Back in the olden days, when controllers only had a d-pad and all characters looked like they were put together with melted LEGOs, there were things called “console-exclusive games.” Little kids would argue for hours over the merits of Mario or the superiority of Sonic. Nowadays, with the number of console exclusives dwindling, children and dirty, lonely, sad men are forced to defend their choice of console using more dubious qualities, such as the fact that the PS3 is more sleek and sexy or that the Xbox 360 has more utility as a bludgeoning weapon. Thus, when an actual exclusive emerges it is met with much fanfare, as crusaders for the system gather to welcome it, offering it sacrifices of pigs and virgins (which I’m assuming are culled from their own ranks). Demon’s Souls, an action RPG exclusive to the PS3, was thus met with such a fervor that every Playstation fanatic wept tears of joy upon its release, and lauded it so highly that it led me to believe that its release signified the end times for the lowly Wii and Xbox 360, which would be doomed to rot in the pit of forgotten consoles alongside the Dreamcast, the Neo-Geo, and the Game Toaster Advance (a short-lived console that would cook your game cartridges). All of the praise was somewhat shocking, then, when I actually got around to playing it and found the time I spent playing with it only slightly more enjoyable than time spent playing with a hornet’s nest.
Even the banner secretly hates you.
The story is a key component for any RPG, and I can definitely say that the story in this game is not bad by any stretch of the imagination. However, I wouldn’t say that the story in Demon’s Souls is bad for the same reason that I wouldn’t say a bald man has bad hair or my cat has an awful flying unicycle, and that is because I tend not to criticize things that don’t exist. You play as (insert name here), a (insert class here) from (seriously you don’t have the slightest bit of backstory). Some king has apparently messed up pretty bad and has awoken The Old One, which in this case isn’t just a euphemism for prescribing someone Viagra. A fog has now consumed the kingdom of Boleteria, and everyone in it and the surrounding lands have completely disappeared. Loads of warriors, magicians, Steve Irwin, and other people that are terrible at pattern recognition have gone into it in an effort to find out what is going on and have never returned. Your character, latest in the long line of people that have either apparently lost the will to live or underwent a recent lobotomy decides he or she will be the one to sort things out and dives into the fog.
That rousing summary I gave you is essentially almost all the story the game gives you, with another minute-long cutscene after you complete the first level and one of similar length near the end of the game. I’m not sure if they were trying to save money by having one of the programmers write out the story on the back of a napkin during a lunch break, but I’ve encountered more complex tales etched into bathroom doors. I would call it generic, but there isn’t even enough here for it to qualify as that. It is like the Cliffs Notes version of a generic RPG that has had half of its pages ripped out.
With the story having gone AWOL (after chloroforming the character development and plot and shoving them in the trunk of its 1984 Buick), the primary selling point appears to be the gameplay. The aspect that generated a lot of buzz for the game was the draconian difficulty. Gamers nowadays have gotten spoiled and lazy, and difficulty is something that has gone the way of text-based adventures and good Sonic games. Thus, when people told me that Demon’s Souls was difficult, I sort of chuckled to myself because that simply couldn’t be true. It would be completely anachronistic; it would be like if someone told me they were taking their horse-drawn buggy to work, or that they had just bought a fresh meat pie at the local bakery for a nickel and two ha’ pennies or that someone saw a recent picture of Madonna and she looked attractive and not like someone stuck a partially melted potato on a lumpy sack of garbage. Some things just aren’t true anymore and haven’t been true for twenty years, and a game being truly difficult is just something I couldn’t believe. Thus, I put the game in and prepared myself for what people had adorably described as “difficulty.”
And the game crushed my face for my foolish hubris. Initially, the game was brutal. It knocked my teeth out with the blunt end of a sword, and then paid for my rather expensive dental reconstruction only for the pleasure of subsequently knocking them out again. It broke my fingers and my arms in such a way that I was constantly giving myself the middle finger. It peed in the upper part of my toilet, de-alphabetized my game collection, and farted in my dinner just because it could. Saying Demon’s Souls is hard is misleading; you wouldn’t label a ski slope as “hard” if it was nothing but a cliff into a pit of fire and baby vomit. The game drops you off in a little practice world, teaching you what buttons do what and holding you by the hand so you don’t get scared. And then it throws you into a boss fight with a giant creature that can kill you in one hit. Why? Because Demon’s Souls wasn’t hugged as a child, so it wants to make sure you never know the warmth of safety again. That’s why.
