This game has been out in Japan and the US for quite some time now and received more than its fair share of attention, being cited as a new and unusual action RPG for its rock-hard challenge and unique online mode. In case you are wondering, both of those statements are true – Demon’s Souls really is quite unlike any other action RPG you might have played and it appears to be designed to make us cry blood.
The premise is that you are a hero who enters the destroyed kingdom of Boletaria to help the poor inhabitants deal with an infestation of soul-devouring demons. But don’t let this lame, anime-sounding premise deter you – it’s of minor importance. Upon starting the quest, the hero is quickly overwhelmed by a powerful demon and squished underfoot like an insignificant bug. After this, their spirit is transported to a place called the Nexus, where the souls of vanquished warriors can re-enter the realm of the living in an attempt to return to life, which they accomplish by defeating powerful demons and stealing their life force.
Right, so, in order to do this, you have to create your hero. Players have the choice of creating a male or female character, using a rather extensive custom face editor to get them looking just right. There are an impressive number of classes to choose from, including the knight, magician, hunter, barbarian, temple guardian and royalty to name but a few. These classes make a huge difference in the beginning because of their different abilities, stats and starting equipment, but – and the game even tells you this – in the long run, these all even out since there are no restrictions on how you develop your character. So you could start out with a mage, but continually invest in your strength attribute and become a sword-slinger on par with any knight. But, as I have said, in the beginning it makes a huge difference, and players should carefully consider how they wish to play because this game was purposefully designed to shatter your ego.
As the game begins, your character will be alive and healthy, but they won’t stay that way for long. Once you die and end up in the Nexus, your quest to reclaim your body begins. Initially only one world is available, but several more become available over the course of the game, offering new enemies, equipment and items. Each world has a number of sub-sections, usually presided over by a powerful boss. If you wish to reclaim your body, you’ll need to find and defeat a boss demon. The first is a creature called Phalanx, a demon that is weak against fire. Once you beat this boss, you are returned to life and the game opens up more. There are also items that players can use to return to life, but they are rare and should be used sparingly.
What this essentially means is that you have to be really, really careful to stay alive, and if you die, you’re doomed to wander the halls as a soul until your next boss encounter – unless you feel like using a rare Stone of Ephemereal Eyes to return to life. Now, unless I’ve completely missed something, I’m not rightly sure what the big difference between being alive and dead is. When you’re dead, you have half the amount of health that you do when alive, but are slightly more damaging in combat. You also glow, which I guess is supposed to indicate your ethereal form, but apart from that, you can still progress through the game in the same way and fight the same enemies without any difference. The only possible explanation I can think of is that it’s some kind of test of skill – let’s see if anyone can get through the game without dying once! Or something. Anyway, any time you die in the game, whether in living or soul form, you are shunted back to the beginning of the stage, and every damn creature you killed is back too. However, if you can reach the place where you died and touch your bloodstain, you can reclaim all of the souls you harvested by defeating enemies, which serve as money and experience points which you can use to buy new weapons, equipment and items and level-up your character.
So that’s the single player side of things, a rock-hard quest to defeat several demon-infested worlds. It plays well, but one stupid move can mean another death and another slog through the entire stage, but what really makes Demon’s Souls interesting is its bizarre online component. While the game technically remains a single-player experience online, you can temporarily request the aid of another player, in the form of a blue phantom, to help you get through a section you’re struggling with. If you’re feeling particularly malicious and want to return to life the quick and easy way, you can find and invade the game of another living player and attempt to kill them to take their life. Failing that, you can just do what most players do: leave messages scrawled all over the game worlds containing advice on tactics to beat enemies, warnings of upcoming ambushes, and directions to hidden caches of items and treasure. It’s really quite unusual and it works pretty well. If you perform particularly well in any aspect of the game, you might stand a chance to earn a place in the Pantheon: an area at the highest point of the Nexus containing statues of the top players and plaques detailing their achievements.
We definitely need more games like Demon’s Souls to inject a bit of creativity into the world of games development every now and then. I certainly wouldn’t recommend it anyone apart from hardcore action or RPG fans, but if that’s you, you’re in for something quite different.