[In this game design analysis, writer Quintin Smith profiles Demon's Souls, From Software's stealth sequel to the King's Field games, a "wrecking ball" of secrets and surprises -- and why it's such an important title.]
Demon's Souls is a hack and slash dungeon crawler for the PS3 and the best game I can remember playing in years. It might seem in the following paragraphs that I'm laying it on a bit thick, but I'm honestly trying not to. Talking about this game is like using a salt shaker that someone's loosened the top of as a gag.
The boxart's a good starting point that gets across From Software's thinking, so take a look at it. Specifically, look at how its purpose isn't to make the game inside seem fun. No sir. Instead it's throwing down a gauntlet, 80's style.
The knight on the cover doesn't look dead- it's worse, and better, and more mysterious and intriguing than that. The lack of wounds means he's just slumped against the wall in exhaustion or misery. The boxart is making the game out to be a rabbit hole, an adventure in the literal sense as opposed to the industry buzzword.
Then you actually play the game, and it backs up this hint with the force of a wrecking ball. Following a very cursory tutorial that closes by pulling the rug out from under you, you find yourself in a world of secrets and surprises that's been built from the ground up to keep you guessing and gripped.
You find the game rewards every ounce of effort, time and energy you invest in it, and you realize you've found something scarier than most commercial horror games, more exciting than the big action releases and boasting a more absorbing world than most RPGs could dream of.
She's A Rejecter
Demon's Souls is a heavy game, which is to say it's all about weight. The emotional weight your character carries having been separated from his soul. The weight of your decisions, which can and do kill you. The weight of fear, panic and the unknown. The weight of your equipment and loot, which sometimes has you wincing with each extra pound. And the weight of the constant combat, which pays enough attention to heft and tactility to make you think best the close-quarter fighting games of the past were doing it wrong.
Demon's Souls' combat has been built around the concept of exhaustion. Just underneath your health is a stamina bar which drops like a stone when you sprint, attack, dodge or block. Try to block a blow without the stamina to soak it all up and you'll take some of the damage, have your shield or weapon knocked wide and go staggering backwards.
Likewise, if you're stronger than an enemy and have the stamina then they'll bounce off your shield and leave themselves open. Try an evasive roll when you don't have the stamina and your character will fling themselves to the floor with a crash instead.
Getting good hits in isn't just about watching your enemy, it's about making sure you've got the puff in your lungs to hit hard, and true. Sometimes giving an enemy a fierce shove instead of hitting them is your best bet, since it can buy you the time to stop, breathe, swing your weapon back and then bring it down in a proper blow.
Aside from being a fresh idea, this makes fighting enemies which are very strong, big or fast completely terrifying. There's a genuine sense of cowering behind your shield and an urgency to stay out of the way of hits that has you sucking air in through your teeth with each successful dodge.
But the benefit of From Software taking pains to make Demon's Souls a tactile game extends beyond the combat. In making the way your character moves and fights feel so real, they're increasing your immersion in this world they've made. That ends up being much appreciated, because the world they've built is phenomenal.
This is what separates the good dungeon crawler from the great one- an understanding that the crawling, the exploration of an unknown space, is half the game. In Demon's Souls pushing through the kingdom of Boletaria is nothing short of a total joy. The art design, level design and sheer imagination of the team make every new section an expectation-shattering treat, the only constant the idea of a once-majestic kingdom corrupted by demons.
You actually muscle through five separate dungeons simultaneously over the course of the game, accessing them from a lonely and grand central hub that gradually fills with the few lost folk you can save. Your first stop, Boletaria Palace, is a foggy and maximalist interpretation of a medieval castle where the old palace guard and the enormous dragons that feed on them are your opponents. Stonefang Tunnel is entirely subterranean, but even it manages to distance itself from all the usual dungeon crawling tropes with an orange colour palette and a Journey To The Centre of the Earth vibe.
Then there's the Tower of Latria, an impossible structure of spiraling and spiked masonry that's half fairytale and half nightmare, and the Shrine of Storms, a weatherbeaten temple where huge flying manta-ray creatures prowl the skies constantly. Finally there's the Valley of Defilement. Oh, man. Once a proud jewel of a city, it's now a terrible vision of sickness. I don't want to spoil it, but outside a Wii I didn't expect to play anything this generation that'd make me wish High Definition didn't exist.
