Demon's Souls Review: Souls Asylum

Dare to enter the kingdom of Boletaria and you may regret it, brave warrior. Demon's Souls is a harsh world, perverted by ancient evils and men gone mad at the loss of their souls. But what of your own sanity?

From Software's PlayStation 3 role-playing game sloughs off many of the conventions one typically associates with Japanese RPGs, putting players into a world unlike any other. The real-time action RPG features a heavy focus on hand-to-hand combat, not calculated menu choices. There are no party members to recruit, no love interests to pursue. There are only demon's to slay and souls to collect and a goal—defeat the Old One and free Boletaria from its colorless curse.

Demon's Souls is full of complex challenges and complex concepts, a game with no traditional save point system, no pause option and no coddling of the player who may have become accustomed to simpler, more forgiving fare. it is a hellish place of suffering, where men are routinely crushed by the powerful demonspawn that inhabit it.

So, why, then is Demon's Souls so rewarding, so refreshing and so engrossing? Here's why.

Loved
A New Brand Of Survival Horror: Fear is a constant in Demon's Souls, at least during your first unfamiliar adventure in the kingdom of Boletaria, as death can come to the player at any moment. These frequent deaths—which will become more frequent to the player not mindful of the world around them—are by design. Demon's Souls is meant to be studied, to be carefully considered and for its world to be absorbed. Its inhabitants are meant to be feared, so that the player can learn how to dispatch of them properly. You may die in Demon's Souls dozens, in not a hundred times or more. But you'll become the better player for it, mindful of your fear.

A World In Need Of Mending: Beyond the need for self-preservation, Demon's Souls offers a heavy dose of gloom and doom through its well-realized, beautifully designed lands. From the prisons of the Tower Of Latria, closely guarded by Mind Flayers, to the depths of the Stonefang Tunnel, guarded by fire-spewing beasts, each of Demon's Souls five massive environments offers something new to be awed by, to be afraid of. And each of those five worlds come with their unique inhabitants, their own trappings, new rules for the player to observe and new denizens to dread. The one safe haven for the few unscathed humans, The Nexus, is a gorgeous elaborate structure. But it is soon dwarfed by the massive castles and major demons that the player will face.

Demon's Souls' world is both fantastic and realistic, never patronizing the player. For the most part, the player is free to visit any of its diverse lands in the order of their choosing, letting the player decide how to navigate the world. And thanks to Demon's Souls' fluctuating World and Character Tendency system, which changes Boleteria's populace and environments based on a number of factors, the game world offers plenty to do beyond the first play through. This is a world worth revisiting, death after death after death.

Major Demons: Depending on how you play Demon's Souls, whether your world ventures towards white or black, you'll face over a dozen impressive and diverse bosses. All of them are memorable in some way, from the quiet calm of facing the Old Hero, to the massive scale of tackling the Dragon God, to the shocking tension of facing the Penetrator or Flame Lurker. Or any of Demon's Souls spectacularly designed demons, for that matter. Some can simply be dispatched with hundreds of arrows from a hiding spot, but others will require ample dexterity, a calm demeanor and smart strategy. Some may invoke warm feelings of another PlayStation hallmark, Shadow of the Colossus, due to their impressive magnitude.

Simple Made Complex: Where other role-playing games throw complex upgrade paths and a flood of weapons, armor and items at the player to create the illusion of depth, Demon's Souls offers it genuinely. Strategic trade-offs must be made in your choices of what to equip, how to fight and where to engage your enemy in battle. Demon's Souls offers a simple base upon which to build its system—the ten starting character class templates—then lets the player decide how to progress from there. It's both freeing and rewarding.

Massively Multiplayer Loneliness: Demon's Souls features a rather unique online multiplayer component. Players will see, but not hear or touch, the echo of other Demon's Souls players, each fighting demons in their own instance of the world. Players can also read or leave messages for others, attempting to help strangers (and help themselves) during their adventure. Bloodstains left by fallen comrades in other instances can also be left behind, illustrating how other adventurers died, a warning to first-timers of what awaits them in the next step.

