Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Demon's Souls, pt.5: Fairness

At one of the few times I was about to quit Demon's Souls, I turned to reviews for a boost. After all, if so many gamers hadn't already christened the game, I wouldn't have given it as much time as I did. I wanted to know why I should continue playing.

While watching reviews, one of the things that struck me was all of them claiming something to the effect of, "Demon's Souls is hard, but it's fair," and that "you always feel like you died because of something you did, and could have prevented." Mmm, no.

It's true that most of the combat damage in the game can be avoided with extreme care once you understand how enemies fight -- enemies teach you how they fight by killing you; the game simply doesn't offer much leeway for getting hit, nor does it offer many initially readable cues. However, there are many environmental situations that are designed to kill you without giving you any cues. For example, you walk across a bridge only to learn that a dragon will swoop across and kill you with its fiery breath. In another area, trying to run between swoops, I find out that if you are too efficient at running between breaths, you also die. In another section, I walk forward only to find the ground beneath me collapse, and I fall to my death. In fact, the game loves death falls, and puts them all around you. You will fall many times, whether because an enemy knocks you off the edge, or you think it's a place you can land on only to find out it isn't, etc. All of these scenarios can be very frustrating.

Presumably, though, the reason for these scenarios is the feature that allows players to leave messages of warning for each other in the game world. If the players had nothing valuable to warn each other about, no one would appreciate the system. This design intention works. When another player warns you adequately, it feels great. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit of spam in the game, and players cannot custom tailor their messages, making their hints rather inadequate. In one particularly frustrating moment, I went through a large section of a level and saw a message to "attack" some weakened planks nearby. The intention was good, since it was to release a bunch of boulders down a ramp that trample the enemies on it. But without understanding the situation, I attacked and was trampled myself. In scenarios like the dragon above, there was a message letting me know a safe location, but the predetermined hint messages had no way to warn me of going too fast. In another dragon scenario, I wanted to explain which type of fire breath to wait for before running, and where to run, but I had no way to compose that message.

Was it a sympathetic design notion? Yes. Did it make me appreciate the multiplayer component? When it worked. Would I use the term "fair" to describe it? No. The game is unfair on purpose, and really didn't need critics defending it.

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