Game Description: Beautiful, compelling, and at times unforgiving, Demon's Souls is the hardcore RPG experience PS3 owners have been waiting for since the platform's launch. Revolutionary online features define your adventure like never before, presenting seamless interconnectivity that serves in every instance to enhance the single-player game. Unprecedented in its depth and subtlety, peerless in its relentlessly challenging gameplay, Demon's Souls is the ultimate action RPG.
HIGH Incredibly immersive sense of true role-playing.
LOW Might be intimidating to newer, less experienced players.
WTF Why is pausing not an option in the offline mode?
Immersion [i-mur-zhuh n, -shuh n] - Noun.
- a state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorption.
Applied to video games, the concept of immersion is difficult to intentionally create. It's certainly easy enough to understand, but much harder to produce in a convincing way. It's integral to creating an excellent experience, though—every player can relate to feeling completely consumed by a fantastic game, so as a result, nearly every game tries to achieve it. Demon's Souls, produced by From Software and published by Atlus, has immersion in spades. It drips with it. Overflows with it. It takes the player and completely envelops them in its world.
Forget everything you may have heard about the game being incredibly difficult or unforgiving. Categorizing Demon's Souls with such a narrow view and leaving it at that does the title an incredible injustice. What it actually does is submerge players deeply in its world and asks them to understand its reality. Every aspect of its identity is tied to a clear central vision. By crafting an absolutely logical, holistic world and going to great lengths to make it cohere in every way, the result is an experience unlike any other.
A lone warrior arriving in a strange land, the player is charged with choosing the sort of character they'll be before being set loose to destroy an army of powerful demons. It's as good a plot as any to start an adventure, but what sets Demon's Souls apart is that once the game begins, it's imperative to adjust expectations. The player must be willing to understand that the qualities and constructs put in place are (for lack of a better term) unique.
For quite a while, every encounter can be a fatal one. Many will be. Although the first inclination for many players will be to take their newly-awarded sword or freshly sparkling wand and charge headlong into battle, the reality is that the only successful strategy in this mysterious, fog-choked land is cautious evaluation. Regardless of whether the player chooses to be a stealthy thief, a heavily-armored paladin, or potent wizard, it must be understood that their virtual avatar has to obey many kinds of reality-tinged rules; far more than the standard role-playing game ever attempts.
For example, as damaging as it may be, wielding a field-clearing polearm in a narrow tunnel is a losing proposition. It's too long, and the blade will strike the walls instead of its target. Swinging a massive axe results in a loss of mobility and long recovery times due to the sheer weight of lugging the thing around. Such a system isn't cheap or unfair... it's just an application of a real-world ruleset that most developers haven't implemented as well or as convincingly before.
Going further, when any given situation seems potentially dangerous, it's foolhardy to walk straight into unknown circumstances. Dark rooms are prime territory for enemies to hide in shadows and pounce from behind, and patches of ground scorched black by flame are likely unsafe places to stand. The game actually asks players to think very carefully about the nature of their surroundings in order to survive. In effect, it's crucial for participants in Demon's Souls struggle to actually play their role. Once this impossible-to-overstate fact is understood, players willing to take on its burden will be amply rewarded.
By combining a higher level of detail and interaction with some truly astounding world design, succumbing to the atmosphere and oppressive aura put out by each of the game's areas is a foregone conclusion. Setting foot at the start of a level feels as though an entire fantasy world is laid out at the player's feet, ripe for exploration and rife with danger. From the opening scenes of the crumbling, dragon-singed Boletarian Palace to the sick, dripping filth and rotten decay of the Valley of Defilement, each setting is utterly convincing and congruent with not only itself, but with the world of Demon's Souls overall. The lighting, the details, and the logic and design are incredibly strong in every instance. Squint, and you'd swear these places are real.
Further reinforcing this cohesive reality is the way the developers have chosen to implement their online strategy. Rather than the usual suite of standard online modes, From has instead woven it directly into the single-player experience, never asking the player to break role or the game to break the fourth wall.
In each region, players are able to leave messages for other players in the form of glowing runes etched into the ground. The words "trap ahead" may give warning of unseen falling rocks, or "good guy here" may prevent skittish players from unwittingly taking the life of a friendly merchant mistaken for a foe. It's incredibly ingenious, and a perfect way to let players interact with each other without taking away from the atmosphere of each level. Taking it further, it's possible to see how other players have actually died. Every bloodstain discovered can be activated to summon a ghostly image reenacting a real player's final moments. Paying close attention to both kinds of warnings can often mean the difference between life and death, and serves to increase the eerie feeling of the unknown by witnessing brief snatches of those who've gone before.
Not content to stop there, the developers have also added another form of online interaction: entering another player's world to help, or to hunt. By use of a special item, it's possible to leave a rune on the ground offering assistance that can be seen by other players. If the offer is accepted, the two heroes cooperate to clear out a level and defeat difficult bosses. On the other hand, malicious players can "break into" another's world and attempt to assassinate them. It's a bit of a gamble since the attacker never quite knows the strength or status of his prey, but the option is there. Whether helping or hurting, this system of incorporating interactions feels very in-line with the fantasy world created by Demon's Souls, and is a genius twist to a game that already steps out of established design mores in so many ways.
In every aspect, Demon's Souls is fantastically creative and adheres faithfully to its own identity in a way that so many other titles only stumble at. Although players expecting something more conventional may be coldly taken aback by its unflinching boldness and refusal to compromise its vision, those who can see it for what it is and appreciate what it does will find themselves knee-deep in adventure, never wanting to look back. Without question, Demon's Souls is one of 2009's finest titles, and an amazing, challenging journey without equal.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 14 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed at the time of review. All 14 hours of play were spent in the online mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood and violence. Parents, I have a hard time imagining that your young one will be asking for this title, but if by some strange occurrence they do, be aware that it will probably be absurdly challenging beyond the ability of most children. Save yourself the headache and convince your son or daughter to play something else until they're older. In terms of content, there's plenty of blood on display and the violence comes frequently. Imagine medieval knights attacking monsters with swords and spears, and you'll get the general idea of the battles.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You should be aware that although all of the game's dialogue is subtitled, sound plays a key role in locating enemies and being aware of their approach. Very often, an unseen attack will be preceded by a hiss or growl. Without access to this audio information, the player is at a definite disadvantage. The game is already quite difficult, and not being able to hear these cues mean that players with hearing disabilities will have to be extra vigilant.
HIGH Nightmarish art design, gameplay that feels both revolutionary and reactionary.
LOW Laying awake at night and plotting revenge.
WTF Dead enemies getting stuck to the player's shoe?
Demon's Souls is the Gravity's Rainbow of video gaming: a big, esoteric monster whose infamy seems fueled mostly by its own infamy. To wit: People are talking about how much other people are talking about how hard this game is. And make no mistake, the game is brutal. It thrives on your death; it is not a game where the player enters an avatar and fights some scurrilous, pre-ordained enemy. The player is not fighting demons, she is fighting the game itself—the developers' very mercilessness. The player will die, ignominiously and repeatedly. She will despair.
After all, to extend the metaphor, one does not read Gravity's Rainbow, one conquers it absolutely. One brags about it, carries around a dog-eared copy, underlined and tamed. Demon's Souls demands the same devotion and nothing less. That I and so many other critics can only seem to talk about the game's difficulty is correct. We are not critics without insight: there is one thing to write about, and it is this blank, unfeeling impenetrability. It spikes in unexpected ways and times, jarring the player ever out of sync. Both at its core and through to its very exterior, Demon's Souls is an intentionally terrifying exploration of video game difficulty. Its conclusions point to a fundamental reevaluation of what our entertainment should be.
But first, that remarkable exterior. The game's pitch-black art direction carries with it exactly zero in the way of levity. This is black-metal bleak, its only safe spot a surreal, purgatorial cathedral called the Nexus housing a few NPCs whose demeanors range from mournful to nasty. Here you level up, fortify weapons, and listen to the dire maunderings of the upperworld's scavengers. The levels themselves—five, ostensibly, but with wildly varying sub-levels—are arch dark fantasy, finding new inspiration in tired castles and dungeons by richly detailing their rubble and ash chars, by relishing the darkness of the hallways and the greyness of their skies. This is the deep, macabre darkness of Francis Bacon, Burzum and David Lynch, using the leash of fantasy to constrain its imagination. But it works, writhing within its genre. A decaying pope sits atop a mountain of upturned chairs. Titanic intestines hang, suspended by iron chains. Lunging warrior skeletons carry no cartoonish ancestry—meat clumps to their bones, and they feel once-human.
The game reeks of death. It is most abrasive in its intentions in its opening hours, wherein the player will die hundreds of times, figuring the game out death-by-death. Each inch gained is rewarded by a new frustration. It is rare to the point of unprecedented that a modern video game would play hard-to-get with its user, that it would beguile through disinterest, but that is exactly what Demon's Souls does in its three-hour tutorial-by-fire. It is fantastic looking, intuitively controlled, and it does not care for you one iota. Go ahead, it says in its opening hours. Don't play me.
Perhaps most brilliantly, it makes note that its world would continue on without you. Even the game's online components are a graceful addendum to its difficulty. Other players on the server can leave elliptical hints scattered throughout the gameworld, and their ghostly white phantoms skirt through the field of vision, dashing onward. They make no difference in your world, but their deaths do leave a bloodsplatter within it. These are intended as warnings, there to show you how to play better. But they also function as cheeky reminder and as belt-tightening encouragement. Everyone else is dying, too, they seem to say. Press on.
Because after those maddening first few hours, the gameplay's architecture is revealed to be as elegant and time-honored as the tropes of castles and caves used in the art design. This is a loot game driven to its barest essence. Here there is only one loot, one impetus, one universal currency: the titular demon's souls, gained from each enemy defeated. The combat, too, is straightforward, a game of sharp reflexes and parries and of patterns slowly recognized and adapted to different geographies. The player grasps, eventually, that there is order to the brutality, that you actually can grind, reassuringly, you can level up and come back to the same foes and find that, after all, your dodges are swift enough, and your sword can in fact cleave a once-impossible path. Grinding has long been a JRPG crutch to stretch gameplay past the crucial 50-hour mark. The gamer comes to regard it here as a breath of fresh air.
And then, with a grimace, the difficulty spikes again, and the game stretches impossibly forward. The player stares once again forlornly at those white phantoms falling to their deaths. The game's obstinacy is brilliant and its brilliance is obstinate. It is a convenience of fate that a game so diametrically opposite to this was released with fanfare concurrently, because the triumphs of this game and of Uncharted 2 are directly inverted. Naughty Dog's blockbuster grabs the player's hand and ushers them through a funhouse, with generous respawns and "show me how" buttons. The player yearns only to keep the scenery coming. But for all its storytelling bravado, the player never truly cares about that game's smirking bro and his mutant Rasputin nemesis. The controller rests on the player's lap during cut-scenes, while he takes a sip of beer and waits for the next explosion or vista. In Demon's Souls, when the game deigns to wrest control from the player—a liberty it doesn't even take during the pause screen—the player grips the controller tighter, braced, vividly within the space of his too-weakly armored character and utterly alive at the possibility of a brand new defeat. And he will despair of the certainty with which he will be hacking once again to this point to try and fail again, try and fail again, all his effort just a bloodspatter in another player's quest.
—by Clayton Purdom
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 25 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes and 10 hours of play to multiplayer modes.
Got my hands on a pre-release copy of Demon's Souls from Atlus today. It's certainly been one of my more anticipated titles, yet has remained a fairly large question mark. It's easy enough to get the gist, but as we all know, the devil is in the details… Fortunately, although I didn't have as much time to sink into it as I would have liked, the time I did have was extremely impressive—even moreso than I had anticipated after watching several videos available via the Internet.
Basically, the king of a faraway country has unleashed ultimate evil and the player takes on the role of a warrior intent on sealing it back up. The twist here is that thanks to the supernatural properties associated with this demon, the kingdom and surrounding lands are places where the player can't die. Or, at least, not die in the classic sense. It's certainly easy enough to be defeated by enemies, but when this occurs, the player is reincarnated as a spirit to return to battle.
It's not immediately obvious how this scheme plays out just from reading or hearing about it, but after spending some time it became quite clear. Essentially, the section of kingdom I was in is one level and certain aspects of it are presented persistently. For example, after making my way through a certain distance, I was able to hack through some chains and open a gate that had been previously locked. I died shortly afterwards, but after reincarnation, I returned to find that the gate was still open. It's progress gained by degrees.
There are other unique aspects, such as the ability to leave messages or read messages left by others. For example, before rounding a particular corner, one message scrawled on the ground said "watch out for the ambush". Sure enough, after stepping foot into the next room, I was waylaid by an enemy in hiding. Thanks to that message, though, I was prepared and made it through without a scratch. Apparently, this system comes into play not only through messages developers have left, but other players can leave notes that can be read by anyone. In effect, each chunk of the game's world is a persistent place that can be altered by the actions of other players.
Although these things were interesting enough, I found myself most fascinated by the attention to detail given to the combat system. I've played nearly every game that FromSoft has put out, but after spending time with Demon's Souls, I was extremely impressed by the advances they've made in terms of control and fluidity of motion. This is by far the most sensible, natural control scheme they've come up with, and it feels comfy.
Additionally, they've really spent time implementing the weapons in a very logical way. My character wields a halberd, so I'm at a disadvantage and narrow hallways since the weapon can't be effectively swung. However, I do have the option of controlling the weapon with both hands, and in that particular stance, my attack options are modified, granting me more freedom to defend myself in small spaces. It's pretty clear that the developers really put a lot of time and attention into the nitty-gritty details of how melee works, and I'm loving it.
I'll have more to say later, but for right now I'll also throw in that it's extremely atmospheric, the graphics are quite impressive, and the slow, deliberate pace of combat is a perfect fit.
I've only just scratched the surface of the game, but so far, it looks like a real winner.
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I had to put Demon's Souls aside for while to cover a couple of must-review titles, but I decided that I was going to take a break from reviewing for the weekend and just play for fun. Popping it back in my PS3, I was instantly sucked back in. Taking that short time away, I had forgotten how ridiculously awesome it is. The atmosphere, the feeling of exploration… everything. I totally love this game.
That's not to say the game is flawless, though—it suffers from the same issue so common to many RPGs in that the developers want you to choose the type of character you play before you really know what your preferred play style will be. Of course, everyone has their leanings. I tend to play brute strength characters and tanks most of the time because I don't like relying on magic spells when there is the danger of running out of mana, energy, or what have you. I went that route this time (choosing a female Temple Knight at the outset) and I've been generally pleased, but it takes a lot of effort to give a TK magic ability, and more than a couple times I've wished that I had a little more potency in terms of long-range attacks. Of course, by the time I realized that having the option would be desirable, I had already put so many hours into the character that the idea of starting over was not appealing at all. The same choosing-too-soon trap happened to me with Oblivion, and to this day I'm convinced that developers shouldn’t make a player commit to a class until they've been able to spend an hour or two noodling around.
There are a few other things that I can nitpick as well. The first is that since I'm playing a female character, it's been a little frustrating that every new set of armor I've found has been male-only. I'm hoping that I find some new stuff to equip before too much longer, but this gender bias means that I left piles of bright, shiny kit behind for the goblins to pick at, and that doesn't make me happy.
The other thing that needs a tweak is that the game should make it a little easier to compare the equipment you’ve already got on to the stuff you're considering purchasing, or stuff you’ve found in the field. It's a little hard to tell when something is actually "better" or has special properties.
For example, the shield my character started with was extremely tough, but I found one later on that had the exact same numbers in terms of statistics, but seemed to have special elemental resistance. However, I couldn't confirm that. Maybe I'm not looking in the right place or at the right screen, but it seems to me that this type of information could be a little clearer.
Those issues are just nitpicks, though… Demon’s Souls is still one of the best games I've played this year, and is certainly one of the best in its genre, overall. If you're a PS3 player who's got an interest in the Action-RPG genre and you haven't pre-ordered this game yet, you’re crazy. You are of unsound mind. Literally.
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It's a positive reaction to the action-RPG title that I've seen elsewhere, so I'm not entirely surprised. But I also feel it's the latest in a series of hyperbolic reactions calling the game "new" and "inventive," when what I really think people are reacting to—both positively and negatively—is the game's difficulty.
Here is my disclaimer: I did not finish Demon's Souls. I did not have the endurance nor the affordance of time to do so. I spent roughly nine hours on the game, about what it takes to finish your average console adventure, simply completing about three and a half stages (and I don't mean all of world 1 or all of world 2... I mean, for example, 1-1, 1-2, and 2-1).
But here is my other disclaimer for this post: I really liked it. I think Demon's Souls does what it sets out to do very well. It's beautiful, atmospheric, straightforward, and provides a level of achievement for doing even the most meaningless tasks that most RPGs do not for completion of their main quest.
Yet this latter trait is what I would call a side-effect of, not the main impetus for, the game's difficulty structure. Recently, I observed an argument on Twitter between a few bloggers whom I follow regarding Zero Punctuation's slamming of the game. The gist of the disagreement was that Ben Croshaw did not fairly evaluate the game because he lacked the skills and, I'm guessing, fairness to spend more time with it than he did. I assume a similar criticism can be levied against me.
I'm not sure to what extent you can take anything Croshaw says with more than a grain of salt. He's a humorist first and foremost, and it's hard not to smile as he rails into a game, even one you admire. The man is nothing if not a salty and vulgar insult comic that loves to dig into the finer flaws of modern video games. But I find there's always a certain amount of truth underlying Croshaw's zingers, and his review of Demon's Souls was no exception. Croshaw finds, as I do, that the system of sending you back to the beginning of a level with all enemies reset feels artificial.
Let's examine the reasons for creating such a system. And no, "masochism" is not one of them. We'll take this quite seriously. Fans of the game (or the King's Field series on which it is based) will say that such a system is in place because it better attunes a player to the raw challenge of the game: It encourages players to take their time examining the craftsmanship of the level, its devious enemy placement and assortment of traps. Stranding the player back at the beginning of the level with fewer items and "souls" (the game's currency) places greater importance on the one thing the player has gained in his/her previous attempt: knowledge. Applying that knowledge in such a way that it allows a player to overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles is what accounts for much of the elation experienced by the game's fans. It is truly a form of game-system mastery.
And here is the opposing criticism: It artificially extends the lifespan of the game. Imagine how much shorter a game Demon's Souls would be if you could start a level over with all destroyed demons gone. Again, proponents of the game's difficulty would argue that this is essentially draining the game of its essence, but the player would still have a chance to experience every trap, every bit of graphical detail and atmosphere... just on a smaller scale. And I mean much smaller.
In my own experiences with the game, I elected to go with a Barbarian character. The lack of usable armor and weapons pretty much doomed my experience with the game from the get-go, although there is no way I would have known this without consulting websites or strategy guides beforehand. Isn't there something to be said for the fact that the Barbarian class exists in the game? That I was drawn to the idea of playing the role of this sort of character? This is a "role-playing" game, after all, no? Yet in the nine subsequent hours in which I ponderously crept through a few levels and got hung up on a boss, I had little to show for my supposed accomplishments. Only nine hours of spent time.
I appreciate Demon's Souls. I admire those who have the willpower and fortitude to stick with it. Perhaps at hour 20 the game becomes something quite manipulable, and the player starts to go back to old haunts simply to experience the satisfaction of dominating foes that once caused grief. I can imagine the immense satisfaction of overcoming obstacles and immense bosses I had not witnessed in my supposedly "brief" time with the game.
But that's the thing: Nine hours isn't brief. Not at all. And like Croshaw must have, I started to do a cost-benefit analysis of those nine hours in my mind. The structure of the game undid itself: It was the game's own worst enemy. Starting at the beginning each time, no matter what new shortcuts opened up, meant an additional investment of real-life time that I shouldn't have had to experience. Why? Because there's the unavoidable fact that the person playing those roles is a real human with real responsibilities. Because I appreciate a game that appreciates MY time just as much as I appreciate the overcoming of an obstacle and game mastery. And Demon's Souls does not appreciate its players. 100-hour games like the Elder Scrolls titles make those hours fly by because the game does masterful work to send you in without constantly pulling you back out. The same cannot be said of Demon's Souls. But then, Demon's Souls is a very different type of game... for very different players.
It is a pandora's box waiting to be enjoyed, admired, unraveled. But it leaves an indelible mark of time on its players. It exists, not to be entered, not to immerse the player, but to be planned-out, strategized, gazed at from afar before being conquered with a killing stroke (or luck). Every time I was plucked from the game due to a clipping error (I remember a particular part in which I kept on being killed by dogs who nipped at me from beyond a staircase wall) or unwieldy combat controls, I was left to, not feel immersed in the intricate game world, but rather stare at my clock near the PS3. The game said, "challenge." The clock, unfortunately, said, "You have other things to do." And sadly that is a very real cost-benefit analysis that every gamer on Earth must come to terms with. Even if it means missing out on some very pretty, very interesting game content.
The reason I can extend my own cost-benefit analysis to other gamers, however, is for three simple reasons having to do more with the nature of Demon's Souls than with my own time allowance: 1.) It is not an immersive experience. 2.) It is not a role-playing game. 3.) There's really nothing very new or inventive about it.
Demon's Souls revels in taking a player out of the gameplay experience. Again, rather than immerse the player in its stunningly crafted world, the game is meant to shock the player out of immersion. The player is always beholden to the design, not the other way around. Nothing about the game outside of aesthetics and the mere idea of "conquering a challenge" is designed in service to the player.
Thus, it is not a role-playing game. There are no roles to be played, save one: the one that manages to get the player from point A to point B with the least amount of grief. Role-playing games, as I understand the term, are about immersion and fantasy. Yet Demon's Souls makes you aware of its contrivance at every turn, from the drawn out spectacle of its bosses to the artificially inflated difficulty and length.
Lastly, there's nothing really inventive about any of this. Not unless you consider the whole "starting out with all the enemies reset" new. And even then, it's not. Such a system is a relic of the NES and Commodore 64 era, when design limitations rendered such repetitive challenges rote. Perhaps it affords modern players a chance to experience the delights of conquering previously frustrating challenges, yes, but it is not in and of itself anything new.
You can point to the notes system, which is little more than a makeshift strategy guide filled with joyless spoilers and often useless dribble. You can point to the sometimes cooperative and combative nature of the online features, which are largely supplementary. But they adorn a game that is, at its core, a 3D version of the Ghosts 'n Goblins series. Take that as a compliment or insult if you wish, but let it stand as an observation regarding Demon's Souls core gameplay: It's something very old indeed.
And so I come back to my own time cost-benefit analysis, extended now to the larger populace of video game players: Is each hour of Demon's Souls worth it? It may seem a ridiculously subjective question to ask of so many individuals, all at once, and in many ways it is. Yet this is the sort of question that game reviewers and critics ask implicitly and explicitly all the time. And this is my best guess: No. It is a good game. A very good game. But it requires a preponderance of time not at all equal to the amount of pleasure that can be derived from its uniqueness, sense of immersion, or inherent delight. It is grinding incarnate. But then, here's the catch: Not every game player values those things. And those players who do not, and who do value the singular moments in which a particularly tough game seems to bend to the player's will... those players love Demon's Souls. I'm not one to disagree with that kind of logic, even if it's not mine. I do not own a level 80 character with superior armor and mount in World of Warcraft. I have not completed the original Final Fantasy. I am not beholden to the grind. For me, it is largely the antithesis of why I play video games: to experience something joyful and special.
It's worth repeating at this point that this is a game I liked. Those nine hours, misspent and offputting as they were, allowed me to experience a taste of what I think other people see in it. And that taste grew into appreciation. And despite the constant drain on my nerve and willpower, I saw in the game many of the same outstanding qualities that others have: the gorgeous graphics, the chilling atmosphere, the elegantly simple hack-and-slash interface (albeit saddled with some ineffective dodge controls). It is undoubtedly a well crafted game.
But it is also a game that defies the praise that has been heaped upon it, let alone labels of "dark fantasy RPG" and "innovative adventure game." I don't write this to discredit or undermine others' enjoyment of the title. Who am I to argue that someone else did not enjoy Demon's Souls more than any other game this year? Only the person in question knows how they feel about a game.
On the other hand, if one is trying as hard as possible to build a semi-objective comparison between the qualities of, say, Demon's Souls and those of critical darling (and my own pick for GOTY) Uncharted 2, there are some stark differences to be noted. Both games succeed at doing what they set out to do: Demon's Souls is an action game for players with time and patience. Uncharted 2 is a cinematic action spectacle. They're both equal parts straightforward A-to-B romps and intricately detailed gamescapes.
Here is the sad fact of the matter, however: Neither game is anything really innovative or new. I've already made this case for Demon's Souls. Uncharted 2 is largely the same game as its predecessor, although that can be seen as a plus given that the first title was quite stellar in its own right. And the same "complaint" can be levied against many of the so-called "GOTY usual suspects": Assassin's Creed 2 possesses many of the flaws and strengths of its predecessor while adding on a lengthier quest and some meager side distractions. New Super Mario Bros. Wii revels in nostalgia and classic gameplay. You'd have a hard time convincing me that Dragon Age isn't the same BioWare game they've been making for almost a decade, complete with spectacular dialogue and laborious party management.
If any two games truly innovated their genres this year, I would argue that those two games are Dead Space Extraction and Half-Minute Hero. But nothing in me really wants to call either of those games "best." Dead Space is wonderful but it is also somewhat insubstantial, weighed down by many of the constraints plaguing the light gun genre. Half-Minute Hero is as much a lightweight distraction as it is a joyous re-imagining of the JRPG.
This suggests the question central to my post and its (likely) incendiary title: What exactly makes a game "best" of the year? A nebulous range of criteria, to be sure. Here is my best stab at answering an undoubtedly precarious question: The best game in a given year is that which is most likely to both reward and delight, and to the largest degree, those who experience it. That isn't to say that reward cannot lead to a sense of delight, nor that delight isn't itself a kind of reward. Rather, I consider reward to be a sense of accomplishment, and delight to be the carrot that dangles in front of the head, leading one towards accomplishment. And yes, even games that do not seem on the surface "delightful" (e.g., Manhunt or the board game Train) can delight in the sense of offering new ways of seeing the world or new forms of introspection.
In that sense, Demon's Souls has the reward part down. Down cold. The game is all about challenge and reward. Delight? Well, you've read what I have to say.
Uncharted 2, while by no means anything new or genre-busting, is a fully-formed game of reward and delight. The plethora of spectacle and surprise (namely the sequences in which you are tasked with input while seemingly cinematic events unfold—the falling of a bus or the destruction of a building) delight... the challenge, length, story, and multiplayer reward.
