Sonic and the Black Knight Review

Sonic and the Black Knight is the 2009, Wii-exclusive semi-sequel to Sonic and the Secret Rings, which together comprise the “Sonic Storybook series.” Whereas Secret Rings took the famous blue hedgehog to the world of Arabian Nights, Black Knight transports Sonic to the world of King Arthur. Though Sonic and the Black Knight is a considerable improvement over Secret Rings (not that that’s saying much), the fact that this ‘storybook’ sub-series was ended after two installments is probably an indication that it didn’t exactly turn the series into a winning formula.

The scenario is basically the same here as it was in Secret Rings: Sonic is transported to another world, in this case the aforementioned King Arthur stories (which are more legend than storybook, but who’s keeping track?). Sonic is summoned by a wizard named Merlina (Merlin’s a girl here because why not?). An evil sword has possessed King Arthur himself, who has now become the infamous Black Knight, and is turning the kingdom to chaos. With the hero of her world now its big villain, Merlina summons a hero from another world to save the day, and that hero just so happens to be Sonic.

So the story is basically the same, but I like the added detail that Sonic just happened to be the hero who was summoned, and that it could have potentially been someone else, as opposed to Secret Rings which had the oddly-specific prophesy of a blue hedgehog being required to save the storybook world. And I like that Sonic is just saving the storybook world here, no “the bad guy will eventually try to escape into Sonic’s world” nonsense.

In regards to gameplay, Sonic and the Black Knight utilizes a similar setup to its predecessor, but with some much-appreciated improvements. For starters, Sonic no longer runs forward automatically. Though the levels are still comprised of long, linear tracks that seem to allow an inconsistent freedom of movement (it’s almost like Sonic is better suited to 2D or something), the fact that the player actually has to move Sonic this time around is already a plus. In addition, jumping works by simply hitting the corresponding button (the ‘A’ button this time around, as Black Knight uses the Wii remote and nunchuck combo). No more holding the button to get Sonic to stop, and releasing it for him to take to the air. You push the button, and Sonic jumps. Beautiful.

The big difference here is that Sonic now wields a sword! Hey, it could be worse, they could have given a Sonic character a gun and had them say minor swears like “damn” in an attempt to be edgy. But I digress.

The sword is used by swinging the Wii remote, though the motion of the player’s movement isn’t matched by Sonic, making it closer to Twilight Princess’s swordplay than Skyward Sword’s admittedly underrated motion controls (though comparing Sonic and the Black Knight to Twilight Princess at all is being exceptionally generous on my part). The sword doesn’t add a whole lot of newness to the traditional 3D Sonic gameplay, but it’s decent. Certainly better than whatever Secret Rings was doing with the start-stop homing attacks.

Most stages see Sonic simply going from point A to point B, but some levels feature more unique objectives, like defeating a certain number of enemies or rescuing a certain amount of captured civilians before you reach the goal. These add a marginal amount of variety, but nothing really substantial. The one objective I really did not like, however, involves Sonic having to give some of his rings to the aforementioned civilians. You have to get Sonic so close just to talk to them, and then you have to press one, two or three buttons that appear on-screen, all in a split second. It’s not too bad, but usually these missions have only just barely enough opportunities to give away your rings that, if you fail even one, you’re probably going to fail the mission. It also doesn’t help that the game fails to tell you about how this “mini-game” works (the description I gave above is more than the game feels the need to explain). So when the first time I gave someone rings I needed to press the A button, I assumed that’s all there was to it. So when I instinctively pressed the A button several other times and failed to give the civilian my rings, I was baffled why it didn’t work. Again, it’s not overly difficult or cryptic, but if you’re going to make a mini-game out of something so simple, maybe you should communicate that with the player? Just a thought.

The game also features a kind of item system, where certain items will grant different bonuses when equipped. Like in Secret Rings, you can gain experience points after a stage, though here they are called “Identification Points” and are used to identify items you find within the stages (different items will cost different amounts of IP to “identify”). Once identified, you can equip the items by visiting the blacksmith (Tails) in between stages. It’s admittedly another improvement over Secret Rings, but like that game’s leveling system, it still feels like a missed opportunity to be something more.

Most of the bosses here are Sonic characters reworked into different knights of King Arthur (specifically Knuckles, Shadow and Blaze. I take it Robotnik didn’t want to be a part of another storybook entry). It’s here where the game really slips up. These boss fights are easy in a really bizarre way. Now, there’s nothing wrong with easy boss fights, but what we have here is a special case. You basically commence in a duel with the other Sonic characters, but it seems like there’s no real strategy to them. Knuckles and Shadow both kicked my ass, but I still managed to beat them both on my first try without any real timing or strategy with my swings. Blaze was a slightly more fleshed out fight, but nothing to write home about.

The “final” boss is King Arthur himself (and I put final in quotation marks because this is one of those games that pretends to have post-game content by simply putting the staff credits after a boss partway through the main story, as opposed to actually feeling like there’s more to do once the story is done). This fight is different, and is the one point of the game that’s frustratingly difficult. You chase King Arthur, who is mounted on a horse (in fact he’s on horseback even in cutscenes. Sega couldn’t afford to make a second character model for him I guess).

You have to catch up with King Arthur, despite the fact that Sonic is supposed to be able to run at the speed of sound (at least give me a reason why this horse is faster than Sonic. Even something like “it’s not Sonic’s world so he can’t use his powers to their fullest” would suffice). Once you slash one of the king’s projectiles back at him, you’ll get the energy needed to catch up to him. Once you do, you’re supposed to counter his slashes with slashes of your own, but that’s way easier said than done, because the timing is so quick and precise it makes the aforementioned ring-giving mini-game feel like a Metal Gear Solid cinematic. I kid you not, I had to redo this fight so many times that the next day my arm was sore from swinging it like a madman.

On the plus sides, Sonic and the Black Knight, like its predecessor, is a great looking Wii game that still looks great. It has that cheesy but somehow infectious music that 3D Sonic games are known for. And this game is mercifully shorter than Sonic and the Secret Rings. I completed Black Knight within two play sessions on the same day (or at least completed up to King Arthur, I saw those end credits and figured that was good enough for me to duck out).

Sonic and the Black Knight suffers from many of the same issues as Secret Rings, but just not as badly. Thankfully, the fact that the player actually controls Sonic this time around, and the fact that jumping works so simply make it a far more playable experience. It’s nothing special, and the years since have made it even less so. Perhaps there was some potential in this “Sonic Storybook” idea if it were allowed to continue, but it seems like Sega has long-since abandoned the concept. Though perhaps that’s for the best. After all, when the simple act of pressing A to jump can be considered a vast improvement, it doesn’t exactly say a whole lot for the series.

