So, at the moment, all of my attention is focused on holding my breath while the initial run of Red Steel 2 makes its way through the long, torturous path that ends in your livingroom (if you own a Wii). As much as I’d love to wax poetic about the progress of the game, that will have to wait for now. This is the “baited breath” period, as I mentioned.

In the meantime, though, I have some stuff completely unrelated to Red Steel 2 to discuss. If that’s of no interest, you may consider yourself warned.

Actually, it’s not completely unrelated. There’s swords in this topic, too. No guns, though.

I want to talk to you about

Heard of it? If you have, or if you’ve played it, you have my condolences. You know the pain of which I speak… glorious though it may be.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Wayyyy back in the never-never of, uh, well, a while ago anyway, an import review popped up on Eurogamer for a then-somewhat-unknown-in-the-states Japanese import with the nearly-unpronounceable title of “Demon’s Souls”.

The game sported armored knights, undead hordes, and general smashery. It looked slow and dark and, uh, kinda boring, actually.

It was the actual words in the review that got our attention:

The game’s five worlds – all massive – are split into four different sections, each guarded by a horribly large and hardcore boss monster. Everything in the entire world is designed to kill you, quickly and often without warning.

When you die in Demon’s Souls – and you will die, a lot – you lose your physical body, becoming a soul with half a health bar (although in practice it’s more like a three quarters, as there’s a ring in the very first world that lets you cling a little closer to life). The only way to get it back is to kill a boss monster.

To summarise, you end up playing the vast majority of Demon’s Souls as either a dead person or a dead person with no money. Every time you die, you start again at the beginning, with all the enemies you just struggled to overcome back where they were. There is no compromise. There’s not even a pause button. You get better, or you get nowhere.

Precisely because the odds are so stacked against you, precisely because the game sometimes seems to hate you with every fibre of its being, when you do finally kill the bastard f***-off enormous boss monster that ended you within half a minute the first time you approached it, the resulting heart-in-mouth euphoria is the purest kind of gaming thrill. Demon’s Souls is about facing up to the impossible, and winning.

That kind of print will have one of two kinds of effects: either you’ll wisely nod, frown, and turn the page, wondering what kind of damn fool would want to abuse him/herself so badly as to endure such suffering…

…or, you tilt your head slightly forward, glare at your screen from under dark eyebrows, half-raise one eyebrow, and smile. That wicked, knowing kind of smile. A smile that will raise the hairs on the back of nervous men. A smile that speaks words. “Oh yes,” this smile says, “they will fall. They… will… fall.

Two guesses which response I had.

Wait, actually, just one guess. With two, you could just guess both, and since there’s only two answers, uh. Wait.

Anyway, shut up! The point is that I had to clean the drool off of my goddamn keyboard, okay?? I literally ran into my buddy’s office (the one who had sent me the link to the preview) and insisted – nay, DEMANDED – that he explain himself further.

We learned everything we could about it, and confirmed to my satisfaction that the initial presentations were not fabricated. The game, it seemed, would kill the shit out of you.

It wasn’t available for sale anywhere but Asia at the time, and so I didn’t press the point much further in the months to come, other than to tell myself “next time I’m in Asia, I’ll be sure to pick that up” – this led to some confusion, actually. Uh. Maybe we should skip this part.

Listen, the eventual and inevitable “North American version” was announced after I stopped digging up data, okay? So I didn’t personally even know that there was an English version other than the Chinese one, see. And, I managed to switch the Chinese version and the Japanese version in my head, so…

Anyway. I bought the Japanese version when I was in Tokyo for TGS, not realizing that:

  • the North American (English) version was coming, and soon.
  • contrary to what I had come to believe, the Japanese version had no English menus in it – it was the Chinese version that had those, apparently.

I didn’t have the Chinese version. I had the Japanese version.

So, for a great long while, what I had at home was a game that I desperately wanted to play, but in fact could not actually bring myself to boot, knowing the unending frustration that waited within, given that every piece of displayed text in it would be in freaking Japanese. As fascinated as I am by that language, I do not read or speak it, not even a little bit.

Okay, okay, so that by itself would have been fine – I could maybe have eBayed the damn thing, and replaced it, or something along those lines. But…

…see, my son started playing it (the Japanese version). Beyond the profound shame I experienced at being out-hardcore’d by my own son, the fact was that when he got totally into it that “replace the version with another version” door sort of swung close with a malignant click.

“Just buy another copy!” the Japanese version would taunt, lying there on the shelf beside the plastic black monolith that is the PS3. “It’ll be worth it!”

Grit teeth. Snarl at world.

So, it wasn’t until my recent trip to the GDC in San Francisco that I managed to work up the gumption to go ahead and drop another $60 on the damn thing. But I did. Yes, people – I have spent approximated $120 on Demon’s Souls. Yes, I did.

You know what? They deserve it. You know why?

That’s why. This is my Demon’s Souls character profile. Yes, that is play time, and yes, that’s hours and minutes. I’ve logged that much time in…

(…don’t want to do this math…)

…just under two weeks.

Those of you who don’t know me may not have experience with this behavior. Ideally, as I am probably speaking mostly to gamers at this point, those numbers might not have the kind of effect on you that they have on, say, my mom.

Although supportive of my endeavors to date (thanks, mom!), she, along with many of my friends, utterly fail to comprehend that I could spend what amounts to a full-time job’s amount of time on something quite like this.

…57 hours!! And I’m still not even done with the first run-through!

This is, perhaps, because I am a little bit of a grinder when I play. Some. Kinda. Okay, actually, I often play games as an excuse to grind. Sick, right? This, by the way, is why I can’t play Pokémon any more, or ever again. That damn game eats my life in the same way that tsunamis eat coastal villages. There is little left behind to rebuild from, you see.

Whatever. What is my point here? What in the hell am I talking about? I wanted to tell you about Demon’s Souls, and I’ve run off into the Navel Gazing Highlands again. Ye gods, man.

Let me abruptly, and without much of a transition save for this uncomfortable sentence, get to the point.

Demon’s Souls is incredibly compelling, for all the reasons that much better writers than Yours Truly have already laid out. You don’t need me to explain to you how the structure of the game is well-conceived, how the open-ended system is empowering, blah dee blah blah blah – let’s leave that to the professionals, shall we? What I wanted to share with you was my enthusiasm for the game, first and foremost, and secondly, this:

Playing Demon’s Souls is, strangely, the most like being in a real sword fight than any experience I’ve had since playing Bushido Blade.

The actual motions that the weapons you choose make vary quite a bit, and the exact paths of those motions are crucial to your very survival. Mis-judge the length of your swing the tiniest bit, and often you’ll be contemplating your failure before a screen that reads plainly “YOU DIED”. Each weapon type has it’s own style, and often the reach of your weapon is a huge factor in choosing which one to go galavanting around with. Shield and sword? Two-hander with a parry? Two blades, perhaps? The devotion to realizing something like true combat is palpable here – it exudes from the very disc itself.

The cover of the game is just a dude in armor with a sword, man. Just sayin’.

I’m on the record as having some interest in this kind of gameplay. For that reason alone, Demon’s Souls would be inspiring and rewarding for me to play. That it then heaps so much more awesomeness on top of that, and then actively punishes you for trying to play it… but juuuuuuuuuust enough so that when you do overcome those astounding odds and finally drop that metal-shield-wielding forty-foot-tall mechanistic automaton who killed you fifteen goddamn times previously, the temptation is to shout “YEAH! TAKE THAT!”, and jump around like a loon…

…well, you really can’t beat that, IMHO. Not even with a stick.