Sunday, June 8, 2014

Video Game Assessment: Demon's Souls (2009)

Demon's Souls, developed by From Software with some assistance from SCE Japan Studio, is an interesting action-adventure-RPG-hack-and-slash-very-hard-game that looks like it helped kick off the "hard games" genre that seems to be pushing itself into video game culture today. Some people (mostly jerks) say that this game is easy. Other people (the jerks would call them "noobs" which is literally the dumbest thing a human being can possibly say with a straight face) think that this is a difficult and punishing game, designed to be both psychotically frustrating when you get angry enough to throw your PlayStation 3 controller through the game disc and incredibly rewarding once you defeat anything that has given you problems (for me it was Flamelurker, that wobbling flaming monkey moron).

This game was my first real foray into this genre. Sure, I like difficult games at times, hard to grow up on the NES and the SNES and not get used to difficult games. But this one, it's very different. And it's difficult in a different way. It's fair, sure, and can be easy through repetition and memorization. Mostly though, it punishes through lack of knowledge, lack of skill, and pulling out surprise after surprise. You need amazing control for this game. You have to have a knowledge base of what's coming, and you have to get used to the controls, which are, at the very least, difficult to figure out at first. There are also a great deal of hidden mechanics in the game, like leveling up (which I didn't find when I should have found it), what the stats mean, and what the symbols that are required to use a weapon actually mean. To be bluntly honest, this game confused me for a good long time, and I left it alone much of the time I owned it. But that changed early this year. Because that was when I decided I had enough of the namby-pamby games. I was a real gamer-boy, and I was going to game.

(And then hate myself for a long time afterward...)

Prepare to Cry
(in anger)
I had gotten this game not long after it had come out, played a little bit, and found it too frustrating to continue. I hadn't even beaten or even gotten to the first real boss in the game, but I found it too tiresome to proceed, and put it off for another two years or more. I came back to it, tried to show off just how hard the game was, proceeded to get frustrated and then put it off again.

Finally though, I'd had enough. With work a mounting priority and no time for anything else, I decided to dip my toes into the fires of self-hatred and punish myself directly. I started by playing about an hour each night, more or less, just seeing what I could do. The controls (which I barely knew trying it before) seemed to feel a bit better in my fingers this time around. I somehow beat the first level, 1-1, and I never died to the first boss Phalanx, something I didn't know I had in me. And from that moment, I was hooked. Sure, there were frustrations, times when I knew I wouldn't be able to continue and times that I simply told myself I was done. But I did continue; I wasn't done. The Tower Knight gave me problems. Because the character I had created four or five years previous had already beaten the tutorial, I didn't have the tutorial to fall back on. I forgot that I could run and therefore never ran once in the entirety of Demon's Souls. How I got past the red dragon in the second level of the first world, I have no idea. I dodge rolled a lot. I like dodge rolling. Maybe that saved me. Or maybe some incredibly dumb luck (with an emphasis on the dumb) was on my side. I was still struggling even throughout the first part of the game. The first four bosses (with the exception of Phalanx) gave me trouble. But I beat them all one by one, remembering their names in turn: Tower Knight, Fool's Idol, Armored Spider... and Flamelurker. How I loathe thee, Flamelurker.

Flamelurker was the boss that got me in this game. It was the hardest and most frustrating one. I was playing a melee character with extremely limited magic and no range. I subsequently had to change my build because of this boss, become nearly a pure bows and magic character. It was frustrating. I keep using that word, but it describes the experience so well. It captures the experience perfectly. Frustration. Rewarding frustration. I won, and after that nothing stood in my way. I was on a roll. The Maneater(s) gave me some issues, but I beat them too. I beat everything. After Flamelurker, everything clicked. The combat clicked. The game mechanics clicked. The ambushes and the difficulty and everything else. I simply understood it all. I got it. Is it a good game? Yes, absolutely. But there is a lot that needs to be slogged through before it really shows its true colors.

