Demon's Souls Review

Because of this reviewing gig, I play a whole lot of video games. Like a WHOLE lot. More than most, I gather. I've spent hundreds upon thousands of hours playing and writing about games over the past few years, and it can be easy to slip into a rut and just go through the motions - play game, beat game, complain about game, start next game. Every so often, though, a video game comes along that is so unbelievable that it reinvents the whole hobby/job for me. The last such game was the Sony PSP classic Patapon. It was so much fun, so original and so addictive that it dragged a perfect 100/100 score out of me. It's been a few years since then, and a new game has managed to leave me with the same awestruck joy I experienced when I tapped out my first pata-pata-pata-pon. That game is Atlus' action RPG Demon's Souls. This adventure is hands-down the very best game I've played in quite some time and barring some unseen contender, it gets my vote for game of the year 2009. I'll do my best, but I'm not sure the written word can do justice to just how amazing this game is. And no, I'm not even exaggerating. Not even close.

That's quite a setup, but Demon's Souls' mastery more than deserves it. The game takes place in the dreary, depressing world of Boletaria, where an evil fog has overrun the land and driven the non-demon population into hiding. The good guys have already lost the war, and that is where you come in. After creating a hero using a fairly comprehensive character creation system, you are dropped into this hopeless world and, surprisingly, no one has much faith you can do any good against the already-victorious demon hordes. Most RPGs let you know right off the bat that you are to be the world's savior, but not Demon's Souls; the game's characters don't believe you can make any difference against the forces of evil, and none of them invest any hope in you - at first. As you progress, the world slowly gives into cautious optimism, but you never get the sense that you have any shot of winning. It is certainly a disheartening way to view the same "save the world" quest, but it really drives you to succeed, if only to prove the naysayers wrong.

The downtrodden depression doesn't stop with the game's refreshingly nihilistic story, though; it extends into the presentation and gameplay as well. The world of Demon's Souls is never a happy or inviting place. The game's locales are ripped right from the western (i.e. non-Japanese) sword and sorcery playbook. You'll explore dimly lit mines and tunnels, monstrous medieval castles and wide-open spaces, all under the gray skies of Seattle in February. The environments drive the sadness home, and all are immaculately detailed, right down to the last bricks and splinters of wood. From the first second you begin on your quest, you know that this is as realistic a kingdom as you're going to see in any game.

The other characters - good and bad alike - are also beautiful, right down to the smallest detail. The woman from whom you buy upgrades has clay smeared over her eyes, and the shadows on her face show just where her peepers used to be. The zombie-like miners and soulless soldiers hobble toward you, and their dead expressions let you know you're in some serious trouble. Those are just the rank-and-file enemies; the bosses are truly something to be seen. Keep an eye out for the dragon in the game's first level. I won't ruin it, but I haven't run across a video game enemy that inspired more well-deserved fear and amazement than when this monster drops in the paint the scenery with fire. The more human-like enemies are gorgeous as well, with amazingly detailed suits of armor and attack animations. Your character is no slouch either, with your armor and weapon choices always reflected well. Your character, on top of being meticulously detailed, has a crazy number of attack animations, all of which are based on not just what weapon you have, but also their heft and even how you hold them (almost every weapon can be swapped on the fly between one and two hands - two hands equals more power, but one hand gives you an extra mitt for a shield). A scimitar strike and a battle axe swing aren't even similar to one another, and these little things make it abundantly clear the amazing amount of work it took in making this game into the masterpiece it is.

Pretty games with intriguing stories are a dime a dozen these days, so what makes Demon's Souls stand out in the overcrowded 2009 holiday season? In this RPG, gameplay is EVERYTHING. A word of warning before I get into it - Demon's Souls is possibly the most difficult game to come out in the past five years, maybe longer. This game is simply not for the weak of heart. Even the most routine of battles will push you to your limit, and you are going to die hundreds of times before you finish the game… if you finish the game at all. That's right - you may never finish Demon's Souls. It's just that difficult. To understand why this game can reduce even the most jaded of players (myself included) to controller-hurling, teary-eyed rage-aholics, you need to have a little background on how the game is played.

Your goal in Demon's Souls is to clear out various locales in Boletaria while collecting the souls of fallen enemies, which can, in turn, be used as currency for purchasing new weapons, repairing old ones and upgrading your characters stats. You'll need to do all three if you expect to battle through to the game's bosses, all of which are brutally powerful and remorseless about killing you. Over and over. Here's where it gets tough; if you die, you lose ALL the souls you have acquired, all the enemies you've bested respawn and restoring yourself to the world of the living requires either beating a boss or using one very hard to find and extremely valuable item. See, after you die, you can continue adventuring in spirit form, where you have less HP and slightly more powerful attacks, but your goal becomes regaining your body - another headache to add to the already substantial list of tasks before you. And dying is always a very real possibility; even the lowliest of enemies can kill you with only one or two hits. Even worse, if you keep dying, your enemies actually grow stronger and get more deadly. Yikes.