Having five distinct areas you can swap between every time you feel like a change is nice, but there's another idea at work here. As a dungeon crawler it shouldn't come as any surprise that progressing through Demon's Souls has you gaining stat points and finding new gear, but the twist is that pushing deeper into each area you'll find they all have a tendency to get tougher at maybe four times the speed you do.
That means exploration is always darkened by the knowledge that you're walking blindly into the jaws of death. Sooner or later you're going to come up against a trap, enemy or some horrid entity that /will/ murder you. Unless, of course, you turn back. This isn't entirely new, what with everything from Etrian Odyssey to Angband doing the same thing, but in those games the solution was to grind areas you'd already explored.
That's something Demon's Souls never asks of you, though you'll probably do it anyway once you start lusting after a certain item. Instead in Demon's Souls you just swap to one of the other five dungeons and battle your way through even more fresh territory, right up until you come up against another wall.
Course, this doesn't change the fact that Demon's Souls is still a game which points you in the direction of certain death and tells you to walk. It also boasts side-paths guarded by stationary enemies triple your level, obvious traps that goad you into triggering them, treasure that glints on the far side of pits that are a touch too big to jump and so on. There's no denying the game is rattlesnake-mean, but then so are the best dungeon-crawlers. Where on Earth is the excitement in exploring the unknown if you know you're safe?
The only thing that matters here is that the trepidation that builds inside you when you're in unexplored territory is fierce enough to keep you safe. The artistry From Software have deployed here is in creating a world that's consistently lethal and foreboding enough to build fear, immersion, excitement and great caution in the player, but not so dangerous as the same caution won't be enough to keep them safe nine times out of ten.
That said, let's talk about the meanest trick Demon's Souls has. Let's talk about the souls themselves.
With Soul Power
I haven't talked much about the plot of Demon's Souls, but it goes like this: A deep, black fog is slowly spreading over the world, swallowing whole regions. It's believed that slaying the monster at the centre of the fog will stop it, but nobody who has entered the fog has ever returned. Nobody even knows what the monster looks like. Your character (choice of one of ten different classes) enters the fog and, surprise, is promptly slaughtered by the demons inside it who hunger for tasty souls.
As a freshly lost soul, you can strengthen yourself by killing demons and returning to the hub with enough of their corrupt demon souls. This is the game. However, if you're killed (uh, again) then all the unspent souls you were carrying are left exactly where you died and you're thrown back to the last hub portal you found.
Only one soul-cache like this can ever exist, so if you die on the treacherous hike back to your corpse-cache those souls are lost forever when the new cache is created. In summary, as you push through an area it's not just progress but experience points which are at stake.
I'm going to save my defense of this mechanic until after I've talked about your body. By which I don't mean your real-life body, as it wouldn't really be my place to speak. I'm sure your body is lovely, though. Boys, nobody's even noticed those blackheads. Girls, the baby hair just beneath your bellybutton is cute. Relax.
Bodies in Demon's Souls: Killing the few really big boss demons or using rare items which exist in finite number will get your character's physical body back. The difference between your physical form and soul form is simple- you stop glowing and your health is doubled. This is a Big Deal. Die, and your body is lost to the fog once more.
The potential loss of body and soul in Demon's Souls are design decisions worth studying because they deliberately punish the player for death, something big Western developers now try to erase completely from their games, and yet it works, implying we're missing a trick.
The tension and excitement that comes from forging into dangerous areas is magnified and elevated by the knowledge that you have something to lose beyond having to replay a tiny scrap of the level. Walking into the lair of a new boss demon becomes as petrifying as "walking into the lair of a new boss demon" sounds like it should be.
I remember reading in an issue of PC Gamer UK the idea that Thief would have only been half as scary without the prospect of mammoth loading times after each death. Makes you wonder, no?
Finally, let's talk about something else Demon's Souls does that goes against Western game design. Let's talk online features.
It doesn't happen often, but occasionally a Japanese developer will create something fascinating by approaching an area long-established in the West with none of the traditional wisdom. Breakdown for the original Xbox, for example, which was Namco's skewed vision of an FPS, or there's Chromehounds for the 360 which earned a cult following by bucking plenty of team-based multiplayer traditions.
