The Hunt for a Bow (Demon’s Souls – PS3)

I’ve been playing a lot of Demon’s Souls but I feel oddly hesitant to blog about it. It’s a fantastic game that doesn’t translate well into spoken words and I fear that trying to describe it will put people off it.

But I’m going to tell you a story. Every time I start playing I have to decide what my goal will be for this session. Do I want to explore a new section of the world? Do I want to try to advance my character level? Do I want to buy a new spell? Gather materials to update a weapon? Or just get a new weapon? So many ways to improve a character.

In the first world lives a red dragon. This dragon is a real pain in the backside. There’s no way I can melee it at this point and my crossbow is too limited to fight it safely. But with a bow, you can do “precise aiming” and snipe things from afar. One problem. Drake Chaser the Soldier doesn’t own a bow. I decide the time has come for him to get one.

First thing I do is search online to find out where a bow can be had. That’s in some ways a downside to Demon’s Souls — you’ll almost certainly find yourself searching outside the game for certain nuggets of information. Turns out there’s a bow at the top of the second guard tower along a parapet extending from the area of the castle you ‘zone into’. So off I go.

But that damned dragon watches the parapet and does straffing runs along it. How to get past the beastie in one piece?

First step: get to the parapet. I have to cross a room filled with Hoplites. These look like giant black slimes holding a sword and shield. There was a time when they left me quaking in my boots, but now dispatching them comes easily. I block or dodge their spear attack, then run behind them and impale them. Turns out they’re quite squishy from the back. Or I could use fire on them, but no sense in using up my Turpentine supplies (turp adds a temporary fire effect to a weapon). I dispatch the hoplites, in the process earning some stones used in weapon upgrading. Bonus!

Finally I get to the parapet. The first time I ran out onto this, the dragon swooped down and fried me to a crisp, sending my back to the warp-in point sans all the souls I’d gathered. But I learned. I creep out onto the parapet until I hear the cry of the dragon, then jump back. If flies over me, covering the parapet with flames. I spring after it, knowing my stamina (sprinting uses stamina) will run out just as I get to the first tower. It does and I make it to safety just as the dragon makes another pass. I look back to see the wall of flame peter out mere feet from where I stand.

OK so I’m at Tower 1. This is as far as I’ve ever been. The stretch to Tower 2 is much longer and worse, there are plenty of enemies stationed along it, many behind barricades. I creep out of the shadows of the tower and the first enemy sees me. It attacks. I dodge backwards, then step forward and give it a hard attack with my spear as it tried to recover from its wild swing. I follow the strong attack with a quick jab and it’s down. I’ve faced this kind of foe before. I move farther out and hear the cry of the dragon. I duck back to see what happens, and sure enough it strafes this section of the parapet. Where once there were enemies and barricades, now there are corpses and splintered wood. Bonus? For some reason I get all the souls from the baddies the dragon killed.

But still, how to get to Tower 2? Growing impatient and careless, I start running along the parapet. The dragon attacks, my health drops precipitously. With a sliver left, I run back to the safety of the first tower. Eat some herbs to heal up. I decide to climb to the top of this tower to see what I can see, and when I do I notice stairs going down as well as up. What’s this? I follow and they lead to a tunnel running under the parapet from tower 1 to tower 2. I’m thinking “this is too easy” when a pack of wild dogs attacks. These things are hard for me for some reason. They tend to leap and circle behind me, making them tough to hit, particularly since I’m holding a spear and the tunnel is narrow. Hard to spin around with so unwieldy a weapon.

Once again I’m almost dead as the last dog finally perishes. More herbs, and I press on. There are plenty of other enemies along the way. Someone has left a message by a gaping hole in the wall. I stop to read it. It says “Nice view” (which it is). As I’m reading it, another dog attacks. Dammit. I fight him off, then backtrack and add my own message: “Beware of distractions.”

I finally made it to tower two, scrambled up and dispatched the few enemies at the top of it, and sure enough, found the bow! But now I’m feeling greedy and I want to know what’s in Tower 3.

