In recent years, it seems the idea of making deaths less detrimental to the player has gained popularity. Most games these days have checkpoints often and dying is only a slight inconvenience. Some games take this to an extreme and have checkpoints so often that death becomes meaningless and players have no qualms with jumping off ledges just to see what is down there. Demon’s Souls is a stark departure from this trend. Dying in Demon’s Souls is extremely meaningful, and extremely easy to the point that Demon’s Souls is probably the first game in a long time to legitimately make me feel afraid, which is quite impressive when you remember that it isn’t even considered a part of the Survival Horror genre.
Demon’s Souls has a surprisingly minimalist approach to storytelling, considering that it is commonly thought of as a JRPG. There's a backstory for your actions, but there's no story that's slowly told through cutscenes throughout the game. The Kingdom of Boletaria is led by King Allant XII who channeled the power of souls to bring Boletaria great prosperity and wealth. This was not without consequence though, and soon a deep black fog came over the kingdom and cut it off from the rest of the world. It seems that King Allant XII has awakened the Old One and demons took over his land. The fog slowly spread and it was evident that it would eventually creep across and envelop the entire world.
Many adventurers were drawn to the demon-ridden Boletaria, whether to prove their heroism or take the power of the demons’ souls contained within, including some of the most famous and powerful heroes from across the globe, but none had ever returned once they stepped foot into the fog. This is where you come in. You have been summoned by the Maiden in Black in order to find King Allant XII and lull the Old One back to its slumber to save Boletaria and presumably the rest of the world. The story is not explicitly told more than this, but the entire game works well with the backstory to create an oppressive atmosphere and you can talk to the other non-demon residents of Boletaria to find out more.
After hearing the backstory you are put into a character editor like those commonly seen in current WRPG’s. You can customize your face to a surprising degree, but this seems pointless once you get into the game and find out that not only is it so dark that you won’t be able to make out the details, but most likely you will soon start wearing a full helmet that completely covers your face anyway. Class is probably the most important choice in this editor, but there is so much customization allowed through the leveling system later that all you really need to decide is whether you want to cast magic or fight physically and then pick a class based around that general decision.
The Maiden in Black then summons you to the Nexus, which serves as the game's hub world. This is the only place in Boletaria where you can relax without the constant threat of death. From here, you can choose from 5 different worlds to explore with multiple levels in each world. Battles are in real time and control like a slower version of other Action RPGs, with the exception that dodging and mitigating damage is much more important in Demon's Souls. You have to be cautious against each foe and watch for the opportune time to attack, because most enemies will kill you in surprisingly few hits. There are almost no enemies that you can mindlessly swing your sword at without thinking as even a swarm of rats was enough to kill me when I was unprepared. Strategy is especially important when it comes to the boss fights that cap each level. Most of these bosses can kill you in two hits without breaking a sweat and take thorough planning and a quick reaction time to overcome. Beating these greater demons is one of the most satisfying experiences of Demon’s Souls.
If you succeed in killing your opponent, you will be rewarded with whatever items they decided to drop, as well as their souls. Souls are the currency as well as experience in the game and can be used to buy supplies, upgrade equipment, and level your character depending on what you feel is most necessary. Leveling your character is done at the Maiden in Black. For a certain number of souls, you can increase a single base stat which will then affect things like how much you can carry, how much health you have, or your resistance to various status ailments. Each level you increase will cost more and more, so while the first few levels may only cost one thousand or so souls, the last few I got before completing the game cost me closer to 27,000.
If, however, your foe gets the better of you, you'll come back at the beginning of the level as a soul with half health (early in the game you’ll find a ring that will increase this to ¾ health), and lose all of your unspent souls. Most of the game will be spent in soul form since you can only recover your body with a relatively rare item or by killing the boss at the end of a level. You can recover the souls you lost if you can reach the place you died, but if you die again on the way there then they will be completely lost. All of these make death in Demon's Souls the most punishing I’ve seen in a game in recent years. This, along with how easy it is to die, helps it earn the reputation it has received as one of the most difficult games ever. Saving is done automatically with one of the most frequent and unobtrusive autosave functions I have ever seen. It is constantly saving and yet you’ll never notice.
