Review by MInitiative
"More than the sum of its parts, but rough around some edges."
I'm a fan of hard games, and Demon's Souls is just that. It's also quite punishing, and still has much room for future expansion and improvement. I'll start with the minor and work up.
Story - 2/10
Aside from the opening cinematic, there is no real story. It's an excuse for you to go out and slay demons, and in that vein in succeeds. There is hardly any narrative and just as little npc interaction and dialogue.
Sound - 8/10
This will vary from person to person, as there is very little music present in the game. Only during boss fights does the music roar in, but everywhere else it's just ambiance. The absence of music works well for the atmospheric presentation really; You're able to focus more on the sounds of enemies acting, approaching or hanging around, creating more tension.
Graphics - 8/10
Great in some respects, decent in others. The npc models and some of the enemies can come off as quite bland, but the armor, weapon, and boss designs make up for this. The real jewel of the graphics are the atmospheres. The game makes excellent use of lighting, and really does succeed in making you feel very alone in the dark in places you don't wish to be alone. The variety of the environments ranges from areas in broad daylight such as the palace and shrine (but those have their dark areas too), to underground in the mines where torches and lava light your way, to the dark and very moody areas such as a prison tower or a swamp.
Controls - 9/10
Functional, which is important in the game like this. You press something, it'll work for you. Camera works fine as well. The only minor problem was the auto target on R3, which I would've remapped to L3 but was unfortunately impossible. You get used to it quickly enough.
Gameplay - 8/10
The progression of Demon's Souls is that of an old-school dungeon crawler. Visit dungeons, slay enemies, slay bosses, collect loot and currency (souls), use said currency to upgrade your character's stats, upgrade gear, repeat ad nauseum. Let's start with the good.
The classes you choose at the beginning are ultimately meaningless; They only influence your starting stats and gear. You can select a barbarian and pretty soon, build it to be a full-on caster. This is only the tip of the iceburg, however. Enemies and bosses can be beaten in a variety of ways, with a variety of weapons. You can adapt your character around using spears, which thrust and can be used in close quarters with a shield raised. Or you could wield a large sword or hammer for wide, powerful swings. You can two-hand either on the fly and switch back just as quickly. You could customize them to scale better with a certain stat, even magic (which means a caster can dish out great damage in melee with the right weapon). You can nail things from afar with archery, or approach the situation with magic. You could wear a heavier shield that can take more punishment but lacks magic protection, or wear one that's lighter and has better magic defense but can't take much punishment. The only thing you unfortunately can't build your character to do, unless you heavily rely on magic buffs, is to take hits.
Do you wear heavy armor which provides greater protection but restricts rolling and stamina regeneration? Or do you go light for speedy dodges? You can also wear up to two rings to gain a range of effects. Wearing a thief's ring for example, will change how enemies approach you very noticeably, resulting in safer encounters. As a caster you can opt to wear a ring that buffs magic attack but lowers your magic defense, a ring that will regen mp, another that buffs your hp in soul form considerably, or you can switch frequently and on and on... The end result is that you can have very differing experiences from playthrough to playthrough.
The positive of Demon's Souls' difficult is that it's less about twitch fighting than it is about conservative, analytical approaches to combat. Even common enemies can put fairly large dents in your health, and later on many will even be able to one-shot you. The name of the game is to play as safe as possible, which is something that is learned quickly or you won't be able to progress much at all. Fundamentals like keeping a shield raised frequently, controlling and conserving stamina (the biggest key to combat), knowing when to strike and when to back off, when to 2h or 1h, and dealing with threats from range are all key to the experience. The result is combat that is often very simplistic in look, but very involved in execution. Once you learn the ins and outs of an enemy's reactions to you, you can often manipulate and defeat them easily so long as you don't get careless.
The Online Play
Player messages are a pretty cool part of the experience, and often amusing in nature as well. Little comments like "Nasty guy" next to a tough enemy go a long way in letting you know that there other people out there experiencing the same things you are. Viewing other players' deaths through blood stains can often show you something lurking around a corner (or someone throwing themselves off a cliff). Joining other players' games as a blue phantom can be pretty rewarding and often the option of teamwork. The gem of the online play is invading or being invaded by a black phantom. The rush of knowing a black phantom has invaded your game to kill you can be very thrilling and adds the element of player vs player to the game. There are ways to approach pvp as well, and all the tactical variety available to you is available to your opponent. It is up to you both to prepare for how to assault each other. You can meet them full on, attempt to hide and ambush, be physical, magical, etc.
And now for the bad...
I'm quite a tolerant gamer (you have to be, to get far with games like this), and I didn't mind much of the punishing elements of Demon's Souls, but I could easily see them as massive turn-offs to players. The first is the act of death (they all revolve around death), and losing your body as a result. Losing your body places you in soul form, which reduces your hp to 50% (75% if you wear a certain ring) and increases your damage dealt by a rough guess of 15-20%. I can't say that there really is a solid rhyme or reason to it; Losing 50% of your hp for dying is a blatant increase in difficulty that forces you to be more precise as it is now even easier for you to be mowed down quickly. The damage bonus of soul form can prove advantageous, however.
Second is the loss of souls. When you die you leave a blood stain on the floor (if you fell to your death, it will place it 10 seconds before your death), and lose all your accrued souls. To get them back, you have to find the spot of your death and collect them again. Die a second time before that, and those souls are lost. This penalty I don't mind much either, as it serves as a good incentive to be careful and not die.
Now here's the real punishing element - for every death, you are placed back at the beginning of the stage with all enemies respawned. This isn't so bad when you're learning how to get through a stage; it offers more experience with the enemies and the stage itself, i.e. knowing where that enemy is coming from, watching your footing in certain places, etc. Where this really starts to become an issue is dying at bosses, as they are not an exception to the rule. Some stages have shortcuts, but several don't. Having to run through and reclear 5-15 minutes worth of a stage, running the risk of death and loss of souls, just to get another shot at a boss that often can flat out one-shot you gets old very quickly. The one-shotting and power of the bosses isn't the issue here - they're bosses, they should be powerful and require precision and good preparation/strategy to take down. The leveling clearing is where I drew the line at taking punishment a bit too far. Above I mentioned not getting careless; This kind of player punishment almost encourages you to be careless and run the risk of dying again, simply because it forces you to clear through the mundane to get to the important. A boss checkpoint could've solved this glaring issue but there's always next game.
Overall - 8/10
A solid gem of a game that possesses a difficulty and combat style that's pretty unfamiliar these days. Worth playing, especially if you're not afraid of a challenge.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/19/10
Game Release: Demon's Souls (US, 10/06/09)
Got Your Own Opinion?
You can submit your own review for this game using our Review Submission Form.