Sunday, October 11, 2009

First Impressions of Demon's Souls

[This isn't a full review. This game is definitely going to take me a while to finish. So I'm going to review it in stages.]

If you have a PS3, and crawled out from under your rock at least a week ago, you've heard about Demon's Souls. It's an action RPG developed by From Software (who also did Armored Core: for Answer).

This game's main claim to fame is that it's hard. Oldschool hard. Battletoads, Contra hard. A lot has been said about this already, so I'll just link you to my favorite analysis from gamasutra. Go ahead and read that link, because I'm not going to bother to explain the mechanics of the game when it's already been done so well. I'll wait for you.

Finished? Great. My impressions of this game after about three hours of play:

The difficulty is not the kind I was expecting. The game doesn't demand that you have ridiculous reflexes; it just demands that you take it seriously. This isn't WoW, and you don't advance by charging into battle mashing buttons. You do advance by carefully inching forward, fighting one guy at a time, choosing the right weapon for the battle, and listening to the wisdom of previous players. For me, this is refreshing, since it's how I play games anyway. It's a game that requires patience above all things; so it doesn't surprise me that the pro reviewers with deadlines, and 14 year olds with ADD, find this game punishingly difficult.

Combat hurts. I physically wince every time somebody hits me. Each sword strike means using a scarce healing item at least, and losing hours of gameplay at most. For instance, I'm writing this right now because some sort of huge spider boss killed me within about ten seconds of entering its room. This was after I spent an hour working my way to its lair. I'd need to spend at least ten or fifteen minutes, and fight several formidable foes, in order to try again. Doing a little writeup sounded far less stressful.

Because believe you me, the game is stressful. Each corner I turn, shield raised, causes a little heart palpitation. Each new enemy, anxiety. Each fight, terror. Each death, despair.

And it should be stressful. The whole point of an RPG is to get into the head of a character, and this is the very first computer RPG to get me to do that--and it's done it in just a couple hours.

I mean, if I handed you a rapier and a buckler, and told you to go through that door and kill an eighty foot spider... wouldn't you be scared? Wouldn't you give me the finger as you made haste for less hazardous environs? That's pretty much how I feel about that spider boss at the moment.

Some things annoy me.

There's no pause. Press start, and you get a menu overlayed on top of the live game. I found this out at an inopportune moment. It's acceptable, overall, since quitting and returning drops you back into the same spot with the same game state. And it definitely adds to the immersion, since you're never safe unless you're actually safe. But it's still inconvenient if, say, somebody comes to the door or the cats are fighting.

Weapons are scarce. Enemies don't drop them. There is no equivalent to chests or boxes, so you don't find weapons littered about. The merchants I've found so far don't even sell the starting weapons for all the classes. This sucks, since I want a spear, and can't find one. In a game so intent on making me feel like I'm really crawling a dungeon, why can't I pick over the equipment of my vanquished foes?

If your network connection hiccups, the game automatically quits. You can start it right back up, but it's really damn annoying.

The vocabulary of messages you leave for other players is only barely acceptable. Most dangers can be indicated. But it's impossible or difficult to convey any sort of tactic or strategy. There is no vocabulary for: "the AI pathfinding doesn't know to walk around the railing, so trap him in the corner and pummel him."

On the other hand, and I never thought I'd say this, I'm totally thrilled that there's absolutely no story to speak of. I mean, there's a setup and backstory for the world. But there's no developing plot. I never feel the need to rush, since the thing I'm enjoying is the thing I'm already doing.

And before you think the lack of a story is a bad thing, really think about it. The point of playing Contra is to play the game. The game itself is fun, from the first level all the way through the end (that I never reached). If Contra inserted a MGS4-length cutscene after each level, you'd merely view the levels as barriers to seeing the next piece of your movie. Like a soap opera fan forced to solve differential equations before being allowed to see the next installment of All My Children.

But without even a shred of a story, Demon's Souls allows me to savor the gameplay. Your experience of the gameplay becomes the story. For the first time since I played Dungeons and Dragons, I really feel like an RPG is about me.

You wanna know what happens in Demon's Souls?

Lemme tell you about this time I killed like five of these really tough orc things, at the same time, by herding them into a lava pit with my halberd...

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