Of course, by the time of this writing, the larger, cross-platform, and more advanced Dark Souls has already hit shelves. Oddly enough, despite my having pre-ordered a collector’s edition I was very excited about, I haven’t even put the disc into my console yet. The answer as to why is part and parcel of this post. So join me, if you will, on a saga which began in 2009 and still continues even today. Follow me into the Northern Kingdom of Boletaria – back into the maw of Demon’s Souls.
October 6th, 2009 is a day which will live in infamy for me. Looking back now, I remember a surprising amount of detail. I had recently purchased a Playstation 3 at the behest of a friend and after an impressive experience with Killzone 2, one of the system’s premiere titles at that time. In an effort to give myself more experience with the system and flesh it out in its own right, I was eager to build a library of quality titles. At the time I worked at a popular electronics retailer, and it happened to be a Tuesday, when many new titles were made available for purchase. Arriving hours before the store opened, a fellow associate and PS3 owner called me over to check out a new game he had been anticipating: Demon’s Souls.
The title promised everything I was looking for and more. I’ve always been a fan of character customization, and thus far, all of my PS3 games involved being forced into the mold of a predefined character. But as we chatted, the promise of a fully-customizable action-RPG experience piqued my interest. We only had a few copies (three or four total, if I recall) and they each came with a free art book and soundtrack to boot. I spend the rest of my shift apprehensively checking Demon’s Souls’ scores on Metacritic. Though highly scored, many of the reviews hinted cautiously at the game’s element of difficulty. It was brutal. Unforgiving. Perhaps even downright malicious.
$60 was still a steep investment on retail pay and trying to make the call – weighing the high scores, recommendations from my friend and the idea of some quality-time with my PS3 against the haunting warnings from reviewers – was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever had to make in my gaming life. At the end of my shift, as I walked out the front door purchase-less, I had a change of heart. Heading back inside, I bumped into my friend who had already purchased his copy and asked if any were left. There was just one. He had left it in the warehouse for me. People had been inquiring about it all day, I remember him telling me; another sure sigh I was making a good investment. Pulling the last copy of Demon’s Souls from the back and bringing it up to the register, I reassured myself that this was a well-chosen purchase. Little did I know I was already in over my head.
(Sorry, I know most readers / consumers do not approve of this practice of ‘hiding’ games for ourselves and other employees, but you know what? Consider this payback for having to wake up at 3:00 AM or earlier during the holiday season to travel to work in the freezing cold, work 12-hour or longer shifts, even on the days both preceding and following Christmas and Thanksgiving – not to mention being assaulted verbally and sometimes physically by angry customers who blame their last-minute shopping habits on us.)
Upon returning home, I eagerly dove into the game... and died. Then died again. The trend continued with a bevy of means with which I met my end: Skewered by a red-eyed knight. Pushed to my death by relentless enemy attacks over parapets. Blown up. Impaled by volleys of arrows. Even crushed to death under a parade of boulders. In my desperation and anger, I foolishly threw consumables at my enemies, only to be left a corpse in their wake. I tried fire-bombs, swords, crossbows, and even used some of the abandoned ‘soul’ items which littered the first level, hoping a familiar “Level Up!” screen would appear if my counter grew to a high enough number.
No such luck. The game, if you are unfamiliar, is split into five worlds, but only allows you access to one until you’ve completed the first stage. A level I had no such success at. Doomed to repeat it over and over again, I burned up hours, and then days as time passed in a blur. Eventually my weapon broke. Then my armor. All of my health and offensive items became used up and I was left a shell of my former character. I could not afford even to pay the blacksmith to repair them, as my souls were currently floating over a pool of my own blood within the keeps of the Boletarian castle. Utterly defeated, I finally gave up. Removing the disc from my console once and for all, I vowed never to play the game again. Raging and spiteful at the idea of being bested by the title, I could not bring myself to do anything so extreme as hand it off or, as some gamers are known to do to things they hate, destroy it
. And so it would remain on my shelf, a testament to my ineptness, until fate brought us back together in October of 2010.
At that time, I was both preparing to move to a new apartment by reducing the amount of my possessions and looking to cash-in whatever I could for some precious Amazon.com account credit through their trade-in program. I poured over my library, looking for old games which I never played anymore, ones which now had HD counterparts, or other safe bets for a lot of credit. I happened to glance over Demon’s Souls and a chill ran down my spine. My process for clearing out current-gen games usually involved me trying to achieve a Platinum Trophy before parting with it. Demon’s Souls, as of that moment, was on my trophy records as having zero trophies. Not even one.
