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We Review: Demon’s Souls

Demon’s Souls is, at a very bare-bones level, an epic fantasy RPG with a tongue twister in its name. That description is also about as apt as calling the Internet a “series of tubes”: you’re missing a lot of subtle nuances, nuisances, and other wonderful, shaggy things that begin with the letter “n”. Calling Demon’s Souls “very difficult” doesn’t quite describe the game aptly, either. Nor does calling it “the hardest game you’ll likely play in a long while”. “Brutal”, perhaps. “Punishingly unforgiving”, almost certainly. But at no point is this game “unplayable”. Not by any stretch of the term. Either way, most gamers today are gutless pussies, and this game eats a bowlful of them every morning for breakfast. Without sugar. And with white-hot lava instead of milk. And it hates every mouthful of gutlessness, hoping for a gamer of some substance to come along and give it a chewy challenge for once. Someone that will make it spit you out in disgust because you’ve defied all its attempts to swallow you down and drown you with antacids. Is it you? Are you gamer enough? Will you rise to this challenge? Find out after the jump.

Take my hand and let’s have a little jaunt down Nostalgia Blvd, shall we? It’s relevant, I promise. Back when I was a yet a wee bairn, I used to sit enraptured afore my television set. In front of me sat a Golden China NES clone, with a small pile of brightly colored game cartridges lying scattered next to it. Among them were such horrific wonders as Castlevania, Megaman, Kid Icarus, and of course, Contra. All of them billed as very difficult games. Not unplayable, certainly, but there was a heck of a lot dying, and replaying From The Very Start. Later on in life, it’d be a Sega Megadrive and Earthworm Jim, Revenge of Shinobi, and quite famously, Another World (yes, I know Another World was originally on Amiga and PC). Even later, it’d be Abe’s Oddysee and Heart of Darkness on the Playstation.

What has this little dust-bunny of nostalgia got in common with Demon’s Souls, I hear you wondering. Simply this: brutal difficulty with an amazing amount of fun and fulfillment built in. Playing Demon’s Souls hearkens back to those days where if you died in the game, you had to start from the very beginning. Where ammunition or weapons were limited. Where you got beaten, bludgeoned, blasted, and other good, yummy things beginning with the letter “b”. Where you never quite knew what was going to be lurking on the next screen. Quite often, said lurker would rip your throat out, but in a fun, almost loving way. The same way you got beaten black and blue as a kid by your parents, in the name of love and correcting your bad behavior.

So what is this game all about? Storywise, the game is set in the Great and Fallen Kingdom of Boletaria, once ruled by wise kings, now home to demons and devils and other fun, stabby things beginning with the letter “d”. You get to take the role of a knight/mage/barbarian/noble/thief/younameit, and of course it’s up to you to save the kingdom, because everyone else who ever bothered going up against the “d” things got “b”‘d up and spat out by the “n”‘s.

You learn very quickly that the game takes itself quite seriously, and even the tutorial itself pulls no punches. It’s like the platoon commander who tells you to Get Good Quickly. Once you’ve been “b”‘d up in the tutorial and been sufficiently deaded, the game starts proper in a place called the “Nexus” with you as a ghost of sorts, and you’re told that you need to collect Demon’s Souls to get your body back. A ghost who can stab, then. So off you go your merry way, and you’ll encounter unforgiving “d” things that will kill you over. And over. And over. In fact, even the interface hates you. There’s no sense that the game understands the meaning of “pause”. Pressing “Start” only opens up the menu, and whatever was attacking you will ignore the menu and proceed to “b” you to death. Fun, if your idea of fun is casually putting your hand through a meat grinder.

The funny thing is that each time you die, you learn a bit, and eventually you’ll know every level backwards, forwards, upside down, inside out, under water, in the dark, blindfolded, and with the lights out. And if you stick with the game, you learn a bit more, because every enemy respawns in exactly the same places every time. Their attacks might be a bit erratic and unpredictable, but if you’re any good you’ll account for that. This is not a game for the lazy. You will work hard for every level you earn. Eventually, if you put enough work into it, you’ll defeat a boss battle and get your body back. I hope you don’t plan on keeping it for long, though.

The in-game version of currency is “souls”. Every creature you kill gives you back a certain amount of souls that you can spend on weapons, levels, weapon upgrades, and…well…everything you’ll ever need to buy. And here’s where the game starts getting a little hateful. If you die, you lose all the souls you’ve collected. Not a big issue if you can fight your way back to the point where you died, because you can touch your blood stain to regain the souls you’ve lost and high tail it back to the Nexus. If, on the other hand, you manage to die before you reach your bloodstain, you’ll lose all the souls you’ve collected. Not good if you’ve been saving them up. No souls, no level up.

In many cases, Demon’s Souls is actually easier than the old 8- and 16-bit games of yore: there’s no system of lives, and if you get yourself killed—and this will happen many, many times—you start at the beginning of the level with all gear you’ve collected intact. Sure, you may have lost any souls you’ve collected, but at least you get everything else back.

Provided you’ve beaten the first boss, the game opens up widely and suddenly you’ll find that you start enjoying it far more. There’s even a strange kind of online multiplayer in the game, although you’ll have to play for quite a while before you start to encounter other players in the digital flesh. The first sign of multiplayer is a plethora of helpful, and sometimes unhelpful, messages that are left on the ground. Some messages warn you of impending attacks, traps, or ambushes. Others point you toward treasure or things you wouldn’t have found out by yourself without a walkthrough. You’ll also see ghosts of other players wandering through your world, although they’re fighting their own “d”s. Often, these ghosts can give you clues as to where to go or what to do. And in some cases, what not to do. The other ghost incarnation you’ll find is the occasional bloodstain on the ground. No, not souls this time, but a death animation, showing how another player managed to get themselves “b” by this “n” game. Much later on, you’ll be able to invade, and be invaded by, other players. You’ll all be after souls, naturally. It’s the only way to get stronger.

Overall, it’s a brilliant game, despite the horrendous difficulty curve. You eventually get to a point where you start relaxing and enjoying the game, and you start seeing the sheer wonder that it is. It’s a throwback to those days of the 8- and 16- bit console games that made life so difficult, but when you managed to beat that boss made you the meanest gamer around. Personally, I think games should go back to being this difficult. All you young gutless pussies will finally have self-respect for the first time in your lives. You’d have beaten one of the difficult games of this gaming generation. And it will feel good.