Boletaria is a sad and dangerous place. A land of mages, kings, knights and thieves. Demons rule and only a handful of survivors are left battling for the souls of the dead. Developer From Software, with the help of Sony’s Japan Studio, have created a hacking, slashing and spell casting nightmare of a role-playing game. A game that takes all those familiar RPG conventions and somehow produces a dark, violent and thrilling experience that will test to the limit those brave and determined enough to take on the challenge.
A year after it was originally released overseas, Demon’s Souls reaches New Zealand. It comes with a reputation for being difficult, and it’s well-earned. When you start it’s like someone set the game on insane and forgot to include the normal and novice settings. However, it’s not difficult because of the endless hoards of demons, complex system of stats and levelling, or tough bosses. The thing that makes Demon’s Souls so difficult is its autosave function.
When you die in Demon’s Souls you become a spirit and your hit points are capped at a percentage of their original level. The game then saves and you’re returned to the beginning of the level. There is no save screen, your one and only original save is overwritten so you can’t go back and try again. All the demons you’ve killed return to their original places, all the crossbow bolts and health you used to get half way through the area are gone and your armour is that little bit more worn. Finally, you lose all the souls you’ve collected battling through an hour’s worth of demons. That’s a major problem because in Boletaria souls are your experience and currency. So there is no way of buying potions, no repairing your armour and no way to level up. All you can do is head back into the fight with just a little bit more knowledge about what lies ahead.
However, in the beginning everything in the game seemed so familiar and straightforward. You start with a fairly generic intro about King Allant the XII’s hubris and greed bringing down a plague of demons on his country. With most of the population dead, the kingdom is shrouded in mist and darkness. With demon hoards ruling the war ravaged land, the call goes out for a hero to save the kingdom. Many try, all perish or are lost, until a single brave adventurer takes up the challenge.
You take control of the single fully customisable human character. After a quick generation menu where you pick your name and physical appearance, you then select from a list of classes. The classes cover all the familiar jobs that tend to be going in monster infected medieval kingdoms. Knights, mages, thieves and clerics are covered with the addition of some less familiar classes such as royalty. Each has their own armour and weapon sets as well as their class specific statistics. Stats cover attributes like strength, vitality, faith and will, and all can be levelled at the cost of a few souls.
But you won’t just be spending souls on raising your level. Spending the 2000 odd souls you might get for killing the Red Eyed Knight early on might pose a bit of a dilemma. Do you spend the lot on raising your vitality? Do you repair your armour and sword, buy a few healing potions and raise your magic by one level. Or do you just spend the lot on a good spear? Whatever you do, you have to choose because any souls you are carrying when you die are in danger of being lost. Wherever you die, a pool of blood is left along with your souls. If you manage to get back to the spot without dying again you can pick them up. But if you die you leave another pool of blood and the original bloodstain is gone.
So if losing souls is so easy, how easy is it to get them? Essentially you play the game from the Nexus. The Nexus is a safe in-between world where spirits and survivors wait by portals that lead to the various locations within Boletaria. All the locations, from the Valley of Defilement to the Tower of Latria, are wonderfully gloomy and depressing, a mood that is perfectly enhanced by a subtle and evocative soundtrack. Although not massive or completely open (there is a linear feel to the levels) every map is packed with dead people, dead animals, broken barricades, fires, bottomless pits, hidden passages, dragons and all manner of demons. You fight your way from the start point to a boss. Kill the boss and you get another start point that you can access from the Nexus.
To help in the fight against the demons, the game employs a nicely balanced combat system. Melee combat consists of blocking and striking with the front triggers. The face buttons let you roll out of the way, use items from you inventory and switch between two handed and sword and shield fighting styles. The d-pad switches your active weapon from swords to bows to wands. If this sounds generic, it is, but it works brilliantly. Rolling, dodging, backstabs and counter strikes are all vital to win those close combat encounters while clicking the right stick targets enemies for those safer ranged attacks. Your class, the way you raise your stats and what weapons you upgrade and buy, all greatly influence your fighting style. Adding to the depth, playability and replayability of the game.
Also adding the game is its innovative online play. While connected you will notice there are a lot more blood stains on the ground and a few ghostly warriors running around. The ghosts are other people playing their own games and the bloodstains are where they have died. If you’re having trouble getting through a level, and you’re quick, you can try to follow a ghost to find an easier path through the demons. Or if you’re curious you can click on a bloodstain to get a ghostly replay of how they died. Players also use the game’s preset massaging system to leave tips scratched into the rocky ground such as “Aim for its feet” or “Jump off bridge for lots of souls”. However, if you are in spirit form (that is dead with reduced HP), you can ask two other players to enter your game to help deal with an end level boss or you can invade another player’s game to kill them and get your life back.
In the end getting your life back is the task most players will be concentrating on. Because if Demon’s Souls is anything, it’s a merciless RPG. For all those gamers who have complained about games being too easy, about games babying players through to the end to show off some cool graphics or get them online, well, be careful what you wish for – because you might get it.
Demon’s Soul is it. It will kill you, cap your health, break your sword, make you replay the same half hour ten times over and then kill you some more. But, because of this its rewards are infinitely more exhilarating and satisfying. However, the game isn’t completely heartless. The bosses aren’t impossibly tough, because they are so hard to get to, and there are some fantastically powerful weapons to be found. It’s very deep in terms of gameplay, tactics, hidden items, and role-playing stats and mechanics. It dark, depressingly bleak in the best possible way. And it’s difficult. If you’re sick of all those week-end party games and pretty interactive picture books that have been passing themselves off as computer games, then Demon’s Souls may be the challenge you’ve been waiting for.