But don’t worry, that is a supposed-to-lose fight. You soon get thrown into the actual game world. And it’s harder. You’ll die a lot in the very first area while you’re still getting acclimated to the controls. Most games use the first level as a sort of gentle introduction, allowing the player to get familiar with the controls and preparing them for greater challenges later in the game. Demon’s Souls uses the first level to generate enough corpses to use as fertilizer for the world’s largest vegetable garden (of sadness). And, hey, there’s good news! The game doesn’t end if you die! You get respawned in soul form. This is exactly the same as body form, except you have half health and are killed twice as quick. And I have even better news! You can get restored to body form at any time! By completely clearing an area and killing the boss monster. And the good news just keeps coming, because you can also use some rare items to restore you to body form. And, hey, you can just keep using the items to restore you to body form with no penalty at all. Unless, you die, because that turns the world tendency toward black and makes all the enemies harder. And if you can’t make it back to the spot you died you lose all the experience you accrued. And in body form other players will invade your world while you’re just trying to get to the boss monster and try to kill you. And if you complain one more damn time the game is going to GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO COMPLAIN ABOUT I SWEAR TO GOD.
While the game was having its fun demolishing my kitchen and kicking my dog before I had even completed the first world, I began to form the impression that I was playing the hardest game I ever encountered. But after a couple of hours I realized the game wasn’t actually hard at all, it was just incredibly inconvenient. Imagine any inconvenience you’ve ever encountered in a game, and there is an extremely good chance Demon’s Souls has found a way to incorporate it into gameplay. Do you have friends that sometimes call you? Have you ever found yourself needing to do something in the middle of game, like answer the door or put out a small fire? Are you a human being that, from time to time, needs to evacuate your bowels or risk soiling your pants, or bed sheet if you’ve given up on life and just lounge around the house naked? If so, you’ve probably found the ability to “pause” your game quite useful. Demon’s Souls takes all of these needs into consideration, and shoves them into a sack of garbage before lighting it on fire and then catapulting the huge flaming mess into your childhood home.
While this might look like a pause screen, rest assured it is only hiding your character while skeletons ravage his body.
The lack of a pause button is just the tip of the annoying iceberg, which (if you don’t know) is the phenomenon when a little piece of ice peaks above the water, concealing a larger mass of ice underneath in which Gilbert Gottfried is embedded. There is also no way to eliminate individuals invading your game, unless you opt out of the online feature all together or decide to remain in soul form forever. Most games allow you the choice of deciding when you might like some competitive gameplay, but in Demon’s Souls you have that decision made for you. Feel like some co-op gameplay, but you’re not interested in battling invaders on top of the hordes of foes already waiting for you? Too bad, because it is an all-or-nothing package. Demon’s Souls is like a petulant kid; play it the way it wants you to play or it is going to pick up its ball and go home. And then you have the fact that if you die, you lose your experience (unless you make it back to your corpse), all enemies regenerate, and you essentially have lost all the progress you’ve made. Strangely enough, the challenge in the game isn’t really a result of the enemies themselves. Almost all of them are beaten the same way: block (or dodge) then smash. Instead, the game has just been designed in such a way as to be as unfriendly to the player as possible instead of implementing any actual difficulty.
As you might imagine, all of these constraints do not make this a very friendly game to play and it certainly isn’t one you can play for ten minutes or so at a time if you just want to relax a bit. Demon’s Souls isn’t a game for someone who doesn’t have a lot of free time. Well, that’s not putting it quite right. Demon’s Souls isn’t a game for someone who has a job, a significant other, school, friends, a television, the Internet, or a functioning car. Hrm. That’s still not quite right. Demon’s Souls isn’t a game for someone who isn’t either living in a dungeon, lost at sea but still somehow capable of generating electricity, or play testing Demon’s Souls and being paid for it. Unless you are in the same predicament as either than man in the iron mask or Tom Hanks from Castaway, there are better games to spend your time with.
“Demon’s Souls? Eh…I’d rather count the bricks again.”
This all seems to be a result of a dedicated effort to make the game difficult, and while I do appreciate a challenge, there is a marked difference between something being challenging because it requires sufficient skill and tests your abilities, and something being challenging because the restraints that you are forced to operate under are draconian and downright stupid. For example, if someone asks you to chop down a tree with an axe, this provides a challenge as you must first learn how to use the axe and have the strength to cut through the bark. But if that same person now asked you to cut down the same tree with a butter knife while blindfolded, and if your line wasn’t straight they would force you to start over on a new tree, it is also challenging, but only because the person asking you to do so appears to be a villain from a Saturday morning cartoon and you belong to the worst lumberjack union in all of Canada. The designers of the game seem to have confused challenging the player with trolling them, and the words “lol u mad?” might as well have flashed whenever you got sent back to the Nexus.
