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Demon’s Souls – Part I: We’re All Gonna Die. Over and Over Again. October 7, 2009

Posted by emeraldsuzaku in Blog-along, Video Games.
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I found out about Demon’s Souls a month or so ago, and after some research decided that it needed to be on my pre-order list. I had some pretty high expectations for the game from the reviews that I’d read, and I was eagerly awaiting release day. It arrived yesterday from Amazon and I have to say, I’m damn impressed. This game is awesome.

And by awesome, I mean awesomely hard. You will die. A lot. The game knows this, and even plans for it by working in death as an actual mechanic and not just a punishment for screwing up. When you die, you respawn at the beginning of the level you died in. If you manage to make it back to the spot you died at without dying again, you get back everything you lost when you died—orbs, max health levels, etc. If you die again, well, you’re screwed because the previous blood spot you made will be gone, replaced with one where you most recently died. So don’t die twice in a row.

The premise of the game is simple: there’s a kingdom in peril, there’s fog, and there’s monsters. Kill the monsters, drive back the fog, save the world. It’s all very basic, but that’s fine. Demon’s Souls harkens back to the days of yore when gameplay was king and stories were there as a backdrop to justify the actions taking place. And the gameplay is goo. And hard. Demon’s Souls is one of the only games I know of where it’s easy to die in the tutorial level. I mean besides the part at the end where the story says you die.

I booted up the game and planned to make dinner while the install was happening. Right. Bad idea. There’s no install. You get to watch a pretty awesome video, then you get the title screen. Then you go. The first thing the game had me do was create my character. I got to chose gender (two options) and class (lots of options). I picked Royalty because I heard that they get to stab and frag. Swords and magic sounded like a good combo to me.

In addition to class and gender, I got to customize lots of physical characteristics. There’s a basic mode where I could just choose between some preset faces, hair styles, and such, but there’s also a more advanced mode where I can select anything from the profile of the chin to the curvature of the cheekbones. The changes are subtle, but they still provide ample customization.

After I made my character, a blond-haired blue-eyed rapier-wielding magic-slinging dude named Vahn, I was taken to the tutorial level. My first thought was “damn, the game looks great.” My second thought was wow, that animation is fluid.” My third thought was “okay, I really ought to get on with it now.” So I got on with it. I came across some glowing red script on the ground, which turned out to be a message. In the tutorial, these are system messages teaching me the controls. In the game proper, these can be left by other players. More on that later.

The tutorial level walked me through various combat and item usage commands, and almost killed me several times. Which would have been embarrassing, but this is Demon’s Souls. Death is expected. I also saw some phantoms of other players running around, which was at once both cool and freaky. Combat is very solid, by the way. Guarding is done with the left trigger, and attacking with the right. L2 is a shield deflection which, if timed correctly can be followed up with a normal attack for an instant kill. R2 is a heavy attack. There’s also an option to grip a weapon in two hands, but I didn’t notice much use for this with my rapier. I assume that bigger weapons will get much more mileage out of this feature.

After the tutorial level, and my rather inglorious death, I was taken to a nexus area. There were some NPCs to talk to, including a blacksmith that had some other weapons and armor for sale. He also offered to upgrade my existing stuff, but I didn’t have nearly enough souls by this point to do anything with them. I also found a bank character, though I didn’t have any excess crap to toss in at the time. It’s good to know one exists, though, as the game does have an encumbrance system.

I explored the place some more, watched some amusing deaths, read some messages, and found the warps to the game’s levels, which I appear to be able to approach in any order. I remembered seeing some footage of a level with some castle ramparts, so I went ahead and picked the level at the bottom of the steps next to some guy.

So I launched into Boletaria and watched a big-ass dragon swoop down and eat some random soldier. That’s when I knew this game was going to be epic. After the first couple of enemies nearly had their way with me, I remembered that I had a lock on function. That made things significantly easier. I have to say, I love the rapier. It’s quick, has a decent range, and doesn’t have much recovery time.

