Friday, March 18, 2011

The In-Depth: Demon's Souls (Part 1)

When “Demon’s Souls” was first released in late 2009, I grabbed it beacuse I had heard it was a challening and unique Japanese RPG. Upon playing the three or four hours of the game, I decided that it was way too challenging for me, and I moved on to other games that were being released at the time.

Fast forward to early 2011. I’ve been hearing about how a sequel of sorts called “Dark Souls” will be published later this year, and it got me to thinking that I should give “Demon’s Souls” another look. I’m glad I did, because “Demon’s Souls” is a fascinating game that draws me further and further in the more time I sepnd with it. In this series of articles, I’ll be talking about some of the different aspects of the game and why I find them so interesting. This first article will focus on the world of the game and the player’s introduction to it.

The story in “Demon’s Souls” is that the king of a fictional kingdom called Boletaria sought to increase his power and his kingdom’s prosperity by performing a dark ritual. The kingdom was very prosperous for a while, but the ritual awoke an ancient evil. Eventually a mysterious, dark fog began to envelop the kingdom, cutting it off from the rest of the world. With the fog came demons that feated on the souls of the living. Now the area is populated with demons and undead, and the few remaining survivors are pretty much crazy. Many heroes have ventured into the fog from the outside world and never returned. Now the fog is starting to spread outward. You start the game as a hero from the outside world who decides to enter the fog, hoping to defeat the evil at the source of it.

There’s a few great things about your introduction to the game. First of all, “Demon’s Souls” is gloomy, atmospheric and beautiful at the same time. The tutorial for the game does a great job of immersing you into the world, teaching you the basics, and introducing the harsh reality that you are going to die in this game--a lot. In fact, death is a central conept in this game. While you begin in your full, physical form (called Body form), upon dying you are revived in the Nexus. The Nexus is kind of a Limbo-like place that contains doorways into different parts of Boletaria. When you die, you return in Soul form, and as you are less than whole, you only have half of your overall health. There are only a few ways to return to your full Body form, and one of them is to defeat the demon bosses located in certain areas of Boletaria.

Like most RPGs, “Demon’s Souls” has an advancement system. You can improve your attributes, learn magic, level your character and upgrade your gear. Central to all of these things is acquiring the currency of the world--souls. Each time you defeat an enemy, you are rewarded with the souls that demon had taken. You use those souls to buy upgrades and advance your character.

Another aspect of “Demon’s Souls” harsh and unforgiving nature is the fact that each time you venture into the world, you risk losing the souls you’ve acquired. When you die, you are returned to the Nexus with zero souls. The only way to recover them is to go back to your point of death and recover your lost souls before you die again. If you die a second time, the souls are lost for good. It’s this aspect that usually drives people from the game the first time they lose thousands of souls that they were saving to upgrade their character. What’s itneresting about this aspect of the game is that it makes every trip into the world a gamble. Do I gather a few thousand souls and then run back to the Nexus to spend them? Or, do I venture into the next area hoping to collect more souls and maybe find a cool item? Adding to the gamble is the fact that enemies respawn when you return to the Nexus, so if you haven’t completed an area and killed the boss, you’ll be fighting everyone all over again to get back to the point you left off at. If you’ve died, you have to fight all those enemies again just to get back to your body and reclaim you lost souls--a daunting task.

This risk-reward concept is ever present, and when combined with the way the game immerses you in the world, it creates an underlying feeling of both fear and excitement. It can also create maddening frustration, which is more likely to happen when you are a low-level character for whom every encounter is potentially fatal.

“Demon’s Souls” is certainly not for the easily frustrated or faint of heart. My first experience with the game left me very frustrated, and I walked away from it for two years. This time through, I knew what I was getting into, and I apporached the game with a completely different mindset.

Next time around, I'll get into the character advancement and gear upgrade systems.

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