Demon's Souls does the same thing with its online functionality. It's the product of a bunch of guys who sat around a table for a very long time and did some thinking without the burden of preconceptions.
First of all, there's player messages. You can choose to leave a message at their feet at any point, choosing from a big list of stock phrases like "You'll get weapon after this", "Strong enemy ahead", "I'm scared", "Real Demon's Souls starts here" and the like. If you're playing online a small random selection of these messages from other 'souls' will appear in your game as unobtrusive scrawls in the ground that you can read with a button press.
If you like them, you can say so with a further button press. If somebody somewhere gives one of your messages the thumbs up, you get a little health back. It's nice. Obviously desperate warnings are totally in keeping with the game's tone, both because of the foreboding inherent within them and because you never know if they're tricks.
The blood splatters are more honest. Die in Demon's Souls and the game will (unnoticeably) record your last few seconds of life and dump it in some other players' games as a blood splatter. If you walk over a splatter in your game and press a button to touch it you can watch that player's ghostly form act out the last moments of their life, which will usually hint at what killed them. Or it won't, which is always deeply unsettling.
The blood splatters are equal parts cool, hilarious and a useful survival tool. Say you round a corner and see a knight with luminous green eyes standing stock still at the end of a long corridor. There's a blood splatter at your feet. You touch it and see a ghost run towards the static knight, take a swing, then turn and start sprinting back up the corridor in terror only to take some kind of blow to the back and die in one hit. You look at your game's knight, still yet to move, and bite your tongue behind your lips. What's your move?
The other half of the online stuff is the black and blue phantoms. Blue first- blue phantoms are Demon Soul's co-op. As long as there's an undefeated boss in the area you're in, through use of an item you can call for aid from a bodiless soul to help defeat it. Other players looking to get their body back can then drop into your game as phantoms, and though they can't speak or interact with your world (unable to flip switches, open doors or pick up any of your loot) they can fight and emote.
A large part of playing as a blue phantom is in guiding your partner through the world and its dangers with body language, and if the two of you manage to defeat the boss together then the phantom player gets his body back and a few souls for his trouble.
Black phantoms are great and terrible. Again, to play as one you use a specific item to drop into another player's world, except this time you're no benevolent spirit and your presence definitely isn't requested. You only ever enter the worlds of players with bodies with the mission of hunting down and killing them.
They don't get to return to the hub until you're defeated, but if you manage to get them nice and dead by besting them in combat, shoving them off a cliff or shivving them in the back as they fight some bigger foe, then you'll get your body back as they lose theirs.
Again, it fits seamlessly within the game world and there's no voice communications of any kind just to make sure. It's simply a clever way to fill a single-player game with more colour by letting other players act as your foe for a bit. There are even items you can equip which cut the chance of black phantoms finding you.
All these ideas spark a frustration in me, actually. What sets this generation of games apart isn't some great technical leap, but the prevalence and ease of online functionality.
Yet no-one's playing with it. We're getting DLC, co-op, new multiplayer modes, more DLC, more co-op and leaderboards, in case you were curious that your recent success ranks you 201,774th in the world. But then here's Demon's Souls, a game that's having real success fumbling in the dark while everybody else is playing it safe.
But that's getting off topic. Anyone with the niggling belief that too many games these days are focus tested into oblivion as every rough edge is smoothed and softened needs to buy this as soon as possible. It plays like an adrenaline spike, and has a very important lesson to teach about what we're losing as so many developers and publishers continue down this path where mass customer satisfaction is the primary concern. Demon's Souls is cold, and hard, and brilliant.
I suppose at the core of all of this is that it's a game that actually feels like it has respect for both you as a player and itself. Not once when you find a new area or enemy does it scream LOOK AT THIS in a cutscene or set-piece. Not once when you die does it apologise, or help you back on your feet. Not once does it let up in its astonishing quality and turn to padding or repetition, and not once do the ideas stop coming.
Although the American version of Demon's Souls isn't out yet the full English-language translation (voice acting and all) already exists in both the Korean and Asian editions which can and should be purchased from many fine import sites. That said, most seem out of stock right now. Picking up the American version on day one of its release on October 6th would also be acceptable. This one is an unquestionable must-buy. Anticipate it, buy it, play it, love it, shout about it and beat it, in that order. You'll be making the world a better place.
[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him either relaxing in Galway, working in London or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]