Cool news! Demon’s Souls will be getting a native US release. Own it in September for $59.99. Pre-orders start July 8, 2009.
Demon’s Souls is a third person RPG for the PS3 made by From Software in Japan and recently released to the Japanese market. There was a lot of expectation surrounding this game and it landed white hot in the Japanese market selling out in its first day. Does it live up to all the hype? If it is only being released in the Japanese market, why would we care here in the US (or across the pond in Europe for that matter)? Can a Japanese console RPG really be that big of a deal? You have no idea.
This game features a comprehensive set of traditional RPG elements, but packages them with a Havok physics engine and state of the art HD graphics. Like most RPGs, your character develops based on a nicely simplified set of 8 character traits (vitality, strength, agility, etc) and you choose a character class to start in based on your expected gaming style. All the in-game equipment screens and character data screens are presented very clearly. In fact, I would have to say that I have not seen a better RPG user interface. Character creation is unlimited with all aspects of facial design accessible to the user for complete control (we took some old movie stills of Toshiro Mifune and modeled our character after Yojimbo). This level of control and tweaking is not necessary of course, but for those who like to create a unique identity, deep customization is a nice feature.
This game has an interesting basic dynamic. You have a physical body and a soul body. When (not if) your physical body dies, you continue as a soul body in a weakened, reduced, ethereal state. As a soul body, you can only get another physical body by harvesting demon’s souls, but since you are weakened, this necessary goal becomes a lot more difficult. One quickly discovers how precious life is and learns to guard it jealously.
Single Player vs Multi Player Modes
Essentially designed as a single player game, the player is not constrained to a single path nor a single goal. The player can “get involved” with various story lines if desired, with the player’s decisions and actions (or inactions) having an effect on the various NPCs and the game space. Player actions influence major game dynamics like the appearance (or lack thereof) of some monsters. Multi-player action is provided in a limited form allowing up to three players to cooperate in a mission, however two of the three players are only present in soul form and are somewhat constrained as a result. Further, players can forcibly “invade” another’s game as a soul and attack or hinder the live player at will. The constant appearance and disappearance of other player’s ghosts definitely adds an interesting dynamic to the game.
What’s Fundamentally New or Different in this Game
The Havok physics engine constrains weapons making for more realistic RPG game play. When your sword arm is pinned against the wall, you cannot effectively swing it. The Havok physics engine also means that when you slash at a wooden cart with barrels on it, the cart breaks exactly where you struck it and collapses accordingly. Let me pause for a moment and praise this game’s visual presentation. The loading scenes look like a motion comic with lushly detailed frames. The cut scenes are generated live making for consistent visuals throughout the game. The graphics themselves are nothing short of stunning (especially the lighting and smoke/particle effects) and are among the best I have seen. Lots of depth of field and visual complexity in the scenes, excellent lensing and cinematography. The voices and sounds are really rich and deep adding their own magic to the experience, especially in the echoing dungeon spaces. It is clear that a lot of time and effort went into the smallest details of this game.
Game Play Overview
Game play is really fantastic overall. You can wield various weapons and magics. You can wield and control left and right handed weapons separately. There are many different types of weapons (both melee and ranged) as well as many types of magic. There are also many objects that can be used as well. User control varies depending on the weapons or items wielded. Like many RPG environments you can only use items and weapons that you have equipped, no matter what is in your inventory. You have to equip on the fly, and if you are in a fight, that is time you might not have (just like in real life). Interestingly for an RPG, social networking aspects have also been integrated, allowing players to leave messages right in the game space for others to learn from. This is a fully realized RPG, not some stripped down console version of a paper game and not some button masher ultra combo attack game.
One aspect of the game play that I quite appreciate in particular is the real-time stamina factor. Monitoring and maintaining your stamina in this game is critical. You need a few seconds to regain your breath when out of stamina. You cannot simply swing your sword as hard as you can, over and over forever. After the third or fourth two handed swing, your stamina runs out. You’ll need to dodge or block for a second or two to get your stamina and strength back. This ups the fighting realism level quite a bit and does it in such a way that the stamina factor is effectively incorporated into the game without getting in the player’s way at all. Once you get a feel for what stamina level your character can maintain, you know what your attack cadence can be and you know when you need to dodge or block without having to watch your power gauges. It feels really natural.
No pausing! Life does not pause just because you need to read the directions and neither does this game. This seems to be by intent as you cannot even pause the game with the PS button. I have to say, this total elimination of the pause function takes me back to the days of Dungeon Master. I really like this a lot. It makes the game space and game time more real. This is no mere casual game. This is a game that demands your attention and requires your best efforts.
Bring On the Bad Guys
Demon’s Souls really makes you learn what works and what doesn’t. The “normal” difficulty level is the equivalent of “extreme” on most other games. The fighting dynamic is relatively simple but satisfying. The enemy does use some basic tactics but if you don’t rush blindly into everything you can usually manage to pick your fights and heal between the smaller injuries. There are lots of zombie minion characters sprinkled everywhere you go. You also come across elite fighters from time to time and some of them even use traditional castle defenses on you such as rolling boulders down ramps and so forth. The elite fighters can also be quite difficult to deal with, especially if you are already in your weakened spirit state. They force you to adapt new tactics to overcome their superior strength and positions.
Who’s the Boss?
Ultimate game satisfaction for me always requires good bosses. The bosses (and even the mini-bosses) in this game are nothing short of incredible. Super tough and really awesome looking. Exceptional is not an understatement. The first mini-boss hits you one time and even if you were at full health, you are now dead. Now that’s a boss worthy of some respect! And this is just the first mini-boss, a 7 foot hulk with a club. All of the monsters and demons in this game are quite impressive. The dragon in particular is everything I could have hoped for in an RPG. There are even Godzilla sized demons that look like they can destroy whole castles in this game. The monster roars and you can see its facial flesh move around on its skull. You can see its throat and the separate muscles flexing in its neck. This game sets a very high bar in visual entertainment and presentation.
So What’s Not to Like?
Other reviewers have lowered their rankings of this game complaining that Demon’s Souls is too challenging and doesn’t do enough hand-holding. To these reviewers, I say that the Nintendo Wii is a very nice gaming platform and if you want a gaming experience that spells everything out for you, that environment seems to fit the bill. Personally though, I do not necessarily see a high level of difficulty as a deterrent to gaming nor as a negative factor by itself. So long as the buyer is aware that the game is challenging, and so long as the rewards of the game are worth the challenges.
A Serious Challenge
Demon’s Souls is hard, but straightforward. Beyond the obvious initial layer of this game is a surprising subtlety and depth that I just wasn’t expecting. From sight, to sound, to control, to game play, this game pulls off a very high level of environmental sophistication without a lot of complexity getting in the way of the user experience. This is exceedingly rare and it is these combination of factors that make this game so outstanding in an already exceptional field. It makes for the most compelling RPG experience I have had to date.
Overall, I give Demon’s Souls a solid 9+ out of 10 points and this is my game of the year (so far) on the PS3. Developed in Japan for Japan, this game might not be released in the US or in Europe (nothing has yet been announced), however you might be able to find the Chinese/English version at a Hong Kong gaming store. Get this game if you can. I am not kidding. If you have ever enjoyed an RPG and appreciate a worthwhile challenge, this game will ultimately thrill and impress you and will even satisfy the most hardcore RPG gamers. There is a reason why it sold 37,000 copies in the first week in Japan alone (and even caused a blip in PS3 console sales).