 

4

Sonic and the Secret Rings Review

The 2000s were not kind to Sonic the Hedgehog. After the discontinuation of the Dreamcast and the transition to a third-party, Sega seemed to try one experiment after another to try and make Sonic work in 3D. Among these experiments was a unique entry in the series for the Nintendo Wii that saw Sonic transported to the storybook world of Arabian Nights. Released for Nintendo’s motion-controlled sensation in 2007, Sonic and the Secret Rings was the result of Sega being unable to port the 2006 Sonic the Hedgehog title to Nintendo’s graphically weaker system (Nintendo dodged a bullet there). So they made a Wii exclusive in the Sonic series instead, one that would naturally take advantage of the Wii’s unique hardware.

The Wii got a lot of flack for its trademark motion controls, and while much of that was unwarranted (Nintendo consistently made it work for their own games), there was still that litter of third-party titles that almost seemed to force the motion controls into their gameplay, without having any idea of how to do it. And since we’re talking about a 3D Sonic game that isn’t Sonic Generations, well, I think you know where this is going.

As mentioned, Sonic and the Secret Rings sees Sonic transported to the world of Arabian Nights. A friendly genie named Shahra transports Sonic to the storybook world, as an evil genie named Erazor Djinn is conquering the world of the book, and if he gains control of the seven Secret Rings, he will become powerful enough to leave the book and conquer Sonic’s world. So Shahra has recruited Sonic – as an oddly specific prophecy foretells of a blue hedgehog from another world saving her own – to stop Erazor Djinn.

It’s an unspectacular plot, but the thing that always makes me scratch my head with plots like this is how they always emphasize that the villain of the ‘fictional world within the world’ plans to conquer the outside world in order for the hero to jump into action. Sure, it’s a storybook, but within the context of the game’s story, the people of the book are living beings, so why does Sonic’s world need to be in peril for him to take part? The only time this detail made any sense was with the Wario series, since Wario is supposed to be a greedy jerk only looking out for himself. But isn’t Sonic supposed to be heroic? So if these storybook characters are real within the game’s story, adding the additional threat to the hero’s world always seems weird to me.

Oh well, Sonic games aren’t known for quality storytelling, anyway. And all the change of setting really accomplishes is casting Sonic regulars as characters from Arabian Nights (Tails becomes Ali Baba, Knuckles is Sinbad, etc.). The important thing is how well does the game play?

Sadly, the answer is not very well…at all.

The game is controlled with the Wii remote held on its side, with Sonic himself running automatically, as if this were an on-rails game. Admittedly, putting Sonic in such a game isn’t the worst idea that’s been thrown at the famous blue hedgehog, but in execution Sonic and the Secret Rings continuously stumbles.

One of the main problems is jumping. Being a platforming action game, that is no small complaint. Pressing the Wii remote’s ‘1’ button doesn’t simply jump, but brings Sonic to a dead stop to charge up a jump, with Sonic only taking to the air when the button is released. In order to attack, Sonic has to be in midair, and the player must thrust the Wii remote forward once a target locks onto an enemy. And remember, all this while Sonic is automatically running forward. Suffice to say it feels really awkward.

Worse still is when Sonic comes to a dead end, and has to defeat a mid-boss or a horde of enemies to progress. In such instances, Sonic will run into the end of the road, with the player having to tilt the Wii remote backwards in order for Sonic to move back in return (which is easier said than done as Sonic seems to get glued to the wall) and even if you manage to get Sonic to move the way you want him to, the camera will still stubbornly stay in place. This quickly becomes a source of aggravation, to the point that you have to wonder if anyone at Sega bothered to test the game before releasing the finished product.

The controls are, simply put, an unmitigated disaster.

Sonic and the Secret Rings tries its hand at implementing RPG elements, with Sonic gaining experience points upon completion of a stage. Once Sonic gets enough experience points, he levels up, and Sonic can learn new abilities once he levels up or completes certain stages. It’s a fun idea in theory, but Sega even manages to drop the ball here.

Before beginning a stage, the player can select one of four customizable rings. As you level up, you can equip more abilities to a ring. The problem though, is why do you need more than one ring? If each ring had a limit to how many abilities you can equip to it, then it would make sense why you’d have to choose wisely at which ring to use at which time. But since all the rings level up with Sonic, and he can keep stacking one ability after another within the same ring, why do you even have to choose between the different rings?

Yet another issue with the game is its lack of communication with the player. For example, in one of the tutorials, the game wanted me to do a starting boost (thrusting the Wii remote forward during an opening countdown, similar to a racing game). I kept doing it exactly as the game told me, to no success. Eventually I had to look online and found out that the starting boost is an ability that needs to be equipped first! That’s kind of an important detail to leave out. Maybe inform the player that they need to unlock and equip this ability next time? Or maybe don’t let the player select that tutorial until they have the ability equipped? If something’s a part of an available tutorial, the player is going to assume they already have access to what they need for that tutorial.

If there are any redeeming qualities to Sonic and the Secret Rings, it’s in the aesthetics. Though the Wii was less graphically powerful than its contemporaries, Sonic and the Secret Rings was one of the rare Wii games that looked great in its day, without needing the caveat of “for a Wii game” to be added to the end of such a statement. And it still looks impressive, all things considered. The music is pretty good as well, though the game’s insistence on featuring its vocal theme song Seven Rings in Hand during every segment between stages is maybe a bit much.

In its day, Sonic and the Secret Rings was considered an ‘average’ outing for the Blue Blur. Though the years since its release have unraveled Sonic and the Secret Rings’s highlights and magnified its many shortcomings. The game largely feels like it plays itself, and when the player does have control, it feels so awkward and clunky it barely feels like you’re controlling it at all. To hammer things home, the very same year saw Mario star in an all-time great in Super Mario Galaxy on the very same platform. 2007, it seems, reflected the overall trajectory of Nintendo and Sega’s mascots.

 

3

Puyo Puyo 2 Review

*Review based on Puyo Puyo 2’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service*

Puyo Puyo is one of the most popular falling block puzzle series in gaming history. So it can be a little strange to go back and see how skittish publishers were with releasing the series in the west. The original Puyo Puyo received a makeover with established gaming franchises on the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo with Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine and Kirby’s Avalanche, respectively. Meanwhile, the second entry didn’t even get a western release on home consoles until it was made available on retro downloadable services like the Wii’s Virtual Console and, most recently, the Nintendo Switch’s SNES Online service.

The gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 should be familiar to anyone who’s played the series: multi-colored blobs fall from the top of the screen in clumps of two, which the player can move around and rotate. If you match up at least four blobs of the same color together, you will eliminate them from the screen. And if you plan and strategize the placements of the blobs well enough, you can connect more than four of them or even get a chain of eliminations one after the other, with both scenarios resulting in you sending marble-like ‘trash’ blocks to your opponent. The marbles will of course make get in your way, making it more difficult to connect the blobs. But if you can eliminate blobs adjacent to the marbles, you can remove them from your board. But should the blobs and marbles reach the top of the screen, it’s game over.

The adjustments to the core gameplay are minimal, with the biggest difference being that it takes bigger stacks of blobs and more chains of eliminations to send marbles to your opponent than the first game. The minimal changes aren’t really an issue though. Puzzle games are – along with platformers – the genre that represents gaming at its purest, and because of that, they never really lose any of their appeal no matter how much time passes. And Puyo Puyo, I must say, is one of the most fun and addicting of puzzle games.

The major differences here are that the game can be played with up to four players, which was a rarity in the Super Famicom days (it’s actually much easier to play the four-player modes in the Switch release than it was in Puyo Puyo 2’s day). Suffice to say, the more the merrier when it comes to falling-block puzzle mayhem. It should be noted, however, that the Switch release remains untranslated, so unless you can read Japanese, you’ll have to test out the game’s different options to figure out what’s what (there are some clues to the number of players per mode as indicated by the number of blobs next to each, but otherwise it’s a guessing game for sad sacks like me who can’t read Japanese).

The only real issue with Puyo Puyo 2 is the difficulty in its single-player mode. Puyo Puyo is often cited for its difficulty, going back to the Mean Bean Machine days. But the series usually at least gradually gets more difficult as you go. The difficulty of Puyo Puyo 2’s single player mode, on the other hand, feels all over the place. You’ll fight your way through several “levels,” each one comprised of multiple opponents, but the challenge of each individual opponent varies wildly. I’ve beaten the single-player mode a few times now, and there will be certain opponents early on that take me several attempts to conquer, followed up by easier opposition for the next few rounds before I run headfirst into another wall of difficulty.

Unfortunately, I’m not perceptive enough to notice if the easier and harder challenges were consistent with the character who served as my opponent (though I think that might be the case). Whether there is or isn’t that consistency almost doesn’t matter, because the order you face your opponents is done via a roulette wheel (the player can stop the wheel when they choose, but until you’ve chipped away and eliminated the opposition of each round, you’re not likely to land on the baddie you want to face). So again, the game doesn’t so much get progressively more difficult, as much as it is sometimes easy, and sometimes frustratingly hard.

“The fish with human limbs might be my favorite character.”

That’s not a deal breaker, however. And suffice to say that the core gameplay of Puyo Puyo 2 is as fun as ever. Plus, with the crisp 16-bit graphics, cute character designs, and catchy soundtrack, Puyo Puyo 2 is yet another puzzler that’s pleasing to the senses. Bring a few friends over to enjoy Puyo Puyo 2 to its fullest. But if you wish to enjoy the game alone, that works too. Just be prepared for a seemingly random difficulty curve.

 

7

Brawl Brothers Review

*Review based on Brawl Brothers’ release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Brawl Brothers, released on the SNES in 1993 by Jaleco, is a side scrolling beat-em-up game, and the second installment in the Rushing Beat series. Curiously, it’s noted as being the only SNES game to feature both its western and Japanese releases on the same cartridge (the Japanese version being accessible via a cheat code). Other than that little piece of trivia, however, Brawl Brothers doesn’t provide a whole lot to write home about.

“The playable roster admittedly looks like the bargain aisle equivalent of Street Fighter characters.”

Let’s get one thing straight, I really like beat-em-up games. Their simple, straightforward, arcade-style gameplay makes them among the purest “video game-y” of video game genres, alongside the likes of platformers and puzzle games (albeit beat-em-ups don’t have the same depth of those genres). Walking from one side of the screen to the next, punching bad guys to a pulp along the way, is so simple and satisfying, particularly when multiple players are involved. But if not done right, beat-em-ups risk falling into monotony. Unfortunately, Brawl Brothers is one such beat-em-up.

The main issue with the game is that the hit detection feels way off. You repeatedly mash the attack button on an enemy, hoping that you’re aligned at just the right pixel to land your punches. You just walk into enemies to grab them for throwing attacks, but sometimes the enemies grab you instead, an issue that could have been easily avoided if you used a separate button to grab enemies instead of walking into them.

While Brawl Brothers provides a versatile (for the time) roster of five characters, each with their own special moves, another major issue with the game is that using these special moves drains your health bar. I’m guessing this was done to prevent players from constantly spamming the special moves, but surely there was a better way to go about that? Why not build up a separate meter with the more hits you land on enemies or how many of them you defeat, and once said meter is full, you can use your special move? That sounds like a better option than draining a huge chunk of your own health amidst an onslaught of enemies to prevent them from…draining a huge chunk of your health.

Perhaps the most aggravating issue with Brawl Brothers, however, are the maze levels. This is first present in the game’s sewer stage, with the player potentially cycling through the same screens non-stop unless they know which doors to take on which screen. The big problems is the game gives no indicator this is the case, so naturally, I followed the rules up until that point, going to the end of the stage expecting to move on, only to start doing the same thing over and over again. I had to look online to figure out what I was doing wrong, only to find out about the maze element. If you know the pattern, it’s not too difficult. But if the game is going to abruptly change the rules on the player, it would be nice if there were some kind of hint about that happening. Again, even if the answer isn’t too cryptic, having to learn that answer via the web for a game released in 1993 is kind of annoying.

Believe it or not, but the Japanese version of the game doesn’t include the maze elements, with those stages still following the more straightforward approach. Why the western release decided throwing in cryptic maze-like stages into the mix without any indication of such was a good idea, I’ll never know. Thankfully, as previously mentioned, the Japanese version is readily available on the western cartridge (and that’s still true for the Nintendo Switch release). Repeatedly pressing B, A, X and Y (in that order) on the ‘Jaleco’ screen will appear to glitch things up, indicating you can now enter codes. From the glitchy screen press start, hit down three times, and press start again, and you’ll be in the options menu for the Japanese version of the game. Simply continue from there and voila!

