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Demon's Souls
Score: 90%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: From Software
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Demon's Souls walks the line between great and not-so-good visuals. The overall atmosphere is, for the most part, the game's biggest plus in the graphics box. Though levels retain the now-standard-for-this-generation dark, gritty look, they help sell the experience. As much as I would like to see green grass and blue skies, doing so would kill the game's thematic concept. Each of the five worlds offer their own unique set pieces. When walking around Demon's Souls hub world, Nexus, you'll meet characters whose environments tell a lot about them, such as the trader or "Bag Man."

However, these same elements also highlight Demon's Souls flaws. Characters look good, but the animations are a little stilted. There are a variety of attack animations, but some look awkward. Weapons and armor are intricately detailed, right down to scuffs and other imperfections, so you want to keep looking at them. At the same time, the closer you look, the more you notice imperfections.

In general, Demon's Souls soundtrack is forgettable. Every once in a while, you'll catch a few notes of a dramatic score, though it doesn't last long nor does it stick with you. Most of the time, you're wandering the world with only the sounds of enemies and your own attacks to keep you company. Voice work is equally adequate, though it doesn't quite match up with character animations. It's similar to Fallout 3; there is a disconnect between the voice and the character speaking.

Demon's Souls is a brutal, unforgiving game, but one you'll want to keep coming back to after every defeat. Gameplay resembles the style found in Oblivion (if played in 3rd person mode), but with a quicker pacing and loads more options. As one of several different classes, you are charged with the task of piercing the foggy veil surrounding the kingdom and defeating as many demons as you can before they eventually take you down -- and they will.

The game's only safe haven is the Nexus, a sort of hostel for lost souls. The only way out of Nexus is through portals leading to the game's five areas. While in Nexus, you can store items or trade souls for new items, weapons and armor that may or may not allow you to last a little longer while out in the barren wastes. Once in the wilds, you'll face off against all manner of enemies ranging from undead knights to axe-wielding monsters resembling a strange crossbreed of an octopus and a Minotaur. You'll also stumble upon numerous bloodstains dotting the landscape of each level. The stains aren't just for atmosphere or looks - they also provide clues for surviving encounters.

Demon's Souls' most unique feature is the "online" mode. Unless your PS3 isn't online, you'll always have thousands of people helping you with your quest. However, you'll never physically encounter these players and any help they offer will be indirect. As you work your way though dungeons, you'll stumble upon bloodstains on the floor. Activating the stains will unlock its "memories," short animations showing how another player died. You won't see what killed the player, but you'll get a hint about what to expect in the area. Players can also leave cryptic messages for other players, pointing others in the direction of secrets or warning them when trouble is ahead.

Not to harp on the issue, but Demon's Souls is a merciless game. It is easily one of the hardest games I've played all year and I wouldn't be surprised if there are several returns accompanied by complaints of "cheap." I even caught myself screaming "cheap," but in reality, Demon's Souls is a very fair game, it just asks a lot of players.

The difficulty ramp isn't incredibly steep, you just have to train yourself to be a better adventurer. Rather than give you bigger, more powerful weapons as a way to combat bigger, more powerful enemies, both sides get upgrades. You always have a slight advantage over enemies, but it can disappear if you aren't careful. Instead, you need to exploit your advantage whenever possible and think situations out rather than running around and foolishly swinging a sword.

Game Mechanics:
Rather than give you a list of combos to memorize, Demon's Souls places more emphasis on timing attacks and parries. Every character class has a base set of attacks along with a few class-specific ones. Switching between moves is easy, usually requiring the touch of a button or two, though you'll have to figure out when to use each based on the situation. It's an easy enough system, though it will take a little more thought than randomly mashing on buttons. Combat is further complicated by a Stamina Gauge. Every move requires a certain amount of stamina to pull off, so even if you decide to ignore the parry and attack systems and mash buttons, you'll just tire your character out quickly and leave yourself open to attack.

The system may not sound as action-y as some players would expect, particularly with the Stamina Gauge's influence on combat. I wasn't a fan of it through the early play hours either, but once I realized how much of an impact it had on the narrative, I began to appreciate it. In the grand scheme of things, you're just another in a long list of nobodies trying to make a name in this barren world. Coupled with the difficulty level, this adds a sense of anxiety to the experience. It's a neat balance of "game" and "real." It's enough of a game that you don't completely fear death or failure, but at the same time, there's a legitimate sense of fear. One wrong move and you could die. In a way, it is what the survival horror genre has been trying to do all along.

Demon's Souls is a game that deserves a lot of attention and credit. It not only fills a much-needed gap in the PS3's barren RPG library, but it offers a different approach to both online play and player interaction. It's a touch nut to crack, but give it a chance and you'll like what it has to offer.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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