Going into a new area in Demon’s Souls is one of the most intense experiences you can have in gaming. You are extremely cautious with every step, slowly walking with your shield up and ready to counter the next unseen opponent’s swing. Shields cannot protect you from everything though, as there are also environmental traps that can destroy the unwary. This forces you to stay aware of your surroundings as you walk slowly through the level, listening for the crack of the floor underneath you giving way or watching out for a boulder rolling down the stairs you are climbing. Listening to your surroundings acutely also helps make the setting even creepier as you hear the wails of the enemies around you or the distant opera of a strange shopkeeper NPC.
The presentation of Demon’s Souls definitely helps to foster this oppressive atmosphere. Many of the levels are so dark that you can barely see what is coming, and others are filled with winding corridors with plenty of places for enemies to wait and ambush you. The technical aspect of the presentation kind of falls flat, though, with frequent framerate issues, especially when you are breaking a number of objects at once. The graphics also don’t look fantastic when you examine them closely, and there is no lip synching whatsoever when talking to NPCs. The soundtrack is subdued most of the time and picks up during the boss fights. It isn’t anything particularly great, but works well for ambiance. Voice-overs are amazing, considering they remain the same from the Asian release. All of the characters have voices that fit in well with the overall game, and only a few lines throughout the game really hit me as sounding flat.
Although it somewhat goes against the back story that sets you up as the lone savior of Boletaria, you do not actually play the game in a vacuum all by your lonesome. Whenever you play Demon’s Souls, you are online with the entire community of players who all work together to defeat this beast of a game (most of the time anyway). Every once in a while you will see the ghostly image of another player fighting through the same level that you are. Along the ground you will often notice blood splatters that you can walk up to and activate with the X button. These will replay the death of some other adventurer and are a great way to see traps or enemy ambushes before you are caught in them yourself. You can also write and read messages on the ground that act as hints for other adventurers. Hints can be rated which will help players know which ones are the most important and should definitely be heeded, as well as rewarding the message writer with souls whenever someone rates his message up. All of these make for a strange sense of community in a game where you can never actually talk to another person.
Not all of the online interactions are done from a distance though. When in soul mode you can actually enter the world of another player to help or hinder them. By using an item you can put down a Black or Blue soul symbol on the ground. If a player who has his body is in the same world you put your black soul symbol down in and they are an appropriately similar level to you then you can invade their world as a black soul. As a black soul you can attack the player you have invaded whenever you like, slowly stalking them and waiting for the opportune moment to kill them. If you succeed in killing them you get your body back, but if you fail you are unceremoniously kicked back into your own world.
On the other hand, putting down a blue soul sign allows any player with their body and a similar level to see that symbol and summon you to their world to help them. Usually most of the souls gotten on this joint venture are given to the person hosting, but if you can succeed in helping the player kill a boss you are rewarded with your body. The host also rates the helpers he had and this information is included with the blue soul symbol. As a warning, the fact that you are always online means that pausing the game doesn’t actually stop the action, so there really is no safety in Demon’s Souls when you are outside the Nexus.
All of these online options come together to make a fantastic value package for Demon’s Souls. My first play through of the general campaign took me 31 hours, but this can vary wildly dependent on how many times you get stuck throughout the game. Once you complete the storyline, you are immediately put directly back into a New Game+ feature with all of your levels, equipment, and items left intact, but the enemies have been ramped up in damage and health. Once you complete that new game+ you can move into new game++ and so forth and so on until you reach the maximum soul level of 712 (for reference, I was around level 68 when I beat the game). Your actions determine the tendency of the worlds around you, which opens up certain paths and makes the enemies easier or more difficult allowing you to change up the experience for your third or fourth playthrough. The online options help to keep the experience fresh and allow you to play the game with a few friends if you put your blue soul symbol in a predetermined place with little foot traffic. My only qualm with the value that keeps it from being perfect is that there is only so much unique gameplay and a lot of the value comes from the amazing replay value.
Demon’s Souls is a strange experiment of community based action RPG gaming which makes for an experience that everyone should try out for themselves. You may shout swear words after your third death in a specific area or lament your lot in life when you are invaded while just trying to beat a level, but it makes the sense of satisfaction upon success that much more sweet. It has surprising value, a unique atmosphere, and fun gameplay, all of which help to offset the lack of polish in the presentation. It won’t be for everyone, but if you are willing to put up with some heart rending moments of frustration, you can get a great gaming experience out of Demon's Souls.