Looking up the value online, it was surprisingly low, and the edition I had, the first-run collector’s with the art book and CD soundtrack, was somehow worth even less than the title by itself. But then, there was something else to this equation. Trading-in was too easy. It was the cowards way out. Demon’s Souls was unique in that I felt a kind of personal failure in losing to it. Like the concept inherently made me a bad person and a bad gamer. My old feelings of defeat and anguish washing over me, I pulled the now dust-covered case from the shelf and pledged myself to a daunting, unholy crusade: I would get my Platinum Trophy. No matter how long it took, no matter how angry I became, or what evil poured forth from my console... I would have my revenge.
I started completely fresh. I deleted the old character, carefully re-watched the intro and savored every facet of the tutorial. But I also armed myself with the most potent weapon of all when vying for Demon’s Souls: knowledge. I looked the game up online
, and, for the first time probably ever was able to paint a rudimentary picture of how the game mechanics worked and what it expected of me, the player. To those of you who may consider this cheating, that I used a “guide” to spoil the game and gain an unfair advantage, I say two things. First, I didn’t spoil everything, I just looked up a few things I hadn’t been able to figure out on my own. For example, leveling involves spending your souls, not just gaining the right amount – and more importantly, you need access to a special NPC to do this. Secondly though, for anyone who has used game guides before and found the advice easy to transmute into success, I dare you to attempt to do so with this game. Demon’s Souls is unforgiving, regardless of if you know what’s coming down the pipe. A guide could prepare you to a degree, but if you’re all nerves when you finally reach the red-eyed knight and you mess up on a dodge, the claymore he’s holding still rends you just as mercilessly.
My old sins upon the dark Archdemons of Boletaria cleansed, I went forth, and after pressing on, fighting tooth and nail for every inch of purchase, I overcame my first demon boss. In the end, Phalanx was felled by my blade, and I savored its destruction. The feeling was elating; one of, if not the highest high I have ever felt in my history of gaming. Dark forces had conspired upon my destruction, and against all odds, I stood in defiance. “Let them come,” I taunted, “for they will all suffer my wrath!” And then I died again. Right after killing my first boss, I emerged onto a grand walkway and into Boletaria’s crisp air and sunlight. A dragon immediately swooped down and scorched me into oblivion.
I was admittedly upset, but instead of yielding, I steeled myself to overcoming this challenge as well, and many days of playing and learning later, I felled the mighty Tower Knight. As I played, I became more enthralled, discovered more valuable weapons and armors, killed more bosses, all the way up until killing my first world boss. The game slowly began to reveal its secrets to me. Demon’s Souls is a deep rewarding experience, for those who listen to its subtle dialect of both caution and encouragement. I’m sure you’ve already heard quite enough, about the difficulty and corresponding sense of accomplishment, so I’ll spare you, save for this one point I must reinforce: Demon’s Souls is deceptively simple. This is because it is simple. In modern gaming, developers all too often offer too many avenues of success to us. In order to satisfy our desire for easy progress, I would argue that too many concessions are made. This game provides no such liberty. While at first, this may seem unfair, the thing about Demon’s Souls is that the rules are applied evenly to all. Players and NPCs alike must adhere to the same tenants, and once this clicks, the deaths you experience you begin attributing to your own mistakes instead of cruel, otherworldly forces lurking within the game disc. But all this aside, Demon’s Souls also has other merits seldom found in contemporary games which quickly turned my hatred of it into a devout worship of it’s form and grace.
There is a story in the game, but it’s not overt or pressing. One of the critical flaws of many of my favorite series to date such as Gears of War or Mass Effect is that their developers are convinced that expanding the story or lore lies in detail. But for both of these titles, I have to say that the addition of some information was detrimental -- it felt like they were trying too hard to flesh out something which aught not to be given corporeal being. As an example (SPOILER ALERT, proceed to next paragraph to avoid
), in Mass Effect 2’s included DLC for the PS3 release, Project Overlord, the developers begin to reveal technical details about the Geth. They claim (I say claim because I still find most of what they say to be ludicrous) that Geth communicate using some kind of faster-than-light transmission system, then go on to also claim that humans are capable of making the clicking and buzzing noises that the Geth make, and doing so will enable people to control them. Excuse me? The problem here is that some enemies are endearing because they are so frightfully mysterious. The Geth were a favorite entity of mine from the echelons of gaming because of their reputation as “boogeymen.” Precisely because nothing was know about them. Their arrival was always a mixture of fascination and fear. But in Mass Effect 2, BioWare destroyed this mystique with surgical precision.
