Review | 8/2/2011 at 12:26 PM

Demon's Souls Co-Op Review

Seek soul power...

We recently decided a Demon's Souls Co-Op Review was long overdue.  Why?  Because it's August, that's why.  There have been countless reviews of the difficult  PS3 title.  Well, they're probably countable, but who's got that kind of time?  The game has been out for almost two years.  The sequel, Dark Souls, is coming this October.  That same month, poor little Demon's Souls' servers will shut down, effectively ending co-op play forever.  For this review we'll be focusing on co-op, mainly because Demon's Souls is a very deep game.  I originally wrote a 4000 word draft with more on the way.  Nick and Mike recommended that I cut it down, mentioning something about me being out of my mind and attention spans on the internet...  (I even left out a lot of good stuff, too.)  Without further ado, the Demon's Souls Co-Op Review.

Demon's Souls starts out simply enough.  Choose a character from one of ten classes.  You'll be able to change your character's physical appearance and compare their stats, but the only way to find out exactly what type of gear or spells each class comes equipped with is to read the manual.  Holy crap!  When's the last time you had to do that?

You'll know if Demon's Souls is the right game for you about halfway through the first level.  A lot of people just quit out of frustration.  You begin the game at the gates of the the ravaged Boletarian palace.  Think of a giant medieval castle crawling with shambling, desiccated soldiers, demonic knights, and fire breathing dragons and you'll get the idea.  You're character will be in Soul Form, which means this opening level is a single player affair only, no co-op just yet.

The first thing that you'll notice is that while in Soul Form you only have half a life bar.  The next thing you'll notice is that it doesn't take much to deplete that wispy little life bar.  You will quickly discover that even the grunts in Demon's Souls mean business.  If you aren't careful you will soon be 1) overwhelmed and 2) dead.   Actually, even if you are careful, you're still going to die.  A lot.  The game's infamous difficulty is truly staggering, and a single mistimed block or parry can kill you.  Demon's Souls feels and controls more like an action game than an RPG.  You will need to be skilled at combat and you must have the ability to analyze enemy weaknesses.   Even once you've thoroughly powered up your character you will still need superior fighting skills to defeat medium level enemies.  

Look at that mouthful of medium level enemies.  Just kidding!  The dragon is the mid-level boss.  I'm not kidding.

The Host Player and a Blue Phantom.  I think they're trying to surrender.

Passive Co-Op

If you have been playing online you may have noticed a few peculiar things as you move through the world.  You'll see the ghostly images of other players passing through your game.  The effect can be unsettling at times.  You will also see bloodstains.  Lots and lots of bloodstains.  These are where other real life players have perished.  When you touch their bloodstain a translucent red ghost will re-enact their final moments in real time in your own game.  These displays can signal a precipitous fall ahead, a devious trap, a hidden foe, or other dangers.

Players can also leave messages for one another from a list of pre-set phrases.  You may see a message that says "Use fire on the next enemy" or "Beware of false messages."  Yes, people will mess with you, even with the simple message system.  Players can recommend any message they come across.  Each time they do, the player who wrote it will recover health.  


Active Co-Op

Once you've defeated the first boss you will get your body back.  Your life bar will be fully replenished, and you'll be free to adventure in the horrible, demon infested land.  The pathways of the hub world will open, and you will be free to explore the rest of Boletaria.  There are five specific areas, each with it's own enemies and dangers.  You'll also receive the Blue Eye Stone, which will let you  play the game cooperatively.

Not so fast!  There's a catch.  Actually, there are lots of catches.  Demon's Souls has a very unique multiplayer experience.  People either love it or hate it.  I've found very little middle ground.  How you go about playing co-op depends on what "form" your character currently has.  You can play the game in either Body Form or Soul Form.  You may only co-op with players who are close to your level range.  So you can't play with a level 500 player when you yourself are only at level 23.

A player in Soul Form in the Nexus hub.

