Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Impressions: Demon's Souls

Why an “impression” of Demon’s Souls rather than a flat-out review?

Because, at about 30 hours in, I have only completed four of the game’s 16 levels and I don’t see myself getting a review for this fantastic title out in time to mean a damn to gamers who can’t decide whether they should buy, rent or pass.

I won’t go into too many details because much of the fun comes from figuring the game out (where to go, who to talk to, what to do) on your own. Well, not on your own, exactly.

In perhaps the coolest multiplayer evolution since the invention of splitscreen, the developers have managed to create a true community learning experience. Using a wide range of terms, players can leave behind messages that will appear on the ground in other players’ worlds. So, if there’s a hidden bad guy up ahead, someone has the option of warning you ahead of time.

Also of help are bloodstains. Peppered throughout the levels are the bloody memories of your comrades’ last moments before respawn. You can click on any of these and see a ghost figure of about the last ten seconds of a player’s life. If, for instance, you see the ghost turn a corner and come running back swinging his sword before collapsing to the ground, you can be fairly sure there’s a nasty dude waiting for you around the corner.

Finally, the massive world is made to feel even more populated by ghosts of folks who are currently in the same area. You never know when or where they might pop up, but every so often a spirit will materialize for a few seconds before fading away. Their actions, too, can help you guess at what’s ahead.

Not only is the game more difficult when played with these features turned off, but it’s also kind of lonely. There’s lots going on, but after you’ve gotten used to the glowing messages and wandering spirits, playing without them feels more like you’re going it alone rather than enjoying an epic adventure that hundreds of other folks are enjoying at the same time. It's a feeling I've never experienced in a single player game and it's awesome.

I spent so much time talking about these features because I consider them to be the next small revolution in gaming. If they aren’t mimicked a dozen times in the coming years, I will be surprised and genuinely disappointed.

You can also call in a few ghost friends to play cooperatively or “invade” another player’s world, but I have had minimal experience with these features. But I’m sure the whole teaming up thing is an asset since, yes, this game is hard.

Then again, I don’t think it’s as hard as most are making it out to be. This isn’t elitist gaming nonsense so much as saying Demon’s Souls is (mostly) as hard as you let it be.

The enemies can be tough- some can be downright hellish- but thinking ahead, slowing down and using *gasp* tactics, makes a world of difference. Consider your surroundings, consider the enemy’s weaknesses, consider your gear and learn to dodge and you should be able to handle most situations. Keep your shield up, heal frequently and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to run, regroup and rethink your attack. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen ghosts and bloodstain spirits bite it by simply running up to a foe and swinging away. The hack’n’slash, run’n’gun methods so popular in modern games won’t cut it here.

Also remember that death is a learning experience in Demon’s Souls. Each time you die, you should learn something about the enemy you’re fighting. Apply what you’ve learned and you should be able to make it to the next, nastier enemy.

Clearly, I could go on forever about this game. I'm barely scratching the surface here. While my opinion about some things may change in the next 12 levels of play, I feel confident one fact will remain constant- Demon’s Souls is a solid action RPG that rewards a gamer who is willing to pay attention and learn while mercilessly pulverizing those who insist on a more narrow-minded approach.

It’s dark and atmospheric, the controls are unorthodox but work surprisingly well, sound is great and, once it has its hooks in you, you’ll be amazed by just how much fun this refreshingly tough game can be.

***UPDATE*** After a 51-hour first playthrough, I can safely say my early impressions held firm throughout. Most impressive is the fact I did very little grinding for items and there is next to no "story" in the game, so that was 51 hours of pure dungeon-crawling awsomeness.

My only complaint was world tendency. To make a complicated matter slightly less complicated, if you do poorly in a world, the tendency can shift to black. Do well, and it will shift to white. You start at grey. Certain areas, items, events, etc. can only be accessed at a certain world tendency. So, in order to get to certain areas, I would literally have to let myself get killed in human form about seven times on any given world. I like my hidden areas a little less ridiculous, thank you very much.

Thankfully, only completionists need worry about all that business. The areas are small and the items can be great, but you don't need anything offered by these tendency shifts to enjoy or complete the game.

Other than that, Demon's Souls proved to be a fantastic action RPG with lots of fun and challenge to be had. I highly recommend it.

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