Earlier tonight I wrote a love letter to one of my favorite gaming publishers. I love Atlus not so much for the games they produce, but for the risks they are willing to take. Whereas EA and Activision constantly return to the same tried and true formulas when releasing games, Atlus is willing to experiment, and in doing so have created a catalog of releases that is simultaneously thrilling and baffling.
Just when you think you have the company pegged as "that group that releases quirky Japanese games" they swerve left and send me something unexpected. Something like Demon's Souls.
Demon's Souls is so unexpected because it's completely unlike anything I've seen from the company, ever. This game has no similarity to the stylized Japan of the Persona series or the whimsical platforming of Hammerin' Harry. Demon's Souls is, for all intents and purposes, pure Western-style high fantasy. Think: Dungeons & Dragons, Boris Vallejo paintings and Conan The Barbarian.
Games that ape the general Western fantasy motif are a dime a dozen — I can think of five released just this year — but in true Atlus fashion, Demon's Souls is full of surprising quirks.
First, this game looks stunning. Actually, scratch that. The game looks stunning.
It may be full of rundown castles and dank dungeons, but they're all rendered in such exacting detail that you'll stare in awe at both the game's dark catacombs and it's gigantic, flying dragons (who, by the way, look genuinely menacing). Red dragons have been done to death, but the first time you see one of DS' mangled flying beasts tear a chunk out of a causeway you have to walk across you'll piss inside your ill-fitting tunic like Elijah Wood staring down a Balrog.
Second, this game is not a massively multiplayer online title, but it uses the PlayStation 3's online capabilities in some really inventive ways. You aren't merely a single adventurer up against hordes of enemies, instead you populate the game world alongside all its other players.
You won't see groups of elves dancing like idiots in front of a pack of gnolls, but as you adventure through the world of Boletaria you come across messages scrawled on the walls by previous adventurers. Since the messaging system is rudimentary, players are almost forced into leaving helpful hints, which range from warnings about upcoming traps to warnings about upcoming enemy ambushes. It's a small touch, but it helps the world feel much more dynamic than your average dungeon crawl.
Along those same lines are the bloodstains you'll see splattered across the landscape. When you find one you can watch the history of whoever left that stain, specifically the last few moments of their life and how they died. Ghoulish, yes, but it's neat to watch other people fail — particularly when it offers you a hint at how to best survive whatever ordeal left them decapitated.
Alternately, if you find a bloodstain you recently left you're given the chance to recoup all the stuff you lost when that mean old skeleton smashed your face in.
It should also be mentioned that DS allows you to team up with two friends to take on the demonic hordes via pretty lag-free online play. Nothing makes a game more entertaining than having pals to explore it with and that goes double for a game like DS. In practice it's closer to playing a co-operative online shooter than all those nights you spent with pals around a card table rolling 20-sided die and arguing about how many hitpoints a Githyanki assassin should have, but it's definitely a useful addition.
Like the game's online options, combat is equally inventive, with each character class and even each weapon style offering vastly different ways to kill things. I have always preferred to dispatch foes with as little ruckus as possible (I'm a very polite neighbor, you see), so while I hate the ponderousness of swinging a huge broadsword, sprinting up to a foe, ducking behind him and stabbing him in the spine with a dagger makes me smile every damn time.
Your enemies aren't entirely defenseless, however. Though you'll often face down hordes of enemies who are dispatched with a few simple button taps, fighting more intelligent foes takes some real planning. Not only can you block attacks, but by using the alternate block button you can parry, riposte and counter attacks. It does take a bit of timing to properly exploit, but once you've learned how to use your weapons and positioning effectively, there are few things more satisfying than killing a strong enemy with a single, well-placed thrust.
That may be DS' greatest strength. Where games like Oblivion were widely lauded for everything but their seemingly tacked on combat systems, DS' battles feel just right. It exhibits a perfect blend of agile movement and visceral shock, and I'd even go so far as to say that DS is the first game to truly do third-person melee combat right. Future developers should be taking notes.
Once you've killed a few enemies you start to accrue Souls, which are essentially the game's currency. When you aren't out in the field you can use these Souls to upgrade your weapons, armor and abilities. Since the entire game is broken into five chunks, each centering on The Nexus, you'll find yourself returning to the same blacksmith just to ensure your gear stays in line with the next set of enemies you and your pals will be squaring off against. It seems like a simple system, and it is. Since the rest of the game is almost daunting in its seeming complexity, it's nice that the process of outfitting your character with a badass arsenal is so streamlined.
Generally when I'm a fan of a game — and I'm unabashedly a fan of DS — I begin reviews with a long list of positives while trying to cram the negatives towards the back. My hope is that if you don't finish the review you at least see what I dug about the game and can make your purchasing decision based on that. This game is no exception, but now that I've arrived at the bit where I'm supposed to bad mouth the game I'm coming up a bit dry.
I could complain that the game is hard — it is. You will die often and brutally, and when you do die you will lose all your hard earned Souls. Hell, the tutorial level doesn't so much end as it pits you against a stupidly huge behemoth who simply smashes you into paste and sends your now incorporeal ass to the depths of The Nexus.
I could also complain that the game's learning curve is steep — it is. I had to play the tutorial three times before I even dared to attempt any of the game's actual content.
I could even complain that the game lacks the sort of epic score one would expect from something with such fantasy roots — it does. Most of your time in Boletaria will be accompanied by creepy breathing noises and ponderous groans.
These are all very minor complaints though. Hardcore fantasy gamers and roleplayers need something to sink their teeth into that won't baby them like so many other Japanese-style roleplaying games. The learning curve is designed to maximize a sense of accomplishment when you do finally beat that glowing bastard in the shiny armor. Sweeping, Lord of the Rings-esque music just wouldn't fit such a dreary, depressing locale as Boletaria. Any other complaints I could half-heartedly imagine are simply nitpicking for the sake of filling space. The Merc doesn't pay me by the word, so I won't bother.
In the end, this is the roleplaying game for gamers who want something other than Final Fantasy. This is a game you and your friends can enjoy together, each feeling like a member of a hardened group of warriors, out to rid the world of an immortal evil. DS will never get the acclaim that a Metal Gear Solid 4 or LittleBigPlanet might, due mainly to its dark subject matter and the fact that it is unapologetically aimed at D&D geeks, but anyone who can tell a Drow from a Drider should most definitely drop the $60 for a copy of Demon's Souls.
Side Note: I should also mention that Atlus is offering a Deluxe edition of Demon's Souls for roughly $10 extra. It includes a 40-page art book and soundtrack CD, and if previous offerings from the company are any indication — did I mention that Atlus has better swag than anyone? — the bonuses will be of much higher quality than the generally shoddy extras other publishers toss in with their titles in an attempt to suck extra cash from your wallet.