One week after starting to use starred reviews here, I'm not giving out any. Not that the PS3 game Demon's Souls doesn't deserve some number of stars (maybe only one), but because in all fairness I haven't finished the game or come even close. I have however paid full price for it and put in a solid, sometimes grueling six hours of game play. I'm nowhere close to completing enough of it for a review, but I can truthfully and accurately report that I gave the game a reasonable chance and have formed a definite opinion about it. So, this isn't a review. This is a report about how much Demon's Souls annoyed the hell out of me.
The game has its fans (see here for the Metacritic report, note the many perfect 100s), and the game makes no bones about the fact that it's catering to those fans. These gamers are the kind of people who enjoy plenty of pain and frustration with their triumph and accomplishment, gamers who think sometimes games are too easy. Gamers who don't mind doing the same thing over and over and over again, making just a little bit of progress with each attempt. Nothing wrong with liking that kind of thing, and Demon's Souls serves it's constituency well, but I'm not one of those kinds of gamers, nor, I suspect, are most people buying games. Let this then be a warning:
in all likelihood, this is not the game for you.
Demon's Souls takes place in a generic fantasy setting of warriors, magic, dragons, and of course demons. The game's central conceit is that you, a brave hero, are venturing into the evil colorless fog to fight back the tide of demons threatening the world. That's a tall order, and not surprisingly, you die almost immediately (during the tutorial in fact). But that's what this game is about -- death is not an end, it's a source of Groundhog Day-like frustration. You materialize in a kind of mystical hub level where there are portals leading back to various locations (levels). You teleport to the dungeon/castle/level and start to fight your way through to the local demon boss. The combat itself is pretty neat. You use the shoulder buttons to control swings and blocks, and timing is all important. I really did enjoy the moment-to-moment fighting, although the finicky targeting system frustrated me immensely, especially when trying to engage long range foes. Killing an enemy releases soul energy, which serves as both the game's currency and its experience points. You spend souls to upgrade weapons, buy health potions, and improve stats, as is typical in a fantasy RPG.
What isn't typical is how often you die. Death comes fast, and sometimes very cheap. More than once I found myself deep in a level only to have some deadly monster surprise and slay me (a dragon swooping down out of nowhere on a castle rampart springs to mind). In most games death would mean reverting to a checkpoint. In Demon's Souls it means starting back at the beginning of the level, except you lose all the souls you've collected (remember, that's money and XP combined). If you fight your way back to your blood stain, you can retrieve what you lost, but you do have to fight back. Every single enemy you defeated on your way re-spawns along with you. That means doing the same fights over and over and over again, hoping each time you'll make it somewhere to activate a shortcut or very rare spawn point. Since the smallest mistakes often result in evisceration, you'll be replaying those identical encounters (no surprises from this game's AI) constantly. I must've done the first part of the first castle 100 times. For me, that's just not fun. That's hard, boring work.
I finally gave up when I met my second boss, an armored, fire-breathing spider. I had no idea how to hurt it, and used up all my health potions trying. I died of course, and lost all the thousands of souls I'd accumulated getting to him. Thus, no money to buy new potions, which meant going back to an earlier level to grind away at enemies I'd already defeated 100 times before in order to raise some cash and loot. And then I stopped, because really, who needs this crap? In six hours of playing, I had maybe an hour total of fun, and 17% approval just doesn't meet my needs.
OK, lemme pile on a little more. The game's central conceit is clearly aimed at people who enjoy this kind of punishment, and that's great for them. But even they can't like the fact that the game has no pause button. None. You cannot pause the game. You can quit out and it'll remember where you were, but that's not the same thing at all. Also a map would be nice. And an interesting story. And decent voice acting. Sure it looks nice and the fighting is pretty neat. Yes the ability to leave warnings for other players online and see the ghosts of those who've died before you is cool. But for me, I'm done with this game. It'll take harder cores than mine to appreciate its limited charms.