I'd been playing the game for over two hours when I realized that I hadn't made any progress at all. Literally. If I were to switch off the console at that moment and just walk away, then come back to the game again some other time, it would have been as though the hours I'd just spent with it had never happened.
Welcome to Demon's Souls, a new PlayStation 3 exclusive from From Software that has seemingly come out of nowhere to earn critical raves (it's tracking at over 90 per cent on metacritic), with websites like IGN dubbing it "quite simply one of the best on the PlayStation 3" while implying that it is also the hardest game yet released for Sony's machine-or any current generation system, for that matter.
The funny thing is that its critical raves are nothing if not counter-intuitive-and not just because it's exasperatingly punishing.
For starters, it's not a particularly pretty game. The character models are nicely detailed and animate well, but the panoramic vistas-which are meant to appear dark but also grand-look more like blurry backdrop paintings. Plus, its rag-doll physics system is just plain ridiculous. Walk over a body and you'll likely kick it halfway across the room.
It doesn't have much of a narrative, either. I've spent about 10 hours with the game and all I know is that the world is being overrun by demons that drive most men mad, and that the few strong enough to fight and resist them end up getting killed and chill in a weird sort of purgatory called the "Nexus" between reincarnations.
And it's terribly inaccessible. You need to figure out pretty much everything on your own, including the game's most frustrating aspects. The only way for you to learn that if you die before returning to the Nexus you lose all of the souls you've collected is to do it. Likewise, the game doesn't bother explaining that souls are the only means by which you can upgrade your weapons and armour or improve your stats, and that if you keep dying before being able to head back to the Nexus to spend your souls, you'll never have any souls to spend.
It's the gaming equivalent of the school of hard knocks.
But for some strange reason, people seem to love it.
Personally, I've never been one for extreme challenge. I'm the kind of fellow who chooses normal difficulty to start, and if I find it too hard I've no qualms bumping down to lower levels. That temperament ought to make a game like Demon's Souls infuriating for me-and, indeed, it does much of the time.
However, I have to admit that the sense of accomplishment here is extraordinary. Unlike most games, in which the casual dishing out of achievements or trophies is to be expected and, consequently, not particularly gratifying, I've been elated the few times I've seen the trophy box pop up in the top right corner of the screen while playing Demon's Souls. I earned those suckers through hours of thumb-blistering toil.
I'll also acknowledge that Demon's Souls does have some very curious online functionality.
In addition to being able to hook up with other players for quick jaunts, we can see the ghostly shapes of those currently engaged in their own solo quests. It feels a bit like a pseudo-MMORPG, except that we can work through the campaign all by ourselves, should we choose.
What's more, scattered on the floors of the places we roam are messages, most left by other players as warnings about dangers that lurk ahead or suggesting we skirt off our path to look for treasure down a hallway. We can rate these messages or leave messages of our own. It's a neat idea.
We also run into plenty of bloodstains left by fallen players. Touch them and a red phantom will appear, showing us the final few gruesome seconds of that player's existence, which may well alert us to dangers hidden nearby.
Not that it helps much.
The enemies we face in Demon's Souls are, by and large, capable of killing us with just a couple of quick hits. The third-person battle system, which involves lots of medieval-style weaponry and fantasy magic, allows us to defend against enemy attacks, but each strike we block or swing we take eats away at an unfortunately shallow stamina bar. It can be depleted by a single hit, leaving us unable do anything but try to walk away (alas, running requires stamina as well). I've never been closer to hurling a controller across the room.
And yet I continue to play.
I have my doubts as to whether I'll have the endurance to make it through to the end, but, at least for the moment, there's something about this bedevilling game that is compelling me to push onward. That said, I can't rightly recommend it to most people. Telling others to try Demon's Souls would be a bit like telling someone to try having their hair pulled out strand by strand. Masochists might dig it, but I think the average gamer would rather take a pass.
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