Look at me, giving away a cheat code in a review. But this is a rare exception, because the lack of the maze stages makes the Japanese version of the game so much better. Granted, the hit detection is still off, and the special moves still drain health, but at least it fixes one of Brawl Brothers’s most glaring issues. Plus, one of the characters can hit enemies in the groin in the Japanese version!

Other than that, there’s really not much difference between versions, but the removal of mazes alone makes the Japanese version the preferred method of play.

Still, even with the marginal improvements of the Japanese version of the game, Brawl Brothers still feels like one of the more dated beat-em-ups. The graphics are great (that’s Super Nintendo for you), and the music is catchy. And fans of the genre might still have a fun enough time. But no doubt there are plenty of other, better beat-em-up options out there.

 

4

Super Earth Defense Force Review

*Review based on Super Earth Defense Force’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch SNES Online service*

Originally developed by Jaleco for arcades in 1991, Earth Defense Force made its way to the Super Nintendo Entertainment System the very next year, with the appropriate “Super” added to the title. Super Earth Defense Force is a simple side scrolling rail-shooter that provides competent enough fun, but features some questionable creative decisions that hold it back.

The player takes control of a space fighter, which is accompanied by two satellite fighters. At the start of each stage, players can select which weapons the satellite fighters have, with eight possible options. But you should always pick the “homing” option.

This is the game’s first big creative misstep. The homing attack is so overpowered and so much more useful than the other seven options that it makes them close to pointless. I’m not talking about the good kind of overpowered which simply makes the character feel more powerful, like the cape in Super Mario World or the Crissaegrim from Symphony of the Night. This is the bad kind of overpowered, as in “did anyone test this to properly compare these weapons?” Though the game sees the player automatically traveling to the right side of the screen, enemies don’t just spawn ahead of, but behind, above, and below as well. As such, the homing attack is the only one that can reliably hit these enemies. And in some instances (even on the first level), there are numerous enemies descending from the top of the screen that are difficult to avoid unless you destroy some of them, but you can’t hit them unless you – as you might have guessed – picked the homing attack. There’s no reason for you not to pick it.

The player has three hit points, and four total lives. The only way to heal is by completing a stage, and there is no way to gain extra lives. Additionally, the stages feature no checkpoints, so every defeat will send you back to the start of the current stage. This all makes sense for an arcade game, where no doubt additional coins would allow for more continues. But it’s a shame that Earth Defense Force’s transition to the Super NES didn’t consider the differences in arcade and console gaming. With no way to heal or continue past your four initial lives, it makes the game an entirely trial and error approach. You’ll make more and more progress every time you play and figure out which enemies spawn at which point, but only after learning from being defeated by surprise attacks time and again. That might make sense for an arcade game, but on the SNES, the occasional healing item or extra life would be appreciated.

In the case of extra lives, Super Earth Defense Force even provides an apt opportunity for such things. As you defeat enemies, you’ll gain experience points. Once your experience bar fills up completely, you’ll gain a level, which will upgrade your weapons (preferably your homing weapons). On the plus side, you’ll keep your accumulated level and experience points even after you lose a life. On the downside, this would have been a primed opportunity to also give the player an extra life, giving them more time to utilize and appreciate their upgraded weapons.

As it is, the game’s trial and error approach will see you gradually gain a level, die, then make more progress through the current stage with your upgraded weapons. With only four chances to make it through the whole game, the experience becomes little more than a memorization game.

Super Earth Defense Force isn’t a bad game. The gameplay is simple and fun, the graphics are nice, and the music is catchy enough. But Super Earth Defense Force isn’t really special in any particular way, which means it can’t really make up for its increasingly tedious sense of trial and error. Playing on Nintendo Switch makes it a bit more tolerable, given the save states provided, but such things weren’t in Jaleco’s mind when developing Super Earth Defense Force back in the day. Even the game’s attempt at variety is undone, thanks to one weapon option being as objectively right as you can get in this kind of scenario.

 

5

Demon’s Crest Review

*Review based on Demon’s Crest’s release as part of the Nintendo Switch online service*

For my money, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System is, hands down, the best retro video game console. Sure, we all have consoles we have a nostalgic soft spot for, and there are certainly those that were significant to video game history. And sure, a number of retro consoles house a few titles that remain all-time greats. In most cases, however, such examples of standing the test of time so prominently are the exception, not the rule. But the SNES is the retro console which has an arsenal of classics so strong and timeless, that the console can go toe-to-toe with the games of today without batting an eye.

With that said, even the SNES had some gems that fell under the radar. Case in point: Demon’s Crest.

This 1994 spinoff of Capcom’s Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins series fell largely under the radar in its initial release. Even in the years since, it often seems left out (or placed on the lower end) of lists of SNES classics. That’s a real shame, because Demon’s Crest is a unique experience on the SNES. One that, in many ways, felt ahead of its time.

While the Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins series has a lightheartedness to it that counterbalances its gothic elements (such as the series’ hero, Arthur, being a cartoonish knight who loses his armor and winds up in his undies upon taking damage), Demon’s Crest leaves behind the more cartoonish elements and doubles down on the gothic horror aspect, which makes it feel more in line with Castlevania.

In Demon’s Crest, you play as the recurring Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins enemy Firebrand, a winged fire demon, on a quest to collect the six Demon Crests (Fire, Earth, Wind, Water, Time and Heaven), as all six will allow their holder to rule over all demons.

In the game’s intro, it’s revealed that Firebrand had just wrested the last crest in a hard fought battle against a demon dragon, but Firebrand was so weary after the battle, that he was easy prey for the evil demon named Phalanx. Phalanx attacks Firebrand in the sky, and manages to secure all but the fire crest, which ends up shattering into five pieces during the scuffle (Firebrand holds onto one shard, while the others fall to the earth below). Even without the fire crest, Phalanx manages to conquer the demon world, entrusting the crests to his minions (save the heaven crest, which Phalanx keeps for himself). Firebrand is banished to face the zombified remains of the demon dragon in a coliseum, with the game beginning right out of the gate against this boss fight, after which Firebrand escapes his imprisonment and sets out to find the remaining shards of the fire crest, and reclaim the other crests from Phalanx.

It is, of course, a simple “get the magical items” plot common to video games. But what I really like about Demon’s Crest’s story is how it’s presented in its early moments, with the plot segueing into the opening boss fight and Firebrand’s escape. The game as a whole has a nice, atmospheric, cinematic aspect to it, while never getting bogged down by profuse cutscenes.