When you are in Body Form you will have a full life bar.  You'll do a little less damage than you would in Soul Form.  Blue Eye Stone messages will appear throughout the world.  They'll most likely be located at the beginning of an area or right before a boss fight.  These are markers that other players have left, offering their services.  When you examine a Blue Eye Stone you will see a player's name, how many co-op experiences they've had, and their co-op grades.  (At the end of each co-op session you will grade each other's performance.  Souls earned from the final boss battle will be divided amongst players according to the grades they are given.)

While in Body Form you can summon up to two other players to aid you.   You will act as the Host Player.  All game progress will occur only in your world.  Summoned players will enter your game as friendly Blue Phantoms.  These Blue Phantoms can kill enemies and interact with the environment (throw switches, break objects).  They cannot pick up any items in your world unless you drop them from your own inventory.  They cannot interact with the few NPC's you'll come across.  You will both earn souls for defeating enemies.  There is no form of in-game chat.  You can use the tedious PS3 messaging system, but without the ability to pause the game, that is ill advised.  The three of you may communicate through a few gestures from a menu you can pull up by holding the 'X' button.  The gestures are essentially useless, and totally unwieldy in battle.  It's pretty much understood that you'll be attempting to fight the boss together, and the Blue Phantoms will generally take your lead.  

This unspoken communication gives the co-op an interesting feel.  When played solo, Demon's Souls has an oppressive feeling of loneliness.  Once your silent partners arrive, there is little you can do to express your will.  You know that you each share a common goal, and the cooperative gameplay is fueled by the need to stay close to each other and work in tandem to defeat enemies.  As the host you can dismiss uncooperative Blue Phantom players if you wish, so they usually stay close and help out.  Everyone wants a piece of the Boss Demon soul smorgasbord, and to do that they need to earn high grades from their peers.  Blue Phantoms need to be the best co-op player they can be.  And so does the Host, for that matter.

If you take on multiple enemies at once, you are going to die.

If you see an enemy with red eyes, you are going to die.

You can only summon other players while in Body Form.  You must be in a level of your own game world where the Boss Demon is still alive.  Once you have defeated the Boss Demon you can still go back and explore the level, but you can no longer summon other players to aid you.  When the Boss Demon is defeated the co-op session is over.  The Blue Phantoms are returned to their own world, where they are revived in Body Form themselves.  You can then move on to the next level, where you can once again summon Blue Phantoms.

When playing in Soul Form you will have only half of your life bar, but you will generally be able to do more damage in combat. You cannot summon other players.  Other players' Blue Eye Stones won't even appear in your world, so long as you are in Soul Form.  You can place your own Blue Eye Stone almost anywhere in a level.  You will want to set it in a nice open location.  If you hide it, no one will summon you.  You can either wait around to be summoned or continue on through the level.  A notification message will eventually appear, saying "You are being summoned to another world," and then you will spawn in a Host player's game as a Blue Phantom.  You will then play the game as you normally would, except you cannot pick up items unless the summoning Body Form player drops them for you.  Don't count on it.

He looks much larger in the game.  You'll probably pee a little. It's okay.

Once you defeat the boss you will return to your own world, now in Body Form.  You will most likely have a large number of souls for your efforts which you should spend immediately.  What really matters is the practical game experience you've gained.  Now you have been through the level, and you will have seen enemy weaknesses, what techniques work best against the  boss, and the locations of items and incredibly important shortcuts.  Unfortunately, you will still have to beat the boss in your own world.  None of the level progress from your Blue Phantom adventures will carry over to your game.  Now, of course, you are in Body Form, so you can summon your own Blue Phantoms to aid you.  Once a boss is defeated in a world it will not respawn until a new-game-plus has been started.

Death is a harsh  mistress in Demon's Souls.  If the Host Player dies the co-op session is over.  The Host Player will respawn in Soul Form in their own world.  Any souls they may have gained in the session will be left in a soul-drenched bloodstain near the location of their demise.  Blue Phantoms are returned to their own world in Soul Form with whatever souls they had intact.  If a Blue Phantom is defeated, they simply reappear in their own world, once again in Soul Form.

