Review: Demon's Souls

Josh Tolentino | 22 Jun 2009 17:00
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The following review was written by a member of The Escapist community. For more information on community reviews, please see this forum thread.

Game cover art is designed to stand out from the other software piled onto a store shelf, to catch the eye and offer potential customers a peek at what the game within might be like to play. What impressions, then, can be drawn from cover art that shows the player as an arrow-riddled corpse, slumped against a blood-stained wall?

From Software's awkwardly-titled PS3 release, Demon's Souls is just such a case. A spiritual successor to the company's King's Field series, it combines a brutal difficulty level with monstrous boss battles and intriguing multiplayer options. These features provide an incredibly satisfying dungeon-crawling experience, though a few of the game's quirks bring more frustration than challenge, and risk souring the deal for less patient players.

Demon's Souls' premise is straightforward. The king of Boletaria has inadvertently unleashed an ancient evil upon the land, covering it in a deep fog full of soul-sucking demon lords, and now it's the player's job to plunge in and send them back where they came from. What the story lacks in complexity is made up for with the game's amazing sense of atmosphere. Each of the five main dungeons maintains a tense, foreboding aesthetic style: from a dark, claustrophobic tunnel complex to a poisonous, slime-choked bog. Character design introduces a medieval styling, with large shields painted like cathedral frescos and wickedly fluted maces. It's a rare thing to see a Japanese game willing to encase its protagonists in full-face plate armor. A few concessions are made to Japanese 'unrealism', with super-sized greatswords and warhammers peppering the equipment lists.

Boletaria bristles with a sense of hostility as if the entire world is set against its would-be saviors. Even lower-level foes might qualify as mini-bosses in other games; giant flying stingrays lazily fling spikes the size of telephone poles at players and armor-clad skeletons rapidly somersault towards their prey. The boss battles are colossal affairs, with building-sized enemies rampaging around their lairs. A particularly memorable boss encounter involves a blind, flaming giant. Relying only on its hearing, the behemoth randomly strikes out with a gargantuan sword, feeling its way around the cavern. If the challenger is careless enough to clatter around while running the giant bounds toward the sound in a screaming dash, cracking the floor with a massive blade-sweep which is easily capable of killing a player outright.

And death is not a happy state to be in. Dead players respawn at the beginning of the level in phantom form, their health capped at fifty percent, with every enemy returned to life, and the player's soul points abandoned at their bloodstains which they must fight towards and touch to recover. Yes, Demon's Souls has brought the corpse run to single-player gaming. Failing the corpse run causes the accumulated souls to be lost permanently. Death hobbles a player with less health, leaving him penniless and more likely to succumb to the challenges that killed him in the first place. It encourages farming and grinding behavior, demanding repeated returns to completed areas to harvest the soul points required to finance the ever-increasing costs of leveling up attributes, weapons and armor.

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