Demon's Souls - hands-on

Developed exclusively for the PS3,  Demon's Souls may look like an everyday JRPG. It’s got all the trappings of the typical third-person, real-time fantasy romp with the swords, dragons, stat porn, and a brutal difficulty level framed with particularly pretty visuals. But as with most games published by Atlus, Demon’s Souls sports an interesting twist that promises to set it apart from the glut of run-of-the-mill RPGs.

Think of Demon’s Souls as a well-tread summer camp obstacle course: everyone is heading along the same linear path, encountering the same obstacles, helping (or hindering) their fellow campers as they soldier along. You’re going to be pretty miserable if you take on the hordes of enemies and super-powered bosses alone – bosses have huge health bars and tons of minions at their disposal, and we’ve been told that numerous one-hit-kill death traps can be found throughout the later levels. Trust us. You’ll need all the help you can get.

But help is on the way, since nearly everything in Demon’s Souls has been designed with the online community in mind. While navigating your game world, you’ll frequently catch glimpses of ghostly figures (“Souls”) running along similar paths to yours. These aren’t pre-rendered NPCs; rather, they’re other players going through their games in real-time. You can watch as they fight the same baddies you fight, and even get tips from them on what to avoid as you watch them fall prey to the game’s many deadly traps. Additionally, every player is encouraged to leave little notes for the community to read, such as “watch out for the dragon here” or “break this crate for a good item” and so on – the ground in each stage is littered with such notes. You can even rate other people’s messages and the message’s author will receive a small heath boost in his/her game as a reward, which is a neat little touch. During our time with the game, we came across a number of messages from other players simply stating “I’m low on health, please give me a good rating!” Ha, ha… no.

Everyone in Demon’s Souls is encouraged to play nice throughout the main quest: you can pull other players into your game by summoning their souls and work with them to take down the baddies as a team. As with messages, you rate your teammates at the end of a round – and you’ll be able to see a player’s reputation before bringing him/her into your game. It sounds like a nice system to help you avoid grouping with jerks. Having players of many different classes is a good strategy, as not every character will be skilled in areas such as long-range attacks or magic. It won’t make the game easy by any means, but working as a team will make otherwise infuriating bosses much more manageable.

But what good would summer camp be without some good old-fashioned bullying? We’ve neglected to talk about PvP fighting up until now because we’re not sure how it will make (or break) Demon’s Souls. If you die during a quest, you become a Soul Body, a ghostly version of yourself that still has the ability to progress through a level, albeit with much less health. After a few missions, however, you’ll get an item that allows you as a Soul Body to essentially break into other people’s games and attack other players. If as a Soul Body you successfully defeat another player in PvP combat, you get to return to your body with no loss in XP. But if you die as a Soul Body though, you lose all the XP you’ve amassed since the last checkpoint. Griefing other players sounds like a fiendishly fun feature; it’ll be nice to take out your anger on the next player that comes along after a frustrating death. Still, getting ganked by an overpowered bully at the wrong time might just ruin the experience.

Thankfully, there are safeguards on this Soul Body system to prevent these sorts of abuses. You’ll only be able to break into the games of players of a similar level, and mischievous Soul Bodies will face a significant handicap due to their smaller health bars. If we know our griefers, someone will find a way around these limitations, but all worries aside, we’re psyched about the system. Despite its challenging difficulty, we’re looking forward to Demon’s Souls. If nothing else, it’ll help us relive our summer camp days.

Jul 21, 2009