As technology advances, many of today’s games have been pushing more and more towards simple interactive storytelling. The need to obtain the same level of respect as Hollywood blockbusters is a carrot that seems to eternally dangle in the faces of the industry’s biggest publishers. That’s fine. There’s certainly a lot of potential to tell some great stories using the medium, but it seems that an increasing number of games are dropping what was once a crucial piece of a good game: the challenge. Not everyone is willing to invest the time to learn the rules and build the skills required to topple the monolithic games of yesteryear, so there’s a lot of fear of alienating a large portion of the market that wants their interactive experience handed to them. That’s fine, too, but I feel it’s a waste of the medium. There’s a lot of power in making the player work for their story’s conclusion, there’s a better connection to the narrative when you’re forced to actually endure its trials, and few games demonstrates this power quite as well as Demon’s Souls.
LET STRENGTH BE GRANTED
Starting as it means to go on, Demon’s Souls casts you as a warrior who has pierced the sinister colourless fog surrounding the besieged kingdom of Boletaria only to be killed. Rather than that being the end of it, your soul is ripped from your body and deposited in the Nexus, a prison for the soul devouring Old One and a central point connecting five different lands. You’re tasked with helping an enigmatic candle maiden lull the Old One back to sleep by defeating powerful demons and taking their souls to become more powerful.
Despite how simplistic that may sound, the narrative is actually pretty nebulous. Demon’s Souls largely eschews cutscenes when telling its story. There are some – a few expository slideshows and establishing shots – but for the most part, the plot unfolds through small snippets of occasionally cryptic dialogue and flavour text attached to the game’s many items. It may be a bit anaemic for some gamers that are used to most modern games that are scripted up to the collar, but those willing to actually do some digging into the game’s lore are likely to find a satisfying amount of depth and backstory. It would probably be inaccurate to say the narrative is central to the game, but it’s there for those that seek it.
A CHANGE OF SCENERY
The environments themselves largely overshadow the narrative. While the game begins in the grey, winding corridors and walkways of Boletaria, it’s not long before the other areas open up and the real game begins. The nexus that binds you is a central hub for the game’s worlds which include a deep and claustrophobic mine, a darkened asylum and its neighbouring towers, a shrine built into a tremendous mesa, and a murky swamp filled with criss-crossing makeshift structures. Few other characters inhabit these worlds, but the ones you do encounter have their own interesting backstories, each wandering for different reasons. It’s a lonely and treacherous world, one whose ruins and monsters tell a story of their own.
Capping off each slice of level is one of the game’s fantastic boss battles. While some of these are pretty straightforward battles against big dudes, the most fascinating ones feature opponents with specific weaknesses or strategies required to topple them. One of the more memorable bouts requires you to pick up a special weapon in the environment, and the sense of empowerment that comes from wielding it is incredible. Others will have you tiptoeing around to avoid detection or hacking at a specific spot until the baddie takes a fall and gives access to its weak point. Even the more straightforward bosses are a thrill to fight and provoke a sense of adrenaline-filled intensity that I can’t recall ever feeling outside some of the trickier classics of the 8 and 16-bit consoles and computers.
Blended into this is a rather unusual multi-player system that has you interacting with other players in a number of temporary measures. When connected to the central server, notes and bloodstains left by other players can be found littering the ground. The notes can alert you to secret areas, hidden items, or warn of difficult enemies, while the bloodstains allow you to view the last moments of a fellow adventurer as they suffer their sometimes amusing fate. On top of this is the more conventional cooperative and player-versus-player mechanics. While clinging to their human form, players can summon up to three teammates to assist them, but they are also open to invasion from the more malicious players. This is all voluntary, but some of the game’s more memorable moments are linked to player interaction.
YOU HAVE A HEART OF GOLD. DON’T LET THEM TAKE IT FROM YOU.
The reputation that surrounds Demon’s Souls is that it’s an extremely difficult game, which is an assessment that I find to be inaccurate. If the measurement of a game’s difficulty is how many times the player fails in attempting a challenge, then Demon’s Souls doesn’t come close to some of its contemporaries. During my various playthroughs of the game, it was rare that I’d fail on a boss or in the midst of a level more than four of five times. What Demon’s Souls is, I’d argue, is an unforgiving game. Most likely, its reputation originates from how seriously it treats death.
Dying in Demon’s Souls carries quite a number of repercussions. The most obvious is that you’re immediately kicked back to the last archstone that you spawned from, forcing you to make the perilous trip back through the level. To make things more harrowing, you drop your entire stock of the game’s main currency; souls. Souls are used to both level up and buy items from the various shopkeepers. When you die, you drop them all near the place of your demise, and if you fail to return to them without dying again, you lose them forever. As though that weren’t troublesome enough, you’re also stripped of your corporeal form and reduced to just your soul, which has the drawback of a halved healthbar. To get your body back, you’ll either need to defeat one of the game’s bosses, assist another player in defeating a boss, or simply use a rare and limited item. To top all this off, there’s also the matter of world tendency, a rather poorly explained mechanic that has the various worlds become more or less perilous depending on how successful you are. The point is: do everything you can to avoid dying.
That’s easier said than done. The world of Demon’s Souls demands a great deal of situational awareness. The levels are fraught with traps of a wide variety that prey on the unsuspecting adventurer. Running towards an enemy that waits patiently at the end of a hallway is a good way to get ambushed. Failure to notice environmental cues can result in yet another embarrassing death. Attacking an enemy without first observing their attack patterns often ends with another flattened would-be hero. Underestimate even the lowliest of enemies and you may find yourself cornered without means of defense. Demon’s Souls isn’t always friendly about its hazards – a lot of bosses carry in their arsenal moves so damaging they could be described as insta-kills – but being cautious goes a long way in avoiding the frustration that comes from repeated deaths.
It can be an alienating experience, as frustration is almost unavoidable. Even the first level of the game is long, meandering, and so packed with peril that some give up before even completing it.
Most people who have experienced Demon’s Souls, or whatever their entry point to the Souls series was, like to cite a moment where everything finally clicks for them; a moment where the game’s design philosophy finally makes sense. For me, it was blundering my way through a level, absolutely turgid with souls I had unwisely been hording, and finding myself face to face with a particularly intimidating boss. In the moment I found myself looking upward at the hulking behemoth, I knew my only way out was to take the boss down; defeat wasn’t an option. No game has ever instilled such a tangible fear of death in me. It was at that moment that I finally understood the genius that underlies all its mechanics.
While technically a spiritual successor to the somewhat obscure King’s Field series, when stood next to the tutorial filled, cutscene packed games of today, Demon’s Souls looks and feels as though it were developed in a vacuum. Few games have managed to make death feel so significant, and fewer have been able to so deftly utilize negative reinforcement to do so. It pulls it all off so effortlessly, wraps it all in deep and flexible character building, and tops it all off with some truly imaginative and unforgettable boss battles. It’s an outstanding game, bordering on genius, and while not everyone will dig its uninviting demeanor, I feel that everyone experienced in the hobby should at least try it.
This review was conducted on a physical copy of the original PS3 game. Purchased by the author.