Pause-Resume: Demon’s Souls

WWWELCOOOOOOME

WWWELCOOOOOOME

Pause-Resume revisits all those games I stopped playing, and whether it’s worth the second run.

At first, I hesitated going back.

I remember the last time I fired up Demon’s Souls. I tore off the shrink wrapping and thought about how well the game was received. The adjectives used in the reviews lingered on my thoughts. Brutal. Unforgiving. Humbling. Rewarding.

As the game started up, the music was gloomy and haunting; a sign of things to come. I looked through the list of classes and decided on a Wanderer. My character would be an aimless sell-sword, seeking fame and fortune in the doomed lands of Boletaria.

As with so many other first timers to a Souls game, I stumbled awkwardly through the tutorial, slashing away wildly at enemies and slowly realising that I needed to take a breather between swings to regain my stamina. I took a few hits, and munched on healing items like they were on sale. “This isn’t so bad,” I muttered to myself.

At the end of the tutorial, I was greeted by a Demon called Vanguard: a morbidly obese creature with dull grey skin, tiny wings and a cleaver that could clear the room with a single sweep. I stared at him slack-jawed, in awe of his girth and size that left me with barely any room to breathe, let alone move.

And the kid gloves come off.

And the kid gloves come off.

He wound up and swung his cleaver. Barrels turned into clouds of splinters with a deafening roar. The blade passed through my body like an axe through jelly, and my character stumbled and fell to the floor, health bar draining to zero. The words “YOU DIED” filled the centre of the screen, blood-red.

“…alllllrighty, then,” I said out loud as I was transported to the Nexus, the central hub and sanctuary of the game.

*

Demons Souls is notorious for its steep learning curve. There are barely any tips or tricks other than the handful of core gameplay mechanics offered at the start of the game. The game doesn’t hold your hand, nor does it sympathise with your plight. NPCs will simply tell you what services they can offer you, and it’s up to you to figure out the rest.

Enemies do not simply chip away at your health; rather, they drain your stamina before carving huge chunks of life away. Some enemies swarm you to the point where you misstep and fall off a platform to your death. The key to success on a first playthrough is caution and keeping your guard up. Recklessness and a cocksure attitude will earn you nothing but a sword in your guts.

Progression in the game focuses primarily on Souls: the currency of the game that also allows you to level up your character. Souls are acquired by killing enemies. As you purchase more levels for your character using Souls, the cost of doing so increases exponentially.

Having to work harder and farm more souls for higher levels isn’t unreasonable, but there’s a catch. If you die in the game, you drop all of your souls on the ground. If you can fight your way back to the place you died and touch your bloodstain, you can retrieve all your souls and add them to your current pool. However, if you die on the way there, you make a new bloodstain and the old souls are gone. Forever.

Oh...they got you too, huh?

Oh…they got you too, huh?

Dying is not an uncommon occurrence for a novice Demons Souls player. As well as dropping all their souls, dying causes a character to lose their physical body and reincarnate in “soul form”: a state where a player’s health is halved, amongst other effects. Combine this with the threat of losing a Soul stash after too many deaths, and first-time players may find the experience harrowing. They might be angry at the game initially, accusing the enemy of being cheap and unreasonable, but Demons Souls stalwarts all have the same opinion: “Chances are it’s your fault that you died.”

*

The problem I had with my first attempt at Demons Souls was my attachment to my Soul stash. I tend to be perfectionistic in games – if things don’t go perfectly, I’m inclined to load a quick save and start over. That goes completely against the grain of Demons Souls – progress is saved automatically, and any decisions made or losses incurred are essentially permanent.

I still soldiered through the game. It was slow going. I had amassed about 8,000 souls at one point – a fairly respectable number for my low-leveled Wanderer. Of course, I died, dropping them at a point near the edge of a cliff. My heart raced. I didn’t want to waste all those hours grinding out those souls. I tried to slow it down and take my time as I methodically carved a path to my bloodstain. I couldn’t control my haste, though. A knight with red eyes and black armour cut me down at a chokepoint, breaking my guard with ease and cleaving straight through me with a flourish. I collapsed, and formed a new bloodstain. The souls were gone. Hours of work, down the drain.

I don’t normally rage quit, but I could feel my blood pressure steadily increasing. I quietly stood up, ejected the disc, and pressed it back into its case. I suddenly realised that my jaw was hurting from how hard I was clenching it. I decided to “take a break” from Demons Souls. This was a couple of years ago.

*

By the time I decided to start it again, Dark Souls was at the peak of its commercial success. I was tempted to give Demons Souls another go, if only to try and figure out why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have.

This time, I did my research. There was already a wealth of knowledge on the game in the form of walkthroughs and wikis. I read up on the different classes and the potential builds each character was capable of. Unlike other games, Demons Souls does not “lock” you into a set of abilities depending on your starting class: you are free to level any skill you wish, although it’s much more efficient to determine your desired end state and select an appropriate class. I decided to start with a Soldier, and the long reach of his spear combined with the safety of his shield carried me in the early stages of the game. I unashamedly pored over guides for dangerous areas. I analysed upgrade paths and recommended weapons. I dabbled in the use of Magic and Miracles.

Knowledge was power, and from that point on the game opened up.

Well now, this isn't as bad as I thought.

Well now, this isn’t as bad as I thought.

All it took was getting over that initial hurdle, and getting used to the idea of failure. If anything, it was a sign of how I had matured as a person. I had moved on from being intolerant of defeat, and accepted my losses. With every death, I analysed my actions and changed my game plan. Do they stagger after an attack? Do I need to switch to a faster weapon? A ranged weapon? Should I use fire or magic based attacks? Do I need to farm souls to level up my stats so I can hit harder?

Suddenly, I realised how engaging the game was. I was investing precious time into it just so I could have the pleasure of conquering it. I felt capable. I worked hard to develop the tools for my success. I no longer feared the level bosses. I had changed and grown.

Just last night, I finally saved Boletaria in just over 30 hours. I defeated all the bosses, and slayed the corrupted King. When the credits rolled, a smile crept over my lips, and I held a clenched fist in the air. It took me years, but I finally won.

*

Do I still recommend Demons Souls? It depends on your attitude as a gamer. If you’re the kind that is used to easily overwhelming your enemies, or if you’re prone to bouts of gamer rage, Demons Souls is not for you. This game humbles you, strips you down and builds you back up. It presents a world that you must decipher. You need to seek out the weaknesses of your enemies. You need to memorise and navigate the treacherous environments. You need to discover the most effective ways to grow and develop your character so that they have a chance of survival.

Once you do so, you’ll find that there aren’t many games out there that provide the same sense of satisfaction.

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