It took 80 hours and about 2 years of on and off effort, but I finally managed to beat Demon’s Souls. It wasn’t that it was too difficult to finish, i just didn’t have the time to dedicate myself totally to the cause, and Demon’s Souls really needs it. It needs a good 15-20 hour chunk of gaming to make some progress. It’s not a pick up and play game, particularly early on where the game doesn’t really teach you a lot. Once you get deeper into the game it was pretty easy to get back into the swing of things, kinda of like remembering how to ride a bike.
But I knew after the first couple of levels that this was one of those greatest of all time games. A true masterpiece. One of the things I’m interested in are the design decisions facing a game designer. Demon’s Souls was a revolution and really changed the way these type of RPG action games are designed. It has some amazing level design, art direction and sound design, things I really want to talk more about. So therefore this article attempts to break down some of the reasons why Demon’s Souls is one of the best games of all time for me.
Demon’s Souls does a great job in redefining the controls in an action game. Many action games put the action buttons such as punch, kick, attack, strong attack on the face buttons and using the ancillary actions on the shoulder / trigger buttons. While this is a workable solution, Demon’s Souls feels a lot better with the attacks on the shoulder / trigger buttons. More importantly, the right shoulder buttons utilise the weapon in the right hand, and the left shoulder the left weapon (or shield) and this really changes how these type of games are played. It’s now possible to hold up your shield in the left hand while hitting the enemy with the right handed weapon. Now most people would think you could spam hits while hiding behind the shield, but through the clever use of a stamina meter, its not possible to spam hits for long as it runs down the stamina meter and leaves you open for attacks.
On the right stick the R3 button locks on to enemies and cycles through enemies if you flick the stick. It worked well in Zelda, and it works wonderfully (95% of the time) here. Without the lock on, combat becomes pretty archaic and unfun trying to determine where to hit. With the lock on, its a lot more about the timing of the attack and allows the player to focus on combat.
The circle button dodges/rolls/jumps back depending on the context and becomes a massive part of the player’s moves. There is some invulnerability while rolling which makes it really useful to dodge attacks though it’s best used to get in a better position to hit the enemy and really makes the combat exciting and tense.
The triangle button is a fascinating take on two handed weapons as it serves as the toggle between one handed and two handed combat and switches on the fly. While many games had done one or two handed weapons, most of the games required you to switch weapons in the inventory to do this. Demon’s Souls makes it so you decide in the heat of the battle whether to go one or two handed. As my skills and reading of enemy attacks developed, I ended up using this skill a lot to maximise damage on the enemy per hit.
In all, the controls in Demon’s Souls are pretty focussed on combat rather than spell casting and that’s pretty much what I did throughout the game though I did use a fair amount of Soul Arrow, a really powerful starting spell for the Royal class. That’s not discounting the use of spells though because to Demon’s Souls credit it was really simple to switch weapons, talismans, wands on the fly with the d-pad and hit the enemy with a multitude of attacks. That was the beauty of Demon’s Souls, the controls made it a joy to play. I’m sure on another play through of Demon’s Souls that I would love to explore spell casting characters further.
Level Design and Atmosphere
The beauty of Demon’s Souls level design is that there’s not really too much else like it on the market. It only took a few minutes but its easy to see this was not an Elder Scrolls game apart from both being fantasy sword and shield games. For the record I haven’t played much Elder Scrolls really, though I do want to at some point in time. Looking at both games they are two massively different games with different philosophical takes on game design. Both are great in their own right.
In Elder Scrolls, there are hills and valleys, open landscapes, towns and dungeons and a go anywhere, do as you please type adventuring. You get plopped somewhere in the middle of the map and you’re left on your own accord. You can visit the towns, talk to a few people, get some clues as to how to progress the story and find a dungeon to go kill some rats and monsters. Its definitely about searching the landscape and seeing what secrets you can find and one easy to lose many number of hours to.
Demon’s Souls takes the fantasy theme goes in the other direction with its level design. You get to explore, but its mostly linear, its mostly combat too and its all about getting to the boss. Take the first level for example, its set in a castle. The ingenious thing about the level is that it really feels like a castle, except its a horrible twisted version that would be a nightmare to be in. The path twists around, up and down, in and around itself. But the level itself is a linear path except it feels so 3 dimensional because you’re walking up and down stairs, you’re going up towers, you’re walking along the castle wall and see somewhere in the distance that you have been before. Sometimes it will give you a choice such as a crossroads, but it will be binary or maybe threeway and you can explore down the other paths. In general it gives the illusion that its not linear, that its a fully realised world, but it constantly funnels you down a set path and your choice is limited to like a 2D platformer. However with this limited choice and linear take on levels gives it somehow gives it more of a dungeon crawling feel than other games of this genre. By making the level seem linear, it was always about you and the enemy in front of you.
