Demon's Souls is a PS3 exclusive action-RPG which melds a distinctly old-school flavour of gameplay and storytelling with some new and innovative ideas that really push the genre – and, in many ways, gaming in general – in very exciting directions. It's already critically acclaimed, and you're not going to find any disagreement from me that the game is incredible, but maybe from a slightly different perspective. Or maybe not, I'm not an individual, after all.
There's not much more I want to say to introduce the game, and not much more I could say about it generally that isn't me talking about how awesome it is (and that really belongs at the end of the review) so let's dive right in.Story, Setting and Characters
When it comes to storytelling, the word I'd use to describe Demon's Souls is “restrained.” It features a couple of longish cinematics early on (I'm not talking MGS-long – we're talking 3-5 minutes) and that's basically all the blatant exposition out of the way. And yet, the setting, characters, and story, and utterly compelling.
I think it's because of the sense of mystery which pervades the game. The environments and characters seem beautifully detailed, and there's a real, simple artistry to the game's story. And yet we really know very little. You sometimes feel a little confused or lost in the game's world, and it seems like such an appropriate effect to try and bring to the user for the bleak story and world of the game that I think it would be a real disservice to the developers to suggest that this is the result of poor design.
I've read some reviews of this game, and they talk mostly about the gameplay (which is also excellent). I feel like this is actually one of the most intriguing, compelling and artistic games we've seen in many years thanks to its restraint. The game provides a bleak, oppressive, and in many ways very sombre experience that's difficult to communicate in writing and really needs to be experienced first-hand to be understood, if you're open to that kind of gaming experience.
It's been said many times that this isn't a game that is trying to appeal to the casual crowd, and I think that this is made just as evident through the game's story and setting as it is through the gameplay. This isn't a game targeted at people who just want to relax and have fun, but it's clearly aimed at an audience that wants to be immersed into the game, and doesn't mind being made to feel uncomfortable for the sake of a richer experience.
Demon's Souls looks very good. I THINK it's actually using the same engine as Oblivion, but don't quote me on that. In either case, the graphics resemble that game (much more than they do Fallout – it features the complex lighting and shadow effects that mysteriously disappeared after Oblivion) which is something of a mixed blessing. The effects are good, as are the character models, and the animations are also excellent (mercifully much, much better than that other game I mentioned...). The texture art, however, like in Oblivion, really doesn't stand up to close observation. But that's okay – you're rarely looking very closely at the textures, and they look fine from a distance. The low-res textures is really only something you're likely to notice occasionally, and it doesn't disrupt the overall experience of the game much.
The game environments are very flavourful and each of the five worlds in the game have their own distinct atmosphere, while at the same time all feeling very tied together. In terms of the overall visual presentation, then, the game essentially ticks all the right boxes – it features detail and variation without forgoing an overall sense of cohesion, and without feeling so cluttered that it occludes the clean level design.
Similarly, the audio design is excellent. The sound effects are great, although maybe a little sparse and not quite varied enough, and what voice acting there is is generally executed competently, and in a couple of cases very well indeed. The reason I thought the overall sound design was excellent though was actually more due to ambient sound and music – or rather, the lack of music.
Outside of boss battles the game's score is almost non-existent, featuring subtle, atmospheric pieces or no music at all. It really helps to build the overall sombre tone of the game, and ambient noise which is often somewhat grating or vaguely threatening builds on the thick, oppressive atmosphere of the game. The music tends to become much more dramatic during boss battles (where appropriate) and it really emphasises the energy of these situations, especially when there's such a stark contrast with the rest of the game.
Demon's Souls features fairly standard action-RPG gameplay – enemies are fought in real-time using a variety of weapons, magic, blocks, dodges, etcetera, etcetera. It's a pretty deep system for an action-RPG though, coming much closer to rivalling games like Dragon Age in terms of tactical complexity, despite the (general) lack of any kind of group tactics.
The different classes of weapons all handle differently, with subtle differences between curved and straight swords, for example, and more obvious differences between either of those groups and spears or polearms, and it's often important to adapt your weapons and tactics to different enemies.
There are only three different damage types – fire, magical, and pure physical, and all except the most basic enemies tend to be fairly resistant to at least one of these damage types, so it's also important to use the correct weapon enhancements (or a weapon in high physical damage if an enemy is resistant to both magic and fire).
The game is quite unforgiving, but honestly it's not as difficult as many seem to claim. If you play carefully, thoughtfully, and observantly, you aren't likely to ever get really stuck. It's not unusual to have to fight a boss two or three times, but if it takes you a whole lot of attempts it's probably because you're doing something wrong, and you need to reassess your tactics. You do need decent timing and some raw skill to get through the fights, but for any regular action gamer, these requirements shouldn't be too strenuous – it's much more about using the correct tactics.
It is, however, as I said, quite unforgiving. Death in Demon's Souls is kind of a big deal (and something you will do quite a lot at first). When you die, you drop all the souls you're carrying (which are the games currency, used to buy both equipment and stat increases) and are sent back to the beginning of the stage with all enemies (with very few exceptions) respawning. If you die before getting back to where you died and dropped your souls, you lose them forever. What this means is that there's a very real sense of risk, because if you die there's a chance you'll lose a lot of resources.
And yet... despite some backtracking as a result of death, the game's pacing is masterful. I never felt like I wasn't making progress, partly because you normally get your souls back, meaning you end up with more than you would otherwise have had (thanks to defeating all the enemies up to that point for a second time), partly because you're always opening up new paths through the level (which, again, lessens the severity of the backtracking), and partly because the simple act of learning the game and the levels better is rewarding and feels like progress in its own right.
There's really a lot to the game, and there's a whole lot more I could talk about, but I'm going to hold off to stop this review from getting too long. What I can't NOT mention, though, is the game's multi-player implementation which is something really revolutionary – that is, the integration of multi-player into the single-player campaign. You can leave messages on the ground that will appear in other players games, and read messages left by other players. You can be summoned into another player's game to help them through a level in co-op play, or summon other players yourself. Or you can forcibly invade another players game and try to hunt them down and kill them, a risk which you yourself also have to be wary of. The multi-player features give the game some of the feel of an MMO despite the fact that it's predominantly a single-player experience. You always feel like there are hundreds of other players nearby, playing the game with you, even though your means of interaction are so limited. And the looming threat of another player invading your game adds even more tension and drama to the game's action.
If you own a PS3 and you're a fan of RPGs, action-RPGs, or action/fighting games, don't pass up on Demon's Souls. The condition is this; Demon's Souls is a hardcore game. Being successful requires a lot of attention and energy when you're playing the game, and it really doesn't hold your hand. If you're a more casual gamer, this isn't really the kind of game to help you relax after work or school – it's aimed at an audience that want a challenge. You can get even more out of the game if you're open to experiencing games on an aesthetic or artistic level, but the core gameplay is absolutely more than enough to carry the experience.
In my opinion, this game is in the top ten of the last decade, and I'm looking forward to its successor (not a direct sequel), Dark Souls, sometime this year with baited breath. Demon's Souls goes above and beyond the call of duty in all core areas and achieves real excellence, and it's now available pretty darn cheap as well.