If you are easily frustrated, you may as well just move along, because you’ll want no part of the PS3 exclusive, Demon’s Souls. Even if you’re not-so-easily frustrated, you may want to reconsider going anywhere near it. It’s a brilliant, exquisitely crafted action RPG, one of the most unusual and rewarding gaming experiences currently available, but make no mistake: This game wants to make you cry. Not in a death of Aeris kind of way, but in a school bully kind of way.
The tone of Demon’s Souls is set at the end of its tutorial, when it kills you. Your soul is then sent to the Nexus, which serves as a hub for the different areas you’ll visit in your quest to rid the world of demons. The denizens of the Nexus are a pessimistic lot, with most of them telling you that you’re about to die. This isn’t hyperbole for the sake of storytelling, this is an accurate analysis of the game you’re about to play. You will die, and die a lot, and if you’re not OK with that, you should probably just move on.
Dying isn’t the hardship you’d expect it to be, though; as Miracle Max might say, you’re only mostly dead. You can still do everything you could when you were alive, you just have less health at your disposal. Your health bar is permanently depleted at least one quarter (by half until you find a Cling Ring), and can only be completely restored if you earn your body back. Fortunately, killing the boss at the end of a level will restore your corporeal form. Unfortunately, getting to said boss and encouraging it to shuffle off the mortal coil is a somewhat Herculean task. Each level is littered with traps, falls, and enemies, many of which can kill you with a single stroke. The bosses themselves are enormous but, ironically, their straightforward nature usually makes them far less stressful than the legions of monsters that came before them.
Demon’s Souls is more than a little roguelike by nature; when you die, you lose the souls you’ve collected by killing enemies (you get to keep your items, though) and return to the start of the level. It can be incredibly frustrating, but as punishing as Demon’s Souls may be, it’s also fair. If you can make it back to the bloodstain marking the spot where you died, you get your souls back. As you make your way through the level, you’ll also open doors and flip switches that will help create shortcuts from the starting point to areas deeper within in the level. Enemies will regenerate, but once a door is open, it stays open, a fact you’ll undoubtedly appreciate the fourth, fifth, or tenth time you attempt to clear an area.
You’ll also be glad for the chance to get those souls back. Souls are the game’s currency, and you’ll use them to buy items, repair armor, upgrade your weapons, and even level up. Upping your stats is simply a matter of buying points, which you can do as soon as you have enough souls. The price for a stat point goes up every time you buy one, but you can use them however you like. Vitality, Luck, Magic, Faith – you can mold your character however you like, so long as you have the souls to spend. It’s an interesting technique, especially when combined with the diverse assortment of starting characters the game provides. Given the freedom with which you can upgrade your stats, I’m not sure there’s any such thing as a “good” or “bad” character, but you will certainly need an assortment of skills to survive, so choose wisely.
Demon’s Souls‘s multiplayer mode adds to the game’s unique flavor. You can join with other players in the hopes of evening out the insane difficulty curve, or, if you’re feeling a bit more antagonistic, you can invade another player’s game and try to kill him. If you manage to put him to the sword, you get your body back, but if you don’t, you drop a soul level and lose a point off your highest stat. It sounds like an invitation for obnoxious players to invade other games just for the sake of killing people, but only players who are alive can be invaded, and if you can hang on to your body for more than a few minutes, you are either very lucky or very, very skilled. In either case, you should be able to dispatch any would-be invaders. It’s worth noting that the game has no Friend or Chat system, so whether you’re buddying up or on the attack, you’ll almost assuredly be doing it with strangers.
Playing online also lets you see the messages that other players have left around the world, which are usually hints or warnings about what you’re about to encounter. Don’t worry – you create a message by choosing words and phrases from a robust template system that while providing plenty of freedom to describe a player’s impending doom is virtually useless when it comes to describing their mom. Messages not only provide hints about strategy, they also make you feel like part of a team – The Players vs. Demon’s Souls. In the midst of such a brutal beatdown, it’s nice to feel like someone – even an anonymous stranger – has your back.
Bottom Line: Demon’s Souls is equal parts aggravating, cruel, and punishing, but it’s also extremely satisfying and rewarding. Yes, you’ll cry bitter tears after dying for the umpteenth time, but when you finally do make it past the whatever-it-is that’s been pummeling you for hours, you feel positively godlike.
Recommendation: In case I haven’t made it clear yet, do not play this game if you’re not ready to embrace failure. If you can stand the challenge, however, you’ll find a true treasure of an experience awaits you.
Susan Arendt can’t decide which she prefers putting on her halberd: turpentine or sticky white stuff.