“The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)”

Like the Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins series, the gameplay of Demon’s Crest is largely a run and gun style sidescroller, but with a bit of Castlevania, Mega Man and Metroid thrown into the mix, making for a more versatile experience. Firebrand is able to shoot fireballs, headbutt background objects (yeah, that’s a little weird), and even fly (though his maximum height is limited to how high he can jump in his normal state).

The simple goal of each stage is to get to the end and defeat a boss, but Demon’s Crest spices up the formula by giving stages multiple pathways that lead to different bosses, which oftentimes require backtracking with newfound abilities to find these new paths. So even though the game utilizes a more traditional series of stages, it has a hefty Metroidvania element to it, which is all the more impressive when you remember Demon’s Crest was released the very same year as Super Metroid, the “mother” of the genre.

“When you press start on the world map, you get an overview of the layout of the map. Seems like there’s room for another stage or two in the northeast section.”

You access the different stages via a world map in the same vein as Final Fantasy or Secret of Mana. It’s a nice touch that further adds to the game, though there may not be quite enough stages to justify this method of travel, with much of the map feeling bare (there are a few bonus areas hidden throughout the map, but still not quite enough to make the world map live up to its potential, I feel).

Defeating major bosses will reward Firebrand with either a new Demon Crest, or a shard of the fire crest. The shards of the fire crest will give Firebrand a new attack, while the other shards will grant the demon a new transformation. The earth crest, for example, will allow Firebrand to break through heavy objects, and shoot a projectile that travels across the ground. The wind crest transforms Firebrand into a flying beast who can lift far higher into the air than his standard form. And the water crest, appropriately, turns Firebrand into an aquatic monster who can breath underwater.

The new moves and transformations are what give the game a nice Mega Man feel to it, and give Demon’s Crest a lot of variety in play styles. Some bosses will even be susceptible to particular abilities and transformations. Though on the downside, while Mega Man will give the player a basic idea of which Robot Master’s power would work well against another with its Rock, Paper, Scissors style layout of boss themes, Demon’s Crest requires a lot more guessing in that department.

With Mega Man, you see who the bosses are ahead of time, and can make an educated guess at their strengths and weaknesses. But unless you’ve played Demon’s Crest before, you’re not going to know who the boss is on any given path of a level, or what crest you’ll get for defeating them. So while in Mega Man you could figure out “okay, the water boss will give me a water power to take out the fire boss” Demon’s Crest is a bit more vague. You need the water crest just to get to the water bosses in Demon’s Crest, for example, but there’s nothing to tell you which stage houses the water crest. It’s not overly cryptic, but it’s vague enough that I admit I had to use a video walkthrough to know where to get what.

Another minor issue is that the only way to switch powers and transformations is to pause the game and select what you want/need. Granted, you have to do similar actions to switch items in Legend of Zelda or (once again) the powers in Mega Man. But here, there will be times when you have to repeatedly swap out between powers in quick succession for level progression or boss strategy, so it can feel a little tedious at times. Additionally, while all the transformations feel useful, I actually managed to beat the game without using some of the fire crest abilities, obviously making them feel less important (though perhaps they may have come in handy against a boss or two I had a tough time with, come to think of it).

In addition, the player can also find health-extending items throughout the game, as well as vials for potions and scrolls for spells hidden in certain stages. While finding an additional hitpoint always feels like a joy, I do have to admit the potions and spells could have been better implemented. The game’s first stage after the world map opens up features a small town in its beginning, where the player can purchase potions and spells (being able to carry as many potions as you have vials, and as many spells as you have scrolls). There are a few shops and mini-games tucked into the world map as well, but there are only a handful of spells and potions that are really worth going back to the town for, to be honest (stock up on the healing potions for the boss fights, and you’re basically good).

An additional collectible is hidden throughout the game in the form of five talismans, human artifacts that will give Firebrand passive abilities (like enemies dropping more money or health, or taking less damage), though only one can be equipped at a time. Seeking out these talismans is a fun endeavor, though I wish there were an in-game description of what each talisman does. The talismans come in the forms of a skull, a crown, armor, a fang and a hand. While gaining a new crest or shard informs the player precisely what that item does, there’s nothing in-game that tells you the affects of the talismans. The only one talisman that has a logical connection to its ability is the armor, which grants the aforementioned extra durability to damage. But I wouldn’t have known what the others did had I not looked it up online. Again, it’s nothing major, but how would I have figured out that the skull makes enemies drop health more frequently and the fang makes my magic attacks stronger?

“Meow!”

None of Demon’s Crest’s drawbacks are dealbreakers, but there are enough little issues that add up that I might not have known what I was supposed to do without a guide. But while the game’s somewhat cryptic elements may show their age, the core gameplay itself has held up exceedingly well, and many of Demon’s Crest’s creative decisions were ahead of their time.

To add to the game’s depth, Demon’s Crest even includes multiple endings depending on how many crests, shards and talismans you have when you face the final boss. And should you get the “best” ending, you can restart the game with a brand new transformation that allows you to face off against a secret boss for the true ending.

The combination of RPG-style progression, backtracking and alternate paths into a side scrolling action game may seem common nowadays, but Demon’s Crest was essentially a forerunner in the ‘Metroidvania’ sub-genre in the same vein as Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. And along with the forward-thinking gameplay, the utilization of finely detailed graphics and character designs, as well as a simply awesome soundtrack (that’s SNES for you), gives Demon’s Crest a unique sense of atmosphere and identity in the SNES library.

“What a looker…”

While Super Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts may be the more well-known entry in the series on the Super Nintendo, Demon’s Crest is undoubtedly its better. Hell, it’s even a better SNES Castlevania titles than the actual SNES Castlevania titles!

While I appreciate that Demon’s Crest doesn’t hold the player’s hand, it is a little unfortunate that sometimes it’s a little too vague as to where the player should and shouldn’t be going. Still, Demon’s Crest is nonetheless an underrated gem in the SNES’s crown that deserves more attention than it received upon release. And with it readily available to play on the Nintendo Switch, there’s really no excuse not to play this tragically overlooked classic.

 

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Super Mario Galaxy 2 Turns 10!

“Behold, my (new) Super Mario Galaxy 2 poster! I’m building up quite the video game poster wall.”

May 23rd of 2020 marks the ten year anniversary of the release of Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the Wii in the US (which is where it was released first, so I guess I could have just said Galaxy 2 is ten years old, without having to specify which region it was released…).

That’s right, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a decade old now.

Wow, the anniversaries of both Super Mario RPG and Galaxy 2 are separated by a mere ten days? May is a hell of a month for our man Mario. We should rename the month “May-rio” in honor of this. We should totally do that.

