I haven't thought about Demon's Souls in a while. Surprising, considering that for a long time, it was all I could think of. I'd wake up thinking what overpowered enemy I'd attempt to tackle later. I'd be at work thinking about where I'll be farming souls and drops. And later that night, after I'm done playing, I'd think about what mistakes I made, how I can rectify them the next day, and how much I hated those bloody Mind Flayers.
But recently, I read an article here about Dark Souls II and it (along with the comments) brought Demon's Souls back to my mind. So, with Dark Souls inching ever so much closer to release, I thought I'd take the time and pay tribute to its older half-sibling, the one that, for want of a better expression, started it all, as far as I'm concerned.
I'm not a big import player, what with my utter lack of any knowledge of written Japanese, and therefore I've never played King's Field, the series that was eventually evolved into the Souls game. So Demon's Souls, bought on a whim without knowing much about it. At the time, was an unknown quantity for me.
So, without any warning or forethought, I plunged right in, casually strolled through the character creation, and then waltzed lazily and languidly through the tutorial.
And then I ran into this guy…
Want some candy?
My first encounter with Vanguard was pretty much typical, probably identical to the experience that most of the completely oblivious newcomers to the game had in this situation. After registering that I was fighting a boss at the very start of the game, and seeing that the bloody thing was tough as Ben Grimm's proctologist, I realized it was one of those no-win battles used for story purposes or dramatic effects, the quintessential "unbeatable boss that you'll face later when you're stronger." Note that at the time, I didn't know there are people who CAN defeat Vanguard during the first encounter. I died almost immediately, thinking "I'll be seeing you soon, you goddamn three-eyed stereotypical demon!"
I didn't see Vanguard for a while. Well, I kinda did, but I didn't "see him later" in terms of fighting him until much, much later.
I had a few other wakeup calls to go through first.
So I went to the Nexus, where the lovely Lady in Black brought me back as a shade and sent me on my way to the game's true beginning. I entered the Boletarian Palace thinking "alright, time to kick some low-level enemy ass and level up this fucker!"
I died. Almost immediately. I just made it past the stairs, feeling dumbfounded by how much tougher than I expected the Dreglings were, turned left, barely survived becoming a ghostly pincushion, saw some shimmering lights, and like a moth to the flames I went to investigate and earned my first stupid death of the game.
Welcome to the Boletarian Palace... you're gonna stay here a while.
A few deaths later, one at the hands of a boulder trap and another at the hands of a Blue Eye Knight, I quit in utter and total frustration. It was one of those games, I realized; one of those games that were intentionally sadistically and infernally difficult. I had better things to do with my time, I decided then.
But something about Demon's Souls drew me back, a siren call uttered from the throat of a decrepit, hideous banshee. "Come back," it said. "There is much to see and experience here… you will not regret this."
For some time, I resisted the call, because I actually had other games to play at the time that provided more instant gratification. But Demon's Souls remained at the back of my mind, beckoning me.
Eventually, armed with knowledge gleaned from the rather brilliant Demon's Souls player community, I surrendered to the call and plunged fearlessly into the game.
In terms of my gaming life, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
True, even forearmed with extensive knowledge and equipped with endless patience for grinding, the game was not a walk in the park. It was difficult, but it was enchanting. Seeing the two dragons sitting on the cliff for the first time took my breath away. I thought "I'm supposed to fight these at some point, aren't I?" and it both fascinated and terrified me. The first encounter with the Red Dragon was one of those pure "OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT!" moments that make a game more than a mere game; they make it an experience.
"OH SHIT OH SHIT OH SHIT!"
Soon after that, after as much soul grinding as I thought prudent, I faced the first boss, Phalanx, and patiently chipped away at its health. It was intense, but I felt a sort of "calm of battle" descend upon me, and eventually that disgusting mass of shields and black ichor was defeated. I was alive again! My first triumph over this diabolical game! The feeling was indescribable.
I should note that at the time, I was growing out of my youthful impatience phase and settling into my current deliberating adult phase, so as I learned patience and perseverance in the real world, that was reflected in how I tackled the game. I took my time, perfecting the tactics I would be using for the remainder of the game, and learned to accept that defeat is an integral part of this experience.
