Sunday, November 15, 2009

Demon's Souls, on the fun of falling into pits

I'm making my way down Stonefang Tunnel. I've been dealing with these little glowing balls strewn throughout the level that explode when you get too close. I discovered this by walking too close to one; as it began to expand and get brighter, I instinctively rolled backwards right as it exploded, taking most of my health. As the tunnel went from a wide mining cart passage to a cramped tunnel that looks more like it was burrowed by some worm, the fireballs have been appearing behind switchback turns, prompting many panicked runs for cover. So I'm being careful, inching along, barely able to see more than ten feet ahead anyways. Out of the gloom, the spidery letters of a message left by another player in a different world emerge; its presence reminds me that I'm not the only one going down this tunnel somewhere in another world, but that I'm still utterly alone in this world. The message warns me of an ambush up ahead. A few steps later I see a bloodstain on the ground; activating it, I see a ghostly figure of a previous explorer, looking much like me with shield and dagger, hesitantly taking a few steps forward, swinging at the empty air, then thrown backwards backwards by a massive force and crumpling to the ground. The image fades away and I'm sure I'm about to die. Inching forwards, shield raised, leaning forwards on the couch as if I could see deeper into my TV. I don't realize the wall opened up into a side chamber on my left, and hear the grunt of a misshapen miner demon just in time to see his pickaxe come at me. I'm facing the wrong way so my shield doesn't take the hit, and it rocks me backwards, stunning me, giving him enough time to make the second strike... and for the millionth time, I've died.

I really like Demon's Souls. After Fallout 3, Fable 2, and Brutal Legend, it's pleasantly not open-world, there's no journal to keep checking, there are no mini-games to master, and there's no world travel to get to the action. You just choose your level, get through it, and kill the boss. It's way hard, but not unapproachably so. None of the mechanics are individually punishing; as long as you're careful, approach enemies with tactics instead of rushing in, and keep an eye out for the numerous ways to fall to your death, you can make it through a level on your first try. The game does a good job of making sure you know that if you die, it's your fault, which is exactly the kind of challenge I like. However, death means you're back to the beginning; there are no save points, and some of the levels are long.

Dying puts you in Soul Form, in which you have diminished max health, but a little bit higher damage and stealth, and you kinda glow a little, though not nearly enough to keep you from walking into a hole. When you beat a boss, you return to life. So you'll generally be alive for your first run in a level, and then spend the rest of the time dead, until you beat its boss. It's a weird dynamic, as being alive is more of a trade-off than an obvious benefit, though it has an effect on your multiplayer options. Having the extra health while alive is a nice perk, but you know you're going to die before the next boss fight, so it's almost a relief when some dude jumps out at you and one-shots you... or when you walk into a pit you didn't see because it's too dark.

The multiplayer elements are simple but contribute nicely to the game. Players can leave messages that other players can see, using a list of preset words and phrases. There's a shortcut down to a boss that requires dropping off a series of ledges at exactly the right place. Because it's so dark, it's very difficult to see the right place to drop off. But by leaving messages, I marked my own path down as well as showing the way for others. You also see ghostly images of other players, so I could sometimes see other players using the trail I marked. Messages can also warn you of ambush, tell you not to waste your time pursuing a dead end, tell you to use certain tactics or equipment on an enemy, or warn you of the pit right in front of you. Players can recommend others' messages, giving the author a health boost. It's a communal walkthrough that fully fits into the game's fiction.

There's more direct co-op play, too. In Soul Form, you can use an item at certain points in levels and allow yourself to be summoned to another player's world to help kill a boss. If you're the one that's alive, you can summon other people who have offered themselves. Bosses have higher health, but if you beat somebody's else's boss in Soul Form, you come back alive and get a share of the souls that dropped, so it's a good way to get some extra cash and your life back. It's also a nice break from beating your head against a level to jump into a quick boss kill run on somebody else's server.

I'm still collecting thoughts on the implementation of difficulty and how it affects gameplay, so more on that later, but I definitely enjoy that it's a hard game. For me, it's hit a perfect balance of being challenging but also rewarding my efforts enough to keep me playing it almost exclusively. I'll be falling into pits for a bit longer, while Borderlands sits in my Amazon queue, unpurchased.