'Demon's Souls' Debrief

by Scott Juster

23 August 2012

Demon's Souls didn't end the way that I expected it would end, but that probably shouldn't have surprised me.

This post contains spoilers relating to the ending of Demon’s Souls.

A few months ago, when I thought Demon’s Souls multiplayer was going offline, I wrote up some of my experiences with the game’s unusual multiplayer elements.  I was burning through the game as quickly as possible (which wasn’t all that fast), but it looked like I wouldn’t be able to finish the game in its original form.  Naturally, only a week after my article was posted, Atlas announced that the multiplayer servers would remain active!  My grueling trek to the end would remain filled with the questionable hints, hilarious death scenes, and downright terrifying hostile PvP invasions.

Several weeks ago, after many deaths and thousands of lost souls, I finally finished the game.  Now that the initial sense of numb disbelief has worn off, I wanted to return with a few more thoughts on Demon’s Souls and its conclusion.
The Funny Final Boss

Demon’s Souls is a brutally difficult game whose boss battles require fast reflexes, the right equipment, and plenty of patience to defeat.  I figured the last boss would be no different.  After all, he was the one who unleashed the rest of the demons that had killed me so many times, and he did reside within the body of a huge monster.  You have to be pretty tough to do that, right?

It turned out that the dispatching him was more of a mercy killing than a duel.  The old king I had been fearing for the entire game had been mutated into a slug-like monstrosity whose only attack was to weakly flop around in my general direction.  As I stood at a safe distance and fired magic spells at the helpless creatures, I couldn’t help but laugh.  It was poetically satisfying.  Finally, I was fully in control of a fight and just as overpowered as the monsters that had once destroyed me with similar ease.  In a game obsessed with statistics and manual dexterity, the final encounter was little more than an interactive metaphor.

Subtle Choices to the End

Whether it is converting a rare item into a spell, saving (or killing) an NPC, or simply travelling down a specific upgrade path, Demon’s Souls presents choices that can have drastic outcomes on the way the game plays out.  The trick is that the consequences of these choices are rarely highlighted.  Without a morality meter or quest log, you’re left to scrutinize stat changes, rely on advice from other players, or suss out the ramifications by paying attention to what other characters say.

Each choice I made was deliberate, as I knew I could not undo it.  This led to an unfortunate habit of hoarding items (you know: “just in case”) and a bad case of buyer’s remorse whenever I converted a rare soul into an ability (“Was this spell really worth 40,000 souls?”).  Even choosing not to act carried consequences.  A character named Patches attempted to lure me into deadly traps multiple times throughout the game.  Each time, I was tempted to simply destroy him, but I thought I would eventually have some sort of use for him.  I resolved to wait and kill him before the end of the game, but my plan for revenge was thwarted when he was consumed by the creeping evil I was fighting against.  Instead of the satisfaction of revenge, I was left wondering what would have happened if I had done something different.  Or, for that matter, anything at all.

Demon’s Souls’ finale presents a final choice that is equally inscrutable.  After destroying the last boss, your companion (The Maiden in Black) congratulates you and explains that she will lure the Old One (the source of the demons and their souls) back to sleep, thus ridding the world of its influence.  However, the game leaves it up to you to either believe her and walk away or to end the game on a more selfish note.  For a moment, I wondered what would happen if I turned my sword on her and tried to assume the power of the ultimate demon.  Having no idea of what the consequences would be, I took the coward’s way out and left while resolving to just look it up on YouTube.

Grinding for Patience

This ambiguous ending encapsulates one of the main things that sets Demon’s Souls apart from most other modern games; it requires a lot of patience.  Whether it is honing your dodging skills, trying to gauge your impact on the story, or playing the meta-game of digging through the community’s knowledge, it’s not a game about instant gratification.

So while I cursed the traps and blind corners that made up many of the levels, slowly mapping them by studying the paths and shortcuts was ultimately satisfying.  Getting killed by low-level enemies was definitely frustrating, but it was refreshing to play a game that demanded so much of my attention.  The weapon and item attributes are bafflingly arcane, but they’ve also inspired people to collaborate to assemble one of the most impressive game guides that I’ve ever used.  When I realized that my character was woefully underpowered and I probably needed to respec to become a magic user if I wanted to survive, things felt bleak.  But, step by step and soul by soul, I was able to reshape my abilities and play style.

Therein lies Demon’s Souls’ appeal; its difficulty forces you to slow down, make a plan, and then improve your skills until you can execute it.  The patience required to get to the end of the game makes experiencing its absurd hilarity and ambiguity all the more satisfying.

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