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Analysis: The Game Design 'Heaviness' Of  Demon's Souls
Analysis: The Game Design 'Heaviness' Of Demon's Souls
September 17, 2009 | By Quintin Smith

September 17, 2009 | By Quintin Smith
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[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.

Demon1.jpgDemon'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.

Demon2.jpgThis 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.

Demon3.jpgAs 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.

Demon4.jpgIt 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.

Underground Wires

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.

Demon5.jpgAll 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.]


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Comments


Tom Newman
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I pre-ordered this a while ago, and this article only heightens my anticipation! VERY excited about this title.

Salim Larochelle
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Couldn't wait for the US release, I ordered the asian version (which is in english btw) and finished it in one week. This is truly a masterpiece for both action RPG fans and survival horror fans.

Shaun Greene
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Might have to go pick me up one of them fancy PS3 slims...

A K
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I just created an account to make this comment. Thank you very much for writing this, because it's so rare to read an article of such quality on Gamasutra! You also deserve praise for writing almost 3000 words without once using any of those trendy non-words that usually litter most design-related articles. I'll be on the lookout for more from you :)



"[...] the best game I can remember playing in years."

This is exactly how I felt, too. It is not only the best game on the PS3. I think it is the best game of the "current generation".



And I feel frustrated in a similar way as you described. For a start, this game should be big, everybody should be talking about it, but it is nearly invisible. Certainly that has to do with its availability -- but why was it impossible to release it in the west from the get-go? It's sad that nobody wanted to publish it worldwide, and even with Atlus stepping into the breach, an European release is not in sight. At least From Software knew what they were doing and made the Asian (non-Japanese) version as welcoming to grey importers as possible. (Also: Hooray for the only console without region-lock!)

The other source of frustration is that there are no other (current-gen) games I can think of that get even close to the purity and magnificence of Demon's Souls. I say this both as a gamer, because I want to play more of this, and as a developer because it seems unlikely that I will ever work on something as great as this. Even From Software itself doesn't seem to be able to consistently release games of this quality.



Despite my love and reverence for Demon's Souls, there are quite a few things I have to criticise:



-The levelling system can coax one to farm souls instead of trying to push further into the unknown. This is made worse by having at least two extremely profitable farming spots in the game. I understand that without the souls (which are experience points and currency combined), there wouldn't be anything significant to lose when dying. Fortunately Demon's Souls always remains an action game at its heart, since level-ups only slightly augment the character's strength (apart from allowing the efficient use of certain pieces of equipment).



-Spellcasting characters have the tendency to completely bypass melee combat. This is bad because melee combat really is where the game shines. I strongly recommend to pick one of the melee classes in the beginning.



-Some of the boss fights weren't that good. Sometimes a boss only has one or two simple attacks (not even patterns) that get repeated endlessly. A small number of bosses also quite surprisingly was way too easy, while another small batch bordered on being unfair and required some luck.

However, the majority of Demon's Souls boss fights was great. The boss of level 3-3 alone was simply ingenious, even though it might not be evident right away.



-The two optional fights against the dragons were nothing but agonising tests of patience. Once the right position was found, one had to fire hundreds of arrows at them, while they would repeat their one or two fixed attack patterns without hitting the player, until they died. The only good thing here was that the fights weren't mandatory.



-Some levels allowed to open up shortcuts to the bosses, while others didn't. Since opening up a shortcut required that all areas up to that point had to be mastered, I didn't understand why some levels didn't have this kind of checkpoints.



-The World Tendency system is just bizzare and does not really improve the game in any way. I'll try to explain it without going into too much detail: Certain events in the game (such as dying in body form or defeating a boss) shift the level's World Tendency to either black or white, which in turn modifies several aspects of the level (such as changing enemy strength or opening up secret passages). One of the worst effects of this system is that it increases the strength of all enemies in the level after dying in body form. It also is almost impossible to figure out how it exactly works.



-There are some stupid, irreversible errors the game allows one to make. One of them being an NPC who will begin to slowly and silently kill other important NPCs one by one after you rescued him. The NPC can be killed or simply not be rescued to avoid this, but the game barely hints at the danger. Another of those errors is that unique souls dropped by defeated bosses can easily be wasted by consuming them. (Trading them for items or spells being the far better option.) Note that the game constantly auto-saves any status changes, there is no way of going back after events like these.



-Almost all trophies are boring collect-them-up affairs and bring out the worst aspects of the game. To get all trophies, the game must be beaten at least four times (starting a new game while retaining stats and items is possible), and many required items have to be farmed. It really is tedious nonsense, and I should never have put up with that. A speedrun challenge or a low-level challenge would have been much more interesting.



Please don't be put off by these criticisms. It just shows that there still is room for improvement, and I'd like nothing more than seeing a sequel to Demon's Souls. This is a truly amazing game. If you care about (action) games, you owe it to yourself to play it.

Mark Venturelli
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"There are some stupid, irreversible errors the game allows one to make."



This is the heart of the game.

Nathan Fulton
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Hissing fauna, are you the destroyer?

Kris Morness
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I never saw this game coming, but it sounds extremely cool and I'm going to pick it up! Thanks for being so passionate. I particularly like games that defy standard conventions. I remember playing the original King's Field game and it gave me my first dose of "extreme danger when exploring". This game looks like it spent a lot of time perfecting that old model.

