Review | Demon’s Souls
Exquisite, Excruciating, Extra-planar…
Format: PlayStation 3 | Genre: RPG | Publisher: Namco Bandai | Developer: From Software | Release date: 25/06/2010 | Price: £44.99
Fraser McMillan has a hell of a time in DEMON’S SOULS.
IT’S EXCRUCIATING, it really is. The fog is suffocating and claustrophobic, filling every corner of my field of view. Eerie silence defines this landscape, the nearby stone gateway long since ruined – not so much crumbling as crumbled. I inch forward, straining to see anything less innocuous in the middle distance. Right on cue, I freeze in my tracks. A sinister looking silver skeleton wielding a preposterously large scimitar stands twenty feet past the remains of the arch, yellow glowing eyes piercing the mist. Should I try my bow? What about a fire spell? There’s no guarantee any tactic will work. And it’s too late anyway. My foe rolls towards me at a terrifying rate, displaying an athleticism I hadn’t expected. Instinctively blocking, I realise that in my left hand I hold not a shield, but a magical twig. Dead.
There are two important lessons here, upon which progress depends. The first: never judge a book by its cover, or, in this case, a giant living skeleton by its ostensibly encumbering size and shape. Traps, armed enemies and other nasties will spring from nowhere, necessitating an approach to unknown areas that’s cautious in the extreme and just as astute; face value means little in Boletaria, and overeager adventurers will find out all too quickly on the end of a spear. The second vital realisation is that to call the world of Demon’s Souls “harsh” or “uncompromising” is to make such an understatement as to sound disingenuous.
Without these inadequate terms, though, it’s difficult to find words potent enough to describe the inherent hostility of the game’s world, rules and logic. It’s not a sneering difficulty of the kind Itagaki enjoys inflicting, nor even a frustrating one and the challenge relies entirely on the merits of its own design. One of the greatest compliments one can pay Demon’s Souls is that, though hard, it’s neither artificial nor entirely hopeless. From the outset it can feel as if the game has a disdain for its players, but ultimately the opposite is true. This is a title that regards those that persevere, learn its nature and come to appreciate it with the utmost respect, and in that sense it’s as classy as it is unusual.
Best of Both Worlds
And it’s the reconciliation of seemingly disparate methodologies, themes and design ethics that characterises Demon’s Souls. Though incontrovertibly Japanese, it draws what useful lessons it can from that country’s distinct school of design whilst looking and feels like a modern, Western-made game. The player character handles with a tactile urgency through its moody and atmospheric world, and for once, this console cycle’s signature greys and browns are employed purposefully rather than to create yet another dusty urban landscape. The aforementioned ruins are in good company, preceded by an impossibly dark mine – whose blackness is perforated only by the shiny scales of the creatures that infest it – and the most dangerous swamp ever seen in a video game. The latter is a far cry from the colourful squelch of a Banjo or Jak level. As if to offer another incisive insight as to exactly what Demon’s Souls is all about, the humble rat, normally the whipping boy of the gaming world, is able to do by far the most damage of any creature inhabiting the murk by infecting him or her with the plague. Nasty, brutish and short indeed.
But it’s always your fault. Demon’s Souls is the opposite of therapy, and it would be useful to remember this. One’s desire to return to Boletaria, though, isn’t always in the realm of the sadomasochistic. A degree of tolerance for self-punishment is a necessary but not sufficient condition to understand and, yes, even enjoy this game, but there are several other factors at work. Demon’s Souls taps into the primal gamer brain, wiring the willing to a drip and feeding them the tiniest measure of sustenance at just the right moment every time. One’s journey is bound to be incremental, taken by gradual degrees and reset every time a level is beaten. Victory is a thing to be savoured, achievement is tangible and earned. For this reason alone, it’s worth the investment, both time and emotional.
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