Fans of Oblivion and other third person D&D style RPGs should definitely look into a new one from Atlus known as Demon's Souls. The PS3 exclusive title has an awful lot of great things going for it, but the entire experience is considerably hampered by a brutal difficulty that requires a tremendous amount of repetition and patience. But don't let that keep you from trying what is otherwise the best RPG this year, and a classic in the making.
Can You Save Boletaria?
A few weeks ago, Atlus released a trailer for Demon's Souls which goes a long way in explaining the premise from which players begin their quest. Long ago, the ancients sealed away a massive, evil beast known as the Old One. The Old One was contained in a structure known as the Nexus. Six different elders were each given an archstone to the Nexus. The King of a land known as Boletaria used his key to awaken the Old One, and with his awakening came much evil in the form of a thick fog and countless demon's who fed on the people of the land, stealing their souls and turning them into madmen. One of the elite warriors of the Two Fangs managed to escape Boletaria and warn the surrounding lands. Numerous warriors have entered the fog, but none have returned and the plight of Boletaria remains.
As you might imagine, this is where you come in. You are perhaps the final hope to restore peace to this demon ravaged land. The long and difficult path begins with a detailed character creation system in which you will select the name, gender, and class of your character. There are thirteen available player classes to choose from which effect your initial stats and weapons. Looking back, I probably should have gone with a more melee focused character, because as a Magician, it's been a very difficult game thus far, one that I have yet to complete. Anyway, the classes are: Soldier, Knight, Hunter, Priest, Magician, Wanderer, Barbarian, Thief, Temple Knight, and Royalty. Some of these classes overlap, but each has at least one major unique feature about it such as the ability of the Temple Knights to heal themselves with miracles and the thief's high luck rating.
After choosing your class, a plethora of face changing sliders and options appears that let you customize a ton of facial features from hair to chin, cheeks, nose... you name it, there's a slider to adjust it. Once you're all set, the game loads up and you'll get your first taste of in game action.
Even though I played this a little bit at E3, I was still surprised at how good Demon's Souls looked when I fired it up again this month. The visuals are nothing short of beautiful, with a variety of great looking architecture and textures, great colors and lighting, and frankly an overall very solid look. The animations and lack of clipping and other technical issues really also contribute to what is really an excellent looking game. The orchestral soundtrack kicks in from the start too, and it is very fitting and good. The sound effects are also great.
The first few minutes of the game are spent in the game world, but you are safe from enemies for a little while and an interactive tutorial keeps you moving in the right direction. Learning the controls doesn't take very long and I was pleased with not only the button layout but the responsiveness of the controls themselves. Players move with the left stick, adjust the camera with the right, and use their hands with with L1, L2, R1, and R2. Generally, L1 and R1 are used for quick motions like a jab or quick block, while L2 and R2 are used for strong actions like an aggressive block or powerful weapon swing. If you time blocking with L2 correctly, you can parry an oncoming attack and leave the attack open for a second for a devestating counter -- these look great and deal a whole heck of a lot of damage.
Other controls include Circle, which if tapped along with a right stick movement, make your character duck and roll, great for quick evasive maneuvers against traps and attacks. Just pressing Circle makes your player take a step back, also good for defense in melee combat. If you hold down Circle, while pressing the left stick in a direction, your player breaks out into a run. Square is mapped to 'use,' and by use I mean used to activate what equipment or item you have highlighted in the lower left hand corner of the HUD. These are usually spells or other weapons for example, that you can switch between. Triangle is used to switch between using both hands individually to using both to wield a single weapon. When you use Triangle, weapon movement is slowed, but deals 1.5x damage than when using just a single hand, ideal for taking out tougher foes. Players can also center up the camera with R3, write a message with Select (more on this later), and access the menu with Start. It's interesting to note that you cannot pause the action by pressing Start.
I may as well sneak in a quick rundown of the HUD here as I've touched on an element or two thereof already. The upper left corner is where you'll find the most important stats, including your HP, MP, and Stamina. Stamina is important because it's required to perform actions like swinging your sword or weapon, and blocking. If you run around all the time, your stamina will be very low when you need it most, in battle.
Below these three meters, icons will appear to convey other important information as needed. These icons include things like 'weapon damage' and 'poison' meaning that your weapon is damaged and not as effective and that you are currently under the (very negative) influence of poison. The lower left area shows small icons for what equipment you have currently equipped. The lower right corner shows the number of souls you have collected thus far. Souls are used as currency in Demon's Souls, very important for purchasing items and repairs. Finally, the upper right corner displays the name of the location you are currently traversing.
The controls and overall presentation to this point had me impressed. I was all ready to get my hands dirty but this short interactive tutorial continues with a surprise boss fight that players simply cannot win. After you die, you awaken in the Nexus in Soul Form. Soul Form is the opposite of the Living Body form. When you die as a Living Body, your soul is reborn at the Nexus. The Nexus is exactly as it sounds, a hub area that connects out to the other major locations in the game.
While in the relatively expansive Nexus, players can talk to several unkillable NPCs that offer one thing or another to your character, be it help or simply interesting dialogue. You'll meet an old codger blacksmith who is interested in taking whatever souls you collect in exchange for weapon creation, repair, or other sales. Another friendly man next to him is happy to hold onto any items you do not wish to carry with you at this time (there is a limit to how much your character can carry that varies on his class, etc). You can talk to any of the NPCs in the Nexus through the typical "press interact until the NPC starts to repeat himself" manner (i.e., you cannot choose what to say).
