Review by Darksun45230

"You are the Demon!"

I've grown cold towards the dungeon crawling genre over the years and the feelings mutual apparently. Who would have thought sauntering through crudely lit labyrinths vying for the prize at trek's end – usually a showdown with a red-skinned lord of darkness – repackaged and resold over and over again would grow stale? Flung headfirst into it's golden years as a niche genre where fans nod respectfully as it rambles on about "the good ole' days:" where we fought by spamming the directional buttons, imbibed potions, and wandered in a world built with keyboard characters.

A glance at Demon's Souls tells you have far we've come.

Drab labyrinths of gray brick and mortar are spit-shined with state-of-the-art graphics and blur. Characters once eight-bit tomb-raiders are sculpted Spartans with uncompromising detail. The potions once vital to survival have been replaced with a buffet of herbs and grasses that enemies cheerfully take advantage of. Combat – once number chipping games – evolves into a tango with only one dancer walking away: let's hope it's you.

Story
You play the role of the every-man adventurer seeking a suicidal thrill. King Allant of Bolteria has roused the ire the Old One – a staple ancient evil complete with hordes of demons – and it's up to you evict them... or join them.

Demon's Souls answers the question of how long a life you'll have in a demon infested world by ending it post tutorial. Who would've guessed venturing into complete isolation surrounded by soul-starved monsters would end with your demise? You sure didn't.

Once revived in the Nexus – the flypaper for your wayward soul – you're tasked (which is a politer word for forced) into playing exterminator. You crash the Demon's after-party only to be met by their minions, mandibles snapping. Soon after, the worlds are yours to explore. Following the Megaman approach to gameplay, you enter a stage, brawl with the locals, evade spiky traps, and finally confront a Lovecraftian horror. You even acquire a Demon's Soul (hence the title) for your troubles.

Where other role-playing games steer by plot, this one takes the backseat. This is because hunting demons is your only mission. The androids of Megaman and their thematic stages are supplanted by behemoths dredged from the lowest corners of hell. Their minions ranging from corpses hacking madly away at empty air to nightmares gushing from dark corners. The mustachioed, balding, puppet-mastered hunkered in his skull fortress is instead a Demon as old as time and deadly as poison.

Without spoiling much, the plot ends with the ever popular moral choice fork-in-the-road. Do you craft a future free of the Demon's and their ilk or use their powers to condemn the world? It's a lot to ask of players having never marched beyond Bolteria's post-apocalyptic borders. What's salvation worth when the people you're doing it for are faceless, numberless masses? Perhaps the choices would carry more emotional weight if we had an inkling of those effected.

Gameplay
As you press into the darkness, shield guiding the way, no one anticipates your death more than the game itself. With traps a misstep away, terrors tucked in unlit corridors, and half your maximum health, there's no end to the ways it will bruise your ego. Was dodging dragon's fire not enough to halt you? Try with a crossbow aimed at your temple. Was trekking through a poisonous swamp not enough to deter you? A welcoming party of giants awaits with clubs in-hand. Any chance you give it, Demon's Souls awards a "You Died" message with a sadistic guffaw.

The game operates a hub-based system. Soul stationed by the Nexus, you'll catapult through Archstones to various, but equally drab, locales. While this textbook dark fantasy, it's always brooding dungeons and linear pathways leaves little to contrast. Players who enjoy atmosphere's of murk and murder will feel right at home, others may chaff against it.

Character building grants the same freedoms in titles like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion or Fallout 3: where players channel Michelangelo sculpting their masterpiece. Hair, eyes, nose, ears, and jawbone are all subject to your whims. What isn't subject is the helmet you'll don to avoid having your head lopped off, rendering any alterations an amusing waste of time. With so much effort put into character creation you'd think there would be an option to toggle off helmets ala Mass Effect. There isn't.

Combat is the usual array of bows, magic, and might is well-polished. Light attacks or heavy, parry or block, two-handed or dual wield, each action drains a bit of stamina. Unlike the Herculean Kratos of the God of War series, a single swing may determine whether you have the energy to fend off the next blow. Unfortunately, the system isn't built for variety or balance (at least against enemy A.I.). Stunning an enemy with a well-timed parry may leave them open to counterattack, the riposte itself is akin to two mismatched lovers on sodden soil taking their sweet time. Because scraps usually occur with hordes of monsters, you'll quickly discard this technique and save time by giving into the game's hack-n-slash nature. If parrying is an inconvenience then what's the point of using it?

While close-quarter has an undeniable luster, the same can't be said for ranged options. The bow for example, while adequate for picking off faraway targets, plateaus at that. There's no reward or incentive for aiming at an enemy's vitals ergo no skill necessary to wield it. The same can also be said about magic. Without the sluggish animation and movement restrictions of the bow, magic is like hunting in a zoo; the animals' overfed, bloated bodies and atrophied muscles only registering your presence when dealt deathblows. While archery and magic have their arrow and mana restrictions, those are compensated for as the player acquires more currency, and in magic's case, more equipment that regenerates spent energy. The result is flawed, slightly broken but solid, even graceful, system.

The currency used for both purchasing items and building stats are Souls. An unknown number of them, one assumes, came from humans at some point. Following that line of logic, you're benefiting from murder of other people: vacuuming them from fallen Demons then using them to grow stronger. It makes you wonder: how different are you from them? How many would abstain from gathering souls if the outcome meant fading away?

Whether embracing or shunning your heritage, it all hinges on your actions online. Having recently died, you'll spend the afterlife avenging yourself in Soul Form. In it, you're on a halflife: able to walk among the living, but with only a fraction of your maximum health. To resurrect you have two options: hunt boss Demon's alone, with a friends, or hunt each other. Because stalking red phantoms waltz your way only in the online realm, you're free to trek unmolested offline. You coward.

World Tendency is the shifting of an Archstone's alignment, or to put it another way, a shifting of personality. Reviving multiple times in the same world influences a more forgiving one. The difficulty bar is lowered for adventurers allowing them to torpedo through levels. Likewise, dying in Body form forces it's opposite, Black World Tendency, to emerge; the stricter, ruler-snapping, elbows-off-the-table matron that bolster's enemy ranks as well as shaves your health. Attaining Pure Black or Pure White unlocks various rewards and events. It acts as motivation for players to perform better and forces them to plan accordingly.

Conclusion
Demon's Souls is a grisly campaign of perpetual death. From it you learn to sidestep that next violent heave or creep (rather than run) on narrow walkways; some traps are unfair, some monsters seemingly impossible. All it takes is a simple misstep to be skewered, piked, mauled or maimed in this savage terrain; one that projects an atmosphere of dread that many have tried but few succeed at.

At the end of these crudely lit labyrinths, you'll wolf down your share of herbs before awarded it's prize. Whether the trek was worth the treasure is entirely left up to you; following it's predictable, old-school plot-line will fuel the nostalgia audience but may disappoint the rest. Players' will get their money's (or Soul's) worth by triumphing over a game eager to punish, experimenting with combat, looting dungeons, and deciding whether to cross over as a helping-hand or a death-dealer. It's beautiful, tragic, and at times fun, but flawed and unforgiving. In Demon's Souls, you are the demon!


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/16/11

Game Release: Demon's Souls (US, 10/06/09)


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