Demon's Souls is the antidote to the poison injected by the dumbed-down games we've grown accustomed to. Truly Hardcore.
Unfortunately, King's Field never sold very well and its difficulty combined with its very slow movement rate to scare away all but the most hardcore of console gamers. Even still, there were enough die-hard fans to warrant an English translated spin-off (Shadow Tower) and two more sequels before the series faded into distant memory.
As a King's Field fan myself, I was disappointed by From Software's last game, the rather bland JRPG "Enchanted Arms". It was nothing more than a poorly made Final Fantasy knock-off and was so far removed from the games that made their company famous that it felt like a slap in the face to their long-suffering fans. If they wouldn't make another King's Field, certainly they could bring over the PSP version, right? Or release the Japanese-only King's Field 1 as a remake? Would they ever throw us old King's Field fans a bone?
Then I heard about their PS3 RPG, Demon's Souls.
Chances are you've heard about it too. You've heard how incredibly hard it is, how punishing the combat is, and how easy it is to lose experience and die. While the game is challenging, I think the stories of its difficulty have been greatly exaggerated.
First of all, Demon's Souls isn't really that hard. As someone who has screamed at Ninja Gaiden and smashed controllers over Megaman 9, I can say confidently that Demon's Souls is not that hard. While the game is rough at times, it isn't the same kind of cheap shot "toughness" that other games resort to. Demon's Souls will kill you, but it will do it with style. When you die in this game, you die because you did something stupid. You may get too comfortable walking along a ledge and fall off, you may think you don't have to roll out of the way of an attack and die from it, or you may sprint blindly into a room and get swamped by war hounds that proceed to tear you to shreds.
In other words, whenever you die in Demon's Souls you deserve it.
Like King's Field, Demon's Souls is a very slow, ponderous game. You quickly learn to approach new enemies with a great deal of apprehension, and you also learn that walking into vacant rooms without your shield raised and finger on the roll button is a recipe for disaster. Demon's Souls doesn't pull any punches, and demands that the player focus intently on what they are doing or risk dying. Unlike other action RPGs you can't talk to your friends on the phone, have one hand in a chip bag or watch television while playing the game. One small lapse in focus can mean death, though to be honest, death in Demon's Souls isn't entirely bad. It's actually a good thing.
First, to explain this, it would make more sense to tell you the game's rather thin but nonetheless clever plot line.
The King of Boletaria, after dabbling in the forbidden "Soul Arts", accidentally awakens an ancient and all-powerful entity simply known as "The Old One". This demon emits a fog that destroys and reshapes the land into a demon-filled, inhospitable environment that effectively ends existence as its citizens knew it. Men walk as shambling corpses, gigantic demons roam the countryside causing havoc, and formerly devout religious leaders become corrupted to the point of essentially being demons themselves. In a last ditch effort to save the world, a few of the Kingdom's wisest "Soul Arts" practitioners begin plucking the souls of recently fallen warriors from their bodies and imprisoning them in the "nexus", a sort of limbo that is safe from the wrath of The Old One.
Your character, who is one of these warriors, must destroy each of the world's major demons and use their souls to increase your power...so that eventually you may face The Old One and send him back to slumber.
While the plot is hardly original, the idea of the "Nexus" certainly is.
Whenever you die, you are sent back to the Nexus in spirit form. In the Nexus you can purchase spells, store your weapons, and repair or buy new gear. Furthermore, you can "spend" the souls you earn by killing monsters on anything that you need, even attribute points. It's a simple concept that most people don't see the depth in until much later.
How is that so?
The act of dying and getting sent back to the Nexus in Demon's Souls is something to look forward to, since in your bodiless soul-form your death holds no real meaning. If, instead, you die in your actual body, your death "darkens" the world and makes the enemies harder on that particular level. It even changes the scripted events that take place or removes certain loot from the level that would normally be waiting for you. Eventually, the player learns that it's better to explore new and/or dangerous areas while dead rather than when they are alive. Granted, you have less hit points while in soul form, but you are also much harder for the enemy to detect and find it easier to backstab unwary opponents.
Confused yet? Don't be. Though you can use guides to influence the "Lightening" or "Darkening" of each level and exploit the death system to make certain items or NPCs appear in the game, it isn't required for beating the game. It's just a bonus that should please obsessive gamers like myself who crave that sort of thing.
As for the levels themselves, Demon's Soul's five "worlds" are filled with dangerous terrain, well armed demons and plenty of wicked ambush points all designed to teach you to play the game correctly. Unlike most games in this day and age of the casual RPG, you can't simply level up and brute force your way through the game with no real effort. Demon's Souls requires patience and practice, two things that can't be leveled up or bought from an NPC merchant.
Speaking of which, even the items you find on merchants are usually worthless, since your best equipment will more than likely come from crafting. While the ultra rare weapons you can find by altering the levels to an extreme light or dark state are the most powerful items in the late stages of the game, throughout the majority of your quest you will have to rely on normal weapons that you have upgraded with the ores that you find. Most players will spend their time "farming" rare ores rather than building levels, since it is your equipment that ultimately determines your power, not the amount of hit points or defense you possess.
This is a double-edged sword though, since unless you have the reflexes of a teenager on a sugar-high you need to compensate for your lack of abilities by creating powerful equipment. This means that the game will devolve into a grind-fest where you continually farm the same area and defeat the same enemies until you obtain the ore needed to max out the stats on your chosen weapon. It not only artificially pads your "hours spent playing" total on your save file but eventually tires you out and makes returning to that particular level about as fun as getting a tooth pulled. The same can be said about grinding experience, since there is only one big exploitable place (Level 4-2) to get easy soul levels and after a few hours of repeating it I grew to despise everything about that level right down to the color of the walls and the sound effects of the enemies dying.
