their arcane button combos required for different weapons, fighting here is streamlined for more realistic ease of use. Trying to fiddle with too many buttons will only get you killed faster and From's control system is perfect. Everything you pick up, wear or carry has weight, and that along with your total stamina actually affects how well you fight. King's Field, Shadow Tower and Eternal Ring fans will get (and appreciate) this right away; others will need to quickly adjust to this more realistic style of action gameplay. In a nod to online games, there's no Pause feature, so anything you need to do before you alert a group on monsters needs to be taken care of beforehand. That includes real-life bathroom breaks, folks.
Try and play like you're Conan the Barbarian and you'll be losing your body (and any collected souls) more often than you'd like. Enemies and hazards reset to their initial positions when you die or retreat back to the hub area, so you'll need to plow through all the monsters you killed and traps you've overcome until you reach the bloodstain that signifies where you died last. By the way, those souls you'll be collecting are the game's experience points and dying once means you'll need to hoof it all the way back to your bloodstain in order to reclaim those souls. Die before you reach that stain and all your hard work is lost for good. The only consolation here is at least you'll get the chance to earn back all that hard work by doing it all over again. Not the dying part, though.
Here's where the online mode makes the game a lot more intriguing and actually informative. By going online, you or other players can leave messages on the ground that warn of danger ahead, point out a shortcut or lead you in the direction of important gear you'd probably miss. By touching other players' bloodstains, you can see the last few seconds of their avatar's life, a very helpful guide... most of the time. In some areas where there are a few stains, you'll simply see a player's image drop dead on the spot or in some of the more amusing deaths, walk off a ledge and fall to a painful demise. Playing online is very much like having a living strategy guide where you learn from others' mistakes or become a teacher to others by your own deaths.
Additionally, by using Blue, Red, White or Black Eye Stones, you can summon other live players to help out, join another game world, dismiss a summoned player or players or even invade someone's game space for some PvP action. There's no voice chat here, just emote gestures (and text chat in the final retail build) that are simple and again, effective in communicating the basics. This isn't a game where you really need to chat it up anyway. If you're needing help with a boss or other tough area, your "party" pretty much needs to rely on their own skills, any messages left by previous players and any bloodstain replays in order to make it through alive.
As in a few of From's older RPGs, there are a handful of NPCs to interact with, some more helpful than others. Not all these guys and gals are meant to be entirely helpful, so paying very close attention to the conversations you have (as well as stopping by the game's hub to check on things every now and then) becomes as important as dispatching monsters. The game packs in quite a few surprises as you sally forth again and again. There's not a ton of lengthy exposition here, but the game packs a few emotional moments in where it counts. Of course, there are a few annoying personalities that tend to need a bit of battlefield protection or other assistance during the game, but I'll let you find out who these folks are for yourself.
As a longtime From fan, I knew the game was going to look great, but once you see it in action or more precisely, play it in your living room, Demon's Souls is simply an incredible visual experience. There's a handcrafted look to everything from the character models to the despairingly detailed environments that you'll want to explore every inch of (well, sometimes). The maps invite the curious with hidden passages, locked gates and plenty of darkened passages, but many of these areas are inhabited by incredibly strong creatures that can and will chase you down once alerted. You can trick some of these creeps into falling off high ledges, crashing into immovable objects or running into traps. However, most of the time you'll probably be screaming like a schoolgirl as you hoof it to safety... before being ganked in the back by an arrow or spear or worse, tumbling to your doom or stepping on that trap you avoided on the way.
The sound production is also fantastic and plays an important role in the game experience. You learn early on that listening for telltale monster sounds can mean the difference between life and a very quick death. There are a number of unearthly ambient sounds, aural environmental elements and more to give you second thoughts about even walking through certain doorways or merely creeping around a corner. Combine this with some truly unsettling music by Shunsuke Kida and you get a game that's not too far removed from the best horror games out there. Oh, that Mature rating is more for some coarse language more than it is for tons of gore. There is some blood and a few chunky bits in the game, but the difficulty level, overall sense of dread and frequent scares should make this one a game you'll want to keep the younger kids away from.
As for online modes, the review build I got was set up for private servers, but I actually avoided using them because I'd rather experience the game with new and old players who aren't tasked with writing about the experience*. That, and I first played a chunk of the import version online thanks to a friend that had imported it and needed a ton of help as it was his first experience with a game so challenging. Amusingly enough, although I'd introduced him to King's Field and a few other From games, even I wasn't expecting the insanely tough experience the game throws at you right from the start. The online experience was generally excellent (meaning we only got raided a handful of times by black phantoms and actually got help from others), with plenty of helpful players leaving messages or even dropping in to assist with a tough fight or two.
*(In other words, I'll be buying a retail copy of the game just to play again, perhaps with some of you folks. Which is a really rare deal for a big single-player gamer like yours truly.)
My complaints are few: some of the Havok physics are a bit wonky at times, unless you read the manual, you don't realize that quitting the game at any time auto saves your exact status as well as the status of any monsters on the map and sometimes tapping X can cause you to go into a silly emote gesture as a monster is bearing down on you (Mommy!). Nevertheless, you'll probably find yourself staring at a doorway, down a tunnel or over a precarious drop wondering if you dare go another step and what will happen if you do. Especially if you've just bested a room full of death and don't want to do it all over again if you die. Then, some Black Phantom comes up behind you (or perhaps that one monster that you missed) and guess what... you're doing it all over again anyway...
There's a ton of other good stuff I didn't mention (The crazy amount of New Game + modes you get and all the crazier levels of challenge they bring, for starters), but hell, this is absolutely one of those great games where each player needs to find out everything they can on their own time. Atlus does it yet again with another solid as a rock RPG. Whether it's the Regular or Collector's Edition you're eyeballing, just buy it and thank me later. Demon's Souls is hands-down one of the best games on any platform this year and hopefully, From will be energized enough to either cook up a sequel or dive back into its history and cook up a new King's Field, Shadow Tower or other top-drawer RPG experience. Hell, Sony's upcoming motion control practically screams out for From to make something supremely cool with it in my opinion.
Screen shot Galleries can be found here and here.