(Originally published 05/01/2010) I don’t usually enjoy difficult games. A videogame deemed ‘hardcore’ sets my teeth on edge. The term has come to symbolise arbitrary difficulty curves compensating for poor design, upsetting the risk-reward ratio and ultimately leading to frustration. I’m happy to admit that I am in no way a ‘hardcore’ gamer. Yet Demon’s Souls, an unashamedly hardcore experience, has become one of my favourite games of this console generation.
Demon’s Souls, whilst relentlessly punishing throughout, is never unfair. I can count on one hand the number of times I felt I genuinely died unfairly, and believe me, I must have died hundreds of times in my first playthrough. Demon’s Souls will not hesitate to kill you if you are careless, if you venture forth unprepared, if you rush forward without thinking. What sets it apart and above other deliberately ‘difficult’ games is that it always the player who is responsible for their demise, and never cheap game design.
The primary reason this works is Demon’s Souls’ superlative combat. There’s little flash or visual flare to the combat; you equip weapons, shields, wands or talismans in either hand, and use the shoulder buttons to either attack or defend. This simple system opens up into a complex dance of dodges, parries and ripostes, desperate last-second slashes and fatal impalements. It connects you with your character in a way few RPGs have done before.
Your first inclination, born of years of video game logic, will be to run in and slash away. Your first inclination will get you killed. Even the lowliest opponent in Demon’s Souls poses a genuine threat, and fighting any of them in a group is almost suicidal. Each enemy is almost like a puzzle, requiring you to study their movements, carefully blocking or dodging, then strike at the right moment. Mess up, and it’s back to the start of the level, reborn in a weakened soul form and minus any hard-earned souls you collected along the way. The sense of achievement you get for killing even a single opponent at the start is one that most games reserve only for climactic boss battles.
The boss battles in Demon’s Souls are certainly worthy of a mention. They are the centrepiece of the game, the capstone to each level, and key to achieving your ultimate goal; the eponymous Demon’s Souls. Each of the game’s 18-or-so bosses is unique, challenging and superbly designed. There are intense one-on-one duels, David and Goliath battles against lumbering giants, and towering demons which fill entire caverns. They are constantly surprising, each one requiring a different strategy. The feeling you get upon felling one of these monolithic opponents is almost unparalleled in gaming.
This level of originality and masterful design applies to every aspect of the game. Every level has its own unique form of tension, and you are never allowed to feel comfortable whilst exploring. Just when you think you are on top of the game, the next level will throw in a new twist, throwing you off-balance and requiring you to master a new skill to get through. By flying in the face of modern game conventions, Demon’s Souls never gets boring. There is never a point where you feel you have mastered the game, and I played through the whole 40-hour game on the edge of my seat, eagerly anticipating what the game would throw at me next even as I dreaded it inevitably killing me.
Excellent details in the level design mean that while dying always returns you to the start of the level, you can open shortcuts that let you get back to where you were faster than the first time through. If you die in a boss battle (and you will), you are never more than a 5-minute run away, even if it initially took over an hour to get there. The process of improving your character is similarly well-balanced, with both stat increases and the purchase of weapons and armour tied into the game’s soul currency. Choosing how to evolve your character requires careful consideration, and the game accommodates any choice of character. Should you choose to be a potent sorcerer, a towering barbarian, or anything in between, you will find situations in which you excel, and parts that will be deliciously challenging.
There are countless little intricacies that makes Demon’s Souls great, such as the weapon forging element, the game’s brilliant use of sound, or the unique World Tendency system. One feature that bears special mention here is the game’s multiplayer element, which is quite unlike anything seen before. There are no lobbies, clans or friends lists; the multiplayer element happens organically as you play the game.
The world of Demon’s Souls is inhabited by the souls of other players, those who came, fought and died before you. You’ll find the bloodstains of other player littering the floor, and examining one will reveal how that player died, often giving you a clue as to what to avoid ahead. Players can leave messages strewn throughout the world, warning each other of dangers ahead. Benevolent spirits can be summoned from other game-worlds, transforming the experience seamlessly into a cooperative effort. On the flipside, malicious players in soul-form can invade your world in an attempt to kill you and regain their lost body. The whole system works wonderfully, adding another layer of tension and mystery to an already deep game.
Demon’s Souls is not perfect. A clunky and imprecise lock-on system makes some battles frustrating, especially those fought in tight corridors. Small bugs, such as the occasional disappearance of key NPCs, occasionally mar the experience. But these are small flaws in a game that is undeniably fantastic.
Demon’s Souls is relentless, brilliant, and relentlessly brilliant. If you have even a passing interest in RPGs, you owe it to yourself to pick this game up. I really cannot recommend it highly enough.