They’re coming to get you Barbara.
I hate Japanese RPGs. I hate any RPG that encourages grinding through starting zones again and again just to farm for items/money. I hate enemies that respawn as soon as you re-enter an area. I hate pointlessly intricate menus and gear. Demon’s Souls has all these things, and yet I love every minute I spend playing the game. Why? The answer is as simple as it is awesome: Demon’s Souls is absolutely unforgiving. The game puts the fear in me.
If you’re like me, you hate games that hold your hand and treat you like you’ve never held a controller or played a video game before. DS does the opposite. Each encounter can be fatal, especially during the first few hours of gameplay. There is a tutorial, but it is very brief, and any questions that don’t pertain to attack, block, dodge, or heal go completely unanswered…forever. There’s no map, no journal, no quest log. Because this game is so vague, I’ll try not to give away anything in this review, since the element of exploration and discovery is key.
The only help you’ll get comes from other players through one of the strangest, most unique forms of multiplayer I’ve ever experienced. Other players are all around you, but you see them only as phantoms, fighting their own desperate struggle in a parallel realm. Players can leave preset messages for each other on the ground, and it pays to be honest, but can you really trust them all? At any moment, another player could invade your world as a Red Phantom and try to murder your candy ass (as if you weren’t already getting it handed to you by everything else). You can do the same to some other fool, and victory means resurrection, which is a serious boon.
Most of the time you’ll be alone, but you can also enter another player’s world as a Blue Phantom and help them out. If you take out a boss together, everyone gets rezzed. Once I tried to Red Phantom some poor shmuck, only to discover he had two Blue Phantoms helping him out, and they made very quick work of me. Whether fighting with or against other players, there’s no voice communication, only a limited system of gestures, but that serves to increase the sense of mystery, which is one of the core facets of DS.
Your basic goal is to vanquish enemies, collect their souls, and use them to better yourself. They can be used to upgrade your stats or as currency to buy/repair equipment as you see fit. What makes souls so precious is the fact that if you are careless, you can lose them for good.
The game feels tense. The lack of map has you really paying attention to where you are and where you’re going, and the animations, textures, and environments look amazing. It’s also pretty vast, with plenty of different scenery/enemy types to keep you occupied for quite some time. Each world has multiple bosses that must be defeated in order to explore further, and each one will put your skills to the test. At its heart, DS is a pure JRPG. You will be compelled to grind and farm for souls and healing grass. You will learn some of the levels intimately through sheer repetition, and you will fight the same enemies over and over again. And yet, because there is always the danger of losing those souls, and thus any means of progress, every fight is exhilarating.
You will see a lot of combat, so there are a lot of options. Different weapons do different types of damage that different enemies may be vulnerable to. What weapon do you prefer? One-handed with a shield or two-handed? Two weapons? Are you strong enough to wield those properly? Your weapons, armor, and equipment are chosen from a list in your inventory, but everything else happens in realtime, and it’s deadly. All you have to worry about is a health bar, a mana bar, and a stamina bar. The controls are very simple, but your strategies must change to fit the enemy you’re fighting. If you fail to block or dodge an attack, you feel the pain, regardless of level. Some enemies don’t hurt so bad after a few levels, but you will not believe some of the things they pit you against. Such simple, uncompromising combat leads to many frustrating defeats, but also to moments so sublime you feel like a total badass when you pull them off.
There are many weapons, pieces of armor, and items to be found and utilized, such as turpentine, which allows you to set your weapon ablaze for a short time. Since a large part of this game is experimentation, I won’t reveal any more, but if you just have to know the secrets, there’s an amazing wiki that has everything you need to know.
You will lose tragic amounts of souls, but the high price for failure makes exploration very tactical and exciting. Do you have enough healing to handle the enemies up ahead? Are you willing to gamble your souls on it? No other game has given me quite the same feeling I got when I accidentally fell down into a deep mineshaft in one of the levels. I was foolishly exploring in an area I was not equipped to handle, and I had around 10,000 souls. With certain doom lurking around every corner and over each narrow ledge, I somehow managed to desperately fight/flee my way out and back into safer territory. I felt a genuine sense of accomplishment, and I hadn’t come close to beating the level at all. The true beauty of Demon’s Souls is that every time you make it back to the Nexus with enough souls to level up your character, or get that sweet new piece of equipment, you feel as if you’ve leveled up as a player too.
The only thing I could fault the game for is the very subtle story. I like deciding what to do and where to go, but I also like to know why. The NPCs you meet out in the world feel floaty and disconnected, and it’s only because of the loading screens I even know who some of them are. I hesitate to bring that up because, as I said before, the sense of mystery and discovery was an element I strongly enjoyed. One other thing I’d change if there were to be a Demon’s Souls 2 would be to make movement and combat a bit more fluid. Again, I hesitate to mention it because the token Japanese clunk forces you to mentally map out your tactics well in advance, which can be such a delightful challenge when frantically fighting multiple enemies, but I liked how they loosened up the player character a bit in Lost Planet 2, so I know it’s possible. I’d give this ruthless game a hefty score. But then, I’m a glutton for punishment.