For those just tuning in, Demon's Souls is an action RPG on the PS3 where you must fight Demons of course. What separates it from other titles is the difficulty curve. In the game the souls of your enemies make up your experience and money, if you die all your souls are dropped onto your death spot and all enemies respawn in the world. If you can make it back there you can reclaim all the souls, but if you die again then all those souls are gone. This is not Diablo where the enemies are mindless grunts, they will attempt to block, counter and swarm you and enemies wielding larger weapons can easily tear through your defenses. A stamina system prevents you from moving like a hyperactive rabbit as attacking, blocking, and evasive moves are tied to it. What makes Demon's Soul so interesting is how they added complexity to a genre known for hack and slashing.
As I mentioned earlier souls count for experience in the game and to level up, you have to make it back to the nexus or hub world alive. Once there you can use them to raise one of your attributes up one point which also raises your "soul level". Each time you level up the cost to upgrade goes up as well. It is a great way of scaling the game, early on having over 1000 souls seems like a lot ; later on you'll fight enemies that will pay off more than that when killed. Increasing your attributes define your play style, there are 3 broad ways to play: Melee, Magic and range. Of course tricky players will try to create hybrid characters.
The design of Demon's Souls that I love is how progression is handled. As I mentioned in a previous entry I view progression along the lines of Time and Skill and DS keeps the balance between the two tight. I would say playing DS it is maybe 55-60 skill, 45-40 time. Here is in my opinion how DS breaks down between the two.
Skill: Every fight in DS early on is life or death as you learn about the game. Learning to maximize on your stamina pool is vital, attempting to keep pressure on an enemy with less than a quarter of stamina left is suicide. Knowing what you can and cannot fight is important, even the best players can rarely take on more than one powerful enemy at a time. There are many attacks and situations where stats or gear won't save you and it all comes down to quick reflexes. As you play through the game your understanding of the enemies and their patterns will increase and that once tough foe will become a cake walk. Chances are you will die when you first meet the dragon, the octopus men and of course the vanguard and that is the point. Death is a learning experience and at some point you will be able to face those threats and defeat them.
Time: Like all RPGS your "deadliness quotient" can be measured in your attributes and gear. Increasing your attributes has two benefits, first is allowing you to create your own custom warrior and second raising your soul level will increase your defense. Enemies who could take you down in one hit early on will barely scratch you after an upgrade. Gear must not only be earned but it also can be improved, weapons and shields can be upgraded with droppable materials. Of course to get these improvements takes time, materials come in three grades with the higher grades harder to find. Throw in a special material that comes in limited amounts per game means that if you want everything you are going to play the game again and again.
Games like DS that straddle that line between time and skill are some of my favorites. You need to have skill to survive in them to get the better toys; while those toys won't replace skill they will make life easier for you. For example in the original X-Com you damn well need tactical skill to keep your squads alive, but skill alone won't save you. Improving the tools you have available is the only way to survive the later fights. Another aspect of DS has to be its multiplayer options which can seem like an oxymoron for such as solitary game.
Multiplayer in DS is based on the form the player is in. In Body form the player has full health and has no modifiers to damage. If the player dies they enter Soul form, where they have less health but get an increase to damage. While in soul form the player can put themselves available to be summoned by Body form players as blue phantoms. As a blue phantom the player can help the player in their game, gaining souls off of defeated enemies but no loot. If the blue phantom survives to and defeats the boss demon they will be revived in body form. For the more malicious players, you can invade another player's game as a black phantom. Here the black phantom's job is to hunt down the player and kill them, gaining their body back and the souls of the player. What is interesting about this is as a black phantom the enemies of the world won't touch you allowing you to use them as a double team. The host player can summon others into their game for backup which I did to take down an invader. Also while playing the game online you can search bloodstains on the ground which will replay the last few seconds of another player's life; chances are I have a few of them around. Besides entering someone's game the final interaction is leaving messages on the ground using generic scripts to create a message. If someone likes your message and recommends it, you recover full health.
Multiplayer in DS while in Body form makes things very interesting; I know that I can pull in backup whenever I need it, but also realize that at anytime someone can come in to make life very painful for me. With all the love I'm gushing over DS, the game is not perfect but I have a problem with my problems and yes I did mean it like that.
I've gotten to the point of playing so many games that I can tell when game mechanics were put there for a reason, or as an arbitrary decision to make up for poor design. DS is one of those games that it feels that the designers went over every inch of the game space to develop the game. Nothing feels like the designers had to cut corners or be lazy in DS. Yes there are parts of the game that are extra hard or long, but the designers wanted it that way. World 5-2 is a gauntlet of pain that is going to give you hell, but once through the designers have a peace offering in a form of a shortcut through the level on repeat visits. Earlier I talked about the 3 main styles of play: Melee, Ranged and magic, in DS there are many fights that are tilted for and against those three styles. Some boss fights are unbelievably tough if you try them with melee, but become inconsequential when using magic. I don't believe the designers did this out of laziness but to force the player to adapt and fight through their character's weakness. With those nitpicks aside I do have one problem with DS that I can't attribute to design decisions but to the style of the genre itself.
DS is a game that is built primarily around the player's skill first with stats and loot a distant second, the problem is that skill can only go so far in keeping player's involved. I've reached my plateau in DS; I know how to beat every enemy, know every pattern and know where all the loot is. The rest of the experience is dealing with grinding for better stats which doesn't interest me. Fighting enemies in a new game + I can beat them the same way, the only difference is that they take longer to kill. My only options for improvement at this point is to grind out the materials I need to upgrade my weapon or farm enough souls to raise my soul level and neither option sounds enticing to me. Even with PVP we are all the same skill wise once you beat the game, the rest comes down to gear and stats. I should rephrase that to mainly stats as there is a limited # of equipment in the game. There is such a thing as the best armor or the best spear weapon in the game and once you have them there aren’t any more carrots left to dangle. No new epic monsters to fight or new places left to explore.
I was telling some friends the other night at some point, someday someone will make a game that combines DS with Diablo and I will cry tears of joy. The worse thing I did though was going from playing DS to Torchlight, I'm running around and thinking "where the hell is my stamina meter for swinging my staff all those times?"