Strap on your armour, unsheathe your sword and enter the realm of Boletaria, a place where taking more than a few steps at a time is a challenge, but you never really die. This is the world of Demon’s Souls, a fantasy role-playing game developed by From Software exclusively for PlayStation 3. The box is adorned with the usual: a knight, some monsters and sword action, but insert this game into your PS3 and you find a stranger beast indeed. Not only does the game break many modern conventions, but it takes gaming back to a time when success was a challenge earned through persistence and skill. This difficulty makes Demon’s Souls not only unique but also somehow fun.
Boletaria is under siege, shrouded in a thick fog, and all manner of beasts and demons roam the land. It is up to you, as the game’s hero, to slay all kinds of creatures and free the kingdom. Very little is known at the beginning, but tiny details are revealed as the game progresses, but overall the story lacks any real depth. The game never gives the player enough details to really immerse himself in the world of Boletaria, and the side story is only occasionally interesting. There is little reason to fully explore the game’s areas, and the character’s motivations are never fully explained. The story often feels like an afterthought.
But at least the atmosphere in Demon’s Souls is haunting. The land of Boletaria is beautiful, and the beasts look surprisingly sinister. There are many vistas that show the full devastation of the land and the dark loneliness that you, as the game’s hero, find yourself in. The castle dungeons and barren lands help set the mood and tone of the entire game, and there is enough environmental movement to present a dark but exciting world full of danger.
Unfortunately, the character model is less appealing. You can customize your hero, but anyway you do it, he always looks more like Ken or Barbie than a formidable demon slayer, but this is a small problem in an overall well-designed visual package. The game’s sound also contributes to the atmosphere. Bone-chilling sounds emanate from the world to keep you on your toes, and the soundtrack, composed by Shunsuke Kida, is another strong point. Soft instrumental melodies fill the dark halls, providing contextual music as your hero faces the darkness.
“This difficulty makes Demon’s Souls not only unique but also somehow fun.”
But the unique mechanic that sets Demon’s Souls apart is its online integration. Not only does the player have the ability to enter other people’s games, but Demon’s Souls allows players to leave messages in the shared game world. These messages can be anything from helpful hints to outright lies, and the game itself presents messages in the form of bloodstains that can be activated to show a morbid pantomime depicting the death of another player. By following these ghosts, players can discover clues as to what to do next, or simply join them for some company.
It must be said that you will die a lot in this game. Even in the tutorial, you will be killed. This is not to say that the game is unfair; it just forces you to hone your skills. This is a classic RPG trope in that there is always a way to beat what is in front of you. It is just a matter of finding it. Whether that means levelling up your character or simply trying a different path, the game provides the option.
The fact that you never completely die in the game world is another unique mechanic. There are two ways to traverse Boletaria: as a flesh-and-blood warrior or as a soul. The only change this makes to your character is your health. As a flesh and blood warrior, your health is full. The catch is that you can only keep your body as long as you stay alive.
A death in the game world means the loss of your physical form. There are many ways to get your body back: slay a demon, enter another player’s game, or simply use a certain item. But until you do one of these things, you will be stuck in spirit form. This hurts your health but also allows your weapons to do more damage.
This brings up another difficulty in Demon’s Soul, the currency of the game is souls, and you can get them by killing enemies or by collecting items scattered around the environment. The problem is that once you die you lose these souls, the game gives you one chance to return to your body and recover lost souls, but if you die before reaching it, they are lost forever.
This would not be so bad, except that everything in the game requires souls to repair your weapons or learn spells. Sometimes it takes hours to collect the necessary amount of souls, but this collection allows players to customize their characters in infinite combinations, which is a lot of fun.
Overall, Demon’s Souls is not for everyone. Brutal difficulty and a lacklustre story may turn off many players. It all comes down to this: if you own a PS3 and love RPGs the way they used to be made, you’ll want to pick this one up, just don’t expect the next great fantasy epic.