There weren’t very many notable moments (or maybe there were, depending on your point of view). I died a lot. Some of the messages left by other players were pretty useful. Others, not so much. I ran into a few that told me to look out behind me, but most of those were either in a bad spot for me to actually figure out where “behind me” was, or they were placed just a touch too late. But I’m glad they tried. There were some that warned of traps and ambushes, for which I am grateful (and marked those messages up to show my gratitude). The Indiana Jones moment with the huge stone ball rolling down the stairs was pretty cool.

One issue I have with the messaging system is that it consists merely of canned messages, some of which allow you to insert words or phrases. Unfortunately, they’re not very customizable, so the boulder message was just “trap ahead” and not something along the lines of “giant boulder rolling down the stairs ahead.” But I suppose that added to the mystique, and if the things got too verbose they’d be more akin to having the game played for me. It’s more fun when I know something is coming, but have to figure out exactly what. On the other hand, I tried to leave a message about standing on one side of a wooden machine and blasting a boss-like enemy from there, and I had to adlib it. I don’t even remember what my message said exactly, but it was a tad arcane for the situation.

Another thing I learned from Demon’s Souls: glowing eyes are BAD THINGS. They appear to denote stronger than normal enemies. If you’re thinking that if they’re stronger than normal, they’d have to be able to kill me in one go, you’d be right. Here’s an example. I came up a flight of stairs and onto a rampart. I killed the normal enemies fairly handily with my magic (I love my magic). Then I saw this thing with blue glowing eyes standing in front of a fog portal. I approach it, and it takes off half my health. I dodge out of the way, blast it with magic a few times, and done. This is the thing I tried to place the message on. It’s much easier to take out from a distance.

At this point the rampart is clear, and I discover that I have a couple of options for where I can go. There are towers at either end of the rampart, and there’s the fog portal. I picked one tower and went that way. I went through the room, read a message that said, quite succinctly, “goodbye,” and came out on another rampart with an enemy that looked like the overly strong creature I killed by the fog portal, but this one had red eyes. Well, I beat Blue Eyes, so Red Eyes shouldn’t be too bad, right? Yeah, about that. It turns out that this one has a spear, and a multi-thrust combo that can easily one-shot me. Needless to say, I became a puddle of blood on the ground.

I respawned at the beginning of the level and made it back to that rampart. I expected my bloodspot to be right outside the door, where I actually died. Instead, it’s right where I aggroed the monster. Greeaaaat. So I grab the blood spot and aggro the demon. And proceed to run like hell. I clear the room and start running along the rampart I came up, and I hear the thing still behind me. Which freaks me out a bit because so far nothing has chased me all that far. I make a beeline for the fog portal because I figure that the thing can’t follow me inside. Yeah, about that. It definitely followed me inside. I ran down some steps, and it started coming down after me. So I started blasting it with magic. It made it to the bottom of the steps, and I had it one hit away from death. So I stand there and start casting, and the bloody demon lunges at me from much farther away than I had any idea it could. Yep, death for me. But at least I know I can technically kill the thing, and I have a decent idea as to how such a feat can be accomplished.

I respawned as normal, and got killed by the second group of enemies in the level. It turns out that, while my Vahn is more than capable of utilizing a downward thrust to destroy barrels, crates, and other inanimate objects, he spontaneously forgets that skill when trying to attack an enemy a couple of steps below him on a staircase. Lovely.  In an effort to save my bloodstain with 2000-odd souls, I killed the game before it could reload. We’ll see what I end up with when I fire it up next, which will likely be tonight.

So far, Demon’s Souls forces the player to know what’s coming, while at the same time giving the enemies enough of an AI that they don’t always act the exact same way every time. So even if you already know an area, you still have to be on your toes. It’s a pretty solid approach to game design, and works well here. It also serves to make restarting a level a bunch of times not so much of a chore.



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