GameSpite Journal 11 | Demon's Souls

From/Atlus | PlayStation 3 | Oct. 6, 2009

In 2009, Demonís Souls launched for the PlayStation 3. Fromís action-RPG came out of nowhere and became a surprise critical and commercial hit. Internet users seemed especially vocal about the gameís greatness and no forum was buzzing with Demonís Souls chatter as much as Talking Time (the forum attached by the hip to this very magazine). Talking Time was flooded with praise for the game, but I wasnít buying it. A game thatís entirely structured around being crazy-hard? I scoffed at the very idea. Of course, thatís not really what Demonís Souls is, but good luck getting that message through to me back then. Clearly, these fools had no idea what they were talking about; the game was obviously awful. Some time after its release, I had the opportunity to play Demonís Souls at a friendís place. I saw... oh, about 20 minutes of gameplay. The game was downright shabby-looking! The menus donít make sense! Both of those things are true, but I wasnít willing to look past that and try to evaluate the game properly. I had seen enough. Clearly, this game had no redeeming qualities. It was garbage, and the people who liked it were just nerds who were geeking out about nerd stuff... or something. Itís hard for me to even recap this situation now, since I legitimately have no idea what came over me at the time. I donít know what my thought process was, but not long after, I took to Talking Time and started a flame war to end all flame wars. I donít know why I did it. I really donít, but I did it all the same. I canít remember the exact things I said, but I specifically remember saying that people who liked Demonís Souls were in a cult and were unable to see how clearly stupid it was because they were so... I donít know. Dumb, I guess? Again, I really donít know where all this raw hatred was coming from, but I took it out on everyone who liked this game.

That was just a bit over two years ago. Itís amazing how much can change in two years. Iíve matured quite a bit since then (who knows, maybe someday Iíll become one of those ďadd-dultsĒ Iíve heard so much about). Not long after the Demonís Souls argument ended, I looked back at my behavior, and I was embarrassed and ashamed. Itís a massive stain on my life that is forever preserved on the Internet (Iím still reluctant to go back and look up exactly what I said). So one day, after mentioning on Talking Time that I was going to write an article for this issue on a PS3 game, Talking Time user Nodal joked that it would be funny if I were playing Demonís Souls. I simply couldnít turn down the opportunity. What better game to explore? I never even gave Demonís Souls a first chance. I had to do it. I had to see if I could play the game and evaluate it fairly.

The end result was a mixed bag. I actually enjoyed the majority of my time with Demonís Souls, but I think it caters to a very specific audience that I am not a part of. Itís interesting to me in an academic sense, but itís also one of the most frustrating games Iíve ever played.

The first thing anyone will tell you about Demonís Souls is that itís brutally difficult. What no one will tell you is that it actually isnít hard at all. Not even a little bit. The enemies I faced in Demonís Souls werenít just dumb; they were arguably the dumbest enemies I have ever encountered in any game. Attack patterns are simple and repetitious. Holes in enemy AI can be exploited easily; I beat a mid-level boss by standing far enough away from him that he wasnít able to recognize that I was there and using long range attacks to whittle his health down. It was honestly kind of ridiculous how bone-headed the AI can be at times. That said, I died in Demonís Souls roughly 100 billion million times. How can I do so much in a game that I just said was not ďhard at allĒ? Well, enemies make up for their brain deficiency by hitting like a dump truck. If you wanted to say that every enemy in the game had retard strength, you wouldnít be too far off. Itís not uncommon for even the most basic enemy to remove one-third or more of your life in one hit. The end result a game thatís less about the actual strategy and tactics of beating an enemy and more about the execution of it. More often than not, when I encountered an enemy, I stuck to one of a handful of extremely basic strategies and it would work. The challenge came from being able to do it successfully multiple times. There were a few times where, after dying late in a level, I became impatient and tried blazing through the first portion of the level, only to die at the hands of enemies I already had beaten many times. That sort of ďrush to the endĒ behavior just doesnít work in Demonís Souls. Even when you know what to do, you have to make sure youíre fully paying attention at all times and able to execute it flawlessly. It sort of reminded me of my days playing brutally hard NES platformers when I was growing up. It was surprisingly engrossing... until I ran into the Flamelurker.