Anyway, this is a big anniversary in gaming, as Super Mario Galaxy 2 puts up a major case to being the best video game of all time! Yes, it’s that good. The first Super Mario Galaxy already felt like a perfect game, but Galaxy 2 was somehow even better than perfect. It’s advanced perfect!

How good is Super Mario Galaxy 2? Well, back in 2015, on the game’s fifth anniversary, I gave it a 10/10 review! The first 10/10 I ever dished out to anything on this site! You can read my review of Super Mario Galaxy 2 here (and boy, do I feel old now).

Happy anniversary, Super Mario Galaxy 2!

Super Mario RPG Turns 24!

“Behold, my Super Mario RPG poster! Fittingly next to the poster of my other favorite SNES game, DKC2, and one of my other favorite Mario games, Galaxy 2. I need to squeeze Super Mario World and Odyssey in there somehow…”

Today, May 13th of 2020, marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of Super Mario RPG’s release in the US (it was released in Japan two months prior, in March of 1996, and wouldn’t be released in Europe until its 2008 release on the Wii’s Virtual Console, which at the time was a record for longest delay between region releases for a single title).

As far as I’m concerned, Super Mario RPG is one of Nintendo’s finest achievements, and has steadily remained an all-time favorite of mine for these twenty-four years. If you ask me, it’s still the best damn RPG ever.

Sadly, despite being one of the most acclaimed and beloved Mario games of all time, it’s one of the very few that never received a direct sequel (it did inspire the wonderful Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi series, but none of them quite recaptured the same magic as the originator). And it’s basically the only Mario game to not have its characters or world elements carry over to subsequent games (save for a cameo or two). But that hasn’t stopped fans (myself most assuredly included) from hoping and begging Nintendo and Square to bring back this beloved game either through a sequel or simply resurrecting its characters for new titles.

Seriously Nintendo, just put Geno in Super Smash Bros. already. We’ve only been asking for it for twenty years! I don’t mean an insulting, slap-to-the-face Mii costume. The actual character as a playable fighter. You can’t stop adding those Fire Emblem swordsmen that no one asked for. Why not add another character people have actually wanted and asked for for years?

 

Anyway, happy anniversary to Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars! A Legend indeed.

I reviewed Super Mario RPG as my special 300th video game review. You can read my 10/10 review here.

Final Fantasy Adventure Review

*Review based on Final Fantasy Adventure’s release on Nintendo Switch as part of the Collection of Mana*

Originally released on the GameBoy in 1991 as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan, and later released in the west as Final Fantasy Adventure (US) and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest (Europe), this Final Fantasy spinoff would eventually spawn the Mana series of games, dropping the Final Fantasy name entirely.

It was with the second entry in the series, Seiken Densetsu 2 – more widely known as Secret of Mana – that the series would really come into its own (and, in my opinion, established itself as Final Fantasy’s better). But the seeds of greatness were planted here in Final Fantasy Adventure on the GameBoy. Though the GameBoy’s limitations do mean that this original entry in the Mana series hasn’t aged particularly well, its ambitions for the time and hardware are nothing short of commendable.

Some fans bemoan the Mana series for its lighter emphasis on story in comparison to Final Fantasy, but seeing as these are video games, I feel that gameplay is the far more important feature. And in that regard, the Mana games stand tall over Final Fantasy with ease. Take the story out of the old Final Fantasy titles, and they are, admittedly, the ‘vanilla’ of RPGs. But by implementing Final Fantasy’s RPG mechanics into gameplay inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, the Mana series feels more distinct and refined as a game. Though, as stated, that mostly applies to the second and third entries of the series, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure attempted such a feat on the original GameBoy as early as 1991 is an impressive feat in and of itself.

Unlike later entries in the series, the player only directly controls one hero character, though a second, non-playable character will join them from time to time. The layout of the world and control is reminiscent of the original Zelda on NES. With the top down perspective, similar gameplay, world and dungeons. But your character also gains experience points, levels up, gains new weapons, and can improve different stats as the player sees fit, as in Final Fantasy.

In concept, Final Fantasy Adventure had a lot going for it. Remember, this was five years before Pokemon was released in Japan, and two years before Link’s Awakening. To have an adventure of this scale on the GameBoy was unheard of. At the time, it’s easy to see why Final Fantasy Adventure would have been considered a classic. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy Adventure aims higher than the GameBoy would ultimately allow, and its lofty ambitions feel restrained by the limitations of its hardware.

For example, it’s often difficult to tell when you’re being hit by an enemy. Your hit points are displayed on-screen via a number, but it’s easy to lose track of it during gameplay. Your character doesn’t react to getting hit by an enemy, like in Zelda, so amidst all the chaos of combat you may not realize when you’re low of health until its too late. At least it’s clear when you’re hitting enemies, so it’s not abhorrent in the same vein as Hydlide, but it definitely doesn’t help the game stand the test of time.

“Okay, I can see where I am. But where am I supposed to be going?!”

Then there’s the simple matter of the game being way too cryptic. The map screen itself is confusing, with the world map being presented as a squared grid, with the player’s current location being represent by a blinking square, and the towns being represented by houses. Other than those markers, you have no clue where anything is. And with how vague the NPCs are with their advice, you’re often left scratching your head as to where to go next. Even if someone gives you something of an idea of a location, you have no idea where it is because the map is just non-specific squares.

Unfortunately, this grows to become a pretty big issue. There are just too many segments in the game where you’re left wondering what the hell you’re supposed to do. And while the core gameplay is decently fun, it goes without saying that Secret of Man – being a Super Nintendo title – more than perfected the formula.

That’s not to say all is bad in Final Fantasy Adventure, however. As a huge bonus, you can save your game at any point during gameplay. How a GameBoy title achieved this while RPGs on the PS2 still demanded players to find specific save points is both a testament to how the Mana series tended to look towards the future, and indicative of how the RPG genre on the whole took a while to move forward. And the soundtrack to Final Fantasy Adventure is one of the few GameBoy soundtracks that still sounds great even by modern standards (that main theme is just lovely).

Final Fantasy Adventure is simply too grand of a journey for the GameBoy to handle. For its day, Final Fantasy Adventure was quite an impressive feat. Unfortunately, like so many titles released on the original GameBoy, timeless appeal ultimately wasn’t one of its strong suits. Still, I suppose when most GameBoy games felt like they compromised so much quality for the sake of accessibility, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure’s biggest drawback is being too ambitious to be properly realized on the GameBoy is a testament to what it did manage to achieve.

