Saturday, January 2, 2010

Demon's Souls - Not For The Innocent

Demon's Souls is the latest RPG offering from Japanese developer From Software, whose repertoire include the legendary King's Field games for PS1 and PS2, which was a game series that myself and maybe ten other gamers in the world just loved. Rarely does a game that is so panned by critics and players find a niche audience that "gets it", but the King's Field games were just that, and the torch has now been gloriously passed to Demon's Souls.

Oddly, though, this time the critics are on board - most reviews are very favorable, but caution the masses that the game is notoriously difficult and brutally punishing. All of this is true, of course, but it's hardly news to those of us who've survived King's Field, King's Field 2, and King's Field: The Ancient City.

And it's not that the challenge comes from out-of-scale difficulty with the enemies you fight, or frustrating game mechanics. From's RPGs are masterpieces of environmental menace, of music and mood mixed to create despairing landscapes and spirit-crushing set pieces. These worlds are then coupled with a disciplined learning curve where no quarter is given to the unwary. There's a short tutorial at the start, but no coddling from that point onward. Each level thereafter is a test of the player's ability to cautiously engage it, study it, and react to it - and it's a pass/fail test.

Failure and death means restarting the entire section in soul form, the big downside of which is that the player has half of his hit points. The other big downside (there are few "small" consequences in this game) is that the player loses all collected souls earned up to that point from killing enemies. To get them back, the player must then fight their way back to the place they fell and touch their bloodstain. Failure to do that - dying again, that is, means all those souls go bye-bye. And resurrection does not mean going back to town and paying a healer. Oh no, the only way to revive and return to full health is either by using a hard-to-find gem or by beating a boss. So, much of the exploration will probably be done in soul form, and most players will just get used to it.

But these are just the rules of the game. Like the game's combat moves, like each enemy's and boss' strengths and weaknesses, once these rules are learned and obeyed, the exploration and discovery that awaits is breathtaking. From a safe central Nexus (which contains the mechanisms for level/spell/equipment advancement) the player goes forth to five distinct sections, each with at least three areas of its own, ending with a major boss battle.

In these areas the player will encounter all manner of menaces, from soldiers to monsters, to mini-bosses, and traps. The first area is one mammoth castle, which in addition to the garrison of guards awaiting the player, has a pair of pesky fire-breathing dragons to add to the mix. They tend to watch the bridges in these areas. Another area is a deep mine, another a swampy pit of poison, and so on. Each is different enough to add to the depth of the game and littered with special surprises.

Along the way there's plenty of loot to be had, some of which encourages exploration and minor puzzle-solving. There are some NPCs left in this broken world, too, some to sell the player mid-level supplies, some to be rescued, and some to be a pain in the ass. There's a loot bank guy back at the Nexus, too, who can store items, but inexplicably none of the shops buy items from the player. The game economy is based on the same souls the player collects from defeating foes, so decisions about levelling, learning spells, or upgrading equipment all must be carefully shared and considered from the same economic pool.

Certain NPC events and expereinces, as well as the use of certain items, are irreversable in a single playthrough, so decisions one makes have a heavier impact. The game's constant autosave system does not allow for saving before a critical moment, failing at it, and restarting at that save. One can quit and save almost anywhere in a section, though, so resuming at a later time doesn't mean restarting that whole section.

All of this standard but harsh RPG stuff is executed quite well, but it's still standard. Where Demon's Souls veers into new worlds of innovation is in its application of online features into what one might otherwise mistake for a single-player game. Assuming the player has the PS3 hooked up to the internet, these features are all there once the game is started up and hooked up to the Demon's Souls server.

Players can see ghost images of other players curently playing in the same section. Touching a player bloodstain on the ground shows the ghost player's death, which can reveal traps and other ways to die that lie in wait. Players can leave messages on the ground for other players, filled with useful warnings and such, and if other players recommend a message one leaves behind, the writer receives a health boost. And there's a really cool hall of heroes display in the Nexus showing the most advanced players in the world. I'll never make it there.

But wait, there's more. Players can travel to each other's games cooperatively, or even competetively. Co-op means sharing the souls and the resurrection when beating a boss. Competetive means that, while playing at full health, other players may invade your game with the intention of hunting you down, taking some of your souls, and resurrecting their own.

Not since the glorious early days of Ultima Online have I experienced such heart-pounding unsolicited PvP action. I've only dabbled in it, been invaded a few times, won a few and lost a few more, but it's an aspect of Demon's Souls that's not to be missed, and adds not only suspense and challenge to the single-player game, but replay value for future sessions.

Demon's Souls is a masterpiece of mood and suspense, a unique gem in a generation of games that while often amazing, are timid when it comes to risky innovation. Only From Software could make a game like this, and only certain players will find the level of commitment within themselves to embrace the unquestionable challenge that this title represents. It's not for everyone, but it is for anyone who wants something different and can approach the difficulty with a cautious level of humility. Players who meet these qualifications will find the rewards that Demon's Souls offers unlike those from any other gaming experience currently on the market.

No comments: