The fruition of a dream three generations old
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?
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.