Saturday, July 23, 2011

Demon's Souls Revisted

Demon's Souls is a very unforgiving RPG released on the PS3 back in 2009. It is extremely hardcore and has developed a small but rabid cult following, due mainly to the difficulty and the unique gameplay mechanics. Demon's Souls was created by Japan's FROM Software, the same company that makes the Armored Core giant robot combat games with a heavy RPG emphasis. Come to think of it, those games also have a difficult learning curve as well.

The reason I'm revisiting Demon's Souls is because of the recent interest generated by the announcement of a followup game, Dark Souls, which was shown at this year's E3. This was a surprise to many as the sales of Demon's Souls didn't break any records. It was a sleeper hit. However, this new IP developed a hardcore RPG fanbase, something which Sony needs to differentiate itself from Microsoft's Xbox 360.

The vast majority of people who played Demon's Souls back during its release found the difficulty so high that many just gave up from frustration. You die. A LOT. However, unlike other games, being dead doesn't mean you can't continue playing - you just play under different rules. Getting past the first few hours is really critical to surviving in the game and developing your character.

In fact, you die immediately after meeting your first boss following the short in-game tutorial. This is SUPPOSED to happen, because it brings you to the Nexus, which is sort of your hub for leveling your character, getting your weapons and armor fixed and/or upgraded and also buying necessary supplies.

The in game currency is souls, which is amassed from the enemies you kill. Souls are needed to purchase supplies from the various vendors you find in game. Learning magic spells and miracles will also cost you a lot of souls. However, unlike standard RPGs, you don't gain experience or level up right away during combat. Souls are also used to purchase stat increases and levels from a special NPC character in the Nexus. This makes souls a valuable commodity as you must choose how to use this very limited resource.

The first key to the game is learning how to fight. Frantic button mashing won't help you kill enemies; in fact it will do the exact opposite and get you killed. Unlike most modern day RPGs, Demon's Souls tracks stamina. Every action you take be it running, dodging, attacking or defending uses stamina. If your stamina is used up, even fairly weak monsters can kill you because you can't even lift your shield to defend or move out of the way by dodging.

Managing your stamina is very important, and it regenerates fairly quickly during short periods of inactivity. However, the same rules also apply to your enemies - meaning that after they go through their attacks, they also have short periods of vulnerability due to lowered stamina. Enemies have predictable attack patterns, so after a while you'll learn when to block, when to dodge and when to press the attack.

The other key is learning to block and dodge. Effectively targeting enemies and switching targets is key to blocking and eventually attacking. Also don't be afraid to dodge an attack as some especially strong enemies can drain your stamina from blocking just a few hits. This combat mechanic is quite realistic and provides for a more tactical combat experience. You really have to plan your attacks in order to succeed.

As mentioned before, dying in game doesn't mean you've lost. When you lose your body from death, you revert to soul form. Your hitpoints becomes half of what it is when in body form, but your attacks become a bit more powerful in soul form so you do a bit more damage. Dying in game also causes you to lose all the souls you've collected up to that point and creates a bloodstain. You restart the level you're on from the beginning and if you're able to get back to that bloodstain, you can reclaim the souls. If you die again, a new bloodstain is created and the souls trapped in the previous bloodstain are gone forever.

After entering the Nexus the first time in soul form, you only have one area you can access. You end up fighting in this area in soul form up to your encouter with the first boss in this area. You must defeat this boss in order to unlock a special NPC called The Maiden in Black. She is the one that you can purchase your levels and stat increases by trading in souls that you've collected.

Unlike other RPGs where NPCs critical to the continuation of the game are invulnerable, NPCs in Demon's Souls can be killed. If you kill a merchant or vendor, they will no longer be available to sell you goods. If you kill The Maiden in Black, you won't be able to level up your character. The game may seem rather harsh, but it basically imposes no artificial boundaries. You are free to do whatever you want, but you face the consequences of your actions or decisions, just like in the real world.

To regain your body, you must kill another boss, or have a magic item called Stone of Ephemeral Eyes. The stone can be found in various places in the levels and may be purchased from some vendors. Killing a boss demon will shift the world tendency to white. This makes all the enemies weaker and easier to kill but will provide fewer souls. However, dying in body form in the game will shift the world tendency to black which makes the enemies stronger and provides more souls when killed. Shifting the World Tendency to pure white or pure black will cause special events and NPCs to appear. In offline mode, only your actions will affect the world tendency.

