Souls is a franchise that prides itself on its challenge, but can gameplay that is overly difficult and cryptic for the sake of it make for a compelling experience, or just a drudgerous and frustrating one?
From Software has had a hand in the RPG genre longer than most people know, primarily because their earlier forays into the genre were small cult classics at best. First was the King's Field series for the Playstation, a series of first-person RPGs that prided themselves on their minimal storytelling, difficult combat and immersion factor, taking place in a first person perspective and having only the barest minimum of user interfaces and load times. Then there were the Lost Kingdom games on the Gamecube, an equally plot-sparse series had the player battling monsters with spells and summoned monsters activated via collected cards. But by far their best known and most beloved outing in the genre is the Souls franchise, a spiritual successor to King's Field that carries on in much the same vein - deliberately destitute and overly difficult just for the sake of being so. So what makes Souls such a runaway success while From's earlier outings in similar format were generally regarded as lackluster and mediocre at best? Well, there are many differing theories, but as someone who played a couple of From's earlier games in their heyday and found them just as underwhelming as audiences and critics of the era did, I personally think Souls' success boils down to one thing: marketing.
Yes, marketing. Even the most unimpressive of games can be an immortal 10/10 golden amazing classic for the ages if you just pitch it right. Being a successful AAA developer is no longer about creating an outstanding game that stands out for its ingenious design and success in execution, but simply hyping every game of yours that comes down the pipe as though playing it a glorious, transcendent experience on par with achieving nirvana. Especially when the biggest publishers out there can leverage any review score they want under threat of pulling their advertising, thereby putting gaming press outlets in the difficult spot of either lying to their readers or losing out on a considerable portion of their revenue. And given the choice between having a greatly reduced income or lying to your face, the overwhelming majority of people are going to choose the latter; hell, I probably would too. (That's why all expenses for RPGreats come solely out of my own pocket!)
It's for that reason that I believe the Souls franchise's popularity ultimately has little to do with its quality and far more to do with its marketeers hyping it up as something infinitely greater and more important than a mere piece of electronic entertainment media, ensuring that any real gamers out there are not just compelled to purchase half a dozen copies, play them constantly and master every nuance of their gameplay to a T, but to say that anyone who doesn't for any reason is a godless heathen who deserves only hatred and harassment. It must be working too, as praise for the series is nearly unanimous among both critics and gamers and it continues to sell copies with estimated figures well into the millions. But as a jaded gamer burned by hype too many times to count and who ignores nearly all game marketing, sales figures and reviews as a result, is there anything beyond the veil to appeal to me? Well, let's take a look and find out.
For a start, I can say that the aesthetics of the game are thoroughly unappealing; environments are almost uniformly gray or pitch black, with only the occasional brown or garish yellow-toned area appearing to break up the monotony (if only slightly). The lack of sound design also doesn't help its case there, with many areas being just a decibel above dead slient. Which would be fine if this game were a stealth-driven one or even placed emphasis on a survival horror element, requiring the player to gauge enemies' locations by subtle sounds and avoid them as part of its strategy. However, that's clearly not what they were going for when they designed Demons' Souls; the game is almost entirely combat driven, with nearly all enemies staying still and perfectly silent until you're well within their attack range. The minimalistic aesthetics, lack of any ongoing narrative and large, mostly empty environments just end up making Demon's Souls' world design feel very empty and more than a bit boring, especially when the game debuted on a system that sold itself on its fifty-gigabyte storage medium and technology that could make games look and feel like big budget Hollywood movies. But don't try to bring that up within earshot of its fans; its developers clearly intended it to be set in a post apocalyptic world, so complaining about the game being dull and empty means you "just don't get it"! And don't you dare think of drawing negative comparisons to other post-apocalyptic games like Shin Megami Tensei, Fallout or Terranigma for having generally better design and plenty of interesting elements to see and interact with in spite of their bleak settings, because that just means... (thumbs through the Book of Knee-jerk Mantras Every Real Gamer Knows By Heart)... you're biased! (Page 19)
Also not helping with my overall investment is the stage design as a whole. Stages as a rule are far too long, stretching on for upwards of thirty minutes, and there are barely any hidden secrets and nary a checkpoint in sight until you defeat a boss, meaning that one death sets you all the way back to the start with nothing to show for your effort. This, paired with the high damage your character takes and the level designers seemingly priding themselves on turning every area into a big game of hide-and-seek with enemies and deathtraps, quickly causes the experience to devolve into a long, tiring ordeal of trial and error. Which only gets more frustrating when taking an innocuous wrong turn somewhere can easily put you face-to-face with high-powered enemies that can eliminate you in one hit, or when you simply have to sprint through an area while pursued by a dragon that can reduce your life bar to nothing unless you begin running between its cycles at the exact right moment, ducking and weaving between monsters and obstacles in the interim with absolutely perfect precision. Only to make it to the end, immediately be bum-rushed by at least four more enemies and probably die instantly. But remember, if you complain about this being boring or unfair in the slightest... you're not a real gamer! (Page 33)