Demon's Souls does have a more traditional multiplayer component to it, letting players summon other warriors to their world as spirits, teaming up to tackle major demons. But other players can also invade your world in Black Phantom form, adding a player versus player gambling element to the experience. There is no voice chat, there is no lobby to join, which may seem like a drawback. But this implementation further entrenches the feeling in Demon's Souls players that the lonely existence of demon slaying is largely theirs alone to do.

The Soul Economy: Demon's Souls soul system adds a fascinating layer of strategy to the game. Souls, which you'll collect from fallen enemies and find scattered about Boletaria's land, serve as currency, experience and materials. You'll need them to upgrade your character and your weapons, resulting in an interesting trade-off. And should you die in one of Demon's Souls worlds, you'll lose your current soul stock—unless you find your own bloodstain—making the decision to soldier on or return to the Nexus for upgrades a constant struggle.

Torchlight: Demon's Souls is dark and it is best played in the dark. And while it might seem odd to highlight the game's lighting, it's expertly crafted. Not so much from a technical sense, but that the player must be mindful of the glowing souls, the deadly exploding Will o' Wisps, the torches, the glowing eyes that populate every dark room. There's much the player can glean from Demon's Souls lights as they cut through the blackness.

After Careful Consideration: This is a hard game. Cruel, punishing, unforgiving, relentless, sadistic... whatever you want to call it, Demon's Souls is a challenge. But you'll learn. You'll adapt. And if you're careful, attentive to the events occurring around you, you'll be fine. That Demon's Souls demands this, making the game feel more like pure horror than the traditional fun one expects of a video game, eventually spellbinding the player, is what makes the game so enjoyable.

Hated
My First Few Hours: This may make me sound like a wimp—and ultimately a crazed Demon's Souls zealot—but you need to know. Demon's Souls was, for me, torture for the first few hours. I didn't "get it." I didn't play games this way. I've played difficult action games, like Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry and Otogi, and enjoyed them. But Demon's Souls is different, requiring a unique mindset—and, in my case, some help from the Demon's Souls community. Eventually, pain gave way to pleasure as I learned to appreciate the game's strict rule set, ultimately becoming absorbed by the game. You may hate Demon's Souls from start to finish for its difficulty. But I'd wager you'll come to appreciate it as I did.

Faces, Fonts & Frame Rates: There are a handful of presentation issues holding back Demon's Souls, none of them game breaking, but worth mentioning. Despite Demon's Souls' overall beauty, it has some of the ugliest character faces I've seen. Character creation is a turn off, because most options look as monstrous as the demons themselves. The game's interface also has a few quirks, with no easy way to compare items from vendors with current equipment and an icon system for attributes that has its own unnecessary, confusing language. Finally, there are a few moments where Demon's Souls can't keep up with what's happening on screen. Nothing that impairs gameplay, but not pretty.

When I talk about Demon's Souls with some of my fellow players, I feel that we're in danger of sounding like a part of some cult—or, possibly worse, a group of addicts—as if we've gotten over the hurdle of viewing From Software's brilliant, visionary creation just for its sheer difficulty. And it is difficult. But it is also laden with a smart combat system, in which equipment and weapons matter greatly, for so many reasons. But having pushed past the fog of Demon's Souls, which meant spending well over 50 hours with the game, I'm happy to see it for what it is—one of the best PlayStation 3 games of the year and perhaps one of the smartest console role-playing games ever.

To be clear, however, Demon's Souls is not some orgiastic, blissful experience. It is not the type of game one may want to wind down with, less than "fun" in a normal video game sense. But it is a wholly engrossing, enjoyably solitary experience, if you've got the patience and the bravery to look into the fog and face what's inside.

Demon's Souls was developed by From Software and published by Atlus for the PlayStation 3 on October 7. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played single-player game to completion, testing multiple classes, invading other's worlds and summoning them to my own.

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