Besides world tendency, there is also character tendency which affects difficulty and also provides extra content in pure white or pure black world tendency. Character tendency can be thought of as alignment or "karma." If you kill friendly NPCs you will move towards black. If you kill black phantoms that appear in the game, you will move towards white. Again special content or abilities are granted at pure white or pure black tendencies.

Character development in Demon's Souls is not limited in any way. You can build a character however you want, with whatever abilities suits your own combat preferences. For example, you could build a barbarian-mage, that has huge strength and stamina for close quarters fighting, but can also hit enemies with ranged magic attacks. If you prefer purely ranged combat, you could build a rogue-mage that can use bows and magic only.

With each level you gain, you are granted one point that you can assign to any of your stats. Each following level requires ever more souls to reach, so you have to choose how to increase your stats wisely to maximize the benefits of your fighting style. Each stat can be increased up to 99 points and you would need to be at level 712 to max out your stats.

You probably won't max out your stats during the first playthrough, so Demon's Souls has a feature called New Game + or NG+ for short. It allows you to use your current character with current stats, tendencies and equipment to play the game over again. However, enemy strength and difficulty scale with your character. NG+ allows you to play through and try different things, such as drastically changing your character and world tendencies, or killing certain NPCs for loot which you didn't do the first time around.

The online component of Demon's Souls is also quite unique and can be fraught with danger. As you connect to the world server, you find that you cannot explicitly alter world tendency. The world tendency in various areas of the game are calculated daily based on the aggregate tendencies of all player worlds online at that time. It is very difficult to have pure white or pure black world tendencies in an online game, so special events and content available in pure white and pure black world tendencies usually won't be available to you. If you want to experience pure black or white tendency worlds, you're best off playing offline by yourself.

As you play the game online you'll notice ghosts of other players in your game. You can't interact with these ghosts but you can observe what they are doing. These ghosts represent other players that are questing in the same area as you in their own instance of the game. You'll also see bloodstains from other players in your game.

Activating a bloodstain left by other players will create a playback event of the last 10 seconds or so of that player's actions prior to their death. Viewing these actions can give you clues or hints at what may be lying in wait for you just around the corner. Areas with lots of bloodstains would indicate an especially tough enemy or boss and could serve as a heads up for you.

You can also read and leave messages for other players in an online game. When you read a comment and you find it helpful, you can recommend it. Recommending a comment will give the player that left it a health boost every time a recommendation is left. Conversely, you can also leave your own message for others, which may lead to health boosts for you while you game.

In online mode, you can invite blue phantoms which are players that have placed a blue stone in different areas of a level. Activating these blue stones will transport that character into your game as a blue phantom. While it is possible to arrange to specifically game with a friend, it isn't easy to do. Usually, you must arrange beforehand where one of you will leave your blue stone. You will want to place it in an out of the way area otherwise you may find it impossible to find your friend. Even then, that doesn't guarantee success. Blue phantoms gain souls while playing with you in co-op mode, which they take back to their own world when they leave or when you dismiss them.

Also, other players can invade your game as a black phantom, and kill you in PvP fashion to gain lots of souls. While you can control to some extent whether you want someone to co-op with you, you can't stop others from invading your world as a black phantom. Phantoms, when they invade, will be chosen from people with a similar level rating as yours. However, given the fact that you may freely develop your character as you see fit, the abilities of these phantoms can and probably will differ quite a bit from your own character.

Invading black phantoms will usually be well balanced fighter magic user classed characters. They can wear out enemies with ranged magic attacks and then move in for the kill using close quarters combat. So while you are free to develop your character any way you like, be aware that unless you have a good defense against this type of character, you will be killed more often than not by invading black phantoms.

You may find that you might want to experiment and play with different online and offline characters to address this issue. As you develop your character you too can use blue and black stones to offer your services to other players or to also invade another players' games to kill them in PvP combat.

Demon's Souls is an incredibly difficult game, especially at the outset. The in game tutorial doesn't do much beyond providing you with the very basics of gameplay before pressing you headlong into an unforgiving environment. The instruction manual is useless for the most part. You are better off finding online resources such as the Demon's Souls Wiki or have a read through an online guide, such as this: 1up Demon's Souls Strategy Guide and Walkthrough.

Having said that, if you gave up in frustration before - have a second look. If you've never played the game before, go and pick it up as you should be able to find it cheap. The game offers at least 100-200 hours of gameplay and increases replayability with NG+ mode. Unique offline and online modes round out the interesting mechanics. Demon's Souls can be an incredibly gratifying game as you feel a very real sense of achievement as you slowly progress through the game. With a bit of persistence and perseverence, this may become one of your all time favorite modern RPGs.


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