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Demon's Souls PS3 Review

30/08/2010 Thinking Microcosm Gamer Review
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Demon's Souls PS3

Demon's Souls




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Other GamePeople columnists have reviewed this from their perspective - huh?:
Soulful Gamer (PS3)
Perpetual Gamer (PS3)
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Scared Gamer (PS3)
Dressup Gamer (PS3)
Podcast (PS3)

Demon's Souls contains captivating and atmospheric microcosms. I willingly became absorbed in the harsh fantasy setting - needing to surrender and accept the game's own philosophy, rather than clinging to old expectations, fascinated me. It was a harsh but honest experience, something I'd been unknowingly craving.

I'm a direct and honest person, and Demon's Souls reminded me just how much I appreciate having that reciprocated. Many games tiptoe around, offering frequent hints and rewards and hoping not to offend me. The alternative was refreshing.

As a new warrior passing through the ominous fog into the kingdom of Boletaria I felt powerless. Reaching the Old One at the heart of all the pain and destruction seemed like a mammoth task. But there was something alluring here, and I sought to understand why I felt drawn to such a bleak setting. I love the way powerful miniature worlds like these challenge my ideas and prompt me to question myself, so this was a potent lure for me.

Entering Boletaria means accepting a strange half-existence. Warriors remain trapped, bound to the Nexus hub world and compelled to continue exploring the dangerous levels. A clever balance between open and restrictive environments complements this perfectly. The level designs provide a surprisingly natural flow, while still leading in specific directions.

Finding messages and bloodstains from online players heightened the feeling I was just one of many souls lost beyond the fog. We were all on our own journey, but with each other's silhouettes passing close by - subtle hints of others bleeding into my version of Boletaria. By touching a bloodstain I could watch another player's final moments, giving hints of the dangers ahead and a sense of shared struggle. These strange communications emphasised the feeling of being half-alive and essentially alone.

Messages left by other players could be helpful or misleading, so I had to decide whether to place my trust in these ghosts. Mostly I chose to believe them, and my trust wasn't often betrayed. I like to think that's normal human nature, when faced with something best overcome by working together.

By touching a bloodstain I could watch another player's final moments, giving hints of the dangers ahead and a sense of shared struggle.

I was so focused on potential danger around the next corner I became subconsciously drawn into the details of my surroundings. I could practically feel the heat of lava as I ventured into subterranean tunnels, and smell the stench of decay in the swamps. Despite the hostile nature of these environments, I was fundamentally involved in them.

On an instinctive level I was spurred on by the challenge, but also had an investment in battling demons and exploring Boletaria. As Demon's Souls connected with me on a fundamental level, I was reminded of the heart of my Microcosm Gamer project - of learning about life from a miniature experience of it in a videogame.

The rich and atmospheric surroundings made me determined to continue exploring and overcome any challenges in my way. The nature of the challenge in Demon's Souls isn't what you might expect though. My perceptions and adaptability were challenged more heavily than my reflexes.

I proceeded cautiously, constantly expecting traps and ambushes. However, in the end I couldn't just focus on avoiding death - I had to be willing to learn from death when it occurred.

Character death in games isn't usually a representation of death as it occurs in the real world. It's often a device used for gauging success and failure, and gives us something to overcome. In Demon's Souls death was unusually ubiquitous, and had a broader purpose. I soon discovered death wasn't really the definition of failure I was used to. It was an integral part of the game. I still had to overcome death, but by accepting instead of fearing it.

In Demon's Souls death was unusually ubiquitous, and had a broader purpose.

Before tackling Demon's Souls for myself I watched friends play through the early sections. I also selected a spellcaster as my starting class. I regret both these decisions. Using spells to pick off enemies from a distance, combined with some idea of what to expect, enabled me to complete a few early levels without dying at all.

Proceeding into the later levels, I had become used to avoiding death and retained an over-developed fear of it. This worked against me, because although caution is important, Demon's Souls also rewards persistence, and trial and error. The hardest part of progressing was this challenge to my preconceptions and habits.

More importantly, I learnt from experience, and could better judge the balance between caution and calculated risk.

Although Demon's Souls seems harsh, it is also consistent and rewards perseverance. Dying causes characters to re-awaken in soul form, halving their maximum hit points. At first it seems cruel, but in time it became the norm. In fact, characters do more damage in soul form, so it's more trade-off than punishment. Much of Demon's Souls is about altering expectations setup by a particular challenge and accepting it on its own terms.

Over time my character became stronger and better equipped. More importantly, I learnt from experience, and could better judge the balance between caution and calculated risk. This was a game microcosm that altered my expectations about the nature of character death. Once I'd grasped that nettle I could really appreciate Demon's Souls and its bleak but immersive environments.

Written by Amber Gilmore

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Amber Gilmore writes the Microcosm Gamer column.

"Games provide me with a diverse range of miniature worlds to explore. I'm fascinated by the myriad of ways these microcosms recreate elements of reality. Even the most fantastical or abstract games stem from real world concepts when studied under the scope. Far from being mindless escapism, playing games prompts me to reflect on the concepts presented and how they inform my outlook."

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