Friday, October 16, 2009

Demon's Souls

Uncharted 2 is great.  It is a lot of fun, looks absolutely gorgeous, and the production values are through the roof.  But for the last 3 nights, I haven't been going to bed at 2am because of Uncharted.  No, that is all Demon's Souls' fault.
This game is like crack.  It has excellent design all around and it is because of those off-kilter design choices that I think the game excels.  These days, some of those choices might seem terrible, but without them this game wouldn't be nearly as good.
The game seems to do all it can to make you hate it.  It is hard.  A lot harder than what gamers are used to today.  No save anywhere feature, no check points, no "retrys", no pause option (damn you), if you die fighting a level's boss you start all the way at the beginning of the level and all the enemies respawn.  Oh yeah, if you were in human form when you died you now start in "phantom" form and your hit points are reduced by half.  You also lose all the souls you had collected upon death.  And souls are the game's most precious commodity.  They serves as the game's currency and also as experience points which you use to level up your character.  So losing maybe an hour's worth of soul collecting (you get souls from every defeated enemy) can be down right aggravating.  You do get to keep all the items you found though.  And all is not lost, for if you brave the dangers ahead and fight your way through the level again and make it back to the spot where you died, you will find your blood stain along with all your souls waiting for you.  However, if you die again before reclaiming those souls, they disappear and are gone forever.
Doesn't all that sound like fun?  No of course not.  But it is.  It is.
Because of the harsh penalties associated with death, you actually fear it.  You have to think about every action you do and every enemy you decide to engage in combat, because even the most common enemy can kill you if you are not concentrated on the battle, or you underestimate its skill (or overestimate yours).  That is pretty refreshing in this day and age, when dying in a game is more of an annoyance with no real consequence.  In Demon's Souls, it is unbelievably tense when you are trying to make it back to the spot where you died to reclaim your souls.  You know that if you die again, you will lose them all.  I've retreated and planned attacks on even the most low level enemies because the thought of dying and forever losing those souls is not an option.
The game has a fair amount of depth as well.  Weapons and armor can be upgraded by combining different shards of ore you find in the land.  Combat is also beyond a simple button mashing affair.  In fact, button mashing will get you killed in seconds.  A good defense is the key to fighting, as often blocking or dodging attacks and then counter-attacking is the much safer route.  Players cannot just sit back and block however, as absorbing blows depletes your stamina bar (as does attacking or sprinting), so combat is a tactical mix of blocking, attacking, and keeping an eye on your stamina.  It all comes together beautifully.  You can equip two weapons per hand and switch between all of them freely, and since certain enemies are weaker against certain types of weapons, there's a great amount of strategy involved in combat.  I have yet to learn my first magic spell, so I can't comment on that aspect of combat.
On a technical level, the game is very solid.  Character models look good and animate smoothly.  Enemy models can look downright impressive, including massive bosses or demons.  It is always impressive to emerge from a castle and see two giant dragons perched on the hillside a few hundred yards away.  The game is very dark and you'll spend a lot of time in dimly lit dungeons and hallways.  It adds greatly to the mood, even if it won't make your jaw drop with visual splendor.  I haven't encountered too many "wow" moments in the visual department, but nothing has taken me out of my experience because of shoddy visuals either.  Everything just comes together in a perfect package and I'm so absorbed while walking down these dark and dangerous corridors that I am not even thinking about the graphics.  And that is the sign of a game doing its job.
At this point I cannot recommend Demon's Souls enough, although I must say it is definitely not for everyone.  But it is absolutely up my alley.  As difficult as it can be, it is really up to the player how hard the experience is.  If you go in treating this like a hack n slash, or God of War, you will pay a steep price.  This game is not about fast paced combat, chaining together massive combos.  It is about using caution, studying your environment and enemies, and advancing every so slowly towards your goal.  I've been using this mindset for a while now and I have reduced my deaths by a significant margin.  For those that dedicate time to this title and play it the way it was meant to be played, a deeply satifying experience awaits.  Its a game that gives you a true sense of accomplishment for finishing - or even just surviving - its many challenges.

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