I’m reminded of the Silent Hill games and their characteristic, unapologetic lack of any context or explanation. This is what makes these games both scary and interesting. And a lack of this is what makes Resident Evil, as a series, a ghost of what it once was. I had been scared by Resident Evil 1 and 2 back in the day. But now, with Capcom going to great lengths to remove any trace of mystery, they have degenerated into simple actions games of the lowest caliber. Game devs: Don’t be Resident Evil. Be Silent Hill.
Demon’s Souls, on the other hand, provides snippets of details from the passing remarks of NPCs, flavor text for items you find, and the general construction and design of the environments themselves. Just enough to engage you but not ruin the sense of wonder or discovery for you. At one point, in a fetid swamp, you come across a holy relic called the “Large Sword of Moonlight.” The flavor text for the item describes it’s association, in the time before the demons came, with the “Moonlight Knight Bito.” Another item, the Phosphorescent Pole, belonged to Lord Rydell. The flavor text tells you that one of the former holder’s most storied exploits was his theft of it from the witch in the sky. Never during the game do you meet Bito or the witch of the sky. Lord Rydell is featured very minimally, but all in all, you are left to fill in the gaps of information about the storied adventurers and the world in which they live, and this provides a sense of awe and mystery that I find unmatched. Although no concrete details are every provided, you never doubt that a rich and vivid world exists just below the surface of the limited portions of Boletaria you are privy to in the game. As a final example, there are five worlds which can be accessed from the hub world of the Nexus, but there are six stone monoliths representing the gateways to these locations. At some point early on in the story, it is explained that the sixth gateway, once leading to the lands of the giants, was the first to be overcome by soul-eating demons. In an effort to stop or slow their spread, the link to that place was destroyed, and now the ruined gateway remains. No other information is provided, but I immediately begin to wonder. What kind of giants? What was the land like? What demons now reside there? I have a mixed reaction. I want to know more about this strange kingdom, but at the same time, it is not-knowing which drives this fascination.
There are also NPCs here, but unlike in other RPG games where they have an omni-presence in towns that makes you wonder why they’re so flat and static, Demon’s Souls portrays the lone survivors of an apocalyptic destruction of humanity. In total, there are approximately ten NPCs. When you meet them in a poisonous swamp, or locked in a castle dungeon for an unknown number of years, you are not surprised to see they are stoic and dejected. Many are hopeless warriors such as yourself, and it’s never a mystery why they’re short on words and reluctant to engage in the battles you wage throughout the world. Instead of seeming empty, they seem hopelessly depressed to me, and this combined with the oppressive environments provides a kind of Gothic, dismal mood that is expertly crafted and never shaken. You truly spend your time in Boletaria feeling as if you are one of a handful of sane human beings left, living on borrowed time as you watch the world end around you. One NPC in particular, “Stockpile Thomas,” serves the basic function of extra storage space. But through your interactions with him, it is revealed that when the demons befell the kingdom, he abandoned his wife and young daughter to flee and try to save himself. Now, knowing that they suffered a gruesome fate, he tends to the possessions of demon slayers (Yes, there are more demon slayers than just you. More on that later) out of guilt and a sense of obligation to help remove this scourge from the world. There is no mystery here why he’s not out doing what you can so easily do -- a feeling I experience all too often in games where a dismal, apocalyptic scenario is easily overcome by a handful of moderately armed every-men: He is a coward.
A good and evil choice system is also present here, but it is not as pervasive as in other games and I enjoy this. The implications are subtle. Killing good NPCs moves your ‘character tendency’ (CT) towards black, other actions move it towards white. But aside from some differences in how certain NPCs treat you and in your character stats, there are no there direct indications to be found here. No ludicrous horns, no ‘bad guy powers.’ You could kill a harmless NPC for some material gain or at the behest of an evil NPC for the promise of a reward, but the action is its own penalty. Some NPCs upgrade equipment for you, sell rare items, or act as extra storage. Killing them will alter your CT, as stated above, but also lose you whatever ability they once provided. In contrast to over-the-top systems like those found in the Fable, Mass Effect, or Infamous series, this is a refreshingly minimalistic approach, and one which more closely mimics real-world, moral ambiguity. In the end there are no consequences save for those you reap for yourself. What’s really ‘good’ or ‘evil’ is decided exclusively by the player in Demon’s Souls.