The game also does a great job with the art style which is predominantly a very dark gothic fantasy theme. Take the Tower of Latria level 3-1 for instance, which a great number of players praise for its atmosphere. This level set in a prison is really fleshed out in terms of its level design, with levels upon levels of prison cells, which the player has to make its way around searching all the cells for items, NPCs and clues. The level ends in an massive open area and gothic church, and the prison and church combine really well and says so much about the world of demon’s souls without actually saying anything in words. The whole place exudes a ton of creepiness again a credit to the designers.
Here again Demon’s Souls questions existing design and make changes to further the genre. Many games have combat that leave a lot to be desired. Predominantly combat felt simple and unrewarding, and amounted mostly to a ‘you hit me, I hit you’ system where the strongest character inevitably won in the end. A system like this didn’t really depend on skill but on the character’s stats. Demon’s Souls system rather wants players to learn the skills like a fighting game learning about enemy patterns like the good old days of Space Invaders and Mario. There was still the ability to level up and make the character stronger in Demon’s Souls but it was far more important to be a good player.
The other impressive design choice in relation to battles was the Demon Souls approach where all enemies were strong, even the weak ones. Gone were other game’s grunts where they were far more forgiving. If you swung and miss in Demon’s Souls, you’d get battered and lose half your health or more. The result was brilliant actually, you had to make your swings count which meant learning enemy patterns. Demon’s Souls also expected the player to be realistic. You couldn’t just wade in like Superman or Batman and smash everything to bits from the start. If there were more than one enemy more often than not you had to retreat and take them out one at a time. But with more playing time you could get great at combat, towards 80 hours I was dodging around attacks like Batman, but only because I could read enemy attacks.
If you paid enough attention, and once you got the basics down, Demon’s Souls wasn’t a hard game. Red knights were still difficult towards the end, but they could be taken down pretty comfortably if patient.
The hardest parts were probably the bosses, most of them generally requiring a few goes before working out how to take them down. Some of them were just brutal where you were toast within a matter of moments so it was good to have a hint or two from the online forums and wikis. Though the bosses were not that revolutionary it was good that a video game featured them more as I believe bosses have been a recent decline in gaming, mostly likely due to game designers not wanting them to be stumbling blocks for players.
Death and other Demon’s Souls only mechanics
Much has been written about the death mechanic, so I won’t go repeating what a lot of reviews have said.
Because you lose your souls when you die, I think the best part of the death mechanic is that early on in the game it serves as a message that the souls collected isn’t so important but rather its more important to learn from your mistakes. That’s just wonderful for gamers who just want to grow with the game. Here when you are playing level 1-1 or 1-2 and you’ve collected say 1500, 2000 souls and you die, its not so important, those souls can be easily farmed later. Towards the end, it does get a little tedious especially sitting on say 10,000+ souls and you get hammered by a boss but there’s a time for boss slaying and a time for farming souls.
Demon’s Souls also notoriously doesn’t offer much help in the way of getting the player to grips with game concepts. In fact there’s literally no hand holding at all aside from a brief tutorial teaching the basic combat moves before whisking you away to be mauled to death by the tutorial boss, a battle a newbie is expected to lose.
I love that there’s less help from the developers in game too and that its left to players to leave messages on the ground for other players. I think there have been many games where the tutorials and hand holding just got way too much and made the games harder to get into. I love how Demon’s Souls encourages players to talk about the game and offer other players hints and tips, and its precisely this, that really spread the word on Demon’s Souls.
Even though I finished this game, there was so much still that I was not 100% sure of, things like world tendency events, character tendency events that I hadn’t explored properly. The game had just an endless number of secrets that really made it exciting. Unless you spent days, weeks or months there’s no way you could possibly find out some of the secrets, especially after you read about how difficult some of them are to get.
Even though its one of the greatest games of all time for me, it doesn’t mean that its flawless. I love all aspects of the design except for maybe one and that its TOO much like a monster closet. When you die, all the enemies respawn in exactly the same places and they don’t attack until you get a certain distance from them. I understand perfectly the design decision for this though I don’t completely agree. I guess one of the philosophies of the game is that its important to learn from mistakes, so in this way the game director probably decided to keep enemy placement the same every time. This way, the player could rectify his mistake. Could the game be designed so that, enemy placements were different every time? I think the game could be able to take varying enemy placements and not affect the gameplay. If the player approached each enemy combat situation individually, he or she could still get better and then the game would not be so predictable. I won’t say I disagree with what they’ve chosen, but I did want to point out that there are positives and negatives either way.
Overall Demon’s Souls was a joy to play and a game that spoke to me on many levels. It’s a game that redefines and revolutionises so many aspects of action and RPG games and refreshes games in this genre. It should be played by everyone who loves a good dungeon crawl, who want a challenge and someone who appreciates good design.
Score: 10 nightmares out of 10