Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Death is No Escape: Demon's Souls

There's a long-standing tradition in games that you only get a certain number of chances to fulfill your objective before having to either use a continue (and lose much progress) or start over entirely if you run out of those, too. While this conceit has fallen to the wayside in recent years, games up to and including the PS2-era followed the construct of only allowing a player a certain number of lives, and when the counter hit zero that was it, you had to start the game from the beginning. The advent of automatic save points in every game pushed this aside, to the relief of many a long-time gamer tired of losing all their progress to one super-difficult point. If there was one boon to this system, it was that as your remaining lives ticked lower, you became increasingly cautious and careful, and maybe played the game a little better than you would have otherwise.

When they made Demon's Souls, Atlus decided they'd had quite enough of that bullshit. From now on, if you die, the game gets harder.

"What is that, happiness? That won't do."

Demon's Souls is a game that punishes you for being bad at it. It punishes you for being mediocre at it. If you're good enough to actually make it to a boss, it punishes you for that, too. I've played games that were hard. I've played games where the designers clearly wanted to push you and make you a better player. It's not accurate to say Demon's Souls has a steep learning curve. Demon's Souls is the Chinese-facing side of K2. This game straight up does not want you to win and will do what it has to so as to ensure you lose.

That's not even getting into New Game+.

As you might imagine, this one has been on my Backlog for awhile, and not because I bought it and forgot about it. It's because in any one sitting, I can only take so much humiliating death before the hope is ground out of me and distilled into the fine humors from which Demon's Souls extracts its nutrients. The makers of this game looked at the average number of deaths in Aztec rituals honoring Quetzacoatl and said, "Well there's our baseline." The people who thought up Demon's Souls have less remorse than John Wayne Gacy on mescaline, and are exactly as excited about killing you.

So over the last couple years since its release, I've made several serious efforts at Atlus's opus to difficulty, and each time I've made it just a little bit further, yet have been unable to reach the final boss. As it stands right now, I'm at a point where I've got three stages left uncleared, and if I can conquer them I'll finally have a shot at beating the whole game. Unfortunately, I've hit another bump as I keep dying at the exact same spot over and over again every time. While I deal with that, I figured now would be a pretty good time to examine how I got this far to begin with.

Demon's Souls was practically a day one purchase for me. The hype around it was unbelievable, and the screenshots and teaser videos looked too good to be true. I was intrigued enough to buy it even at a time when paying $60 for a game was a questionable financial decision, it just meant putting a few of my more economically responsible hobbies on hold.

Like off-track betting.

Let me break down my first few attempts at playing the game.

You get a character creator at the beginning, choosing from a range of different jobs, all with their own unique traits. Whenever I'm faced with this, I usually opt for the Warrior. Simple and straightforward, and what they lack in finesse they can make up for with brute -

Oh, I died already.

I won't bore you with all the details of how many heroes' corpses I left rotting in World 1-2, but after a lot of trial and error I settled on the Royal, a class that gets to use magic, which is invaluable, right from the start of the game but can still swing a sword without amputating something.
Demon's Souls is broken into 5 different worlds to explore, each one lousy with more distorted and hideous fiends than a Wal-Mart parking lot. Fewer Three Wolf Moon t-shirts, though. The worlds are further divided into stages, but instead of saying "Boletarian Palace, stage 2" or "Shrine of Storms, stage 3," they're abbreviated to just 1-2, 4-3, and so forth. This makes detailing the exact area where you most recently got stuck a lot easier when you're searching for help online. You can travel to and from each world via the Nexus. Alright, so maybe that's not the right Nexus, but I'm pretty sure that Blacksmith Ed is an older version of Daniel Bryan. At the Nexus, you can cash in souls you've collected for improvements and power ups, drop off equipment in storage, and sometimes activate some story events. As of the time of this writing, I've made my way completely through worlds 2, 3, and 4, but 1 and 5 continue to not give a single fuck what I did before attempting to beat them.

Not on that day, not on any day.

Each world has a tendency, ranging from pure white to pure black. Attaining either "pure" status makes certain events available for you to do, usually involving a reward of unique weapons or armor. Pure white will unlock NPCs who ask you to go find something or kill somebody for them. Pure black will unlock those same NPCs as Black Phantoms, and beating them nets you some other prize. Black Phantoms are the Tyrants of Boletaria. Like the Resident Evil 2 fiends, you don't usually have to kill these guys, but doing so will net you a nice reward and a feeling of satisfaction. On the flip side, they will cut you in half with a single stroke given the slightest motivation.

"You're stepping on my azaleas!"

How do you get world tendency to shift? Killing the final boss of a world will push it into the white, but what if you want to fight those Black Phantoms? Well, you can kill friendly NPCs, or you can die yourself.

You have two "forms" in Demon's Souls; Spirit Form and Body Form. They're practically the same, except Spirit Form's magic is a little stronger, but it has half the HP of Body Form. You can get your body back by defeating a stage's boss or by using a special item, but every time you die while "alive", the world tendency gets a little darker. Well hey, that's just moving one step closer towards unlocking the hidden Black Phantoms, right? Right! It also makes the world harder the next time you go in, so whatever killed you will now be even better at killing you.

"Hey, that last hero got me enough souls to level up!"

Yep, every time the world tendency shifts towards black, enemies all get harder. And that's not even getting into the fact that other players can invade your world and kill you for fun. Because if there's one thing the makers of this game did want you to succeed at, it's mercilessly crushing the hopes of others.