 

5

Demon’s Souls Review

The Dark Souls series – and its sister title Bloodborne – have become so influential and acclaimed in the video game world that it often seems like people forget that the Souls series didn’t start with 2011’s Dark Souls, but with Demon’s Souls, released two years prior. Before Dark Souls became the all-encompassing influence on video game design in the 2010s, Demon’s Souls helped cap off the 2000s, opening the door for its spiritual successor to take charge in the new decade.

The video game world is no stranger to spiritual sequels to beloved titles, but its rare that a spiritual sequel completely eclipses its predecessor. Unfortunately for Demon’s Souls, that seems to be the case. Though Demon’s Souls remains a uniquely engaging experience, some of its more aged elements make it apparent why, whenever a game is dubbed “Souls-like,” people are comparing things to its spiritual successor, more so than Demon’s Souls itself.

Now, that’s not to say that Demon’s Souls didn’t have an impact. When it was released in 2009, it received widespread acclaim, and even won its share of Game of the Year awards. Some fans still hail it as the best (or second best) entry in the franchise (although I think that’s a stretch). But comparing Demon’s Souls to its successors is like comparing Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario World. The former may have laid the foundation, proved influential and still holds up in its own right, but it would be incredibly difficult to argue its merits over those of its sequel.

Granted, some might say my current perception of the game is slightly tainted by the fact that Demon’s Souls’ servers shut down in 2018, so there’s no interaction with other players. But during my most recent playthrough of the Switch version of Dark Souls Remastered, I barely summoned anyone to help me (and when I did, it was more out of the sheer surprise of actually seeing a summon sign – which seemed sadly rare in the Switch version – as opposed to requiring the help), and I enjoyed it every bit as much as I ever did. So I don’t think the lack of online features has clouded my judgement too much.

The difficulty of the series is something I’ve come to expect and embrace. But it has to be said that Demon’s Souls – perhaps as a result of being the first entry in the series and thus lacking the hindsight of its successors – lacks polish in a number of areas. While Dark Souls and Bloodborne could get excruciatingly difficult at times, I never felt cheated by them. But there are a couple of instances in Demon’s Souls where it feels like director Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware simply stacked challenge after challenge on top of each other, without researching whether or not it was fair to the player. No matter how difficult they got, I never felt like the Dark Souls games or Bloodborne were unfair. But I have to admit there were a few instances in Demon’s Souls where I felt my failures were the result of questionable game design, as opposed to my own error.

For a good example of what I mean, the game’s fourth stage – The Shrine of Storms – features flying manta ray enemies that shoot their stingers at you, which hone in on your character, no less. That’s not so bad in and of itself, but many of these manta ray enemies are far enough in the distance that they won’t be in your focus and will be off-screen. When things start tracking players from off-screen is when I start to lose my patience. Still, I could live with it. When this scenario went from difficult to aggravating, however, is when I’m expected to fight skeleton phantoms who can kill me in one hit, all while on a narrow ledge, while dozens of these manta rays are shooting their homing stingers at me from off-screen!

There’s a difference between a steep challenge, and just stacking one obstacle after another over each other to the point that it becomes unreasonable to the player. Dark Souls and Bloodborne would learn this lesson, so I suppose Demon’s Souls was a necessary test run for its follow-ups to improve on those elements. But it doesn’t change the fact that, when replaying Demon’s Souls, moments like this can sometimes kill the fun of the experience.

If I’m starting to sound a bit negative, it’s not because Demon’s Souls is a bad game. It’s just that, relative to its spiritual successors, it does show its age a bit. Again, I compare it to Super Mario Bros. in relation to Super Mario World. That’s hardly the kind of company to be ashamed of being in.

While the core gameplay remains largely the same as it would in future Souls titles (equipable weapons in both hands, light and heavy attack variants, a stamina meter to prevent you from constantly spamming attacks, lots of rolling, etc.), there are some key differences.

The first, and most obvious, would be the lack of an Estus Flask. In Dark Souls, the Estus Flask would serve as your permanent means of healing (starting with only five uses, but you can refill it by resting at a bonfire, and increase the total number of uses by boosting said bonfires). But here in Demon’s Souls, you have more traditional, consumable healing items (grass). This alone feels outdated by comparison. The Estus Flask – one of gaming’s greatest items – tells you exactly how many slip-ups you’re allowed to make before you reach the next bonfire. Its presence makes you able to strategize every section of the game accordingly. It’s the perfect item for the gameplay provided by the series. By comparison, the grass in Demon’s Souls can be a bit of a pain to build up. Sure, enemies will drop it pretty often, but until you make it to New Game+ or have improved your stats enough, they won’t drop it nearly enough to keep up with what most players will need. Yes, there are vendors in the game that can sell you these (and other) items – charging the player’s acquired souls in return (souls work as both experience points and currency, per the norm) – but again, until New Game + hits, these items often cost more souls than you can keep up with. So you’re often caught farming enemies for souls to buy items, only to be killed (often in one hit) while farming, thus losing the souls you’ve gathered thus far. Yes, as would become a staple of the series, you can reclaim your lost souls if you make it back to the spot you died, but if you get killed again on the way, they’re gone for good.

Again, this is a feature in Dark Souls and Bloodborne as well. But here in its initial incarnation, the concept isn’t nearly as well executed. Part of that is because the Estus Flask was the perfect companion piece to the way the series is set up. By relying on more traditional consumables, you often get caught in a cycle of farming to try to claim souls for more items, only to get killed before you can get enough souls because you don’t have any items to heal you. It’s true that Bloodborne also featured more traditional healing items, but Bloodborne also learned from Dark Souls’ bonfires (with lanterns being its equivalent), which means there were checkpoints to stop and heal.

That brings us to Demon’s Souls other big gameplay difference: there are no bonfires in Demon’s Souls as there would be in later games. Now, there is something of a predecessor in the form of swords in stones, called “Archestones,” but there are some key differences here that make these stones considerably less useful than Dark Souls’ bonfires or Bloodborne’s lanterns.

For one, the Archestones only appear after boss fights, making them far less frequent than their successors. Second, they don’t automatically heal you when touched, instead merely asking if you want to go back to the game’s hub world (dubbed “The Nexus”). Third, touching the stones does not respawn enemies like the later bonfires would. That may sound like it makes things easier, but it just makes it all more tedious. If you’re trying to get specific items from enemies, or just trying to farm souls, you have to touch an Archestone to go back to the Nexus, wait for the loading screen, then re-select the stage and Archestone of your choice, and sit through the loading screen again, in order to respawn enemies. So if you’re trying to gather specific items to craft a better weapon, you’re going to be at it for a while. Compare that to Dark Souls: You touch a bonfire, and bam, the enemies are back. It sounds like simple stuff, but it’s changes like this that make all the difference in the world.

