Demon's Souls (PS3)
Imagine the first day a videogame like Gears of War is released. Around 8 o'clock that Tuesday night, millions of identical, bald space marines trudge the same ground, drop for cover behind the same rusty cars, and Roadie Run down the same scorched hallways. Only they don't trace these steps simultaneously or in the exact same way. They're imperfect echoes. A million parallel universes mostly the same, but different in a very important way. Every button-press or tilt of the analog stick makes it personal, unique. Now imagine if each of these slivers intersected in fuzzy and unpredictable ways.
Demon's Souls is a new kind of MMO -- the minutely multiplayer online game. Rather than toss thousands of players a world so big that most will choose to ignore each other, this inventive reimagining of the classic dungeon crawler lets players haunt each others' nightmares. Adventurers here don't populate the same realm. It's more like their purgatories intersect.
Here's how the story goes:
It happens quickly. You walk into the first fight. There's a big, fiery beast -- like the Balrog from "The Lord of the Rings" -- and he stomps you into the dirt. In a couple of winks you're awake, but only a shade of your former self. Weakened and torn from the real world, you're doomed to the Nexus -- a place where spirits retrace steps, repeat old battles over and over, and reap the souls of the lost.
If you want to be a jerk about it, call the Nexus a hub world. There are a handful of portals here. Each leads to deadly dungeons -- rotting, dragon-scorched battlements, a haunted prison, spider-infested mines. Every step deeper into these holes is more dangerous than the last. You're expected to croak many times as you forge your way through these perilous places. Each death is a lesson, every expedition a risk.
Reward comes by way of gathered souls -- the only loot you can lose while questing from the Nexus. Souls, torn from your victims or scrounged from the corpses of heroes, act as currency in this netherworld. With the help of a sorceress, you can devour them to improve your stats. A cursed blacksmith can pour the souls into your weapons (along with other items you collect) to make them deadlier. And, of course, the frequent profiteer will trade them for herbs, medicines and other aids.
Souls are valuable. They're everywhere, sure. But they're hard-won, because Demon's Souls is an unforgiving game. One misstep can mean instant death and a smear of blood where your body rejoined the earth. When you're already dead, death can be kind of complicated. You revive in the Nexus with half of the health you had before. And all those valuable souls you collected remain in the dungeon, waiting to be reclaimed. Re-enter and you'll find all the enemies you bested back where they started. Fail your corpse run, and the souls you were hoping to retrieve are permanently lost.
Of course, there are ways to avoid utter tragedy. Souls are best invested in upgrades and healing herbs as soon as possible. And those soul shards found on dead warriors? They aren't lost upon death unless you cash them in for their soul value. It all sounds very complicated, and that's not because it is. It sounds complicated because Demon's Souls is unlike almost any other game you've played.
That's where multiplayer comes in. Because just like you, hundreds (maybe thousands of other adventurers) are covering the same dangerous ground as you. As you creep the game's harrowing hallways, you stumble upon bloodstains that seep over from parallel universes. Examine them and you see echoes of the past -- a spectral recording of that adventurer's death. Players can scrawl hints into the dungeon floor. And under the right circumstances, they can pierce through the dimensional membrane and enter another player's world. They can help or, in the later game, they can harm.
The only sore point in Demon's Souls is purely intentional. It's hard to hook up with friends for co-op dungeon crawling, and it's flat-out difficult to communicate with other players. There's no chat window, no voice chat. Players communicate with generic gestures, expressions and canned responses. After years of voice chat, it's hard to go back. And many players won't. Already some have resorted to partying up separately on Xbox Live to make up for the game's defiantly old-school communication methods and the PlayStation 3's piss-poor excuse for player connectivity.
Of course, the decision to make this kind of chatter difficult is a design decision. Demon's Souls depends on isolation and fear -- sensations that can easily be shattered by a buddy in your headset. But the decision doesn't ruin the Demon's Souls experience. The game's bald-faced indifference to the last five years of multiplayer makes it worth playing.
Imagine the careers of game designers. At the end of their respective crunch times, they deliver their games -- each more similar than different to those of their peers. They've crafted a thousand universes overlapping everywhere but upon the fringes. And then there's Demon's Souls -- an outlier, grazing the other universes only where it counts.
This review is based on early code for the PS3 game provided by the publisher. The game was played on special servers created specifically for the press.