Demon’s Souls is an action-RPG for the PS3 released in early 2009. The gameplay features character creation (where a player can create a character based on a typical RPG class) and strong hack-and-slash based combat with an emphasis on gathering loot and growing stronger. It also features a very unique multiplayer system which adds a ton of depth to the game, but it can be a harrowing experience as well.
Demon’s Souls is not for everyone. It may not even be for most gamers (especially with the current gaming trends leaning toward casual gamers). The game is definitely for me, though, and those similar to me who want to conquer a true devil of a game. Most interesting, Demon’s Souls difficulty is both its greatest strength and weakness. Its unforgiving attitude will really frustrate players from the onset of the game (really, whoever didn’t die to that first mini-boss at the end of the immediate area on their first try without some sort of strategy guide is, hands down, my gaming hero) and potentially make them rage quit and swear that “this game is awful” (I’ve heard it). Indeed, the game was not made for gaming wimps. For me, the consistent challenge posed throughout its levels from ordinary enemies, traps, and bosses, was a huge driving factor.
“I need to beat this, or else it will consume MY soul.”
The game has a pretty simple story and premise: You’ve come to a kingdom that is overrun by demons, and you basically seek to purge it of evil. This is done by taking your character through five areas each with their own set of levels that are interconnected through a hub where players can chat with NPCs, buy equipment, strengthen weapons/themselves, and so forth. A character is created at the beginning of the game with a typical RPG archetype (mage, barbarian, knight, etc). The archetype determines a character’s beginning stats, equipment, and magical abilities. Beyond that, the character can be built up anyway the player wishes throughout the game (ie, choosing a mage does not make you a mage for the game…this character could just as easily be built into a physical damage dealer, a tank, or anything). The character gains stats through killing demons, collecting their “souls,” and spending them. This is absolutely necessary to advance through the game and survive. Having a higher rating in a given attribute will also allow the player to wear stronger armor and weapons, cast more spells, and so forth.
What Makes It Difficult
Several factors aside from sheer monster difficulty make Demon’s Souls one of the most difficult games one can play:
The game, by itself, offers very little guidance to the player as far as what they should do or where they should go. Mostly, it throws the player into a world and from then on, they are on their own. Take the wrong turn in an area, and you could end up coming face to face with an enemy that’s meant for a character 20-30 levels higher than you. This generally spells certain death, and is still challenging even at the appropriate level. After beating the first level in the game, it opens up the first levels of the other areas, or worlds, but doesn’t give you any idea of their difficulty or the best choice of where one should go. Simply proceeding through the levels of the first world, from experience, is not the best of ideas given the increasing difficulty. In fact, while I found the first real boss in the game to be fairly easy, the second boss of that same world was mind numbingly difficult until my character was leveled up a bit. Yet, there’s really no way to tell until you try.
2. The game becomes more difficult as you fail.
Yes, Tower Knight, you made me want to break the game.
How many games out there get harder and harder as the player dies? First, if the player dies in a world, he is returned to the start of that world and loses all of the souls he currently has on him. These souls stay in roughly the same place the player died, and if the player is able to get there, he can reclaim them. Getting back is not as easy as one would think, as once a player dies from his natural body, he enters soul form, where their HP is at max (without a certain item) 50% of what its normal value. This makes getting back to the same area far more difficult and risky. Should the player die once again while trying to retrieve the lost souls, they are gone forever. Furthermore, dying in body form affects one of the game mechanics known as “world tendency.” After a certain number of deaths in body form in a given world, the tendency of that world shifts to “black,” and eventually to “pure black.” Enemies become stronger in a black world tendency and strongest in a pure black world tendency, though they reward the player with more souls and a greater chance at rare drops. Essentially, the more you die, the more difficult the game becomes.
3. Online play
Playing Demon’s Souls in online mode can be helpful in certain circumstances, though it typically ends up making the game even more difficult. Essentially, playing online allows for more things to happen, though the game otherwise remains identical to playing offline. Online mode, for one, allows players to leave helpful hints at different sections of the game. This can often give one an idea of if they should proceed or not along a given path in a world. The problem here is that others will occasionally leave nonsensical (the amount of messages about an item in the game called “sticky white stuff” is staggering, truly) or sometimes harmful/misleading messages that will hinder a player’s progress. The biggest difficulty of playing in online mode is that it leaves your world open to invasion from other players. While in soul form, after meeting certain requirements in the game, one is given the opportunity to jump into the world of another player to either help them or hurt them. Choosing to help another player lets one enter their world as a “blue phantom.” The blue phantom fights alongside the player to ultimately defeat the boss of that level. Choosing to hurt another player lets you invade their world as a “black phantom,” where the player is made aware through large flashing letters on their screen that they are about to be attacked. The black phantom then seeks to kill the player through any means necessary. Success either as a blue or black phantom allows the player to regain their body form. Speaking from experience, it really sucks to be invaded when you’re unprepared, which is almost always.
I hate seeing these.
Great Mechanics Create Emergent Gameplay
The main point I’m trying to make is while these mechanics contribute to the overall difficulty of the game, they also create a unique experience for the player. In some cases, the mechanics allow for some awesome emergent gameplay. I remember a time when I was on my third play-through of the game, and was struggling in world 4-1. To make matters worse, I just got the flashing banner that alerted me to a black phantom entering my world. I went back to the beginning area and prepared for the worst. Eventually the phantom had followed me there, but instead of immediately attacking, he turned his back to me and signaled with two spear thrusts that I was to follow him. A bit begrudgingly, and because he was blocking my progress forward anyway, I did. As it turned out, the phantom had not come into my world to attack me, and instead, to help me. He started clearing out some of the more difficult monsters ahead so that I wouldn’t have to (monsters are not aggressive toward black phantoms, but the phantoms can kill monsters). He stuck with me until the end of that level, allowing me safe passage to the boss; a pretty awesome experience, and not at all what I was expecting (I tend to wonder if the devs had known about this, and planned for it).
Undoubtedly, the difficulty and lack of direction offered by the game is going to immediately put some players off. Once again, similarly to Silent Hill 2, Demon’s Souls is a game that is going to strongly reward a player with a great gaming experience, if they stick with it. It’s just an incredibly deep RPG.
I’d like to hear about some of your most difficult gaming experiences, and if you felt they were rewarding or not. I don’t think making a game incredibly difficult always leads to a good experience; there has to be quality mechanics in place to support the difficulty. What are your thoughts and experiences with this?