Monday, 7 March 2016

Demon's Souls - Retrospective Review

Developer: FromSoftware
Publisher: FromSoftware
Platform: PS3

Given the imminent release of Dark Souls 3 next month I thought it'd be a good time to have a look back at the 'Souls series with some retrospectives.

In all honesty Demon's Souls is still arguably the best 'Souls game to date. Many will point to Dark Souls as being the series' peak but, for me, Demon's Souls sums up everything I've loved about this series.

The series as a whole possesses a wonderful unique rhythm that I don't think many other games have managed to achieve. In part, this is perhaps down to that stamina bar. It dictates practically every function in the game, from dodging and blocking, to attacking.

It's the limiting of your actions that makes these games so thrilling to play. You can't just wail on a target until it dies but instead have to play by a simple system of rules.

At its core, 'Souls series is a battle of pattern recognition. Understand the pattern and you can find a response. It's part fighting game, part dancing game. Find an opening, respond, back off, bait the next attack. It makes for an experience that, even if it stripped everything else out, and left nothing more than the rudiments of the combat system, would still be fascinating to play.

Yet, it's all those other elements; the visuals, the art design, the sound and so on, that really make Demon's Souls what it is.

There's a simple bleak weirdness to Demon's Souls that none of the future games have ever managed to quite recapture but have constantly tried to emulate. The lonely feeling of returning to the Nexus, that limbo-like hub world, is strangely enchanting. One of the strengths of the 'Souls series is its ability to force players to carve out comfort from the smallest of successes. What starts as one of the most blank, nondescript environments by the end of the game feels like home.

Of course, a lot of how Demon's Souls functions is down to its level design and here it deviates most significantly from its successors. Each world is self-contained, and each “stage” within each world is itself an isolated game space. There's none of the Metroidvania, moving back and forth across the same environment, you find in Dark Souls. Granted, areas themselves will typically have shortcuts and secrets in them, but the game world itself is not an interlocking puzzle in the same way that the sequel's is.

This has naturally led to Demon's Souls being considered inferior in this regard, with its more basic level/stage map design not having the same quality. I'd argue though that the game's level design, enhances it in many cases, and allows it to do things that the other games in the series have never been able to do quite as well.

For starters, the game is granted much more free to create wildly different locations. Since the zones don't have to logically coexist in the same space, there's a much greater diversity in their appearance. This allows each world in Demon's Souls to vary significantly, both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay.

Take the third world, the Tower of Latria. In contrast to some of the other locations it has its feet firmly in horror rather than fantasy. Your character initially awakens in a jail cell and you're left to scout the prison, inching your way around the area for fear of encountering the prison guards. Its important to note that this area is drastically different to the first level of the game in Boletaria Castle, and many of the other zones. No longer are you a proud knight (or mage, or cleric etc.) charging gloriously into a castle to seek your prize. Instead, you're a tired, frightened inmate hoping that the Cthulhu-faced monstrosities that wander the halls don't catch you.

Gameplay-wise it's almost a complete flip in terms of pacing. Gone are the steady stream of challenging, but usually manageable, enemies that dot the other worlds. Instead the body count is much lower. There's just you, and a handful of adversaries. Only, these prison guards are likely to take you out with one blow if they manage to stun you. The whole experience forces you to play cagey, defensive and in a completely different manner than you're accustomed to.

It was only on my latest playthrough that I twigged what it felt like. It's like playing a stealth game, it might seem obvious in hindsight, but the fact that FromSoftware elicited that kind of response and style of gameplay from a game that's typically not played in that fashion was fascinating.

This kind of variation and undermining expectations is something that extends to the bosses too. More than the sequels, Demon's Souls frequently reflects on the nature of its boss fights and goes about them in different ways. Many of them are puzzles as much as they are traditional boss encounters.

The fight against the Tower Knight initially seems imposing, but it's quickly made much easier when you realize the creature has a literal Achilles Heel that you can hammer away at. Hit it for long enough and the lumbering warrior will collapse, allowing you to hack away at him with wild abandon. Assuming you tackle this guy early on (which is usually encouraged, he's one of the easier fights) it sets up a lesson for the player; changing how you think can drastically alter how you approach a fight.

This is then expanded upon by the developers in subsequent boss battles. The Old Monk, if you pay close attention, is actually blind, and his array of otherwise devastating attacks can be manipulated by sneaking around and generally avoiding making lots of noise. Likewise, the final battle in in the Shrine of Storms pits you against the Storm King, a giant flying manta-ray who can be felled quickly with the Storm Ruler, a sword that can be found in that particular area.

The most ingenious encounter though is against Maiden Astraea, the final boss in the Valley of Defilement. This whole area is FromSoftware at their most wretched; everything poisons you, there's slugs hanging from the ceilings and it's a nightmare to orientate yourself amidst the ramshackle huts and broken bridges. Everything  reeks of corruption and absolute crushing horror along with a frightening sense of loneliness. What's more impressive is that the developers achieve this not through buckets of gore but through lighting, pacing and level design.

