Eight hours. That’s how long it took us to finish the first level of Demon’s Souls. And not because it’s a particularly long one either. You could probably run end to end in about five minutes… if it wasn’t for all the enemies in between. Whether a rotting naked zombie, giant red dragon or amorphous gelatinous blob, each one could kill you in a couple of hits or less. If you let it.
That’s right, Demon’s Souls is ‘that game’ you’ve no doubt heard about. The hardest RPG ever made, with some of the most unforgiving rules ever to be enforced on a player. Venturing into its dark and dangerous world for the first time, you enter naked and unprepared and you’ll leave almost instantly after being cut down by the most basic enemy, deprived of your body and reduced to soul form with your total HP slashed in half. The only way to recover your body, save a few rare items? To beat that level’s boss (which will take you about eight hours, maybe more). That is assuming, of course, that you don’t get sick of the scores of repeated deaths in the meantime and decide to sling the game on eBay instead.
The first few hours of Demon’s Souls are exactly that cruel. You’ll curse at the screen, wring the controller in rage and switch the PS3 off in vain, knowing that the relentless auto-save ultimately prevents you from cheating your way out of death. And you’ll wonder what all the fuss is about, dismissing its unanimous praise as either elitist hype or a case of the emperor’s new clothes. But stick with it and, very slowly, you’ll come to realise that Demon’s Souls is actually a work of finely orchestrated brilliance.
Take the difficulty, for example. At first you’ll resent it, but it gradually becomes apparent that the difficulty is both necessary to the learning process and, actually, nowhere near as unfair as it initially seems. Like a modern day Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, every enemy is a real threat to progress, demanding that you commit their location, attack patterns and weaknesses to memory if you’re to stand any chance of bettering them. Even then you’ll still die an awful lot, but each death is there to be learned from, improving your skills along the way and granting unforeseen benefits. Once dead and in soul form, you can offer up your services to the other online Demon’s Souls players who you can see, through a ghostly vision, playing the same level as you at the same time. Join their game as a Blue Phantom and you can aid them in battle. If you help them beat a boss then you’ll earn your body back and be rewarded with a healthy offering of souls – which act as both experience points and currency, depending on how you choose to use them.
Such online interactions are ultimately what turn the Demon’s Souls experience from a cruel one to something much more fun and rewarding. Its extreme difficulty and wealth of cleverly hidden secrets encourage the generous community of role-players to work together, and not just in the obvious ways. A loyal and friendly fanbase has emerged on the net that will help both new and veteran players to make sense of the game’s insanely deep world rules and the strategies that go with them, while From Software itself has contributed with the truly inspired messaging system.
With death an occupational hazard in Demon’s Souls, players will re-tread each level countless times before beating its boss and will naturally become very familiar with its various pitfalls and prizes as a consequence. Rather than keep that knowledge for themselves, such players can leave helpful, semi-prescribed messages on the floor for those less accustomed to the path ahead. Whether it be warning them of an ambush, explaining how to get to that treasure that’s just out of reach, revealing an enemy’s weakness, or anything else for that matter, there’s never a shortage of helpful communication around.
Each player will also leave a special involuntary message whenever they die too. If you come across a bloodstain on the floor you can trigger a ghostly red animation that will show the final few seconds of an unlucky player’s life. More than just a perversely voyeuristic pleasure, the system actually allows you to learn from the mistakes of others, highlighting traps that may otherwise go unseen. They also have other benefits that From Software might not have intended. On one level we repeatedly found that players had died by rolling off a cliff and falling to their doom. Why had so many adventurers seemingly jumped from a cliff without provocation? We later learned that a valuable treasure lay just out of sight, just one risky roll away.
All of these moments of genius could be dismissed as mere gimmicks by the uninformed, we must admit. But the more you play Demon’s Souls, the more you come to appreciate that there’s no such thing as a frivolous feature. The rules at the game’s core weave a rich tapestry of difficulty and innovation, each one as necessary as the other. Every rule – whether fun or frustrating, rewarding or punishing – exists for a reason. Remove one and the game would be hideously unbalanced. But as a whole they constitute a masterpiece of game design that transcends videogames to rival ancient boardgames or sports for the care and intelligence at the heart of their creation.
There are very few games that can be described as perfect, and it’s a term we usually steer away from as a rule, but the underlying gameplay of Demon’s Souls is as perfect as clockwork. There’s really no other word for it. And we won’t stop there either; Demon’s Souls isn’t just perfect, it’s also beautiful, compelling and fascinating too.
We’ve concentrated on the gameplay mechanics for much of this review, and with good reason, but we wouldn’t want to do a disservice to the rest of the game. In all other aspects, from sound to story to level design and everything else in between, Demon’s Souls impresses. The atmosphere, especially, is incredible. Every step into the game’s shadowy underworld is taken with trepidation, ever aware that death could lurk at any corner, to the extent that it often feels more survival-horror than RPG. But the rewards are plentiful too – not just in the loot and experience, but in the fantastical moments that greet those who dare to venture further. The world and those who inhabit it never fail to astonish thanks to scores of moments that would see jaws drop in any other game, but feel all the more rewarding here given the effort and dedication it takes to reach them.
Never have we played a game that punishes so much while constantly providing a reason to keep pushing on and see what brilliance lies beyond the next hurdle. And never have we been so surprised by a game that arrives with the minimum of fuss and fanfare only to turn out to be one of the single greatest RPGs of all time. Granted, Demon’s Souls is not for everyone. There are many who will despise it, in fact. But if you like your RPGs to demand a test of skill rather than a long dull grind, while also offering a truly original rule system and one of the most imaginative and absorbing game worlds of the year, then this is without doubt the game for you. Those who are prepared to give Demon’s Souls a chance will eventually be rewarded for their patience and will slowly learn to love what can only be described as a game unlike any other ever made. And those first eight hours? They will feel like a heartbeat compared to the hours, weeks and months you’ll find yourself investing in its brilliance.