Thursday, November 12, 2009

Demons have stolen my Soul, with reservations [Demon's Souls]


Lately I admit I’ve been lazing about in front of the ol’ plasma a bit too much, staring at magically rendered universes of fantasy and adventure. Part of it is that I’m slowly recovering from a cold. It’s probably H1N1. If it’s fatal, I might die playing video games. Would my soul be revived in the Nexus? Somehow I doubt it. I’m no hero, I’m just a dude.

Apart from the fantastically beautiful Uncharted 2, a much lower profile game from the studios of Sony Japan has captivated my attention for a good twenty plus hours over the past few week. That game is Demon’s Souls, an action RPG that has won at least one claim to fame—it’s very hard to win. Yes, that’s one marketing angle they’ve taken deliberately, not one you often see on a game box, because, for some reason, game developers think that would be a turn off.

I’ll avoid going off on a tangent about how miserably easy most games have become these days, but suffice it to say, Demon’s Souls makes a solid effort at living up to its claim, but where I’m at in the game now, the difficulty seems to be fading to irrelevance.

The story is some throwaway about a demon that has ravaged the world and you’re the hero designated to defeat it. The problem is, you’re not all that much of a hero, not at first—more like a 98lb weakling. I like this, a lot. Probably because I’m a 150lb weakling and it gives me hope.

The game trains you in the basic mechanics of game play and then quickly kicks your ass by making you fight an impossibly difficult demon, and then the game really begins with your soul awakening in the Nexus, a sort of Void where you end up when you die. To progress through the game you warp to different worlds where you kill the baddies and collect their souls. Souls are like money, used for everything from equipment purchases to stat upgrades. Along the way you kill boss demons that give you a whole bunch of souls, and the added bonus of getting your human form back.

What makes the game difficult is that you start off very weak, and if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, you will die. You will die fast. Add to that that every time you die, you lose ALL of your souls. The only way to get them back is to get back to where you died and reclaim your soul stain that was left behind, which is not always easy since all the monsters come back to life in your ever so brief absence. Unfortunately if you die again, the souls are gone and you have to start collecting them all over again. So yeah, it’s hard and it only gets harder the more you let your frustration replace your patience.

The game no doubt pisses the crap out of me on many occasions, but I love that they really wanted to make the game a challenge. The problem lies in the inherent nature of almost any RPG, plus a couple level design flaws I wish they avoided.

The inherent nature of which I speak is the leveling up of your character. Every RPG has this. In Demon’s Souls you use the souls you gain to improve your stats, and inevitably this means you can take and inflict more damage. This also means that monsters in the earlier levels become much easier, making them easy to defeat for quick soul farming. This takes away from the difficulty of any RPG, not just this one.

The problem then is that Demon’s Souls has monsters that are too easy to defeat but still give you quite a few souls, letting you soul farm quickly, which in turn makes future levels easier than they probably should be. I think what they could have done instead is follow the Diablo method, where killing easier monsters gives fewer souls than they did before, maybe to the point that they give almost none. This would mean the player either has to take a long time soul farming, or press on fighting their way through the harder levels. Another option would be to make the monsters you kill give you more souls the first time you kill them, increasing the risk of dying. Granted I’ve not made it more than a quarter of the way through the game, so I may find my critique is totally misguided soon.

The second problem may be a spoiler, so don’t read further if you care about this game.

The boss demons I have battled so far are waaaaaaaaaaaaay too easy. The problem is that the bow is overpowered and there’s no limit to the number of arrows you can carry, so basically I just enter the boss battle with 200 arrows and blast them from a safe distance. After defeating the big guardian night in the second part of the first world with arrows without having to move at all, I knew something was amiss. Again, perhaps this becomes an impossible trick against later demons, but so far I’m a little disappointed with the boss battles.

More to come on Demon’s Souls in the next couple posts. I want to look more carefully at the ludic (read: game) elements and later at the multiplayer features, which are pretty awesome for what’s a mostly single-player adventure.

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