You can make yourself stronger by killing everything you see and collecting their souls, and then returning to the Nexus to trade the souls to a crazy blind lady who then lets you increase your stats. If you die, you lose all your souls and start back at the beginning of whatever stage you were at. No save points, no checkpoints, no anything to save your progress. If you die to the boss of a stage, you don't start outside the door to its room, you have to play through the whole level again. You can get your lost souls back if you make it back to the spot where you died, but if you die again before getting there, the souls are gone for good.

After a few hours of trial and error, I decided to swallow my pride and appeal to GameFAQs for help. It was worth encountering GameFAQs guy, the man who has everything, has done everything, and makes you feel bad for having less, to try and get a leg up on this challenge.

Little did I know my old foe had already been laid low.

"Screw this game, I'm going back to med school."

Instead, the source of information recommended was the Demon's Souls wiki. Some games require a walkthrough. This one needs an encyclopedia.

But there's got to be something that makes this game fun, right?

Well that depends on what you're into.
 Previously I'd discussed how Devil May Cry seemed absurdly difficult at first, the game is actually trying to teach you how to play it as you go along. It challenges you to improve by steadily ramping up the difficulty of each new area and boss. It wants to hurt you, and punish you, and make you regret ever turning on the power button and hitting "New Game," but at the end of the day it still wants you to win. Demon's Souls, on the other hand, just wants to kill your parents and your girlfriend, dishonor your family name, and frame you for a murder you didn't commit. Devil May Cry wants you to bleed from every pore until you knuckle up and punch through eighteen concrete blocks with your face while using each hand to stop a charging bull. Demon's Souls wants to ambush you on your wedding day and murder everything you ever loved.

Devil May Cry is Pai Mei, and Demon's Souls is the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad.

Mid-Boss, World 1-2.

But like The Bride, and every other action hero who had to train under an unforgiving master in order to challenge the ruthless enemy out to kill them, the sense of accomplishment increases exponentially when you succeed in the real world as opposed to in practice. Sure, it was awesome when Daniel-san learned everything Mister Miyagi had to teach him, but the movie wasn't over until he crane kicked the kid from Cobra Kai.

Because honor and discipline are important, but violence gets shit done.

When you beat a stage in Demon's Souls, you let out a breath you didn't realize you were holding in. Your muscles relax and your eyes roll back a little. There might be some fist pumping involved. Depending on how many tries it took you, maybe some tears. A little bit of laughter. If it was a world boss, probably some chest-thumping and a victory lap with a smattering of hurtful, unnecessarily racist slurs thrown out towards the vanquished foe and his next of kin.

Shame on you for thinking that was leading to a sex joke.

Specifically because this game is so difficult, it's worth playing through. All the other challenging games you played through growing up led to this creation. They finally made a game that doesn't care whether or not you beat it - in fact, your only reward for winning is being able to play through again, only everything is three times harder than before. Beating other games is the equivalent of Rocky Balboa throwing his hands in the air on top of the steps. Beating Demon's Souls is Rocky punching out Ivan Drago and ending the Cold War with the power of love, violence, and loving violence.

With all that raw meat and eggs, the real challenge was beating salmonella.

This game isn't for everybody. I'm still not sure it's even for me, but the sense of accomplishment you get when you beat the Maneaters
or the Flame Lurker, or take down the Dragon God just doesn't have an equal for me in the realm of gaming. In a world where we have games that let anyone sitting on their living room sofa take the Cincinnati Bengals to the Superbowl, it's easy for us to forget how incredibly gratifying it used to be to make it through a game of Super Mario Bros. or Castlevania. I remember when I was three, my grandparents sent a surprise gift of my very first video game system - the Nintendo. I was only vaguely aware that video games were a thing at that time (I think one of my older brother's friends had an Atari), and so while my brother made short work of Bowser, I struggled endlessly to beat World 1. To this day I remember my excitement when I finally got the timing right, ran underneath Bowser, and grabbed the ax only to learn my princess was in another castle. In Demon's Souls, I am perpetually 3 years old, striving to grab that ax, and whenever I do I get the same rush that I got back then.

So watch out, Old One. I beat World 6, eventually I'll beat you, too.

Until next time, keep playing.


Kaishi Axon said...

I'm looking forward to future FromSoftware releases on the PC. I'd love to play Dark Souls there, as it looks pretty excellent. The only thing I don't much care for is how very "min-max"-y the -Souls series tends to be: if you try to use two different strategies concurrently, or make a change to your strategy partway through the game, you will likely fail. Since the titles both lack an option to reset your character's point distribution, it can suck.

I hear that as long as you pick 1 thing to do, and absolutely dump into that 1 thing, you can beat the game without too much difficulty. Is that true?

David Pratt said...

I would never go so far as to say anything you do is going to make this game "easy," but it's true that if you focus everything on a particular build and learn to play the game accordingly, you can see some decrease in difficulty - though it somewhat depends on what build you go with, since some stages or bosses will prove much harder with one build versus another.

Kaishi Axon said...


Check this out: looks to me like we've got Dark Souls for the PC coming on April 18th. Oh boy!

EmpathicTempest said...

Demon's Souls, along with Dark Souls, are among my favorite games for the PS3. It's a shame that these games will probably never see any PC porting. I remember how Demon's Souls completely took me by surprise at how interesting the game is. The game is certainly very challenging, but I was hooked on it from start to finish. There are plenty of pvp issues with both games, but eh. I don't pvp much so that doesn't matter a whole lot. I wonder how much better can these games become should the company/developer decide to take a more open world approach (a la Dragon's Dogma).