The mediocre stage design would perhaps be a bit more tolerable if the game featured decent combat, as that seems to be the primary feature it sells itself upon. But alas, they even managed to fumble that by making the combat as unintuitive and clumsy as possible. From the slow, deliberate, sweeping swings your character makes to the lock-on system that always seems drawn to the most distant enemy in the area to the fact that you're never told what equipment is better or worse than your current gear to having your attacks stop dead when they hit a wall (a limitation the enemies do not possess), every encounter and design element seems specifically geared to put you at a disadvantage, seemingly just as a cheap way to cover for the fact that you're fighting the same two or three enemy types over and over again in any given stage. The lack of any ability to pause the game only further compounds this, as does the fact that the game's touted online functionality allows other players to enter your game when far above your own level and one-shot you for no real purpose other than a cheap laugh and some free souls. To the best of my knowledge, there is no way to disable this functionality short of completely disabling your system's LAN connection, which also causes the current game session to immediately end and all of your progress to be lost. As for the boss battles... well, I hope you enjoy grinding for hours and hours, because without allocating thousands of souls to your stats and equipment in exactly the right fashion, you'll often enter a boss fight only to get stomped in a handful of seconds, well before you figure out any kind of timing for their attacks or strategy to counteract them. Which means redoing that entire 35-minute trek once again for another shot at it. Isn't that lovely? But again, complaining about this in any way means... you're too stupid to understand Miyazaki's genius and a failure at life and probably have a tiny peepee too, etc etc. (Page 4)
Now, even in spite of all that I've mentioned so far, were the game just reliant on the tried-and-true method of powering up your equipment to even the odds, analyzing enemy patterns and exploiting the openings therein as the path to victory, I could possibly give it a pass; after all, that's what games like Mega Man and Shin Megami Tensei and Bayonetta sell themselves on, and those are some of my favorite games of all time. But what pushes Demons' Souls over the edge and squarely into "insufferable" territory, at least for me, is how bureaucratic it all feels. If you want new equipment, you not only have to farm souls, but you have to collect random drops from enemies, and even then there's really no guarantee that your new gear will be any better than your old one; it could swing slower, drop your defenses into the toilet, or just be plain weak. Once you find a weapon you like, that's only the beginning - now you have to grind even more souls and items to buy upgrades and improve that weapon's level and get it up to snuff so it can carry you through a few more stages. Which quickly devolves into pure frustration as nearly all of the weapons' maximum levels are reliant on seeking out obscure, hidden lizard enemies with no guarantee to spawn, creeping up on them, and killing them before they flee into a corner and bury themselves, not to be seen again for several in-game hours. Some items can also only be found when a particular world's tendency is "light" or "dark" enough, which involves completing certain quests or defeating invading players while avoiding dying at all, with the game providing no clear indication as to what a stage's current Tendency is. And of course, you'd better make sure not to skip the shopkeepers' text or absentmindedly nudge the stick slightly too far in the wrong direction while you're in a dialog with them, lest they become righteously offended and shut down any chance of you ever using their services again for the rest of the game. Powering up in Demon's Souls is frustrating, tedious and just plain unfair in many respects, and when it's such an integral part of the game and the genre as a whole, that's pretty much unforgivable.
In the end, Demon's Souls, the franchise it spun off from, and the sequels it continues to spawn all seemingly take pride in how dated and clumsy their design is, emphasizing rote memorization and grinding, obscure and unintuitive mechanics, nonsensical puzzles, and questionable design decisions on the whole. All so they can claim that their product is an experience crafted for only the "exceptional gamer" to enjoy and that those who complete it are the "elite few", regardless of how many tens of thousands of people have actually bought into their ploy and played it from start to finish. For those wise to the power of aggressive marketing, though, Demon's Souls is an obtuse and arduous affair whose only appeal lies not with those who consider themselves "gamers" or "RPG fans" of any skill level, but with those who feel they have something to prove about themselves by drudging through it.
Developer: From Software
Platform: Playstation 3
Recommended version: N/A
Tags: Action RPG, Fantasy, Customizable Characters, Collection-Fest, Crafting System, Multiple Story Paths, Grindfest, Extreme Difficulty, Fake Difficulty, Automatic Saves, Long Campaign
Review by spoonshiro © 2016