The Flamelurker is exactly what I expected Demonís Souls to be back in 2009: Complete and utter bullshit. His attacks hit me for roughly 40% of my health bar (even with defensive buffs). Still, his attacks were predictable and dodgeable. His ridiculousness isnít the problem. No, the problem is that I fought him in a small arena. If he ever hit me in one particular spot (on the stairs, if youíre wondering), I wouldnít have the room to dodge properly again and would get stunlocked to death. I tried avoiding the stairs at all costs, but I often found myself having to move towards them anyway just so I wouldnít get hit (ďI wonít get stuck this time...!Ē Yeah, okay), and then I was in Stunlock Central. The camera also tended to flip out when I neared the arenaís edges, which is obviously a problem when I was fighting a ludicrously strong boss in close quarters. As if that wasnít enough, as I damaged the Flamelurker, he became stronger and faster. The former I could deal, with but the latter meant that no matter what distance I was when I started my spell casting animation that would land the final blow, he would be able to close the gap and hit me without fail. After my second-to-last-attempt, I made it back to the boss room... only to get hit immediately upon entering the boss room. The camera chose this exact moment to flip out and spin like crazy. I was able to get it sorted out, but I had lost track of him for a second, and as a result he launched me into the stairs. I got stunlocked yet again, and with that, my Demonís Souls career ended. I gave up fighting the Flamelurker for the time being and went to different levels and played maybe an hour or two after that, but it just wasnít the same. The fire had been extinguished. Knowing that a roadblock of that magnitude could appear again at any moment put a serious damper on things.

Demonís Souls unique approach to death is part of what was so engrossing about the game, but it only added to the frustration I was feeling during the Flamelurker fight. The way dying works in Demonís Souls is that you lose all of your ďsouls,Ē which you use to upgrade your character. You can get these souls back if you make it back to the spot where you died without dying again. Dying means that you can spend the time getting back to your body practicing what you learned the first time through and honing your skills as a player. Itís a strange approach but it works, for the most part. A strange rhythm established where you get as far as you can, hit a roadblock, and then use your death to figure out what you need to do to be successful. The gameís weird growth curve manages to teach the player how to succeed without holding their hand and it makes your eventual victory feel immensely satisfying. Whenever I beat a boss, I felt like I had really accomplished something since I was the one who scraped and clawed my way through to the finish line.

Itís a unique approach and an interesting experiment, but Iím not entirely convinced it was a successful one. It may make your victories all the sweeter since you pay for them literally with your blood, but the death mechanic completely robs the game of any forward momentum. If you use an item, itís gone forever. Thereís no getting it back if you canít make it to your corpse. If you had to use one against a boss and then died, thereís no getting it back. If you donít make it back to your corpse, you lose those souls forever, too. The last time I died against Flamelurker, I never made it back to my corpse and lost an entire afternoonís worth of souls in a moment. I have almost thrown my controller into a wall many times during my gaming career, but this death was the first time I ever actually let it fly. I had spent several hours trying to beat this one particular boss, and came within one Soul Ray of victory multiple times, but I always came up short. I had spent an entire afternoon trying to accomplish one thing, and not only had I not accomplished it, but I had actually lost progress since I had fewer healing items than I did when I started. I had run into a similar frustration loop at tough spots several times before, but I was eventually able to break through each time. The rush I got from succeeding quickly washed away the frustration. But with the Flamelurker, that moment of satisfaction never came. I felt like I was endlessly bashing my head against a wall rather than actively progressing through the game. I wasnít even getting stronger since you need souls to level up too, and I could never spend the ones I had been accumulating since my characterís corpse (and the bulk of my souls with it) was stuck in the unescapable-until-the-boss-is-beaten boss room. I was grinding with no reward; making no progress of any kind. Iíve since been told that with my particular character build, Flamelurker is the hardest boss in the game. That gives me some comfort, but not much. Iím sure if I had stuck at it or gone back to fight the Flamelurker later, I wouldíve been able to beat him. But Flamelurker, and the accidental loss of an entire afternoonís worth of gaming in an instant and the slow drain of several weeks worth of item hoarding, completely robbed me of the desire to do so.

I stand by my assertion that Demonís Souls isnít hard. No, Demonís Souls is a bullshit tolerance simulator. The deck is always stacked against you and the game laughs at the very notion of fairness. ďThis boss is hard, but Iíve almost got it,Ē you say? ďWell now heís stronger, bitch!Ē says Demonís Souls. Thatís just the kind of game it is. It demands a fair amount of skill, but even moreso, it demands an extreme amount of patience. Patience isnít something I have a lot of, and as such, it eventually broke me. Still, having had a few months to reflect on my time with Demonís Souls, the good sticks out more than the bad. Giving Demonís Souls a second chance was never about facing the challenge the game presented. Playing it was me challenging my preconceived notions of what the game actually was. Iím not too proud to say that it definitely isnít the game I thought it was back in 2009. Demonís Souls is definitely not for me... but thatís okay! There are a lot of interesting ideas at work here, even if I personally think they could have been implemented better. Demonís Souls gave me a lot of highs and lows, but overall Iím glad I went back and gave it a chance. I may not have been able to conquer all the demons in the game, but I was able to conquer one that is even harder to defeat: The one within myself.

By Alex Reo? | May 22, 2012 | Previous: Dawn of War II | Next: Eternal Sonata