Demon’s Souls

Into the era of accessible games, Demon’s Souls charges like an armored knight facing down a horde of ghouls. It relies on conventions that game design was supposed to have abandoned long ago, and unabashedly rejects the casual player. But it’s unfair to peg it as a brutal slog designed for old-schoolers. Though the plot is inscrutable high-fantasy stuff, the game world’s central premise is inventive. Play as a lone warrior from among 10 different classes hunting demons to attain their souls, the world’s currency. The twist? Death—which players must embrace as maddeningly frequent—isn’t permanent. Instead, dead heroes are relegated to the Nexus, a limbo that connects the game’s five massive worlds, from whence they must return as ghosts and reclaim their physical bodies.

When players die, die, and die again, they’re forced to re-traverse the same areas and slay the same enemies. Fortunately, the environments of Demon’s Souls are richly realized and expansive. Torch-lit catacombs lead to hillsides where dragons sunbathe; long, dark staircases open onto breathlessly tall battlements. 

Thanks to its online functionality, players can see the bloodstains of those who passed before them, and touch them to view how they died. They can also leave messages—“beware the enemy’s ambush,” for example—and these snippets of insight make the challenge a little less lonely, though they stop short of being tremendously useful.

The forced repetition and steep odds could’ve been a disaster. But the mêlée combat, mapped primarily to the PlayStation 3’s rear triggers, is so beautifully precise, it demands to be mastered. Death always feels like an absence of skill, not an unpredictable abuse on the game’s part. And when players fight their way back to where their own bloodstains are still lying, then make it just a few steps further, it’s enough of a personal victory to compel them to keep fighting. It’s heartbreaking but immersive, that rare occasion that a game truly makes players feel like heroes facing down impossible odds. And every success, hard-won one grueling inch at a time, is likely to keep them coming back for more.

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