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Demon's Souls

Written by Paul Stuart | Tuesday, 06 July 2010 12:00

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Writing this review is a mixed bag of epic proportions. With over a half a year’s release time tenure under its belt – including several high profile gaming awards in tow – approaching Demon’s Souls sans bias would be denial at its finest. Thus, if ever there a column screaming for a rubber stamp of approval, this review would be it.

Due to release lags, however, Demon’s Souls was anything but the first already lauded review title in this predicament.  For instance and a couple years’ back, I vividly recall a critically acclaimed (on PC, XBOX 360) Bioshock showing up at my belated PS3 review doorstep. The critics – it turns out - were correct; that was one bloody good title. The problem is, Bioshock is not Demon’s Souls.

Over 12 hours into the game (one could finish God of War III 1.5x over in that duration, likewise Assassin’s Creed II), I’m still confounded over the never-ending need to scour Wiki’s, GameFAQ guides, YouTube videos, and related map/tutorials to tap Demon’s Souls potential. While a moderate RPG’er at best, Demon’s Souls is –hands down – the most robust while simultaneously convoluted title of this genre I’ve encountered to date.

The maddening part of this discovery is that any/all constructive criticism I have with Demon’s Souls is directly linked to its ridiculous difficulty level. In specific, the glaring absence of intermediate save points to enable trial and error, experimentation in what the title has to offer. This absence is a flat out travesty.

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Let me explain. Demon’s Souls plays fantastically well, possesses an abundance of character classes and corresponding weapon/magic sets, and sports interesting level design and enemies. Moreover, Demon’s Souls’ plot – while not of Tolkien proportions - is thankfully interesting enough to keep one hooked.

Perhaps the greatest allure of Demon’s Souls lies in its very clever dynamic of switching back and forth between living and soul modes (with distinct benefits for each). The game’s online functionality captures this brilliantly, sporting an ability to jump in/out – for good and/or evil purposes – into other players’ gaming worlds. The helpful player can leave warning messages for others to find, aid in defeating difficult foes. The devious might instead opt to enter a world as a Black Phantom, assassinating would be allies in exchange for soul points.

These decisions – mirroring Fable – carry with them tangible gameplay consequences. Venturing too far into either White or Dark aspects of a character’s soul will invoke different gameplay options and item potentials. This feature clearly lends itself to strong replay value, encouraging play style experimentation to uncover what first pass did not.

Finally, I’ve always been a fan of the Havok physics engine, and Demon’s Souls – while not a visually stunning game by any means - uses it quite well. Flame throwing enemies ignite and explode surrounding barrels, with barriers appropriately used as temporary cover until struck by a weapon and/or character. Related, sound effects are wonderful in tracking enemy location (even on the pitiful sound emanating from my entry level, 26’’ HDTV), ditto on setting ambiance.

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So what’s with all the bitching, you sissy?

The maddening absence of viable save points and/or margins of errors make Demon’s Souls’ greatest moments too few and far between. While there’s something to be said about expecting multiple passes through difficult level portions, traversing 5-10 minutes of preceding gameplay each time…30-40x over...to encounter split second death ceases to be fun fast. Yes, one can level up by tedious return visits back and forth to the purgatory-like ‘Nexus,’ but the moronic backtracking to advance through Demon’s Souls equates to about half of one’s time spent in actual play.

Case in point: I literally found myself playing the same stretch of level – the first one, mind you! – a good 2-3 hours to advance a mere few corridors ahead. A subtle mispress on a button? Death. A cart explodes a certain, unpredicted way? Death. Health regeneration fails to sync with character movement? Death. Camera tracking ignoring nuances of a tight stairwell? Death. Enemy sword stabs through walls? Death. The list of mistaken deaths – let alone ones caused through actual combat – goes on seemingly forever.

While I’ve got no beef with death induced by idiotic exploration around two dragons who clearly want to kick my ass, the 15 or so minutes in backtracking to return to that same moment…while avoiding the unwanted miscues along the way…grew tiresome. I simply do not understand why the game’s developers didn’t opt for mid-point Archstones (save/warp points) to encourage more game exploration/experimentation.

Further, to succeed in Demon’s Souls requires almost scholarly commitment to the aforementioned supporting knowledge resources behind it. There’s no way in hell anyone could adequately follow this game without combing through the hordes of documentation to explain character builds, item upgrades, and/or hidden plots and weapons. (Should it really take 200 arrows to kill an optional enemy?!) There’s no arguing Demon’s Souls is a fantastic, robust engine. It shouldn’t, however, require this much of a learning curve to get there.

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Perhaps it the never ending pissing battle of Nerd-dom, but many a reviewer – hence the awards - embraced the ridiculous, frustration inducing experience that is Demon’s Souls. Hours and hours and dozens of forums in, I continued to search for this elation Nerd-kind espoused. I even debated a character class, game restart after discovering my ‘thief’ class featured a high barrier of entry. Unfortunately, however, every Demon’s Souls game session ended with sentiments mirror to the previous: good game, way too hard. This coming from the guy who found 1985’s ‘The Bard’s Tale’ a decent romp. And that, my friends, was no RPG walk in the park.

I can only wonder if the divide between reviewer and mainstream gamer is more chasm than hurdle. For example, a simple Google search on ‘Demon’s Souls’ and ‘difficulty,’ ‘hard’ or ‘help’ is a semi-obvious eye opener. You be the judge.

To summarize: For the combined RPG aficionado and masochist, there’s no doubt something to like in Demon’s Souls. For these individuals, a good 25-30 hours in will probably produce the elation that escaped this reviewer. More mainstream gamers, however, are arguably best served with an initial rental trial.

3-stars