There’s no tunnel: I checked. And again the dragon is strafing the parapet. Again it sweeps off the enemies for me. I run, listening for the sound of the beast. As it approaches, I tumble forward. Tumbling is a way to avoid attacks: while tumbling you’re invulnerable. I time it perfectly, the dragon’s flame washes over my harmlessly and I bob back to my feet and keep running. I’m so focused on listening for the dragon that I’m not really looking at what’s in front of me. Turns out right inside Tower 3 is a group of crossbowmen and a couple of knights.

Suddenly I look like a pincushion and my health is about half gone. I attack, skewering the crossbowmen, who go down fairly easily, but now I have the knights to deal with. I’d like to back up, but I fear the dragon behind me. I panic, try eating herbs but one of the knights rushes me (you’re totally vulnerable for a few seconds when eating a healing herb). Foolishly I back up, try again. The other knight rushes me. Almost dead now, I start to block and attack. The knights have shields and my spear held 1 handed has a devil of a time breaking through shield defenses. I should be fighting these guys with a sword held in 2 hands, using my strength to break through their defense. But I don’t have time to switch so my only chance is to get behind them.

I try to do that, circling and jabbing. Had there been one of them I’d be all right. Now my back is to the third tower…and I have no clue what is behind me. I’m afraid to back up. I’m trying to block. Blows rain down on my shield, draining my stamina. I stab futilely, but it’s too late. My stamina runs out, I drop my shield, and one of the knights delivers the Killing Blow.

YOU DIED fills the screen. And I’m back at the spawn in point with zero souls. The only way to recover what I’ve dropped? Go back out there, get past those knights and click on the bloodstain that is all that is left of my prior life. But the Hoplites are back. The wild dogs are back. The enemies on the parapets are back.

On the plus side, I still have the bow I went for! You don’t lose items when you die.

I’ll stop this story now and pretend I went back to the Nexus to rest. In truth I tried to get those souls back, but the 2nd time I didn’t time my tumble right and the dragon fried me on the parapet, killing me again, leaving a new bloodstain and erasing the first one, and all the souls connected to it.

Hopefully this tale illustrates some of what is great about Demon’s Souls. It’s a game that rewards patience, planning and skill. Had I followed my original game plan, I would’ve been fine. I got greedy and paid the price, and paying the price is why people say Demon’s Souls is so hard and unforgiving. There is a penalty for dying.

The proper course of action, I think, would’ve been to recover the bow, head back to stock up on arrows, and then kill the dragon, allowing me to cross to the next tower carefully, able to scope out what’s going on rather than running blindly across and depending on a very skilled (or very lucky) tumble to avoid the dragon’s breath.

That’s what I’ll try tonight except…turns out I don’t have enough strength to use the bow effectively! So first I’ll wipe out bunches of enemies and use the souls to increase my strength. Or maybe rather than killing the dragon I should learn a spell that protects me from flame. Hmm. I’ve heard there’s a ring somewhere that does the same thing. Maybe I should look for that? Decisions, decisions.

No matter what I decide to do, I know I’ll have fun. This is a great game!

Convenience vs Immersion

By the standards we use to judge games today, Ultima Online, at launch, was a terrible game full of down time and grinding. Let me give you a recap in case you never played it. The land of Sosaria was mostly wilderness when the game launched. There were a handful of cities with guards that offered limited protection (they either had to observe a crime or ‘hear’ you call for help before they’d intercede), but otherwise it was a brutal place to live. Not only was it an open PVP world, but there were thieves who could pluck items out of your pack. When you died, all your belongings stayed on your corpse, available to anyone not above plundering the dead.

Travel? Initially you walked everywhere, dreaming about having a horse. Getting a horse was a matter of either buying one from another player, or spending a lot of time learning to tame animals (first birds and bunnies, then perhaps dogs and cats, and finally horses) and then training it to be ridable. When you finally got a horse, you’d have to keep it fed and treat it well. A mis-treated animal might escape and return to its wild roots. Assuming you did all that correctly you’d have a trusty steed…until some malice-filled cretin decided to kill it on you.

