Thursday, January 17, 2013

Review - Demon's Souls (PS3, 2009)

From Software really hit on a close to perfect formula with their Souls games. Gloomy, oppressive RPGs set in dying worlds, the Souls games capture the feeling of being lost in a hostile world that feels reminiscent of the original Legend of Zelda, only with a far stronger combat system. Dark Souls, the second game in the series, is one of, if not the, best console games of the last ten years and remains endlessly replayable for me. I had played through the first game, Demon's Souls, three or four times when it was originally released in 2009, and a recent digital re-release on the Playstation Network gave me an urge to revisit it. I'm happy to say that, although it's clunkier in several ways than Dark Souls, Demon's is still a fantastic game.

Demon's Souls is an adventure in the land of Boletaria, a kingdom covered in thick fog and monsters due to the greed of King Allant. His lust for power and dark magic has roused the Old One, a giant slug with a hunger for souls. It's up to the player to create a hero worthy of infiltrating Boletaria and freeing it from the curse of the demons. Aiding players are a variety of characters trapped in The Nexus, a space between worlds from which the player can travel to each of the game's five zones at will. The Maiden in Black, a woman with a wonderfully strange voice who tends the fires of the Nexus and guides lost souls, helps you become more powerful so that you can stand a chance against the demons.


This game has a more straightforward story than Dark Souls, though both games rely on simple, unobtrusive narratives that take a backseat to establishing their worlds' lore through more subtle means, such as item descriptions and stage designs. There is more story to Demon's, especially in the earliest parts of the game, and while it's not exactly compelling it's simple enough to work. Aside from the Maiden in Black, Dark Souls has a more interesting cast of characters. The one area Demon's completely wins out in is that it actually has endings that feel complete and not like half-forgotten thoughts at the end of the development cycle as the two endings in Dark do.

Story is less important here than atmosphere, which is fantastic, if a bit disconnected from stage to stage. Dark Souls, with its large, interconnected world, feels more organic than Demon's, which uses the hub world of the Nexus to travel between the five disconnected environments. This gives the game a more artificial feel, but also presents a more open-ended experience, where Dark, while still open at times, feels more guided. In both games, you can find NPCs trapped in need of help. The NPCs in Demon's are much more obvious in how to help them out, much easier to find, and much easier to keep alive. Unfortunately, they're also not as interesting as the ones in Dark. Still, from a gameplay perspective, Demon's handled this part better.

Combat is about equal in both games, and quite good. Battles are quick and deadly, either for you or your enemies. Success means taking things slowly and remaining fully aware of your environment; rushing in and mashing buttons is a guaranteed death. Carefully managing your health and stamina is key to survival, as recovery items are limited and running out of stamina mid-battle is another guaranteed death sentence against stronger enemies. Magic in Demon's Souls uses a traditional MP system, rather than Dark's set number of charges per spell, which is very frustrating in the early game but becomes fine once you've boosted your MP high enough. Demon's features Sorcery, generally but not always focused on offense, and Miracles, generally but not always focused on defense. There are a few fire-based spells, but no complete school of firecraft like Dark Souls' Pyromancy.

The only bit of gameplay I find notably worse in Demon's Souls is its weapon upgrade system. In both games, upgrading your weapons requires finding fragments to bring to blacksmiths, but Demon's has a much larger variety of much more obtusely named fragments. In Dark Souls, I can guess what a Magic Sword will do in battle. In Demon's, I didn't know what a Crescent Sword would do until I got one. I appreciate the comparative simplicity of Dark's system where, outside of Raw-types, there's never any confusion over the basics of a weapon's type. Dark also simply offers more weapons and armor sets to play around with.

In both games, you can be invaded by and assisted by other players when in Human Form. Dying turns you into Soul Form, where you can in turn offer your assistance to other players but lose half of your HP (with a certain ring, you only lose 25%) until you successfully slay a boss, at which time you become human again. The HP penalty is terrible, especially in the early stages of the game, and not being able to assist in Human Form is also poor. Both problems were fixed in Dark Souls. As you die in Human Form, World Tendency turns darker, making enemies do more damage and unlocking certain paths. Similarly, slaying bosses makes the world lighter, making enemies easier and unlocking other paths. Because of this, the game gets harder as you do worse, and easier as you do better. This is a very stupid approach to balance, and I have zero love for the World Tendency system. I am glad it was entirely dropped for Dark Souls.

While most of the game is very fair, there are still a couple of parts that are obnoxious. Some bosses (The Maneater gargoyles in particular) are absolutely designed to be fought with multiple players, but as the game gets older and far fewer players are around to help, these fights becomes an awful slog to solo. Getting past a dragon that guards the final castle in the game is largely a matter of luck, even if you know exactly what to do, and killing it took me a good ten minutes of standing in place shooting arrows and not moving. Some areas, mostly in the poisonous Valley of Defilement, are deadly not because of enemy strength, but because the camera tends to get confused in more crowded environments and spins around a bit, sending you to your death from extremely thin platforms. Some traps are very cheap and almost unavoidable your first time through. For the most part, I feel that Demon's offers harder stages while Dark offers harder bosses. The last legitimate boss fight in Demon's is definitely harder and a lot more fun than Dark's, even if he has a terrible attack that drains your character's level.

Overall, Dark Souls is a better, more coherent game, but Demon's Souls still shines. It's not as fun now with so many fewer players invading/assisting, but it's still a great time. It's shorter than Dark Souls but can still take a good 30 hours your first time through. There's a great sense of claustrophobia in some areas that Dark Souls never comes close to, in spite of the camera losing control in some of these places. Visually, Demon's is an uglier game, but it still has some spectacular environments. It feels a bit dated today, but even if you've already played Dark Souls, I definitely recommend giving Demon's a shot, especially since it's now downloadable for $20. Like Dark Souls, there's a great wiki out there for anyone who needs help getting started.

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