Speaking of evil, this seems like a good time to introduce Demon’s Souls multi-player. Players in human form can summon phantoms (players who have died and lost their physical form) to help them fight through each particular level. On the other hand, a human player may use special items to manifest in another human player’s game as a black phantom, an evil creature only interesting in murdering them for their souls. These two things aside, players can also observe each other as ghosts as they play in parallel through each world, leave flexible but predetermined messages, and see how each other died via bloodstains. What makes the multi-player much better (yes BETTER) than the majority of games out there though is the limit on communication. Players hold “X” to use a short set of emotive gestures, but beyond this, there’s not messaging or chat. Here’s why this is a good thing: One, it goes a long way toward keeping Demon’s Souls hopeless atmosphere. The other players can’t interrupt the game’s natural flow and mood with their dialog or actions, nor you theirs. For players who are invaded, in fact, this tension is heightened. Two, it breaks down the silos between single and multi-player modes. Instead of having a mode for each, which are often at odds with each other in terms of gameplay styles, objectives and aesthetics for modern games, both are part of something bigger. And three, this forces players to actually, like, work together. When you choose to summon a player, there’s no expletive-laden dialog about what items you have for trade or other mundane tasks one of you wants help with. You both have a single goal: Get to the end of the stage. Beat the boss. Now let’s get to it. If you happen to get invaded, then there is a slightly different dynamic: Survive. Either way, these experiences somehow feel more polished and cohesive than all of the voice-chats in the world and never remove you from the experience.
The environments themselves represent some of the most unwelcoming, mysterious, yet fascinating places I have ever visited. From the large Tower of Latria which rise out of the gloom to cast narrow shadows against an eternal twilight to the remote, archaic Shrine of Storms which resides in the middle of the sea with the air of a place which continues to be extremely hallowed, Demon’s Souls encompasses a variety of locations each with their own unique flavor. Even now, I sometimes find myself stopping to soak in the games glorious views and wonder what other exotic locations might lie just over the horizon.
A culmination of these points and other subtle details are what makes Demon’s Souls, in my opinion, the best game ever. This idea has been brewing in my head since I offhandedly made a statement to a friend of mine after getting into the game, in which I claimed that Demon’s Souls was “the first next-gen game I have played which actually felt next-gen.“ While developers are busy streamlining processes and gameplay elements to minimize risk and maximize reward, they truncate an important part: struggle. Victory should feel like a win because it’s hard-fought and earned, not because it looks nice or was easy. But when most people think of 'struggle' as it applies to contemporary titles, it's in the context of trying to work around buggy mechanics, not putting genuine effort into overcoming challenges. Demon’s Souls was the first game that was epic in scale enough (hundreds of hours logged, many more to go), challenging enough, and rewarding enough for me to believe that it was using ‘next-gen’ hardware to its full potential. Though I would later become aware of From Software’s offerings for the Playstation 1 and 2 in the form of the King’s Field and Shadow Tower lineages, I still can’t shake a deep feeling that the picture Demon’s Souls paints is really what’s pushing the envelope of my experience with the Playstation 3. It is the title I have spent the most time with, like the best, and I still have a long ways yet to go.
So what of the worst? Why, if not for the difficulty, does my title reference such an extreme downside? The answer to this question comes in two parts. Firstly, at the time of this writing, I am on my third playthrough and have but two trophies left to achieve. My concern now, as I draw near the end of my time in Boletaria, is “what comes after Demon’s Souls?” The question fills me with fear and anxiety now as much as the game did when I first began playing it. What could possibly fill the void left behind? As odd as it seems, I have an unusual kind of Stockholm Syndrome. What I once hated as an unfair force exerting itself over me I now willingly participate in and enjoy. As my time until platinum draws to a close, I cannot shake the kind of melancholy of someone who is losing an old fiend or loved one. I don’t want this to end, this is not my choice. But what must be must be. The second part of my answer is the complete usurpation of my digital life. I had heard of people who experience addiction to games like World of Warcraft. Speaking as someone who didn’t even bother fully-level a character before becoming bored and moving on, I didn’t understand the concept until playing Demon’s Souls. I have played almost no other games in the time since I have started my quest, despite several purchases at prices I couldn’t ignore and sequels to series which were old favorites. Even now they continue to go unplayed. Demon’s Souls is the worst game I’ve ever played because it demands that I submit all of my time and attention to it, which I do willingly. But at any point I feel the need to break free and add some variety, the experience is hollow for me. A distraction to something I know is larger and much grander.
With the release of Dark Souls, I have some hope for a Demon’s Souls-free future, but only in the solace of the devil I know. It both encourages and frightens me that From Software has given me another lush world to explore and conquer. Will lightening strike twice? Will I feel as good playing this as I did playing Demon’s Souls? As an added comfort, I have been able to use my descriptive skills to recruit friends into Dark Souls. If nothing else, aside from Demon’s Souls which I undertook alone, I now have people I can gush about Dark Souls to without worry.
If you have not yet played the game and enjoy a challenge, I whole-heartedly recommend Demon’s Souls. But beware all ye who enter here: Though the experience is one you will never forget, such is not for the faint of heart.
See you in two more playthroughs. read