Ivan Marguin
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Very good article and I agree with every single aspect of it. I'd add that the game is a lot about making choices too, on the short term or on the long one: using an item to upgrade is a choice that can't be undone (most of the time) and will affect the rest of your experience, same as killing enemies (and the way you kill them can also impact your progression). As mentioned in the article, when you die you leave a blood splatter (a cache where the souls you collected are stashed): the stashed souls are important but focusing on retrieving them can really lead you to making mistakes and ultimately die before collecting them, and thus lose them forever. Or most of the time you actually play with a 1/2 or 3/4 full HP bar. Getting the full bar back also gives you extra pressure and makes you play more defensively because you're afraid to lose this (temporary) advantage. The point is that everything in the GD was meant to keep you under pressure at all times. Every move you make feels important!

michael kjjkjh
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fantastic article!

i've been following this game for months, and had it not been for the usual import sites being consistently void of availablility before the Atlus announcement, i'd have Demon's Souls bursting through my veins right now.

why has it taken so long for someone to perfect the action rpg in such a way? seriously: all of the concepts are simple. and, in all honestly, save some very fresh spins on popular concepts, everything has been done before. this is a genre game. there are millions like it. but it's a game at the very epicenter of that genre. it has penetrated the style, and wormed its way into the very heart of the beast: the shining star in the center of the action/rpg galaxy. its peers are now swirling around it, and, if the action rpgs's future generations are lucky, will be able to stay warm in its glow from things taken and learned from it. it has all of the breath of an MMO, minus the weezing fallbacks. it has intimacy; it has endless poring over consumable items; it has PVP/E; and it has the formula that could appeal to people who wish for more soloablility in MMO's, and people who secretly wish for soloability, but fear that would mean mandating diluted gameplay.



kudos to From Software and the goliath they have crafted with their own hands. if we're lucky, maybe they will consider using the Nexus as a platform for expanding their Boliteria.

Marc Sanders
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This game is a bit of a polarizing title. You'll either really like it, or you really won't. I personally didn't like it. There were a ton of excellent ideas, but the execution was (to me) generally poor. The lost body / gained body was one of those nifty ideas that sucks in practice. If you die, the game reacts by becoming temporarily harder? I understood their concept, but it was a bad implementation.



The best element in the game is the atmosphere. Combine the dark setting with the fact that any little thing can kill you, and you have a game that is much more suspenseful than any "survival horror" title. Those Cthulu rip-off jailers were awesome. The wind chime sound effect in the eerie dungeon... sickeningly cool.



All in all, great ideas, poor execution. The game IS innovative in surprisingly ordinary ways, and hopefully some more people will check it out.

Quintin Smith
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Hi AK! Thanks for the kind words. I really do appreciate them, but please, please avoid bundling spoilers like that in any further comments you make on my articles.



It might be different if the game was even out yet, or didn't have a foundation of player discovery, or if I hadn't visibly gone the distance to avoid spoiling the /tutorial./ C'mon, man! We both know games like this only come along once every few years. Let's help everyone else have the same experience we did. Not everyone is going to consider those things you talked about bad things you should know about in advance.

Thomas Ince
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Good read, except after playing the game, I think the opposite. To me, it's one of the worst RPG's I've ever played.



The game can be fun, but it doesn't explain details about anything, so you screw yourself over constantly, which makes you afraid to test out any limits in the game. For example, if you use a boss soul to gain demon souls then realize you should have saved it, because later on you can use it to buy magic, and can only buy that magic with that demon's soul, so start over or you can never have that spell. Or, if you're a Templar Knight and you spend attribute points on Magic, that you can never use because the guy thinks you're a brute, so he won't teach you magic, if you want to use Magic, start over and create a new character.



Then there's the boring combat. Each weapon gets two attacks, that's it. Throughout the entire game. The entire game is just alternating between L1 and R1, and that's about it. Occasionally you might roll around a little bit, depending on your class you might roll around more, but the actual combat itself is just boring.



You can't sell anything. All these items you get, they are useless to you. When I pick up items, I'm actually frustrated, because I have to waste time now to drop them.



Dieing, and having to re-kill everything you just did, to get back to the point you were, is about the most retarded design decision I've ever seen. This aspect of the game severly hampers the replay value, because chances are, you've already replayed a level at least 10-15 times.



Some levels are really easy, and the bosses are really hard, and other levels are really easy but the bosses are near impossible, especially solo. The level designers for this game should be fired.



The only positive I really have for this game is the graphics, can't really find anything else I enjoy about this game.

Iain Miller
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"Dieing, and having to re-kill everything you just did, to get back to the point you were, is about the most retarded design decision I've ever seen. This aspect of the game severly hampers the replay value, because chances are, you've already replayed a level at least 10-15 times."

Ever play Mario? lol

Kevin OBrien
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@Thomas: I think the very things you find frustrating are what I find brilliant. By creating a world where you cannot easily minimax your character, you are being explicitly encouraged to have an experience where not everything goes as you'd like it to, and where there isn't a button to push to correct mistakes. Not receiving a particular spell or weapon because you made a particular decision is not game-stopping, rather, I think it's part of the design goal.



Dying and replaying isn't a "retarded design decision" -- it's the point. The entire game is about unpleasant consequences for mistakes, which inherently increases the value of success. It's fine if you don't -like- that mechanic, but it doesn't make it stupid, just not your cup of tea. (Have you ever played Angband? If so, what did you think of it?)



For what it's worth: I'm not sure how combat is "boring"; perhaps you've not noticed, but each weapon has numerous attacks (forward + weak/strong attack, back + weak/strong attack, roll + weak/strong attack, run + weak /strong attack, etc.). In addition, you need to carefully watch your opponent, look for an opening, and only attack when he's off balance; if he's huddled behind a shield, you can opt to drop your defense and hold your primary weapon with two hands and batter him down. Alternatively, there are ranged weapons and secondary items that all can be used in combat, such as flaming oil and the throwing knives.

Aaron T
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This is one excellent review!! I am currently playing and LOVING this game. The reasons are all brilliantly communicated in the article above. It's Original, Beautiful, Tough, Rewarding. Demon's Souls has it all. Now I'm off to die another 50 times. All in a day's work!


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