Five RPGs that Break the Rules: Demon’s Souls

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Demon’s Souls has had one hell of a story. The game was originally set to be published by Sony who dropped it because they felt it wasn’t going to sell. It turned into one of the must-have games for the Playstation 3. In fact, Demon’s Souls was the first game I bought for the Playstation 3 from word of mouth alone. And I bought it three months before I actually owned the system.

After the jump, the wonderful world of constant death

Some people see RPGs as interactive stories where the gameplay takes a backseat to the plot. Others feel the gameplay should take center stage. Demon’s Souls’ design is firmly in the latter camp.

From the beginning the game hits the player over the head with a dark and dangerous situation, where their only salvation lies in his skill. Within the first 10 minutes of play, the player is killed and his soul is trapped in a form of purgatory. The only way out is through several gauntlets of pain.

The hook of Demon’s Souls lies in two distinct areas: gameplay and level design. As a game, Demon’s Souls isn’t that complex. There are no combos for the player to learn or additional moves to unlock. Instead the player is presented with his options from the beginning. Success or failure rides on the ability to learn through a trial by fire.

Combat is simple but engaging, given how dangerous the encounters are. Demon’s Souls is one of few games where avoiding or mitigating damage is more important than dealing it out. Due to restrictions of healing items and the player’s own health bar, you can’t just take every hit and shrug it off. The bosses are designed to do major damage with their attacks, but are telegraphed enough to clue the player into dodging.

There is something very elegant with how the weapons were designed each with considerations to attack range, type, and arc of swing. Demon’s Souls is one of the few role playing games I’ve played where you can’t just use a wide sweeping attack in a narrow hallway. As in real life, the weapon gets stuck on the wall.

Demon’s Souls’ design also takes nods from the rogue-like genre with how death plays out. Die in a level and your collected souls (or money) are left on the ground. All normal enemies are revived. Die again before reaching the spot where you died and you lose your souls, which also act as your experience. The rogue-like nature slows the game down and really lets the player take in the world and the challenges.

The level design is one of the best I’ve seen in any game, with every world unique. You can just feel that the level designers combed over every inch of the game space when designing the environments and their distinct challenges. Also well executed are the boss designs, with each one bringing something different to the table to threaten the player. All that challenge and design add up to a game that you just feel like celebrating after beating each stage. That’s a rare feeling these days.

Multiplayer is very subtle, yet in your face. While playing online you can see the ghosts of other players who are in the same place as you but in their own game. Players can invade other people’s games for player vs. player action, or to team up to fight a boss.

In a time where games are striving for more accessibility by making games easier, Demon’s Souls was aimed at people who want a challenge, and it worked. Chances are you have seen people declaring Demon’s Souls spiritual sequel, Dark Souls, as the better of the two. I disagree, but explaining why would turn this entry into a novel. Demon’s Souls still holds up incredibly well and it unique in this generation of consoles.

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Josh Bycer, who posts as jab2565 on the Quarter to Three forums, is a living, breathing game encyclopedia who’s has been playing games since the age of three. As he tries to get his foot into the industry’s door, you can find his writings at his blog, Mind’s Eye, and at Gamasutra.