Ideally, the year would have yielded a game like Metal Gear Solid 4 or Fallout 3 that combines a great sense of reward and delight with something genre-bending (in the case of MGS4, the octocam suits and vivid blurring of cinema and gameplay; in the case of Fallout 3, open-world gameplay mixed with an inventive and deep combat system). But it didn't. So I'd argue that the best we have is Uncharted 2 (which is still pretty damn good).
This is the part where I defend Uncharted 2 against what I consider to be largely unfair criticism: It's a cinematic game. So the hell what?
There seems to be a misunderstanding or bit of fallacious reasoning in some critical circles that games are so much a beast apart from cinema and literature that anything resembling those media in modern games is leading to some kind of game design apocalypse... or at the very least, a lack of ingenuity.
Why is this incorrect? Because it would be just as unreasonable to assume that gaming as a medium has developed in a vacuum as it would be to ignore that it is in many ways a medium apart. Games are a product of a blended, synthetic culture. Modern movies incorporate aspects of interactivity and gamesmanship, just as the classic Atari games invoked cinematic spectacle. And games like King's Field and Demon's Souls are nothing if not interactive references to high-fantasy literature. You are welcome to argue that narrative can sometimes take precedent over gameplay; the mistake would be to argue that the two are somehow self-contained in all of modern gaming. Some games, yes. Not all. And even those games that lack distinct narrative possess undeniably literary or cinematic qualities.
Video games are what they are because of their relationship to previously existing media, not in spite of it. Literature, comics, film... all sorts of classical narrative development... are inextricable from the DNA of video games.
So why the urge to punish Uncharted 2 for marrying the cinematic roots of gaming with enjoyable immersion that cannot be found in a movie? What's there is undeniably game. It is no more a movie than Night Trap is a role-playing game.
More importantly, people obviously enjoy what's there. Why the backlash? Why the need to dismiss what is obviously a great achievement in game design? It's as if the great horde of players who enjoy their time with Uncharted 2 have indulged in a kind of digital transfat that is impoverishing or cheapening the whole of video game production.
To say that something like Demon's Souls is somehow more of a game than Uncharted 2 seems to me a form of critical elitism. They're both interactive. Neither one is particularly innovative. Both are undeniably deferential to the roots of modern gaming.
I simply feel that Uncharted 2 offers greater quantities of reward and delight. That it does so with a nod and a wink to Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones is part of the charm (or at worst an inoffensive footnote to the gameplay), not a major detraction.
Another quick post for tonight since the son is still here, but I am quite proud to say that I just finished Demon's Souls tonight.
For people who haven't played it yet or might not really care: It's a fantastic, superbly-designed game that has officially knocked my socks off. One of the best PS3 titles available, and at this point, my Game of the Year.
For those who have played it or who do care: My character was a level 80 Temple Knight focusing on Attack and Defense for melee combat. My endgame weapons were a +7 Halberd, a +4 Dragon Sword, and a Lava Bow. All told, it took me about 35 hours, give or take. Too bad there wasn't a death counter, I would've been curious to see how many times I was revived.
Anyway, I have to say it was a stiff challenge to not use magic at all (not recommended, really) but I was too attached to my character to begin a new one and by the time I realized that magic might be a good thing, I was too close to the end to really start grinding levels in order to get some.
Besides those issues, the devs included plenty of options to let players tackle the the game any way they wanted, so why shouldn't I do it without spells? After all, the GameFAQs boards are full of players who beat the monstrous bosses by using the same few magic spells and I have to say that I got a small measure of pride by not relying on overused cheese tactics to get past the rough spots.
Now that the game has been put to bed (no, not going for a New Game Plus, I actually have to spend time with some other games now. I am a reviewer, after all...) I can definitely say that Demon's Souls was an incredibly epic experience from start to finish, and certainly one of the most unforgettable games I've come across in quite some time.
FromSoft... My most heartfelt congratulations on an outstanding, peerless, master-class title. You rocked my world.
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