Demon’s Souls: Brought to you by Troll Face
Besides the difficulty, another major selling point was the unique online play that differed from most standard multiplayer experiences. To counteract the aforementioned players that will invade your game with the sole purpose of murdering you and ruining your afternoon, the game also has some “helpful” online options as well. First, a player is allowed to join your game in order to help you through the level and fight off any of the nasty invading players you might encounter. Either by killing you (if you are a jerk face invader) or helping you to the end of a level (if you are boring and trying too hard to be liked), the game will reward the other player with their body back in their version of the game. The main problem here is that they usually will need to help you through the entire level in order to get their body back, while invading players only need to find and quickly kill you. The burden is far higher for a helpful player, so inevitably for every one nice guy looking to help you out you’ll encounter four or five that want to wreck your face.
The other aspect of online play comes from your ability to leave messages for other players throughout the levels, and for them to do the same for you. You can write hints on the floors to warn about upcoming enemies, how the players should prepare themselves, or what treasure can be found. If this sounds useful to you, it is only because you haven’t played the game yet. It sounds like a great idea, but you can only choose from a list of phrases, presumably because the programmers knew that without such a filter every other message would be “i farted” or racial epitaphs that even Mel Gibson would find offensive. As such, the amount of information you can give and get is extremely limited and is confined to “you’ll find…ahead” and “beware of…” and other messages that any players with eyes had probably already figured out on their own. The idea is flawed from the beginning, because the programmers are operating under the general assumption that the players aren’t jerks which is a sign to me that they’ve never played games online before. For every useful message you find, you’ll find three or four that are either incoherent or flat out wrong (and even more that say “beware of rear passage” or “sticky white stuff” in front of every single female character you come across, because clearly no one has thought of this hilarious joke before).
So far, I’ve described a game that has no story and has every intent to troll you until you quit and features a multiplayer mode that wavers between annoying and practically useless. Sold yet? No? Hm…you must still have your higher brain functions. Well, I suppose now would be a good time to say that the game isn’t all bad. Level design is top notch and the world really was expertly crafted. The best stages actually have little checkpoints, and while enemies respawn, a new gate or doorway will open up and allow you to bypass the earlier parts of the stage. Design and aesthetics in general is a strong suit of this game, and both the enemies and bosses are unique, memorable, and creepily designed enough to really fit the mood and tone of the game. The final boss, however, is almost an insult in how offensively awful and easy it is. The whole battle feels like one last attempt to troll the player, laughing as it throws out this feeble forgettable encounter as a way to cap off the game. It feels like I just finished climbing a mountain, and at the top all that was waiting for me was some trash and a giant sculpted middle finger.
Please enjoy this monument of our hatred for you.
Additionally, while the game itself is annoying, the battle mechanics and core gameplay are both well done enough to carry the game throughout all the various frustrations. There are a variety of short-range weapons, long-range weapons, and magic attacks that are all well balanced and keep combat interesting and fun. Combat is simple, but still intense due to the fact that one misplaced attack or missed block will cause you to reappear at the beginning of the level to start the whole thing all over again. Games like this tend to overpower magic to make the battles more of a formality than anything else, but Demon’s Souls maintains the balance of the spells being functional without completely breaking the game.
Still, while the game is somewhat fun and the combat system isn’t bad, it still isn’t enough to save the game. The battles are fun initially, but they do grow repetitive and tiresome before too long because most of them play out the same way, especially if you happen to have died in the level for the fourth time and are going through the exact same battles. What this game needed more than anything else was some sort of randomization in enemy location or type, because the way it was implemented makes the whole game feel like Groundhog Day where you are stuck fighting the same enemies over and over again if you lose. Like I said before, the fights in the game really aren’t that hard, and almost all enemies are defeated by rolling or blocking and then countering with an attack. There are really only one or two different attack styles for all enemies in the entire game, and once you figure them out things become pretty mindless.
Overall, Demon’s Souls is a game with a couple of good ideas that are so outnumbered by bad ideas that trying to enjoy them is like trying to find some hay in a needlestack. Hardcore RPG buffs looking for a challenge will probably find something to enjoy here, but this certainly isn’t meant for a casual crowd. It is actually somewhat funny to hear people defend this game, as it inevitably ends up sounding like they are in an abusive relationship. “It hurts me because it knows I’ll enjoy it,” “Whenever I get hurt, it is my fault, not the game’s. I should have been more careful,” and “I don’t know where that black eye came from. I must have fallen down the stairs” are all things you’ll hear, and if you are a good friend you’ll find this person a shelter as they clearly need some help. Demon’s Souls is best played wearing a leather mask, some sort of chaps, and a safe word. Still, despite everything that has been said about the difficulty, it isn’t even the game’s main problem. It just feels so empty and mindless, and despite a fairly well-executed battle system and some noteworthy boss fights, the game just isn’t very fun. While “soul” is right there in the title, it just doesn’t feel like this game has one of its own.