As strange as it sounds, the dungeon-crawling RPG has really been making a comeback in the past few years. This very basic formula entails a take-no-prisoners format that involves a character (or party) entering a special level where saving is disabled and death means a restart.
Although this sounds pretty harsh, games like Izuna the Unemployed Ninja and Pokémon: Mystery Dungeon have applied the formula to varying degrees and achieved moderate success. However, none of these dungeon-crawlers have really evolved the franchise or pushed it past the Roguelike archetype in any way. This is where Demon’s Souls comes in. This dungeon-crawler does things in a radically different way, and the results are nothing short of extraordinary.
The biggest difference between Demon’s Souls and a traditional Roguelike dungeon-crawler lies in its battle system. Instead of having a traditional grid or turn-based battle system, Demon’s Souls features a completely active, action-oriented battle system. But don’t be fooled, there is still plenty of strategic elements in the title. When you start off the game, you’ll have to choose a class. There are ten classes in total, which include staples like the magician, who can use high-range magic attacks, and the knight, who can wield stronger swords and is most effective in close combat. There are also some new classes, which include the wanderer, who does not have much defense but very high offense, and the royal, who starts off with a very high level of magic but few other natural skills.
Once you pick a class, your journey will start. The game starts off with a tutorial where you will be thrust headlong into battle against some generic demons that don’t seem to fight back very much. The game will give you the gist of the controls through a message system that allows you to read notes on the ground. The game’s control is very complex, and taking your time in the tutorial is key for success in the game. Although you might be tempted to run through the tutorial and get to the meat of the game, don’t – there’s a nasty surprise waiting for you at the end.
After you get past all the brain-dead enemies, the difficulty level goes through the roof and you are confronted with a giant Ogre-looking boss that hurls devastating attacks at you and you will die. Although the boss has a life bar, and it may seem that you can defeat him, you can’t. When you die, you will lose your soul and subsequently be transported to another realm called the Nexus. This is where all warriors go when they die. This area acts as the game’s main hub, and it will be from here that you access all of the game’s dungeons.
However, if you go into these dungeons expecting the same, easily knocked-over foes like the enemies at the beginning, you will be sorely mistaken. Demon’s Souls is by far the hardest dungeon-crawler I have ever played, and it is quite possibly the hardest ever made. Say what you will about Rogue or Shiren the Wanderer, this one bests them all in terms of intensity and difficulty. The game only features five dungeons, and after the first few hours of gameplay, it is easy to see why. To get through a dungeon, you’ll need several things: a strong command of active combat strategy, good equipment, level memorization, and patience – perhaps the latter more than anything.
The combat system, as I have said before, is completely active and almost plays like a traditional action-RPG. Your character will be able to wield several weapons/shields at a time, and each can be controlled using the PS3’s shoulder buttons. In addition to basic weapon functions, you can also parry and assume several other defensive positions by pressing multiple buttons at once. Your character will also have a class specific ability that can be engaged with the touch of a button. However, simply equipping and using the right weapons only comprises a small part of the strategy you’ll need to employ in the game.
The core of the battle system lies in a unique stamina-based element. After every hit, your stamina bar will drop to half or lower, but it will replenish in a matter of seconds. This is important because if you are face-to-face with an enemy, it is natural to want to hammer on the attack button until the enemy has been defeated. However, this will generally not produce very good results for a multitude of reasons. When the stamina bar is low, you can still hit, but your hits will not be very effective. If you try and hit when the stamina bar has been depleted completely, then you run the risk of your attack missing altogether and you will be open to an attack from the enemy. As I found out countless times, just running up to an enemy and attacking with all your might will get you killed in a hurry. Instead, you have to master a strategy where you can balance full-stamina attacks with blocking, parrying, and jumping out of the way in order to maximize each blow’s potential. This battle system is extremely complex, and depending on the enemy, you’ll have to get pretty creative with your strategy. However, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of the game. Though running into battle and losing over and over again is very disheartening, formulating new strategies is a blast and finding one that works is a great feeling.
The second thing you’ll need for success in the game is equipment. Although this sounds like an obvious point, in Demon’s Souls, it’s not so straightforward. When you go into the game’s first dungeon, you will be very ill-equipped, and you won’t be able to get more than 25% of the way through (if you’re lucky) with your current tools. Since this is a dungeon-crawler, character death means that your currency evaporates. So what do you do? Well, you’ll have to grind. And by grind, I mean go through part of the dungeon, and then backtrack to the warp spot, buy equipment, and then do it all again. Although this aspect of the game can get monotonous fast, it does stay true to the dungeon-crawling genre, and also ties in with the next essential component you’ll have to work on: memorization.
The world of Demon’s souls is fraught with life-taking cliffs and booby traps, and death, in many cases, is literally one step away. For this reason, you’ll have to memorize dungeon areas (no map is provided) and successfully guide your character through the game’s danger-filled hallways. As you can see, Demon’s Souls is not your average dungeon-crawler. A lot of work goes into beating each level, and the grinding mechanism, though monotonous, yields the game almost indefinite replay value. As you play you will constantly be challenged to switch up your gameplay, and with each new floor and room comes an ever-increasing challenge.
However, if you need help, Demon’s Souls also includes fairly robust online functionality. You can team up with other players in a special co-op mode that allows you play with two other spectral players with limited powers, or you can steal souls by invading another player’s game. However, even though both of these features are fairly useful, the most interesting online capability is the game’s use of bloodstains and messages. Bloodstains can be found all over the world of Demon’s Souls, and by touching them, you can see how other players have died. A red spectral form of their character avatar will run across the screen, and you can see what happened to cause their demise. This is an excellent tool when you are in dungeons, especially if you want to see if there is a trap ahead. Similarly, players can leave messages on the floor of a level, warning other players about a trap or a particularly dangerous enemy that might be up ahead.
Between its active battle system and its online functionality, there is a whole lot that separates Demon’s Souls from other games in the dungeon-crawling genre, bringing it into the current generation. Though this game is punishingly difficult, if you are a dungeon-crawling fan, you owe it to yourself to check out Demon’s Souls. From Software is definitely ahead of the curve in regards to the future of this genre, and Demon’s Souls proves that everything that is old can indeed be new again.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.7 Graphics
The dungeons are richly detailed, and the environments feature striking color schemes. 4.5 Control
The controls are fairly complex, taking some time to learn. However, once you master them, the amount of strategic choices you can make in battle becomes quite vast. 4.9 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Character voiceovers sound authentic, and music is excellently scored. Make sure to turn the volume all the way up for this one! 4.9 Play Value
The difficulty level will keep you playing and replaying dungeons for hours on end, and the multiplayer capabilities give you extra motivation to stay in the world of Demon’s Souls. 4.7 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.