Okay, maybe not harder than playing a perfect game of Pac-Man.
Atlus’s action-adventure comes to the PlayStation 3 in the guise of a role-playing game about a guy who storms through gloom-lit milieus gashing, skewering, and occasionally fricasseeing demons that upon dispatch, no great surprise, relinquish souls. Those souls–bluish orbs of light that whoosh toward you like iron fillings to an electromagnet–count as currency you stockpile to improve your abilities. Grueling opponents, neck-snapping traps, startling ambushes, and set-piece encounters snarl your progress and slow what might otherwise seem a casual jaunt through a handful of smallish gothic castles, gloaming prison-towers, and ramshackle, fire-washed under-cities.
Along the way you’ll slaughter throngs of sword-slinging creatures and flank others with slow-fire bows or thrusting spears. Having to master melee maneuvers and suss the precise tactical timing of opponents turns encounters into hard-fought battles that belie the conventional “lawnmowing” hack-and-slash motif. Dungeons with skeletons and stingrays, giant ticks and bearbugs, dreglings and dragons–huge, beautifully rendered, terrifyingly relentless dragons–splay between worlds accessed through sculpted stone portals. These gateways lodge along a curved, crumbling staircase at the heart of a hub-area known as the Nexus, to which you’ll often return to collect your wits and possibly enhance them. Merchants here and scattered in hidden niches hawk battle kit like “crushing maces” and “spiraling rapiers” and “fluted helmets,” all upgradeable by snatching shards from enemies and hoarding these until you’ve enough to smith better.
The world itself seems cobbled from crafty lies and paranoid truths, a massively-single-player multiverse in which players connect silently to one another and paint flickering ruby-colored text missives on floors and steps. Other players wink in and out, like ghosts bleeding through reality rubbed thin. Bloodstains trigger holographic replays of another player’s final moments–a warning, a solution, even a voyeuristic bit of lurid spectacle.
Orbis terrarum memor ipsum, “The world remembers itself,” to paraphrase Bill Pullman in Lost Highway, “the way I want you to remember it, not necessarily the way it happened.”
“This is it,” claims a message beside a gaping hole to blackness. The new single by Michael Jackson cues in my brain before I can dash through. The hole beckons, but I push on. “Be wary of the enemy’s sneak attack,” warns another. Unperturbed, I turn my back to peer down some stairs leading to a portcullis, and sure enough–wham!–up creeps ol’ tall, tatty, and moldering, who gets off two solid brain-thumping whacks before I’ve wheeled and laid him flat. “It’s safe here,” reads a third message just outside a pitch-dark doorway leading into a tower. Thank goodness. I venture in…and five torch-swinging creatures lurch toward and then set me alight.
After dispatching them–barely–I spy another message scrawled just this side of the door’s threshold.
“Beware of false messages,” it reads.
Above all, though, Demon’s Souls is about dying. Lots of dying. As a matter of form, or even a function of necessity.
But it’s also about coming to terms with death. Not in a morosely Leo Tolstoy Death of Ivan Ilyich way, all paranoid obsessing and gasping surrender, but more in a “get used to repeating yourself” Bill Murray-in-Groundhog Day capacity.
Death in the Rider-Waite tarot sense, then, where the armor-clad skeleton riding a pale horse signifies the unsung beginning at the out-edge of ending. Death as mutable. Death as change. Death as inescapable and intervalic, pulling even as you push forward, like a Chinese finger puzzle constricting in proportion to force exerted.
Consequently your senses heighten and your reflexes tighten in anticipation of perpetual, instantaneous failure. You’re not allowed to pause, meaning everything’s always happening now. Bring up the real-time inventory screen in unexplored areas at your peril. If you die, you lose all the souls you’ve won. Make it back to your the bloodstain where you just died before dying again, and you’ll reclaim all the souls you’ve lost. Die before doing so, however, and you’ll lose all but the souls you’ve collected up to that point.
Life, as well as life-once-removed, begin to feel like gothic-flavored investment banking. You might have thirty-thousand souls, say, a considerable amount early on, the fruit of a hard-fought stretch: Do you proceed at risk of dying in a hellishly difficult area that might take three or four tries getting back to? Or do you carry your trove to a warp point–it can take several minutes to retrace your steps–to level up in the Nexus?
It’s gaming on tenterhooks, an experimental experience drizzled in dread and diffused like a slow-churning fog. The slightest victories seem magnified tenfold, your satisfaction measured on a microcosmic scale, simple rewards sliced into elemental bits and meted out sparingly.
You might call it a “how many” and “how long” game, as in “How many souls can you accrue before dying?” and “How long can avoid munching precious bits of healing grass or using up rare, expensive firebombs?” Dying swiftly and repeatedly breeds frustration. Frustration leads to sloppy, flailing streaks of rush-back-to-where-you-left-off play. Carelessness leads to more dying, then fatigue, then forced reconsideration, thoughtful repetition-bolstered tactical planning, and finally–oh so gratifyingly–winning through.
I’ve “won through” the first segment of the first world dozens of times. Each time I start the game, I swing through this area like a warm-up lap, practicing carefully honed swings and sprinting swing-in-place blade-twirls. Each pass takes ever-so-slightly less effort–a barely perceptible but nevertheless measurable sign of progress.
I can’t stop playing the game. When I have to stop playing it, I’m thinking what I’ll do when I’m back to it. Instead of dropping off to sleep at night, I lie awake conjuring eldritch-lit maze-worlds, probing the parapets and crenellations, rehearsing tactical paths through select areas that seem to offer better loot drops depending on the order in which you dispatch denizens.
I’ve miles to go before I’m finished, for all the dozens of hours I’ve played. I’ve yet to invoke blue eye stones and conjure nearby others into my game for assistance, or ply black stones to invade another’s world in a game of PVP cat and mouse. I’m still plumbing the depths of the “world tendency” effects, which alter spawn types and drop rates, open locks and modify attack strengths, and determine whether key characters–or their ominous dark phantom others–appear. Most of all, I’m awestruck by the way the game’s compulsive simplicity gradually gives way to a kind of fractal, flexible complexity.
And I’ve never enjoyed losing this badly, this frequently, this devastatingly, this much.