The stages themselves are difficult to navigate. The ramshackle wooden huts and dilapidated bridges make for uneasy footholds. The lighting is significantly reduced, darkness creeps in on your character and it can make it genuinely difficult to see which way you should progress ahead. One wrong move and you're likely dead from fall damage, or plunging into a sea of poisonous sludge.

It's Maiden Astraea though, that's the crowing achievement. After slaughtering two horrible bosses, the Leechmonger and the Dirty Colossus, both of which look like they belong perfectly in a place called the Valley of Defilement, the maiden flips this concept completely on its head.

She's not a wretched monster, in fact, she's just some kind of cleric or nun. And, rather than threaten or demean you, she reacts more with a sense of pity or inevitability. She has no interest in fighting; she knows she's almost helpless to resist. Her one line of defence is Garl Vinland, a knight sworn to protect her with his life. Then the music kicks in. Damn, everything about this fight is perfect.

More than any other encounter in the series, Maiden Astraea sums up everything that's great about the 'Souls games. She's both a puzzle, and something to experience from an artistic and thematic standpoint, rather than just another boss to plough through. There's something mournful about being forced to kill the maiden. This isn't a victory, you haven't won anything. As she says at the start, "There's nothing for you to pillage or plunder."

The real gut punch comes when you deliver the killing blow. “Go on, take your precious demon soul” - Astraea is almost a middle finger to those players that see games (and especially the 'Souls games) as nothing more than a dick-measuring contest; a measure of how much of a “hardcore gamer" you are for besting its toughest bosses. She also, in a subtle way, forces the player to confront the idea of constantly seeking more and more power. Astraea is the first real time you're required to question what it is all this power-seeking is in service of, and it's a theme that runs throughout the series as a whole.

It's here where FromSoftware flip the conventional idea of the RPG on its head. More than any other video game genre, the core tenet of role-playing games is that you're slowing accumulating more and more power. This is especially true of the typically more grindy, number-crunching Japanese variety.

On the surface, Demon's Souls is no different, and in fact its  story, on a basic level, reflects this general RPG principle. You level up repeatedly throughout your adventure (collecting souls) and do so by killing enemies (to get souls) and boss monsters (to get even more souls and progress further). There's a simple reward and feedback loop. It's only at this late stage in your adventure (or not so late, depending on when you choose to encounter her), when the game flips this concept on you and challenges you by asking some rather awkward questions. What are you actually fighting for? What's all this really in service of?

This is expanded upon once you reach the very end of the game and encounter Old King Allant. The initial fight is the kind you'd expect to get at the end of a game, especially one like Demon's Souls that is known for its significant difficulty. It's a tough fight, basic in a way; he's a humanoid character so doesn't possess a bizarre move set. Yet, it's a suitably epic conclusion when we think of video game bosses. It's only once you're victorious that you discover who the actual final boss is.

And he's weak. Pathetically so. The creature writhes around on the floor, helplessly swiping at you in response to your attacks. It's a crippled warrior (the “Old King”) that's slowly mutated into some horrible mass that's now unable to do anything.

That's how you finish Demon's Souls, regardless of which ending you decide to go for. Your final fight is against something that's virtually harmless, pathetic and unable to fight back. In a game defined by its ability to thoroughly maul the player should they refuse to learn its combat system, it's final fight is little more than a pathetic execution, with no skill required.

I'd argue this is FromSoftware trying to get us the players to reflect on how we've played the game up until this point. In short, it's us that risk becoming that horrible slug-monster just like Allant. We've become greedy for souls (in order to level up), desperate to seek bigger and bigger challenges in order to receive greater rewards. It's a subversion of the typical arc of a fantasy RPG.

It also goes against everything that the game is typically built up as by a portion of its fan base. This isn't a game that's about “getting good” - the kind that a selection of somewhat insecure gaming fans see as the vanguard against the growing blight of casual gaming. It's incredibly frustrating to see a large number of players argue that the main appeal of the series is that they're hard. It narrows them down to little more than a novelty gimmick designed to sell more copies, and that's expressly not what Demon's Souls in particular would seem to be about.

Sure, the game demands the player to think for themselves and its deep combat rewards those who have a solid grasp of its mechanics, but I don't think that these are necessarily the focus that Miyazaki and his team were going for. In Demon's Souls, the difficulty is largely incidental product of the combat system, and once you have a grasp on the game's pacing (which, coincidentally, is much slower than the subsequent games), it's surprising how much easier many of the encounters become.

Instead the focus should be placed on the game's attempt to subvert many of our traditional assumptions about RPG conventions. RPGs are a very conservative genre design-wise, and Demon's Souls tries to shine a light on those conventions, and attempt to undermine them, both in terms of its actual gameplay and in terms of its themes and visuals.

Many of its bosses are puzzles rather than roadblocks designed to impede your progress. Its encounters are there for you to ask questions (namely, what the hell is going on most of the time) as they are challenges that must be overcome. In the end, I suppose the game is the one that gets the last laugh. It's us the players that are just like Old King Allant; projecting ourselves as some great and noble warrior, when in reality we're covetous creatures, desperately scrabbling away for more and more power.

Yeah, I think Demon's Souls understands its audience well. Perhaps a little too well.


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