Saturday, 30 October 2010

Game Review: Demon's Souls-PS3

Phalanx’s, dark, amorphous form shuffled toward me; deadly spears darting in and out from it’s gluttonous body, probing the air, searching for it’s pray as it’s children, the Phalangeal, surround it protectively for they know that I am here to destroy their master with fire and steel, to bring an end to its reign in this world. Circling carefully, weighing up my quarry I wait for the opportunity to strike and seeing an opening I unleash a ball of fire into the thriving mass. It explodes in a brilliant flash of light, illuminating the large hall for but the briefest of moments before the oppressive, unearthly darkness swallows it up once more, choking down the light like some unseen, gluttonous beast who’s thirst can never be sated. But I pay it no heed for my heart is as hard as the armour that encases my body and as cold as the steel I carry in my hand. I have come too far and suffered to greatly to fall now, to become a slave to the darkness of the fog that has engulfed my home world and laid it to waste.

The unearthly screams of Phalanx as the flames of my retribution sweep over its nightmarish silhouette would have shaken a normal man to madness; but I am no normal man, I have stared death in the face more than once, walked his unholy halls and have overcome his minions time and again to reach this point and I will not fail. With reflexes born of years of training and hardship I swing my mighty sword, cutting deep into the demons flank, tearing at flesh and sinew, driving home my blade, letting my enemy know that I am its death and that there is no escape. Deftly rolling to one side, barely avoiding one of the demon’s deadly spears as it passes just inches over my shoulder, its tip glistening with dried blood and the stench of decay, I spring to my feet and cast another ball of fire. The hall is lit up once more, and as the demon’s children shriek in pain and terror as the flames engulf them it’s then I sense Phalanx’s fear; I can sense that the creature is trying to flee for it knows its demise is imminent. Seizing the advantage I call upon every inch of my being, forcing my aching, battle weary body to lunge forward for the final confrontation and unleash the killing blow that will rid the world of this foul abomination…

Phalanx is the first major demon in From Software’s dark RPG, Demon’s Souls and it took me just over six hours to confront this first boss monster. Why, you may ask? The answer to that is that Demon's Souls is as difficult as video games come; in fact it’s arguably the toughest video game currently on the market, but it's because of its stoic and often unforgiving gameplay that Demon’s Souls stands out as one of the finest and most rewarding RPG’s developed in recent times.

At its core Demon’s Souls is old school gaming dressed in today’s clothing; there are no checkpoints, no randomly placed type writers or fountains to save your current progress and should you meet your end you’ll be transported back to the very beginning of the level where you’ll have to start over. For many that will be perhaps enough for them to happily to ignore From Software’s RPG long before its steep learning curve has them flinging their control pad half way across the living room. If, however, you chose to brave Demon’s Souls dark corridors and damp dungeons you’ll be greatly rewarded with a deep and immersive RPG unlike any other. In perhaps an accidental homage to the video games of yesteryear, playing through this ominous RPG is about learning though the process of repetition; playing and memorising each segment of each level meticulously; remembering the safest pathways; and where to avoid the most powerful of enemies. Running in blindly, swinging your weapon haphazardly will lead to a swift death, but edging your way through each level carefully, feeling your way a piece at a time; understanding that a short sword is more preferable to a spear in a tight corridor, or that a cumbersome battle axe might not be the best choice against more dextrous enemies and that weighing up your foe and ascertaining the situation before leaping into battle will, more often than not, see you emerge victorious. Patience is your greatest ally in Demon’s Souls, not rampant button mashing in the vein hope that you might just chance your way through.

Sanctuary is provided by the Nexus, a mystical hub of crumbling, medieval architecture, twisting stairways and dimly lit corridors. It’s also from here that you enter each realm currently held in sway by some magnificent, yet terrifying demon and its minions. As you progress through each of the five regions, (which split into 3-4 levels per region), dispatching the undead, possessed guardsmen and lesser demons you’ll collect souls and it’s these souls that are your key to victory. Souls double up as both the in-game monetary and leveling currency with which you can buy and repair new weapons, armour and items and also use to improve your overall stats and upgrade your character. Thankfully with each death you retain any new items and upgrades added to your chosen hero thus making each time you enter a realm that little easier. Ironically, the more times you embrace death not only will you have a better understanding of your environment and how best approach each region, but the more powerful you will eventually become; those initial stumbling first steps will, in time, become a distant memory as you carefully weave your way through each area, turning the tables in your favour. However, on dying any souls you have collected are instantly lost on your return to the beginning of the level and the only way to regain them is by fighting your way back to the point at which you died, but should you be slain a second time those souls will be lost forever. It’s a tough lesson in self preservation, but it’s through these harsh lessons that Demon’s Souls offers up an utterly believable sense of immersion; a beautifully crafted, coherent and absolutely logical world where each mistake leading to your sudden, and often brutal demise is-ultimately-of your own making and yet with each failure you learn, you adapt and eventually you begin to succeed; and the satisfaction that comes with that is an experience that you'll want to savour time and again.

Demon’s Souls gameplay can also change depending on how the player acts in each region, shifting each realm and their character between light and dark. This is known as World and Character Tendency respectively and can effect, to some degree, how the world and its inhabitants react to you and how powerful items and creatures therein are. While multiple choices and their conclusions are nothing new in today’s RPGs it’s the ability to constantly manipulate your Character Tendency to suit your current needs, allowing you to switch seamlessly from light to dark as little or as often as you like that separates it from many of its peers. What’s also interesting is that shifting your tendency from light to dark or vice versa in any of the regions only affects that particular region and not the world as a whole so it’s important to create a healthy balance when moving between realms and try to maintain the most suitable tendency for your chosen character and class. Like the majority of Demon’s Soul, understanding World & Character Tendency can be quite daunting for the newcomer, but as with everything else once it slots into place it makes perfect sense and becomes as equally important and plays as integral a part in ones progression as every other facet of this cleverly constructed slice of interactive entertainment.

While Demon’s Souls is ostensibly a solitary experience one of its greatest assets comes in its multi-player. Unlike the usual slew of multi-player modes found in many other games, From Software has cleverly woven it into the single player experience thus never breaking the sensation of facing the darkness of this haunting world alone. In each region, players-who are represented by ghostly apparitions that occasionally flit by you, battling their own unseen monsters-can leave messages that will help, (or hinder), your progress, warning you of enemies lying in ambush or of helpful NPC’s who otherwise may have met an untimely death at the end of your overly nervous sword arm. Throughout you’ll also find blood stains of other fallen heroes and by activating these you become privy to said players last moments giving you an insight to how they died thus giving you the opportunity to avoid repeating the same mistake. It’s also possible to call upon other players to assist you in clearing out a dungeon teeming with monsters or defeat difficult bosses, however it’s also entirely possible for other players to ‘break’ into your world and assassinate you and steal your souls. It’s a bit of a gamble as the attacker is unaware of the prowess of the player they’re attempting to assassinate and as such there’s always the chance that they themselves may be the one skewered on the end of a pole-arm. It’s an ingenious take on multi-player and one that works perfectly in tune with Demon’s Souls trial and error gameplay.

Few games are as bold as Demon’s Souls and fewer still are as unwilling to compromise their vision and, in the case of From Software’s creation, their unique identity. Many will be taken aback by its stark difficulty that much is true, but if the fundamental reason as to why so many are drawn to video games is in the lure of the challenge itself and the reward thereafter then arguably the finest examples of the medium are those that reap the greatest rewards, but only through the greatest of hardship.


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