This summer’s weekends have been spent playing Demon’s Souls, the oddball niche of 2009 that found a rabid fanbase. I had the game on my shelf for a bit, but it took Atlus to announce a server shutdown for me to peel off the plastic. Though the Demon’s Souls pseudo-multiplayer was scheduled to end on the last day of May, the increase in those wanting to get their last fix in justified a longer life. So it’s still here, and though I’m late to the party, I’m still playing it.
If you’ve heard anything about Demon’s Souls, it would be the insane difficulty. This works as both a turnon and turnoff to different types of players (check out Giant Bomb’s quick look, back before the franchise truly caught on), and neither side is necessarily wrong. The specifics of the game aren’t “difficult” in the traditional sense. Combat isn’t too hard, platforming isn’t too hard. Rather, the penalties for failure are extreme. Demon’s Souls forgoes all the updates of the past twenty-five years in favor of soul-crushing discipline. When an enemy kills you, you begin at the start of the level, with decreased health and all the money you had carried on you missing. If you make it to your bloodstain, the point where you died, you can regain everything. If you die again in the act of getting there, it’s gone for good. This can be maddening for someone wanting to quickly breeze through to a story’s conclusion.
What Demon’s Souls reminds me of is walking on tiptoes. The animation isn’t slapped together, but meticulously rendered. Rather than rely on speed, like a Super Meat Boy, it puts split-second timing on its slowness. When an enemy arches his sword back, ready to thrust, you had best not lower your defenses. This is a game for those who enjoy reading horror stories without any clear description of the monster. From Software, the developers, ask you for extreme amounts of patience, thoroughly describing a haunted house without immediately showcasing its haunted residents.
The story, characters, and settings of Demon’s Souls are rich in backstory and vague in upfront appearance. I don’t mean to imply anything bad about this world, but it doesn’t do a good job at explaining anything (both story and gameplay included). Its characters have lengthy names that are only said once or twice, mostly on loading screens, and you are plopped directly into this fantasy world without a sense of who you are or what you’re doing, besides “fight. monsters.” A story exists, but it is almost Biblical, full of begats and untold history. After a few minutes you forget a name, and start to refer to characters as “Veil Lady” or “Monk Kid”. Fans of the series in-depth can surely pour through endless Wiki articles on the history of Boletaria, but the game doesn’t do a great job up-front giving you a reason to care. Maybe that’s part of the charm. The game has much in common with the original The Legend of Zelda, open-ended and about exploration and discovery.
The criticism of “brown-ness” is one applied often in today’s gaming scene, as military shooter after military shooter uses the color in an effort to look “real”. As a contrast, Demon’s Souls seems to have a perpetual filter of brown over its world, and this ends up making the game look sickly. The subdued yellows and dimly-lit passageways create a feeling of absolute despair. In this case, the grim aesthetic isn’t bad or overutilized. The art direction of Demon’s Souls is actually one of the best things about the game. Despite being straight from Japan, which shows in the gameplay, the characters look pulled right out of a medieval European story. Castles, knights, and weaponry aren’t Eastern-ized like Fullmetal Alchemist, but honestly look like those old paintings come to life. What’s absolutely killer, though, is the scale and design of these monsters. They can be gigantic in comparison to your character, but still defeatable. It’s also refreshing to see them not (always) be direct ripoffs of Dungeons & Dragons characters. Some enemies are downright creepy, yet put into a game where horror isn’t the main goal. Defeating these monsters is tough, but it’s doable. From Software has left it up to the player to succeed on their own accord. You have the tools, and it’s up for you to utilize them properly. There are no holding hands here.
The inner circle of gaming nerds like to say that Demon’s Souls is a divisive game, and some measure of that is true. Some will slave away at it while others will run away, but I’ve found a nice spot inbetween. This game is one of an ancient structure, not as “incorrect” as it is “unused”, and if everyone were to acknowledge it as such I imagine the series could have an even larger fanbase. Demon’s Souls is a long one, trumping over the modern glut of six-hour experiences with more content and excessive punishment. My regular course of action is to finish one game before moving on to the next (which, sadly, isn’t working out too well), but I doubt most will be able to finish this game in a few sittings. Demon’s Souls can be frustrating, but it’s a frustrating that puts a smile on your face after the fact. In so many ways it is the past, but the past is a nice change of pace to the constant present.