There is no Friends List invite system or in-game lobby.  Co-op play is based upon your silent interaction with strangers.  If you want to team up with a friend, you'll have to make co-op arrangements about when and where one of you will drop a Blue Eye Stone through some other means.  And then you'll have to be within level range of each other, and it will have to be in an area where the host player hasn't defeated the boss.  Inventive players will figure out how to play cooperatively, with voice chat, and with their friends.  (We used Xbox LIVE.  Blasphemy, I know.)

These guys aren't even that tough, but, you guessed it, you are still going to die.

Black Phantoms can crap all over your gaming experience.

The Inevitable Player Vs. Player

Black Phantoms are the bane of Demon's Souls co-op.  These jerks will ruin your day.  One of the drawbacks to playing in Body Form is that your game is now vulnerable to Black Phantom invasions.  These are other players who will enter your game and their only goal is to kill you and your party.  Black Phantoms can earn massive soul rewards by killing Blue Phantoms and they will regain their own Body Form if they defeat the Host player.  In-game enemies will totally ignore them.

The good news is that a Black Phantom will always be a lower level than the host player.  You can only be invaded by one Black Phantom at a time.  Since Black Phantoms invade at random, you may play for hours without seeing one.  The bad news is that there is no way to turn this "feature" off. You may think that this isn't a problem, because you can simply summon two Blue Phantoms while in Body Form, and you'll have a three-on-one advantage.  

Wrong. The god-awful news is that there are people who have been playing the game since 2009.  You'll recognize them right away.  They invade without wearing any armor.  They'll ninja roll all over the place and then stab you in the back like a, well, like a ninja.  There's also a fairly well known glitch that allows even low level characters access to very powerful weapons.  Eventually you'll get good at PvP and this will present less of a problem.  But no matter how good you get, it's still easy to die in the game, whether you're in Body Form, Soul Form, or a Blue or Black Phantom.  

I should note that you can play the whole game in Soul Form.  You'll only have half of you health, but you will never be invaded.  If you are online you'll experience the passive co-op features (white ghosts, bloodstains, and messages) but you won't be able to summon other players.

The other stuff...

Demon's Souls has an incredible amount of extra features, including intelligent level designs, game changing items, and a ton of replay value.  A haunting soundtrack punctuates the boss battles.  There is an elaborate weapon creation system which uses materials that aren't even guaranteed to show up on every playthrough.  There are both World and Character Tendencies, where your actions can change the strength of enemies, open up new areas, and even spawn powerful NPC Black Phantoms.  To get a Platinum Trophy you need to finish the game multiple times, and each time you start a new-game-plus the enemies naturally become stronger.  If you are having a hard time with the game, but hate to admit defeat, I strongly suggest glancing at the Demon's Souls Wiki.  Ease into it on your first playthrough, or you'll ruin the game for yourself.  If you want to see my first-hand account of one of my early co-op experiences with the game you can check it out here.

According to the Co-Optimus definitionDemon's Souls is not that great of a co-op game.  In fact it's not a co-op game at all.  The only way you can play with someone else is to send out an open invitation for a random jerk to invade and ruin your game.  We usually don't cover versus or PvP games here, but Demon's Souls is a kind of hybrid exception to the rule.  You can play the game without encountering an enemy player, but it takes a little luck.  

What Demon's Souls has going for it is that it is an incredibly rewarding experience that uses cooperative gameplay elements.  If you get a good party together you will have few problems, even from Black Phantoms.  The randomness of the game makes this very difficult.  If you enjoy a little PvP with your co-op, I cannot recommend this game enough.  Demon's Souls is one of the most incredible games from this console generation.  Right now you can find it for under $20 bucks, and I highly recommend it, especially since you won't be able to play online after October.  We have our fingers crossed that the upcoming sequel, Dark Souls, will at least have an option for a more co-op friendly experience.