There was also limited teleportion. You’d have to make or buy a rune and then use it to mark a location, after which you could teleport to that location, assuming you had the required reagents. Those were gathered from the wilderness, either by you or another player.

There were some NPC merchants that sold some very basic items, but their stock was limited. These NPCs would buy items from players as well…assuming they needed what the player had to offer. As an NPC’s stock levels rose, they’d offer less and less for that item until finally they’d just stop buying altogether (one conceit to gameplay…every so often NPC stock would ‘reset’ to get rid of excess materials).

What few ‘quests’ existed were found by talking to various NPCs. These didn’t have an ! on top of their head; you had to find them. Crafting meant tedious gathering of materials and working at a forge or a spinning wheel or whatever tool you needed. Gaining skills meant spending a lot of time in front of a training dummy, or beating up lesser creatures. How’d you know it was a lesser creature? Either by common sense (a rat or a bunny) or by trial and error. There was no ‘con’ system to tell you such & such a creature was 1 level below, or 3 levels above, you. (Heck, there were no levels!)

In short, if Ultima Online version 1.0 launched today it would be ripped to shreds by most gamers and reviewers. And you know what? It was a glorious game. The one game that was so compelling that I truly did get ‘addicted’ to it. I missed work because of that game. Lost sleep. It almost destroyed my relationship. These are not things I’m proud to admit, but I share them just to illustrate how compelling the game was.

Today’s games are kinder, gentler beasts. We have fast travel, and clearly marked quests, and death penalties that don’t even feel like penalties. Why? Because that’s what players say they want. We complain if we have to spend more than a few minutes traversing the world to meet up with friends. We complain if we lose progress. We complain if we have to repeat the same actions multiple times, calling the game a grindfest.

And the developers hear us and they adjust their designs to give us what we want.

And the more the devs do this, the more I hear about RPG ennui. People jump from game to game, looking for something sticky but not finding it. They give up the genre altogether, or resign themselves to retreating to whatever game they have high-level characters (or a bunch of friends) in. Often this retreat is done out of resignation rather than enthusiasm.

Enter Fallen Earth and Demon’s Souls. Now the latter isn’t an MMO, but the point I’m making isn’t limited to MMOs. Both of these games buck the trend of adding convenience to games. Fallen Earth has no fast travel. It doesn’t have an apocalyptic Walmart where you can go and buy anything and everything you need. You have to ‘grind’ a lot in terms of gathering materials to get good enough to make the items you need, or to get enough cash up to buy what you need from other players or the few NPC suppliers out there. It isn’t a complete throwback, mind you. The death penalty is very light, there’s no theft and your transport can’t be killed or stolen.

But a lot of what Fallen Earth does is ‘wrong’ by the standards players demand from modern games. And yet people who try it out tend to stick with it. This shouldn’t be. The game isn’t all that polished, the graphics pale in comparison to something like Aion, the interface is kind of clunky and has to be learned. But the population of the game continues to grow while that of Aion and Champions Online apparently dwindles.

Demon’s Souls should be a flop, too. It’s an RPG with no quests, a relatively stiff death penalty, a ton of grinding, non-consensual PvP and game systems that can only be figured out by trial and error. And yet all the reviews that I’ve read have been glowing, and the community is enthusiastic as hell. The game is compelling and engrossing.

What’s the common theme between Fallen Earth and Demon’s Souls? Immersion. All the convenience factors in modern games make them feel like modern games. The boring stuff, the frustrating stuff…that makes these games feel like immersive worlds. Without pain there can be no pleasure, to go all zen on you. A reward without any struggle just isn’t as sweet (for many of us) as a reward we had to work for.

This doesn’t apply to everyone who plays games. Not in the slightest. But it applies to those of us who still embrace the Role Playing in RPgs. I’m not talking about role playing in the sense of gathering with a few other players and doing a skit. I mean the internal role playing that some of us do. The role playing that lets us use these games as portals to other worlds, the same way a good book can do.

