Demon’s Souls

dir. Hidetaka Miyazaki
released October 6, 2009 by Atlus Games
developed by
From Software and SCE Japan Studio
written by Aditi Tana, Christopher Fairbank,
and Clare Corbet
original music by Shunsuke Kida
Demon’s Souls is available exclusively for PlayStation 3, and can be purchased in a variety of editions from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, and Amazon JP.

Note: Cover excepted, the images in this review were thieved from RPGFan.com – as such I’ve left their watermark intact.

As is readily evidenced by practically every article I sign my name to, I’m not exactly on the cutting edge of popular taste, be it with film, music, or in this case gaming. I’m also not much of a game critic, as should be obvious from the hefty slate of essays I’ve penned on the subject (this is the only other one thus far). Still, so much of my time is spent playing video games that I can’t help but wonder why I haven’t written more on them. But enough of my excuses. With domestic distributor Atlus Games recently announcing that the title’s North American servers were about to go offline for keeps, I decided it was high time to give this demon its due. Though it has certainly earned its reputation as one of the most uncompromising efforts ever to hit this console generation, such a reputation belies the greater qualities of the thing. Demon’s Souls is, to put it simply, one of the best games I’ve ever played, and worth remembering as a piece of its experience creeps towards an inevitable end.

Demon’s Souls’ narrative sounds more convoluted on paper than it actually is in practice. King Allant XII, growing old and increasingly mad, sought to bring power and prosperity to his kingdom Boletaria through the banned practice of the soul arts, but in his greed instead awakened the Old One – an ageless soul-devouring demon lulled to slumber eons earlier by a devoted few. Now a colorless fog has descended upon Boletaria, and with it the soul-hungry minions of King Allant and the Old One. The citizens and soldiers of the kingdom have been turned deathless, soulless slaves who challenge all outsiders with lethal force, and the fog is spreading, breaching the borders of Boletaria and threatening the rest of the world.

The player assumes the role of one among the condemned droves who seek to remedy Boletaria’s troubles, though whether for personal glory our out of genuine heroism is entirely up to the player. Things begin in the usual manner, with the player navigated about a simple level and taught the basics of combat, healing, and what have you – usual, that is, until an obese demon appears to unceremoniously smash the player to a pulp. The tutorial’s brutal conclusion grants players the single most important piece of advice they’ll receive for the game ahead. The creatures of Demon’s Souls can and will kill you, and you will die.

The real game begins after death, when the player finds that their character’s soul is anchored to the ancient Nexus – a massive shrine, in the depths below which lurks the Old One. There the player meets the Maiden in Black, a sightless demon who offers the player soul power ‘so the world might be mended’. From the ancient archstones of the Nexus the player can access the infested lands of Boletaria, from the prominence of Boletarian Palace to the plague-ridden depths of the Valley of Defilement, where the fun really begins…

Much has been said of Demon’s Souls difficulty, and with good reason. The learning curve is steep when it comes to dealing with new enemies, with each area of the kingdom possessing its own unique threats, and while the mechanics of combat are intuitive the game is very unforgiving of mistakes. To complicate matters further, attempting the game in soul form (as must be done in the first level) reduces the player’s health by as much as 50%, leaving even less room for error. The cost of carelessness is considerable. While any collected items are retained, collected souls  - the game’s currency – are lost upon death. The loss is temporary, provided you can reach the area of your demise and touch your own blood stain without dying again. Add to all this the lack of a pause function and the infrequency of checkpoints (they can only be found at the beginning or end of a level, with no save points in between) and you have a game whose potential to frustrate is astronomical.

This potential extends even to the side characters players meet along the way, several of whom are veritably overflowing with hopeless rhetoric (though at least these, unlike the lauded Skyrim‘s, blessedly only speak when spoken to). And who can blame them? Demon’s Souls definitely stacks the odds against, from the more obvious examples above to the comparably modest tedium of armor and weapons that demand constant repair, but the realization that must be made for the game to really be enjoyed is that it doesn’t do so to any cruel purpose (though cruel it can certainly appear at times). Demon’s Souls is ultimately about perseverance against such odds, either to save it all or take it all, and the satisfaction one can find along the way is palpable.

In terms of tone, for once the ‘dark fantasy’ designation is wholly appropriate. The narrative and back story are alive with a particularly Lovecraftian brand of dread, what with ominous demon-filled fog descending upon a corrupt vestige of humanity that didn’t know better than to leave well enough alone. Other moments, as when the player is creeping along, waste-deep in filth and plague babies (I’ll leave you to imagine those for yourself), to reach a saintly young woman who abandoned God and accepted a demon’s soul after He abandoned the afflicted dregs whose troubles she sought to ease, are of a very different sort of dark. Environments throughout are appropriately bleak, but beautifully composed, and no discussion of the game would be complete without honoring composer Shunsuke Kida’s contribution. Kida achieves wonders with a minimal orchestra, alternating regularly between minimal harp-fueled atmospherics and more brash, baroque passages, maintaining a thoroughly unique sound throughout. Perhaps more than any other individual element of the game, the score is excellent stuff, and makes it fully worth the effort to track down one of the releases that has the stand-alone soundtrack included.

Given the rest of what the game has to offer, the online aspect of Demon’s Souls is of relatively minor stuff, but even so its significance should not be underestimated. Aside from an intentionally limited messaging system and the ability to summon other players to assist in your quest (or invade other player’s games to regain your bodily form), those playing online will find the blood stains left by other player’s deaths, which can be touched to show their final moments in ghostly fashion, and see the transparent soul-forms of the other players running the same level. It’s this latter aspect, minor though it is, that I’ve found most significant in the times I’ve played. The world of Demon’s Souls is effectively barren of friend or humanity, and loaded for bare with things that singularly wish to murder you. It can be quite a lonely place in no uncertain terms, particularly when one considers the shear mass of time it may take to complete a play through (my first ran a lean 95 hours). The brief glimpses of other players involved in the same events as you provides a welcome pretense of camaraderie, a sense that you’re not so alone in this thing after all, regardless of the lack of any direct communication.

As of the end of May 31st of this year that will all be in the past, for North American players at least. Demon’s Souls will still be playable of course, and remain one of the very best of its sort ever devised, but there’s no denying that a bit of that spark that made it great will be going the way of the dinosaurs. I’d have recommended Demon’s Souls regardless of its online circumstances, but such as they are I’m recommending that those interested take the plunge at some point over the next month if at all possible, so that you might experience the whole of the thing while you can. With a current going rate of well under $20 for new copies (I snagged mine for half that) what have you got to lose?