Release: Out now (US, Japan), TBA (Europe)
Developer: From Software
The disorientation you feel during the first few hours of Demon’s Souls is unprecedented. It’s not that you’ll be in any doubt about the mission: with a sword in one hand, a shield in the other, and a horde of approaching undead, the challenge is one of gaming’s most familiar. Few, however, will be prepared for the relentless setbacks heaped upon their miserable bones in facing it.
Here, a few metres of gained ground represent giddying triumph. For mollycoddled modern players, whose gaming muscles are atrophied from so many any-comer-mustsucceed titles, Demon’s Souls’ unforgiving mechanics border on abusive. But stick it out, and with acclimatisation comes the realisation that From Software is trying to change the nature of dungeon crawlers, and that its uncompromising vision is nothing short of revolutionary.
Despite the foreboding visuals, all hulking stone castles and impenetrably dark caverns, the game has more in common with Geometry Wars than Lord of the Rings. In this world, failure is inevitable, success won by repeating areas time and again, perfecting technique to level up your real-life skills rather than merely onscreen numbers. It’s not that the game’s necessarily unfair – the monsters you come up against are often no faster or more powerful than you. But every careless move is punished in the extreme, the result being a stiffening of resolve and redoubled commitment to caution. Fools rush in, Demon’s Souls is quick to teach, for fools end up squished under the boot of a 50-foot-tall shining knight.
The need for trepidation is compounded by the game’s ingenious economy. Fallen foes release soul points, the game’s only unit of currency, used to purchase and repair ever-degrading weapons and armour as well as upgrade base character attributes. But die in the field and all soul points are dropped on the spot, recoverable only if you can make it back to the point of death from the level’s start. Dying has the added drawback of turning your character into a ghoul, a weakened state from which you can only recover by defeating one of the game’s colossal bosses or, alternatively, using a rare item.
These punishment systems ensure that life has far greater value than in most games, especially as the incessant autosaving ensures restoring from a back-up is impossible. As such, you inch forward, shield up, knees-a-knocking. Demon’s Souls is the antithesis of the fashionable approach to gaming. It encourages mastery over mere perseverance and every reward is so hard won as to make it almost unattainable. But if gaming’s ultimate appeal lies in the learning and mastering of new skills, then surely the medium’s keenest thrills are to be found in its hardest lessons. For those who flourish under Demon’s Souls’ strict examination, there’s no greater sense of virtual achievement.