Over the last week, I wound down a two-year endeavor in playing and completing Demon's Souls. I deemed it my game of the year for 2009 only maybe about a third of the way in. Various things conspired and transpired to keep me from hunkering down and getting serious about playing the game until just recently. Partly it was due to the looming release of the successor Dark Souls, but above all else, it was just that it's time had come.
Much has been said, and I'm afraid overstated, of Demon's Souls famous difficulty. The truth of the matter as experienced players will usually say, is that the game is not so much difficult as that it requires a very considered, careful, and precise approach on the part of the player, as well as a willingness to make mistakes and the persistence to learn from them rather than give up in frustration. Demon's Souls was no more difficult than Castlevania: Lords of Shadow on Knight difficulty, or any given Halo game on Legendary. It has the potential to be, absolutely, but the true genius of the game is in just how many options it gives the player to choose from in overcoming its challenges.
There is the brute force approach; play and replay the problem section over and over until you find the best way through, or understand the enemy's attack patterns so thoroughly that you can dance right through it. There is the ability to change tactics; try one of the other dozen weapons, tools, or spells at your disposal to defeat the enemy. There is the reinforcements approach; summon a blue phantom or two to help you take down a tough boss or problematic section of a level. There is the grinding approach; farm souls and level up enough that you laugh and shrug off blows that would take half of your HP away, previously. Finally, for the truly cunning and remorseless, cheat; many bosses and tough enemies are easy to exploit with the right combination of equipment or just the right positioning.
Most challenging games, like the aforementioned Castlevania and Halo, offer one or two of these options at best. Demon's Souls gives the player more than enough tools to take care of the business at hand. What gives the game somewhat of an overblown reputation for being frustrating are the facts that death means respawning at the beginning of a level (gasp!), and the possible loss of all experience (souls) accrued and unspent during the last life. It is possible to play for a couple of hours and come away with a feeling of not having made any progress to speak of. That is because progress in Demon's Souls is not measured a percentage displayed in the corner of a map screen or any such thing. Skill at this game is a real skill, and intangible. It is not easily observed or measured, like so many modern games have conditioned us to expect.
Demon's Souls is, in some ways, a throwback to the days of the NES when games were genuinely, unrepentantly difficult, and many even lacked a method of saving your game for the next time you powered on the console. And it's great. It's a very unique game in this day and age, with a remarkably singular vision, amazing, inspired art direction, and a combat system that is very tactile and weighty. I have no doubt that this was the most remarkable and memorable game released in 2009, for my money.
So, here, a day after finally finishing off Demon's Souls, I am just about to embark on another journey sure to be long in completion, this game's successor, Dark Souls. I played a Wanderer in Demon's Souls, and focused on building my dexterity, using curved swords almost entirely. For Dark Souls, I'm leaning more toward a heavily armored Knight, and wielding a one-handed weapon with a shield. We'll see how that works out...