So I’ve finally managed to get my hands on a copy of Demon’s Souls. It’s been out long enough for me to glean its reputation for being an adamantium-tough nut to crack in terms of gameplay difficulty, just a smidge less forgiving than the God of the Old Testament. But I’ve also been assured that it amply rewards patience and dedication. Both assessments have proven entirely accurate. I spent my first 4-5 hours with the game logging a series of failed attempts at scaling the outer ramparts of Boletaria Castle, a gorgeously imposing bulwark that has presumably driven many an invading army batty with despair.
Thing is, I’m no army. I’m just one man; actually, in the case of my particular Demon’s Souls character profile, just one woman. (When it comes to selecting my gender for a role-playing character, I find it gratifyingly aberrant to save the world as the damsel under duress). If I have feminist tendencies, the game apparently does too, refusing to take it easy on me for playing as the fairer gender. One particularly formidable, spear-wielding soldier guts me like a pig when I reach a narrow strip of battlement along the outer wall. The first time we square off, it takes all of two, maybe three seconds for him to turn me into an oversized kebab skewer.
The one thing you do with epic regularity in Demon’s Souls is die. Sometimes spectacularly, charred to a crispy husk by the earth-rattling, fiery spew of a dragon swooping overhead; sometimes mundanely, falling through a cracked bit of ledge in a dimly lit prison corridor.
The good news is that Demon’s Souls lets you try a level as many times as you like. The bad news is that you’re forced to start at the beginning of the level when you die, undertaking the cruel schlep yet again to said problem spot. Even though it might just be a single enemy that you need to practice fighting, you’re going to burn several minutes each attempt, just clawing back to that point in the stage. Oh, and there’s badder news: the punishment for dying involves playing as a phantom with half the health bar you enjoyed while drawing breath. In order to come back to life, you must either defeat a boss demon or use a precious enchanted stone that is difficult to come by. ‘Good luck,’ you imagine the game saying, with a derisive chuckle.
Those first 4-5 hours, I must’ve played the same 8-minute stretch of Boletaria Castle roughly 1.5 gazillion times. Sometimes I’d make it to the aforementioned Sir Lance-a-Lot and succumb once more to his lethal spear tip. Other times, I’d get sloppy and one of the lesser enemies sprinkled between those two points would drop me with a projectile firebomb or garden-variety sword slash. When you restart a level, all the enemies reappear in the same location as before. This allows you, albeit through grinding repetition, to study (and ultimately memorize) their behavior—attacks, movements, weaknesses, etc.
One spot of advice if you're planning on giving Demon’s Souls a go—before you ever peel off the shrink wrap and insert the game disc—print out Thomas Edison’s popular quote about his failed light-bulb prototypes and tape it to the rim of whatever TV or monitor you’ll be playing the game on: “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
While climatizing to this trial-and-error hamster wheel, I questioned why I was devoting precious hours of my life to such a ball-busting game in the first place. I thought incessantly of giving up, crying uncle, ripping the game disc out of my PlayStation 3 and carving it up with a fork the way sufferers of Stendhal syndrome have assaulted the Mona Lisa at various times over the years.
Stendhal believed such aggression was brought on by a rare form of vertigo that afflicts certain individuals when exposed to great works of art. Personally, I think the Mona Lisa asks for it, with that insufferable smirk on her face. Demon’s Souls’ gameplay design choices wear a similar expression. You either ignore its jeering and press on, refining your skills until they’re sufficient. Or you get dizzy with frustration, unhinged by the apparent futility of your striving. Having pushed through the pain and finally embraced Demon's Souls' masochistic charms, I now regard it with the same admiration so many Louvre-clogging tourists afford Madame Gioconda.
Despite the game’s Tolkien-inspired milieu and bevy of fantasy-RPG videogame conventions, Demon’s Souls’ most suitable movie analog is not Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Rather, Demon’s Souls is the unlikely fraternal twin of Harold Ramis’ 1993 comedy Groundhog Day. In the film, Bill Murray plays an egotistical weatherman named Phil Connors who gets stuck covering a human-interest story in the quaint town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. After a blizzard strands his crew, a bizarre temporal anomaly forces him to live the same day over and over again.
Every day he is faced with the same exact batch of characters and circumstances, yet he retains his free will and can make a new set of decisions each time he encounters them. Towards the end of the movie he finally wakes up to the realization that he’s a sarcastic prick and his chirpy assistant Rita (Andie MacDowell), whom he once regarded with contempt, is an altogether lovely person. So he sets out to woo his beloved, using each day to learn her quirks and get to know what she loves and hates. You get the sense that he’s spent years and years trying to figure out the perfect combination of actions to make her fall for him. A funny quick-cut montage of her slapping him in the face in response to his kiss overture on different days perfectly encapsulates Connors' string of botched attempts to win her over.
To play Demon’s Souls is to know what Murray’s character felt like in the midst of that face-slap montage. You try one approach—face slap, start the level over. You try a slightly different approach—face slap, back to square one. You try the first approach again but you finesse it ever so slightly—face slap, square one. Attempt #147—face slap, square one. Attempt #521—face slap, square one. You get the idea.
Needless to say, Groundhog Day has a happy ending. Phil and Rita eventually fall blissfully in love, breaking the curse. That final day in Punxsutawney plays out so perfectly, watching Connors' A-game is like hearing Seamus Heaney recite one of his poems. Every syllable and mark of punctuation, every iamb and line break and word choice feels transcendentally right. And if you persist with Demon’s Souls, I guarantee you the specific play-through that finally guides you to victory on a given level—even if it happens to be attempt #2,429, bleary-eyed at 4am—will feel just as effortlessly poetic. And you’ll never want to press the eject button, exorcising Demon’s Souls from your PlayStation 3, ever again.
I’ll leave you with one final snatch of Phil Connor dialogue from Groundhog Day that could nearly be attributed to my Demon’s Souls protagonist: “I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted and burned. I am an immortal.”
Jason Killingsworth is Paste’s games editor. He is based in Dublin, Ireland, and writes about music, film, tech and games for a variety of outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @jasonkill or drop him a line at jason [at] pastemagazine.com.
[To read Paste's official review of Demon's Souls, click here.]