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Demon's Souls should really be my nemesis of video games. It's an excruciatingly hard game. Unforgiving. Seemingly vindictive with its level design and psychopathically joyous about letting you plunge hours into a dungeon crawl only to have all of your progress pruned back without a second chance.
It will induce rage quits, controller violence and an urge to hate every counter-intuitive system it possesses until you swear you'll never touch a video game, never mind a RPG ever again. It is, without doubt, the most challenging and difficult game I have ever encountered.
But I love it.
Let me be clear, I'm usually intolerant of games that hinder accessibility and make it hard to progress without having to learn intricate strategies or ninja reflexes. The one aspect of Japanese RPGs that I despise is the inability to save the game anywhere - there's been many a time when I've gone to bed many hours late because I was solely looking for a save point. In this aspect Demon Souls has itself covered - because you can't save anywhere at all.
All this should make me despise Demon's Souls as any but the most hardcore gamer would. But where these faults ruin other games, the challenge of their presence makes Demon's Souls one of the most progressive and rewarding games I've ever experienced.
Demon's Souls turns its harsh mechanics into a fascinating feature that changes the way I look at its world.
It's the embodiment of a video game oxymoron. So much of Demon's Souls is tied up in layers of difficulty that you want to turn it off, but the atmosphere compels you to keep going. This is not just because the world of Boletaria is full of dark and dank places, or that the enemies are a mixture of grotesque zombies and nightmarish creatures. It's the unrelenting feeling of oppression that sucked every part of my life into this game. Even the rare environments which bless you with clear sky and open air, still have a pallor of darkness hanging over them, a sense of bitter despair amongst the ancient stones.
This bubbles up not only from the medieval art-style, but also the gameplay itself. Whereas most modern games lead players by the hand, Demon's Souls contents itself with the most perfunctory of tutorial levels before planting you straight into the world.
I instantly felt uneasy in the safe confines of the Nexus, the hub-world where I could upgrade my equipment and learn about magic and combat systems. Stumbling around like this just made me all the more curious about this strange world and the odd characters that inhabit it.
The game proper is equally as cloying, slowly giving up secrets and designs only after hours of play. All the time you are aware that the weakest enemy can seriously threaten your existence, and you find yourself etching their locations and behaviour into your brain as means of survival. I found wading in with the superhuman ambition of God of War or Viking: Battle of Asguard (which this game is most similar to, in terms of raw gameplay), to be utter suicide.
Even the rare environments which bless you in clear sky and open air, still have a pallor of darkness hanging over them, a sense of bitter despair amongst the ancient stones.
It took me a hand full of failed attempts at the first level before I realised this needed to be played differently. Instead of expecting to waltz through the opening levels and have the strategies of the game explained to me in a digestible form, I had to use each of my attempts as a self-styled tutorial - teaching me the intricacies of the environment and the methods which worked best to advance.
At times this was more a a puzzle game than a fighter - the further I progressed the more pieces of the puzzle I unlocked. Whether it was merely opening a side door to serve as a short cut or memorising the enemy locations, the way through would became shorter with each attempt until I nailed it down to an almost rhythmic level of speed and precision.
Taking on such an awkward and unforgiving game this might sound tiresome or lessen the atmosphere. But these five locations in Boletaria became home to me. Not a very nice or welcoming home, but a place of challenge and meaning nonetheless. It was a familiarity that I created by willingly devoting so much time them made it a special experience.
The pay-off from such involvement comes in the defeat of the Demons. These boss battles are harsh, but accordingly yield a real sense of satisfaction I've rarely found elsewhere. Combining a gruelling run through tough enemies and having enough guile and skill to defeat these demons gave me such a buzz that letting out a triumphant war-cry was the only natural response.
Demon's Souls stands tall within a tired genre. It's dark atmosphere and grim storytelling create a masterpiece that has no equal
Multiplayer is never an aspect of games I talk about. Quite simply because it lacks any soul or heart to its creation. The prime directive for most games is the wholesale slaughter of your opponent. Nothing too complicated or deep about that. But Demon's Souls integrates a system that fosters such a sense of community, in a subtle and anonymous way that makes it worthy of mention. At any point during the game I was able to observe ghosts, battling unseen foes or just running alongside or through me.
There is a tenseness, a clawing feeling of claustrophobia that envelopes the whole experience when I play this game.
I wouldn't see my time with Demon's Souls as fun in the usual sense. This is a game that only rewards those that put in the hard work. Every piece of equipment, every item and every inch of progress was a bloody battle that I had to fight tooth and nail to achieve - making the defeat of a certain enemy or completion of a level so much sweeter.
But because of this, Demon's Souls stands tall within a tired genre. It's dark atmosphere and grim storytelling create a masterpiece that has no equal and gave me my most affecting game experience to date. Standing there unflinching and unwilling to pander to the casual gamer, Demon's Souls was a campaign I couldn't walk away from. It refreshes the RPG genre without clever tricks or overly impressive visuals. It is what it is, a mountain to be conquered.
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