Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Better Late than Never: Zrbo's Favorite Game of 2009

This post was originally going to update my list of favorite games of 2009 when I discovered that I had never actually made a post detailing those games. So think of this as a lost post that should have been posted a year and a half ago... if I had actually gotten around to playing my now favorite game of 2009 back then.

And the winner is... Demon's Souls! Ah, Demon's Souls, how did I not notice you back when you arrived to critical acclaim at the tail end of 2009? Even my go-to videogame review site, Gamespot, gave it the 2009 Game of the Year award and I still paid little-to-no attention to this wonderful, wonderful gem of a game.

Perhaps I didn't pay much attention to (or chose to ignore) Demon's Souls because of the reviews. The reviews were all extremely positive, but they all said the same thing: that the game is brutally difficult. And it is. Make no mistake, this is not some videogame-as-art kind of game, this is truly a gamer's game.

What makes the game so difficult? Well, to begin with, Demon's Souls eschews many facets of modern game design that have become the norm. Take the simple concept of the checkpoint. In most games the game is constantly saving your progress in the background, so that when you die you lose a few minutes of time and are usually placed near the beginning of the encounter that got you killed. Demon's Souls dumps this concept and makes it so that if you die you have to start the ENTIRE level over again, with all the enemies back in place. Not only that, but the game punishes you further by cutting your life bar in half when you die and by making you lose all of the souls (i.e., experience points) you've acquired unless you make it back to the place where you died and touch your bloodstain on the ground to retrieve your collected souls.

While that's usually the most cited reason for difficulty in Demon's Souls, there's certainly other ways the developer's have gone out of their way to make life difficult. Get this: the game does not include a pause option - as in you can't stop the game. Enemies will often be waiting in hiding and you can't see them until it's too late. If you do manage to survive to the end of the level and make it to the boss, you will find an absolutely cunning foe that requires all the skills you've learned to stay alive. And if you die during the boss fight, well it's back to the beginning of the level again.

So why would anyone go through with this torture? Well, for starters, the gameplay is just fantastic. Your character always responds to each press of the button, and the flow of combat, block, thrust, parry, block, stab, is so well honed and refined. What makes it so rewarding is that when you mess up and die from an attack it's always your error. Rarely will you have the problem of "WTF, I hit the button and my character didn't respond!". The combat mechanics work, and work well. It's just such a pleasure to engage in combat, learning all the subtle nuances of blocking, parrying, and swinging a sword around.

Another reason why the game is so fantastic is the multiplayer system. It's not however your typical multiplayer system. In Demon's Souls you play in your own world, but you can see the ghosts of other people playing in their world. This helps alleviate the lonely eerieness and sense of isolation as you wander around imposing castles, caves, and the like. Seeing someone's ghost running around gives you a sense of comfort knowing that someone else in a parallel world is going through the same tribulations.

The game makes a really wonderful use of these ghosts through the use of bloodstains. Occasionally you will stumble upon a bloodstain on the ground. When you touch it a red ghost pops up and reenacts the last few moments of another player's life so you can see how they died (watch this for an example). This is extremely useful in such an unforgivingly brutal world. You approach a blind corner, see a bloodstain on the ground and decide to touch it. A red ghost appears, runs around the blind corner, and then moments later comes running back only to keel over and die. That lets you know that there's something waiting around the corner. It's an absolutely brilliant mechanic, in that it can forewarn you about something without having the developer's resort to a sign or an NPC saying "hey you need to be careful ahead".

In addition to the bloodstain feature is a system in which other players can leave short messages scrawled on the ground that give you hints as to what to expect. It might say "Beware of the enemy ambush ahead" giving you yet another leg up. Coupled with this a recommendation system where you can recommend a message if you find it useful. The more people who recommend a message, the more likely it is to remain there, and every time someone recommends one of your messages you get a small health boost. It's an ingeniously wonderful system.

I haven't even begun to talk about the game world itself. It's a bleak, imposing world that marries elements of horror with traditional fantasy/Tolkien tropes. All the names have a decidedly Eastern European flavor to them (Boletaria, Vingard, etc.), plus there's a bit of Lovecraftian horror going on (such as the final boss known as 'the Great Old One' who looks suspiciously Cthulhu-esque). The various bosses have equally imposing names: The Adjudicator, Dirty Colossus, Maneater, Maiden Astraea, The Old Hero. The design of the various castles and settings really does evoke a sort of foggy-streets-of-Prague-at-night feeling. Overall, it's a wonderfully terrific atmosphere that further adds to the feeling of misery and gloom.

So, there you have it. Demon's Souls is a fantastic game that ignores traditional game mechanisms while bringing some wonderfully new mechanics along. When you finally manage to make your way through a forbidding castle, careful every step of the way, and manage to defeat the boss at the end, the game truly makes you feel a sense of accomplishment few other games can achieve. It's not hard for me to say that Demon's Souls is not only my favorite game of 2009, but one of my favorite games of all time.


Little Earl said...

But what does this have to do with the '80s?

Herr Zrbo said...

Is it 80s month at the Cosmic American?

In other news, I finally picked up Beatles: Rock Band for the low, low price of 6.99. It's fun and the visual/art design is fantastic.

Little Earl said...

Sounds like a steal. I would look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on Beatles: Rock Band Zrbo, even if it doesn't happen to be one of your "favorite games of 2009." I would also look forward to playing it sometime. Or at least watching you play it.