Having cleared the first challenge, I was bolder, but not to the point of being careless. I figured I had this figured out; that starting areas of other levels would be tough, but I would probably be able to get through them without much hassle if I was really, really careful.
Standing at the pillars leading to the five other areas, I decided to go to the Tower of Latria. Sounds more appealing than Stonefang Tunnel.
It was a bad call, Ripley, it was a bad call.
Put simply: fuck the Mind Flayers.
The bells… the bells…
Seriously, the Tower and the Flayers nearly made me abandon the game again. I was not looking forward to playing that area at all. I didn't fare much better with my second choice of locale; I picked Shrine of Storms because it sounded cool, and one barrel-rolling skeleton later I was scurrying back to the Nexus like a harried rat.
Seriously, this is a game where everything is out to get you. Enemies are relentless and vicious even if not very bright, traps are haphazardly littered to ruin your day, and even architecture and gravity work against you. Oh, cruel, cruel gravity.
But I stayed the course. I went on the internet again, and there I was informed about the more… pliable... path through the game. This is when I settled into the right rhythm for really enjoying the game, and this is when the wonders began.
Dodging the flames of the Red Dragons on the bridge and eventually vanquishing him, holding off a horde of Scale Miners in a claustrophobia-inducing tunnel, making the tricky and dizzying shortcut descent through darkness to fight the Flamelurker after losing to him on the first try, seeing the majestically terrifying sight of the Dragon God for the first time, stealthily stalking and eliminating those confounded Mind Flayers, sparring with Giant Depraved Ones in the Valley of Defilement, and eventually the intense duel with the False King; all those moments and many more made for a gaming experience unlike any that I had ever experienced before.
Hey kids… WANNA DIE?
It's impossible to attribute the greatness of Demon's Souls to one element, but the ones that stand out for me are its challenge (which as it turns out is not mere unreasonable difficulty), its haunting atmosphere of both melancholy and despair which permeate throughout the game world, the sheer scale of it, both in terms of locations and enemies, and the intricately crafted areas with their various architectural styles and layouts. I should note that I have a thing for medieval castles and their architecture, and so for me, wandering the Boletarian Palace was a remarkable experience in and of itself.
But the main draw for me, the element that I adore past all others, is the character growth. This is not a power fantasy; you're not Dante swashbuckling through hordes or marionettes, or Kratos tearing titans to pieces, or the Dragonborn felling dragons out of the sky by yelling at them. You start off as a normal human, at least normal in terms of a fantasy world where magic exists, and gradually grow in power while retaining all your basic humanizing attributes and weaknesses. At no point in the endgame do you start doing gravity-defying acrobatics while slicing hulking enemies into ribbons. You remain, again, for the purposes of the game world, essentially human, a more skilled, well-equipped and tougher human, but a human nonetheless.
Having graduated from Demon's Souls, I enrolled into Dark Souls as soon as it came out, and though Dark Souls is a superior product in nearly every single aspect and extremely enjoyable, it didn't quite match Demon's Souls for a very simple reason; I knew what I was in for, and it didn't inspire awe in me the same way the first one did. Also, I miss the Maiden in Black.
So the world might be mended.
In the end, this game is iron, and the same applies to Dark Souls. Some games, regardless of genre, are alloys that mix and match materials to produce a specific results. Some are carbon fiber; fancy and efficient. Other games are plastic, just pretty-colored things to be used then discarded later when they are worn out. Others are wood; traditional, reliable, solid and nostalgic. But the Souls games… these are iron, iron from which a deadly, beautiful and intimidating sword is forged.
The road through monster-haunted darkness is still enticing, and I still want to wander labyrinthine structures of decay and desolation in search of mighty demons to vanquish. Dark Souls II is coming, and with it a new world of pain, suffering, drudgery and ultimate elation will be mine to experience.
P.S. The title of this rather rambling article is from a Bruce Dickinson song. Pat yourself on the back if you figured that out.
Also, a great whopping big salute to everyone involved in the Demon's Souls Wiki (demonssouls.wikidot.com) for making life easier for many wanderers in the fog.