Feb 4 2010

Welcome to the Hard Game Club

I heard about Demon’s Souls when it first showed up on Japanese shores as one of the hardest games a person could attempt to play.  It was a single-player RPG for the PS3, notable if for no other reason than the fact that the PS3 had very few games of any kind at the time.  One can understand the amount of press dedicated to any release for such an anticipated system.  But Demon’s Souls got a lot more attention than usual because it was so brutally hard.

Unlike most games, Demon’s Souls actually gets harder when you do badly.  Certain mechanics that exist almost entirely beyond the player’s view conspire to make enemies harder at a nearly exponential rate every time you die or make a bad decision.  And again, unlike most games, Demon’s Souls encourages and rewards careful, strategic planning and very cautious gameplay.  This is wildly divergent from the usual methodology in video games that creates things like “difficulty settings” and quick saves and so on.  Die in Demon’s Souls, and you loose everything, because everything is based on the same unit of value: Souls.  Souls equal experience, money, equipment upgrades, new armor, new weapons… everything.  The only way to regain your lost souls is to run back to the point where you lost them.  But all the enemies have re-spawned since you died and that pile of “money” is constantly decaying with time, so the longer you take to return to your point of expiration, the less will be waiting for you.

There are a handful of things you can do to ease the difficulty of the game, but nothing quite matches the advantage of skill combined with sheer experience and foreknowledge.  And in blatant contradiction to traditional RPG tactics (time dedicated leads to success despite any other disadvantages), you can’t just “grind out” your character until you’re so powerful that everything falls into dust with one tough glance.  Demon’s Souls is all about overcoming a constantly present adversity that does not diminish for any reason.

There are issues: Demon’s Souls lead designer has expressed regret that the game is as difficult as it is, and there are a fair collection of bugs that can be exploited to make the game shockingly easy at times.  But when the game is examined on the whole, it’s nothing but one seriously tough motherfucker.

So of course I had to play it.  I finished the first level last weekend and the sense of victory as I watched the first boss fade into nothingness was unlike anything I’ve experienced in recent memory.  But that’s the Hard Game Club for you.