Breaching the barrier

That goddamned apostrophe

Wednesday, October 21, 2009 | 07:11 PM | by
I haven't played Brutal Legend yet. It's not because I don't want to; I own it, it's sitting there waiting to be played. And it's not because of all the reviews and talk that suggest the game gets terribly repetitive and uninspired after the first few hours. That certainly concerns me, but the possibility isn't going to deter me from playing the game.

No, my intention had been to start on Brutal Legend as soon as I was done with Uncharted 2 (which continues to amaze and deliver), however a new contender for my attention has entered the arena, and it's winning the battle without breaking a sweat. That game is Demon's Souls.

Now you may be sitting there thinking "I've never even heard of that game". Up until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't either (or had and just not paid any attention to it). Up until a couple of weeks ago Demon's Souls was a Japanese title that you could maybe get on import if you were lucky and knew to look for it. Now the official North American import is available and thanks to a reader recommendation, caught my eye.

For those that, like myself not too long ago, don't know anything about the game, allow me to tell you a little bit about Demon's Souls.

Although it's a Japanese-made game, its style is very much western dark fantasy (no anime horseshit, no turn-based crap). It throws a pretty basic story at you (world is totally fucked up by evil and demons, now go fix it), and turns you lose. It sounds a little generic, and at a quick glance, the game may even look a little generic, but the experience housed within may be one of the most challenging and rewarding titles available for the PS3.

Demon's Souls is a game that demands patience and excellence. It will not hold your hand, it will not forgive your mistakes. You can never pause the game. Ever. The game auto-saves constantly, so there's no going back and retrying something. When you die, you will lose all of the unspent souls you have collected (the game's all-in-one experience/currency that you use to upgrade your character and gear), as well as your corporeal form.

When your physical body is killed, you must play in Soul form, which means your health bar is halved. And all of the enemies you just killed are there again. If you can make it back to the spot where you died, you can reclaim your cache of souls. However, if you die again after that, they're gone for good. You can only regain your physical form by defeating a boss, or by using a special rare item in the game.

Now add in the fact that you will die. Over, and over, and over, and over and over again. You may be starting to think this sounds horribly frustrating and painful, and that's where Demon's Souls charm lies.

The game is never cheap, and never unfair. It is simply and unwaveringly stern. Every time you die, you will learn something from it. You'll learn an enemy's tactics, you'll learn where a trap or an ambush lies, or you will simply learn not slip off that ledge and fall to your death. And when you finally clear an area to safety with all of your precious hard-earned souls intact, I guarantee you will be presented with a sense of accomplishment few games offer these days.

This is not a game that you can plow through, weapons swinging wildly. The harsh penalty for failure should tell you that. Demon's Souls rewards strategy and forethought. Aside from that, the game leaves it entirely up to you to decide how to play. Though you choose a "class" at the beginning, all this does is set your base attributes. From there on out you can put your points wherever you'd like, depending on what suits your needs and playstyle. Likewise you can equip any armor or weapons in the game, though there's a strategy here too.

You may love that polearm you're carrying, but when you're staring down a dark, narrow corridor occupied by who-knows-what, it may not be your best choice for this particular situation. It's going to slam against the walls when you swing it, so it would serve you better to pull out a short-sword or dagger. Likewise, different weapons or effects will be more or less effective on certain enemies and bosses. You can also decide (on the fly with the Dpad) whether to use your shield or equip your weapon two-handed. More damage at the cost of protection. It's all about strategy.

Same with armor... you can carry a larger shield for more protection, but your mobility will be limited. Same with wearing armor that is too heavy for you. You can only carry a certain amount of gear before becoming encumbered, so the game becomes a balancing act between what gear you bring on an adventure, and how much space you leave to carry potential loot.

So there you are, in this dismal world overrun by death and demons, throwing your face at unspeakable evils which can and will kill you with extreme prejudice. But you're not entirely alone. Demon's Souls incorporates some incredibly unique and entirely fitting multiplayer elements which elevate the game to an entirely new level.

As you play, while connected to the PSN, you'll occasionally see ghostly shades of other players running around. These are players in the same area as you, fighting their own battles in their own game. You cannot interact with them, but it adds an eerie sense of community to an otherwise lonely experience.

Players can leave notes, constructed from a number of pre-set phrases and words, to guide their fellow heroes who are fighting in their own dimensions. As you play, you'll see these messages scrawled across the ground, and may offer you hints about danger ahead, treasure nearby, or a safe spot to rest. These messages can also be devious traps laid by other players, urging you onward to your death, though they can be rated up or down by players.

Additionally, as you play you'll see bloodstains on the ground. If you touch a bloodstain you can watch a ghostly apparition replay another player's final moments. This can give you clues to dangers and traps ahead as well.

A player who is in possession of his physical body can summon other soul-form players into his game for some co-op adventuring. There is no voice chat, or text chat, and you cannot choose who you summon. You can communicate with your ghostly partner via a limited series of gestures. This odd and isolated form of co-op actually meshes with the atmosphere of the world perfectly, creating a truly enjoyable experience.

On the flip side, soul-form players can use an expendable in-game item to invade a living-player's game as a Black Phantom. Their goal as a Black Phantom is to hunt and kill the living player, so that they may themselves regain their physical form. There are measures to prevent griefing of low-level characters, but this invasion of your game is involuntary. As long as you are connected to the PSN, Black Phantoms can force their way into your world and stalk you, adding a new level of tension and danger to your experience.

Demon's Souls isn't going to be for everyone. But if you feel like video games have become too easy in recent years, and you miss an honest-to-goodness challenge to triumph over, I highly recommend giving it a shot. I think that you'll be pleasantly surprised at how engaging and deep the game is, and especially at how you will keep coming back for more when the game continually melts your face.