The Sirens are Calling
HIGH Clinging to the tiny sphere of light surrounding my character, squinting in a futile effort to penetrate the blackness that threatened to swallow me whole.
LOW Being one-shotted by a demon's sword that clipped through a pillar and being forced to replay the entire stage.
WTF That dragon just sat there and let me shoot it with 250 arrows.
Whenever people talk about the action role-playing game (RPG) Demon's Souls, the subject of difficulty inevitably makes its way into the discussion. Make no mistake about it, the game is difficult, but it is not difficult in terms of skill. No, Demon's Souls is difficult in a much more diabolical way: it is a test of willpower. The more one plays the game, the more pain and pleasure centers merge until the player has trouble distinguishing one from the other. If one does start to realize that much of that sensation is pain, Demon's Souls sings its Sirens' song, luring its prey back for more punishment.
What makes Demon's Souls so enticing is its dark and compelling setting. Upon entering the kingdom of Boletaria, the player is tasked with defeating a horde of demons that have entrenched themselves throughout its various regions. From the moment the player takes his first step in this fog-shrouded land, the game absolutely oozes with atmosphere. The dim corridors of a crumbling castle lead to parapets guarded by heavily-armored knights; in a prison fortress the moans of tortured criminals are punctuated by clear, haunting bells; elsewhere, gargoyles perch on spires connected by rail-less bridges suspended high over a murky swamp. These are but a few of the many locales, each as foreboding as the last, and each contributing to the coherency of the bleak world.
The plausibility of the world is further augmented by clever level design. Even though the stages are linear overall, they will zig and zag, up and down staircases and through tight, winding cave tunnels that circle back on themselves, leaving a non-linear impression. It's easy to believe that once upon a time the massive structures had been built with purpose by the now wanton inhabitants. Some stages have one or two checkpoints that are created by traversing a loop to open a previously inaccessible path, such as unlocking a door from behind or lowering a bridge from one side.
Unfortunately, not all stages have checkpoints, and these instances exposed a major weakness in the game's design: Upon death, the player is set back at the beginning of the stage with all of the enemies re-spawned. The game throws down the gauntlet, and at first I welcomed this challenge. As I continued playing, however, this design became increasingly problematic, most notably when it came to the demon battles. Many of the encounters with these frightening bosses were creative, engaging, and extremely intense, as they can annihilate the player, sometimes with a single attack. Players will assuredly die numerous times while attempting to learn their patterns and weaknesses. There was nothing more frustrating than when a demon's sword clipped through a pillar and one-shotted me, forcing me to replay the entire stage again just to get another chance. It does not make sense to force the player to complete a task that he has already conquered as punishment for failing at a wholly separate challenge. That is like a parent forcing a kid who fails a homework assignment to clean his room even though he just finished cleaning it five minutes ago.
The variety of available classes and nice assortment of weapons and spells should have been plenty enough to keep things interesting, but the lack of enemy intelligence often destroyed the potential many scenarios had. To be blunt, most of the enemies are dumber than zombies. While this seems appropriate—after all, they are creatures that have been robbed of their souls and have gone insane—it does not justify their sub-par pathfinding and severe lack of awareness. Many times an enemy will, of his own accord, walk right off a ledge and plummet to his death. A few placed in some stages predictably did this every single time I encountered them. Flee from the fight and the vast majority of adversaries will give up chase and turn around, leaving themselves open to critical strikes from behind. Worst of all was the fact that too many enemies could be easily dispatched from afar with a bow and arrows. This included the final boss, where I literally stood in one spot and fired dozens of arrows at it until it died; it never even got close enough for me to make out what it was!
My biggest disappointment came with the dragons. Without a doubt, these were some of the most majestic, awe-inspiring, and intimidating creatures I have ever seen in a video game. I initially imagined epic battles—dodging from battlement to battlement, slowly withering my foe down. These dreams were crushed upon rudimentary experimentation that revealed them to be nothing more than environmental fire hazards triggered by walking into specific areas. The culmination of my dismay was when I stood right underneath one of them and shot it with over 250 arrows while it did absolutely nothing to defend itself. What should have been a terrifying dragon was instead a silly giant frog sitting in a pot of water, completely unaware that it was slowly being boiled alive.
With its absorbing world and realistic class role-playing, Demon's Souls had so much going for it. I would have loved to play through the game again with a variety of character classes, but my desire to do so has been completely snuffed out by the feeling as though I have finished the game several times over already. Obviously the archaic "restart the level" design choice was a huge contributor, but perhaps the class I chose and the manner in which I played was also a factor. Whatever the reasons, the result was that Demon's Souls ended up being one of those games that I wanted to like more than I actually did. Despite this—and because of it—I will be keeping an eye on From Software's next project, hoping for a spiritual successor.
— by Joseph Boyd
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 50 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).