While it's important to focus on the game's reliance on grinding and its difficulty, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the combat mechanics.
Combat in Demon's Souls is incredibly deep and well thought out, almost to the point where I'd expect to find the game on the PC rather than a console. Unlike the button mashing battles you find in most modern RPGs, Demon's Souls forces you to observe the enemy in battle and react accordingly if you want to win. Each movement, from blocking and rolling away to swinging your weapon takes away precious stamina...and it is this stamina which determines your effectiveness in battle. Run out while getting hit and you stagger backward, making yourself vulnerable to any and all attacks. Though stamina regenerates, the speed at which you regain it is closely tied to the amount of load you carry and what equipment you're wearing. If you wear heavy steel armor your stamina creeps forward at a snail's pace...yet you'll be able to take more damage. On the other hand, if you wear light armor your stamina and movement rate dramatically increase, while your ability to withstand damage plummets accordingly. It's paying attention to these trade-offs that is key to winning battles in the game, and swapping out equipment is a frequent and necessary part of Demon's Souls gameplay.
There's more to Combat than encumbrance rules and dodging speed though. If you elect to use a shield, you have to factor in the damage absorption and its ability to withstand a guard break. Shields trade debilitating hits to your encumbrance in return for protection from Health drain while getting hit, and finding a stable balance between weight and damage absorption is yet another important facet of character building for obsessive gamers to, well, obsess over.
In a nutshell, that's what Demon's Souls is. A game that rewards Obsessive behavior and punishes people who try to find an easy way out. No other place is this more apparent than the game's boss fights.
Though some of the bosses have flaws in their AI that you can exploit (either by shooting 300+ arrows at them for 45 minutes from a blind spot or casting poison cloud on them and standing still for a half an hour) the majority of them require massive amounts of pre-planning and careful studying of their moves to defeat in combat. One such battle, involving a certain grey haired white-robe wearing boss, left me clueless as to how to defeat him. After nearly a dozen failed attempts I went to youtube and observed a gamer defeating him by un-equipping their armor and doing single-hit "pot shots" against him. This player would hit him once, then immediately back away and wait for the boss to charge him before dodging the blow at the very last second and repeating the process over again. After seeing this, I stripped my heavy armor, equipped a long range spear weapon, and spent 10 minutes using those same light-footed hit and run tactics to finally defeat what I thought was an impossible boss.
Like much of this game, I went from being unreasonably angry at it to feeling an enormous amount of pride in having accomplished the impossible. Therein lies the one real amazingly fun aspect of this game.
It beats you like a dog until you learn how to fight back, and when you play correctly and conquer it, you feel incredible about it.
Demon's Souls has deep combat, a clever crafting system, punishing boss fights and plenty of ways to mold your character to fit your playing style...so what about the online play?
Sadly, online play is somewhat restricted. You cannot voice chat with your "teammates" nor can you do much in the way of choosing who they are either. Setting up a game between you and a friend requires that you both be roughly the same level and place your "summoning mark" in an unexpected place that only the two of you know about. Though I understand the idea behind it and how they wanted to create a feeling of randomization and loneliness in the game world, I feel Demon's Souls would be much more enjoyable if you could simply join any of the games being played by people on your friends list through some one-touch button option. It's also rather disappointing that you cannot communicate with people who enter your game. Though I understand they wanted to create the feeling of a solo game with random helpers/predators entering your game at selected intervals, I would have rather had a more traditional lobby style multi-player setup that allowed me to invite friends to join me as well as give random strangers the chance to play.
Then again, Demon's Souls does this on purpose to create a feeling of mystery and fear surrounding the people that play "with" you, and in that way the game accomplishes what it sets out to do.
This mystery and fear is one of its biggest selling points as well, since you have very little control who you end up playing with. Though you can at any time summon similarly leveled players into your world by way of the marks they leave behind (When using the blue soul stone you are awarded with rather early in the game), people can instead choose to invade your game as a "Black Phantom" and attack you in an effort to steal your soul to regain their body. Though normally this would lead to serious griefing, the lack of communication within the game prevents any insults or immaturity from marring the experience. For some, the PvP battles they have with invading black phantoms are the most enjoyable and dynamic part of the game. For those unable or unwilling to fight them, there is always an offline mode option to retreat to.
Though I wouldn't recommend abandoning the online mode just because of the PvP. The online mode may be fraught with danger, but it also rewards you with free tips. Other players may leave messages warning you about traps or giving you free advice on how best to exploit an upcoming enemy's weakness. A simple ratings system helps you separate the false messages from the truthful ones, which prevents any abuse of the system.
When it's all said and done, Demon's Souls is an incredibly deep, rewarding action RPG that is a worthy successor to the King's Field series. Though the graphics pale in comparison to other current generation titles, King's field was never known for its visuals either. While I'd like there to be more music played within the game, I found what little was there to be very well done. Even the voice acting was surprisingly decent for a change, though I don't know if we have Atlus to thank for that or not.
Demon's Souls is, by far, the best game of this current console generation so far. It's an addicting mix of competitive online play, challenging combat, loot farming and character building that is as fun as it is frustrating. Demon's Souls is a breath of fresh air in a genre desperately in need of saving. Though it isn't very long and can possibly be finished in a week of hard play, obsessive gamers will find long-lasting appeal in modifying the black/white "world tendency", searching for the complete set of rare weapons, and fighting other phantoms in multi-player duels. Rarely do you find a game with as much left to do after the credits roll than this one.
As long as you're up for a challenge and don't mind flexing gaming muscles long since forgotten, Demon's Souls is the one game that you simply can't afford to pass up.