I don't have much to say about the other bosses. Most of them fell easily to my magic/bow combination. While some were designed exquisitely, very few actually stuck out to me. The Old Hero was a cool, albeit easy, concept. The Storm King was a cool boss fight once you get that awesome sword that's only really awesome in his arena. And the Old Monk was an interesting conceptual design that never worked for me.

The setting and level design in probably the high point of the game as well as the most memorable piece of it. The Tower of Latria's design in particular sticks out to me, being a prison and a collection of towers in this backdrop of a broken world. The settings almost feel like entirely different games put inside of one. None of them really look alike (besides the all-encompassing darkness present in one form or another in each every level. Other than that they do feel and play incredibly differently. The castle was neat with incredibly well-designed shortcuts and corridors. The tunnel felt far beneath the world and incredibly claustrophobic at times. The tower was both creepy and otherworldly, like something out of Lovecraft. The shrine was neat, a cliffside area that made me think of pictures of cool rocky coastlines. And the valley/swamp area was just terrible in every single way. The stories behind the areas were also interesting, although on a first playthrough I would be shocked if you even knew there was a story. I certainly didn't. I was just killing bosses and leveling up. Only after the endgame played out and I started new game+ did I finally stop and look some of the story and characters up, realizing that the game was much deeper than I had given it credit for.0

I talk about this game mostly as a game of visuals and fights because when I played it, that's exactly what I got out of it. While the lore is pretty solid, it's also fairly hidden unless you're willing to read literally everything, every description, every introduction, and, of course, reading into a lot of things too. I didn't do that when I played, opting to focus on the environments and getting better with the gameplay. Maybe it was my loss, although I enjoyed it as a game, and now I enjoy the lore as well.

As for everything else, let's see. I liked the Maiden in Black. Her design and character are incredibly interesting, verging on seriously awesome. I wish more characters would look and act like her. She's such an incredibly well-designed and thought-out central NPC. I can't really complain about her or the major merchants in the Nexus, (the central hub of the game). Oh, and I didn't even talk about how awesome the Nexus is, with its strange clockwork floor, changing music once you get late enough into the game and vertical levels.

The complaints I have are pretty small in general. The Valley of Defilement sucks to play. Some of the bosses are very easy. The early game really feels like it discourages new players. The lack of telling the player anything can be both incredibly rewarding and incredibly confusing. The world and character tendency things are literally incomprehensible for me. I have no idea what to do with any of that stuff and basically avoided it through lack of knowledge or understanding.

I will say that the dodge roll is my favorite feature in games though, and I wish it were in every game, because mastering a dodge roll is the only true way to play Demon's Souls.

Now, I do know that this game is not as played or as beloved as Dark Souls or other more well-known "hard games" out there, but it's also very good if it's given a chance. This game got me to try (and eventually fall in love with) the Dark Souls games, and its horrific atmosphere, gameplay that has to be mastered, and designs are something I will remember for many years to come. Compared to Dark Souls, I find Demon's Souls nearly its equal, with the only issues coming from lack of a "real/coherent" story and the ease of some of the boss fights if your character is built a certain way. But that's about it. When I get to reviewing Dark Souls, I'll talk more about comparisons and probably change my mind over which one I like more ten times over in the course of that review.

So, in summary, if you have a PS3 and like hard games, you should try this one out. I liked it a lot after the initial four years of annoyance and frustration. So... I think that's a recommendation? I give it a 'Salem's Lot out of Dracula.


Anyway, as some housekeeping for the blog, I'm back writing, as I mentioned last week. I'm probably going to be very inconsistent, really basing my writing and posting of reviews around when work and the fiancee aren't desperately seeking my time or attention. I'd love to say one review a week, but I doubt that pretty seriously. So, I won't say anything at all, and hopefully we'll all be surprised and shocked by whatever happens. I think I'm going to review a bunch of video games for a while, then some movies, and finally some books leading up to October, but anything could happen. And the October Nights 31 reviews will happen even if I have to never sleep. So no worries there.

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