'Demon's Souls': 2009's most important game
From Software has created a game that's challenging but not very fun.
Jan. 26, 2010
Before we leave 2009 behind for good, one game needs to get its due so I can finally sleep well at night. Although I hope to persuade you all to share in my gushing adoration for this game, it has just as much potential to leave you a broken, defeated, withering shell of a human being. Fun and entertainment have very little to do with the greatness of "Demon's Souls," but somehow, it compels its players to treat it with the level of respect it so audaciously demands.
The first wake-up call should come right around the time a seven-story tall demonic ogre annihilates you in the opening tutorial. The first litmus test presents itself: Can you accept death as a frequent and unavoidable fate? Try as you might to have a good time with this game, it will offer nothing but contempt and hatred in return.
Death can be a tough penalty to stomach at first. Dying caps your maximum health at half until you defeat a boss, and you drop all your collected souls at the spot of your death. To put it bluntly: Souls mean everything. You need them to buy weapons and armor, learn new spells and most importantly, level up. Failing to return to your bloodstain and retrieving your lost souls pretty much makes the entire past hour of progress for naught. Sound fun yet?
Although the world of "Demon's Souls" and everything within it will show utter hostility for you, the collective knowledge of the players themselves will facilitate your motivation to persevere in the face of insurmountable odds. The game itself sure as hell won't point you in any general directions or warn you of environmental traps; it leaves the players to fend for themselves.
Herein lies the genius of From Software's ahead-of-its-time vision for how video games can utilize an Internet connection. "Demon's Souls" uses a persistent online state in subtle but highly effective ways. You learn from the deaths of others, quite literally, by watching the last few seconds of their lives play back before you. Players can even write helpful messages on the ground for others to read. These might not sound like revolutionary ideas, but in such an unforgiving world, you'll need all the hints you can get.
You can also directly fight alongside other players, although like most of the aspects of "Demon's Souls," cooperative play does not follow typical conventions. The lack of any voice or text communication speaks to the unspoken bond relationship this sort of anonymous co-op intends to build. Still, the relationship is mutually beneficial: The hosts gain assistance in defeating a boss, and the helpers earn back the right to a full health bar.
"Demon's Souls" is all about the big payoff. Vanquishing a boss entails several rewards: a full health bar, new areas to explore and a massive sum of souls to cash in. This game evokes a sense of triumph within its players that knows no peers. Then, you dread wondering what sorts of twisted, perverse tricks will attempt to kill you in the next unexplored area and the cycle begins anew.
Wrap all these fantastic innovative ideas around interesting fiction, beautiful art design and a haunting atmosphere and "Demon's Souls" ends up feeling immensely satisfying without necessarily feeling fun. From Software deserves recognition for having the balls to produce such a punishing experience that, against all odds, has become beloved for its challenging nature. Anyone still preaching Japanese RPGs hasn’t innovated in years just got a reason to shut up.