If you don’t know what I mean by that, this post won’t make sense and I’m sure you’ll disagree with it. That’s fine. But if you get what I’m saying…if you know the delight of just sinking into a good virtual world and existing in there for a few hours, then please give Fallen Earth and/or Demon’s Souls a try. Both are excellent ‘throw-back’ games that bring the immersion back to our hobby. Games like this need our support. We need to send a message to game developers that there are still players who appreciate a good immersive game, and who still appreciate a challenge.

Demon’s Souls & its brutal(?) difficulty (PS3)

Demon’s Souls for the PS3 arrived last Tuesday and it’s been the only game I’ve played since. That should tell you something. I wanted to wait until I’d logged 8 hours in the game before writing a post, though, because I thought I was missing something.

You see, all the previews, reviews of the Japanese versions and even reviews of the North American version have talked about the brutal difficulty level of the game, and I haven’t found it to be that hard. At least not so far.

I’m no uber gamer, either. Maybe there’s a big difficulty spike later in the game. Or maybe I picked the easiest class (Soldier). I dunno. Maybe I’m just old enough that I remember how hard games used to be. Or maybe my rather methodical style of gaming works well with Demon’s Souls.

Whatever the reason, I’m enjoying the game tremendously. Yes, you have to think. Yes, you have to advance carefully. And sure, you’ll die, but really the death penalty is pretty mild. Upon dying you lose all the souls (souls are currency) you’ve collected and restart the level with all enemies respawned. But you don’t lose your items, or your weapons or armor. Anyone remember Diablo? Dying there meant running back to your body naked if you didn’t have the presence of mind to drop some backup gear in town. That could be hard. And here, if you get back to where you died, you get all your souls back anyway.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s my MMO experience that’s making the game not seem as hard? MMO players are used to respawning enemies. We’re used to ‘pulling’ foes a few at a time when necessary. We’re used to respawning back at some pre-set spot when we die. And we’re used to having to replay areas of a game.

What does add to the challenge is that there’s no ‘bank’ to store your souls in. So when you’re saving up for something that costs 1000’s of souls…yeah, you start to think pretty hard about what would happen if you lost them all. But that’s what makes the game so exciting. You can replay levels/areas over and over again, so you have to make benefit-risk assessments. Should you play it save and replay a lower level area a couple of times? Or push into a difficult area where you’ll earn souls faster but you might lose it all? Hmmm.

Here’s what saves the game: combat is fun and satisfying. So when I say “replay a level” and you start thinking “Ugh, grindfest!” well, you’re wrong. In fact replaying easy levels is both good practice (you can practice some of the tougher moves) and a blast to do. It makes you feel mighty. Parry, riposte! Dodge & back stab. Block, shield smash and rush forward. It’s all incredibly fun. (Of course, if you don’t like the combat, the game is going to be awful for you.)

So now you have a sackful of souls. What are you going to do with them? You can: repair your gear, buy a weapon, upgrade a weapon or armor, buy a new spell, buy a new miracle, or level up your character (1 stat at a time). All progress comes from souls (there’s no concept of experience points here) so again, you have to make smart and sometimes tough choices. And for the most part, souls come from killing things. There aren’t any real quests, nor does anyone want to buy your rat skins or dog livers. Or even your old gear. If you can’t use it, just throw it away.

I guess I’m putting the cart before the horse here, going on and on about why I like the game without really explaining the basics. Now have I talked about the fascinating multiplayer system. The problem is, I can’t wait to get back to playing…so for now you’ll just have to find out the basics from the reviews linked to above!

Demon’s Souls preview

These days, with money as tight as it is, I don’t generally buy brand new games. $60 on launch day, $40 a month or so later when it goes on sale? I’ve got plenty of other games to play while I wait for that 33% discount, thank you very much.

But for Demon Souls, an incoming PS3 RPG, I’m making an exception. Watch this Gametrailers video to learn about its unique and interesting ‘passive multiplayer’ system. I want to be playing this one when everyone else is!

I’m going to embed it but you should probably click through to the HD version.