Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Demon's Souls

A while back I got the game Demon's Souls, the only game I have for the "holy crap it has a game now" PlayStation 3, and the only game I expect to have on it for the foreseeable future.  I don't know if I've ever been as conflicted about a game before.  It's very clever and innovative, and sometimes it's an action RPG, sometimes it's a platformer, and sometimes it's a puzzle game.

And it's hard.  The word "hard" here is an understatement, regardless of how many times I put the word "really" or various expletives in front of it.  It's hard as if the entire Blu-ray disc it ships on were made of diamond.  But for brevity, let's just say that it's really, really, really damned hard for now.

And that's the flaw with Demon's Souls, but it's a flaw so great that it overshadows all of the other brilliance in the game.  It is not merely hard in that the difficulty level is extremely high even on the lowest setting (which, indeed, is is)—I've played games like that, and I've tried out various games on their hardest difficulties before.  It's hard in that it delights in your suffering, and inflicts that suffering on you at a rate I am unfamiliar with.  Every action you perform in a manner that is not perfect yields punishment.  Oh, you turned a corner without facing the corridor with your shield up?  For that grievous sin you are punished with an axe to the face.  Oh, you used your attack button too many times in a short period of time and are now too weak to block?  For that sin you shall have your exhausted body cleaved in twain.  You die.  You die a lot.  In fact, almost the entirety of the game is expected to be played while you are dead, in "spirit form"—temporary restoration of your corporeal body is a reward for doing something particularly special, like killing a boss or helping another body kill a boss.

This might not be so bad, but there are no saved games, or even checkpoints to speak of.  When you die, you start over the level from the start, but all of the enemies have respawned, and now you are dangerously low on healing herbs.  A few hours into each level there will be a lever that will open a door or activate some sort of shortcut that can let you get back to later portions of the level after your next death, but that's it.

Oh, and you lose all of your experience points and money every time you die.  All of them.  (You do, at least, keep your items and equipment.)  You have one chance to go and retrieve them from the location of your death, and if you die again in the process, they're all gone for good.  You can entirely lose an hour of progress in a couple minutes.  After all, you're being incredibly careful all the time because you have to be, and if you're incredibly careful and still manage to die in one spot, there's a pretty good chance that you're going to die in the same spot when you make it there again, and that's only if you managed to do everything before that point perfectly and avoid dying even earlier.

And that's what's wrong with the game, at least as far as I'm concerned.  You can play for a couple hours and be worse off than when you started, logging off having made no forward progress at all, now with damaged and broken equipment, no money, and zero experience points.  It's demoralizing to say the least.  At best, you got better at playing the game in that time.  But that's just not enough.  After many, many hours into the game I managed to finish one zone of the game and kill its final boss, and I finished two other zones and got TO their end bosses, but couldn't kill either brutally painful boss.  With nowhere else to go other than perhaps grinding out a level or two (which would take several hours) or just beating my head against the bosses (for several hours), I was done with that game.  I'm a PC gamer.  I have higher standards than this.  Console gamers, as far as I have been able to tell, enjoy brutal masochistic punishment.  (Some of them reportedly even enjoy using the horrible PlayStation controller!)  I do not.

What kills me, though (pun somewhat intended), is that with a savegame feature, the game would be miles better.  I would enjoy it thoroughly, and I'd have made much more progress or even finished it by now.  A simple F5 key could have fixed the game if they were unwilling to tone down the ridiculous difficulty.

There's a lot to love about the game, though, and that's why it makes me angry that the game is so close to being great.  Combat is interesting, and it's about player skill more than stat points on your weapon.  Enemies all have their own attack styles, and equippable weapons all have different strengths and weaknesses.  Polearms have a nice range and do great damage, but taking a halberd out in a narrow hallway is a recipe for failure.  You can learn that those guys on the ramp do a very powerful vertical slashing attack that's strong enough to hurt while you're blocking or even one-shot you, and you can counter by rolling out of the way, flanking, or using ranged weapons.  There are lots of secrets to discover, and multiple paths to follow.  And, while it's primarily a single-player game, it has an insanely creative multiplayer component.  Other players exist in their own copies of the worlds, but when you get near other players, you see their spirits fighting up ahead, perhaps even giving you a clue to watch out for an ambush or trap.  Dead players leave bloodstains that appear in all copies of the world, and you can touch them to see their last few moments, so you can watch what tactics they tried and failed at.  You can also leave notes on the ground for others—"beware the next enemy's fire attack," or "don't miss the treasure behind you," or "watch your step."  You can also inscribe runes on the ground that, when encountered by other players, allow them to summon your spirit into their world to help them defeat the area's boss, giving you a chance to practice on the boss without suffering harm yourself, and rewarding you with resurrection if you successfully help out another player.  There were so many things about the game that I found very refreshing and unique, things that I wished were in other games I play.  (Oh how fun it would be to have medieval hand-to-hand combat this interesting in a great single-character PC RPG like Oblivion.)

It's just a pity that I only saw 10 or 15% of Demon's Souls, because I'd really have loved to play more of it.  But as long as I have a job and a finite amount of time to devote to a game, it just doesn't make sense for me to play the same levels again and again for hours on end, each time making slightly more progress than the last.  I'm going to play something fun.  I know that there are people who find that sort of slow progress and extremely high difficulty very rewarding, but that is not fun to me.

UPDATE: For a much more entertaining version of my negative comments about this game, check out the Zero Punctuation review.  In typical Zero Punctuation style, he doesn't really say anything nice about the game, like how well-done the combat is.  But he's a lot funnier than I am.

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