Living Body & Soul Forms... and much frustration
Something else you will notice while in Soul Form is that your HP meter is approximately halved, meaning tougher times lay ahead. To regain your full strength, i.e., Living Body, you must defeat a 'boss' demon or use a Stone of Ephemeral Eyes. Or, if you are online, you can become a Phantom or Black Phantom and either help or kill other online players. More on the interesting multiplayer modes soon, but first a closer look at battling through realms in Soul Form.
For me, the worst part about Demon's Souls isn't the difficulty -- but how From Software decided to handle the difficulty. I'm okay with the game being flat out hard. What kills me is that every time you die, you have to start over at the very beginning of the realm. I'm even able to tolerate that, but the fact that every enemy and destructible object is respawned completely anew is unforgivable. Have you ever spent an hour playing through a game, really enjoying yourself, only to die and have to do it all over again? Of course you have, any average gamer has suffered through that for one reason or another be it game design, power failure, or what have you. To put it bluntly, it sucks having to replay through sequences again, and no matter how fun or good a game is, redoing parts over and over kills the fun factor. That's the wall I ran into with Demon's Souls that took my opinion of the game from incredible to just very good/great.
I'm just about off of my rant, but there are two other points to include. First, it's important to note that when you do die and have to restart an area, your inventory and items continue to deplete and take damage time after time, while the enemies and destructible world objects reappear as though you were never there. That, to me, is a major game design flaw that screws with any element of immersion or continuity the game has to that point. It's just silly; why do I have to constantly fight the same enemies and destroy the same objects over and over again (okay so you don't have to destroy the objects, but still...)? Having to restart an area over is bad enough, but having to slug through every enemy again is a damn nuisance. Running past them can work, to a degree, but you'll take a lot of damage doing so. It's just so frustrating to see such an otherwise great game plagued by this bizarre design. It's like even though there are several none melee-combat oriented character classes to choose from, the difficulty encourages playing as the strong, HP-heavy class, rather than the nimble, ranged Magician that I chose. I'd imagine my experience will get easier later in the game when I've leveled up more, but right now I'm just slowly grinding along.
Without checkpoints, it isn't really safe to stop playing whenever you want to and pick up where you left off next time. Instead, you'll start back at the start of the realm, with all enemies and destructibles respawned again, like you were never there. One somewhat helpful point to make though is that what levels I have been able to clear to this point are at least designed in such a way that if you do make it far enough, you can open up a shortcut or two that connects back to the start of the level. That is appreciated, but it doesn't make up for the 'restart/respawn' design.
Another point to make is that if you can get back to where you died without dying again, and you locate your bloodstain, you can re-earn all of the souls you had collected to that point. However, if you die with a bunch of souls, respawn, die again, and then live long enough to get to the location with the bunch of souls -- the bloodstain isn't there. One bloodstain at a time folks.
Online Innovations and Coolness
At least as far as your bloodstains are concerned. When playing through Demon's Souls while connected online, you will encounter messages and bloodstains of other online players. This built in messaging system is something that you can partake in anytime by writing your own messages or reading and rating other people's messages. Writing a message is as simple as pressing Select and then choosing from dozens of 'fill in the blank' templates. It takes just a few seconds to write out 'Beware of enemy ambush' for example, or 'hidden passage ahead.' I can't say I've ever even heard of a game with a system like this, and that alone deserves kudos to From Software. In addition to messages, which appear as cryptic glowing red (green for your own messages, which you can go back and delete if you want) letters on the ground, you will also find bloodstains of fallen players. When you come across a bloodstain, you'll get a prompt to press X to interact with the stain. Instantly, a ghostly or phantom form of the player who died at that bloodstain will appear and you can witness their actions in the final seconds leading up to their death. More bloodstains are scattered about areas that are intentionally harder, ideally to help you get an idea of what you are up against and maybe how to defeat it. Bloodstains aren't always helpful, just as player-left messages aren't, but it's another unique and really cool online feature to Demon's Souls that intriguied me.
Other online components make use of stones. For example, players requesting help from others can use a Blue Stone. An online player in Soul Form who has a Blue Stone can use it to request the aid of the Living player, assuming that their Soul Level (basically your level rank) is 'similar' to that of the person requesting the help. If so, and the Living player decides to assist, he can interact with the marker that appears on his screen. Doing so transforms him into Soul Form and he can then assist in defeating a major demon. Up to two other players can be summoned at once, so a total of three players can work together. When the demon is defeated, the Soul Form player returns to his Living Body once again. Interestingly, each player can rate each other after the co-op sequence (whether successful or not) is over.
If you don't fancy a trip through a realm in single player mode, calling for help is one option that can help, but invading other player's games and killing them is another. When in Soul Form and in possession of a Black Stone, players can warp into Living player's game's and try to hunt them down and kill them. Doing so means they will return to their own game and be Living once again. However, if the invader gets killed by the environment or returns to his own game (by using a White Eye Stone), his Soul Level will decrease by 1. Furthermore, the Living player can defend himself with a Banish miracle, or by calling upon the help of two other players (just like with co-op).
Finally, there are Red Stones which are used to challenge another player to a duel. The loser of the duel loses a Soul Level, while the winner takes the amount of collected souls that the loser forfeits with the Soul Level loss. When you use a Red Stone and a Living player 'accepts' it by going up to the marker in their game world and interacting with it, you transform into a Black Phantom and teleport into their game world.
These different multiplayer ideas are really neat and new to me. I can't say I've played another game with multiplayer features quite like this one. That's not to say the ideas or execution are perfect, but they are unique and really cool. I thought From Software did a great job not only with the innovation in this arena, but also in how seamless they integrated multiplayer into the single player mode.
With that, let's head to the summary...