It’s true, there are items that return you to the Nexus that you can use at any time. But the item you constantly have on you that does this takes you back at the expense of losing all your acquired souls, while the items that send you back without penalty are in short supply. It’s demanding, to say the least.

“Another problem is that, in order to make room in your inventory, you have to manually take your excess items to an NPC in the Nexus. Otherwise, if you find an item you can’t carry, you risk losing that item for good if you die or leave the stage. Compare that to Bloodborne, where your excess items automatically transfer to a storage when you’re overburdened. That’s a godsend!”

There are other, smaller differences between Demon’s Souls and its successors that showcase the former’s rough edges. Example: As would become tradition for the series, Demon’s Souls includes a poisonous swamp stage, where trudging through its waters is necessary, but will inevitably poison the player. However, in the later games in the series, a status bar will pop up on screen to show the poison building up until it takes effect. In Demon’s Souls, there is no visual cue. You won’t know when the poison will take effect until you’re poisoned. Similarly, Dark Souls informs the player when their weapon is close to breaking and needing repairs. But again, in Demon’s Souls, you won’t know until it happens. These are small issues, sure, but it does show how small visual and audio cues in games can really go a long way.

The biggest difference between Demon’s Souls and its successors, however, is in the structure of the game world itself. While Dark Souls onward would feature one connected world a la Metroidvania, Demon’s Souls instead has the Nexus serve as a hub, where the player can then access the game’s five proper stages, with each stage being separated into different segments, and each segment being capped off with a boss fight. Stages 2 through 5 have two proper segments, with a third that is mainly just the world boss, while stage 1 has four segments. Thankfully, you don’t have to completely finish a stage before moving onto the next (once the first boss is defeated, the other four stages become available), so there’s still some leeway for player’s to tackle the game at their own pace.

While I love the Metroidvania style adopted by Dark Souls and its kin, I also find myself enjoying Demon’s Souls more Mario 64-esque approach of having a hub world and stages. I honestly would not mind if FromSoftware adopted Demon’s Souls structure for another game, albeit with some of adjustments learned from the later games in the series (again, gotta love those bonfires).

One thing that’s surprising about Demon’s Souls is that, despite being the predecessor of Dark Souls featuring many of the same gameplay elements and a similar dark fantasy world, said fantasy world of Demon’s Souls still manages to feel so distinct from what came later.

The mythology here is that the kingdom of Boletaria has – under the king’s instruction – reawakened an ancient entity known simply as the ‘Old One’ in order to resurrect the “Soul Arts” the creature’s existence provides. The Soul Arts are a great power once known to Boletaria, but they came at a great price. Though the Old One’s presence grants mankind this power, it also unleashes a deep fog that encompasses the world, with soul-hungry demons existing within that fog. As the fog spreads, so too do the demons, who in turn transform humans into mindless monsters upon taking their souls. As you may have guessed, the king’s lust for the Soul Arts and awakening of the Old One has brought the fog back into the world, plunging it into chaos. Thus it’s up to the hero character to slay demons, and acquire ‘Demon Souls’ powerful enough to lull the Old One back into its slumber.

As always, further details of the game’s mythology are sprinkled throughout the level design and descriptions of characters and items. In some ways I may even like this mythology more than that of Dark Souls, but it’s a testament to Hidetaka Miyazaki and company’s world-building abilities that Dark Souls became its own entity simply due to publishing issues preventing a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls, and yet both games feature such deep, unique worlds of their own.

It’s in its world where Demon’s Souls truly shines. Not just in that world building, but also in level and enemy design. While, as stated, the levels do feature some sections that don’t know the difference between a tough-but-fair challenge and mindlessly stacking obstacles on top of each other, the level and enemy designs on their own right remain as strong as any in the Souls games.

Despite my previously stated grievances, the fourth stage, Shrine of Storms, is probably my favorite. A dilapidated temple that looks like it was pulled out of a Team Ico title, filled with ghosts and surrounded by storms, capped off with those intriguing (if infuriating) flying manta rays. It’s an absolute beauty to look at. The other levels are similarly interesting. Stage 1 takes place entirely in Boletaria’s castle, stage 2 is a fiery mine filled with exploding beetles, and stage 3 is a dreary asylum run by Lovecraftian monsters (a concept that would be revisited and bettered in Dark Souls 3). Admittedly, the fifth stage is a little more of a mixed bag. I love the look of the first segment, which reminds me of Davy Jones’s ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, but once that part is done and we move into the poisonous swamp, its a lot less appealing both in look and gameplay.

There is, unfortunately, one other weakness to Demon’s Souls that was removed from its successors: World Tendency.

Back in its day, Demon’s Souls featured both an online and offline mode to the World Tendency feature. Seeing as the online servers are no more, there’s not much point to address them here, but the offline equivalent – at any rate – is a convoluted mess. I just don’t understand it.

World Tendency describes the status of each stage. The different phases are pure white, white, black and pure black. From what I can gather (the game largely leaves the details unexplained), if the world tendency of a stage is in the white, your character is more durable to enemy attacks, making things slightly easier on you. But when a stage goes into the black, more enemies show up – including painfully difficult “black phantom” versions of enemies – but with the benefit of more frequent item drops and more souls granted from each foe.

Like in the later Souls games, once your character dies, you come back in ‘soul form,’ only here, that comes with reduced hit points. Once again, Dark Souls made the process of reclaiming your physical form a much more tolerable ordeal by means of the “humanity” item, which you give to bonfires to reclaim your body. In Demon’s Souls, you reclaim your ‘living’ state either by defeating a boss, or by using an item called “stones of ephemeral eyes.” The problem is there are only so many bosses per each level, and once defeated they won’t show up again in the same playthrough, and the stones of ephemeral eyes are – yet again – quite infrequent to find, with the sole enemy that drops them being found in the last section of stage 5. So unless you want to brave stage 5 early on and farm the heck out of its final section, you likely won’t have too many ephemeral eyes at any given time. Naturally, with how difficult the game is, this means you’ll likely be in your weakened soul state for most of your playthrough.

Why do I bring this up now? Because apparently dying in your physical state on a given level is how that level falls into the black in World Tendency. I guess dying in your soul form doesn’t affect a stage, but the more times you die in your physical form, the darker the level gets, and you can only reclaim it by progressing through the level and defeating its bosses. But think about that for a second, there are only so many bosses, so if you’ve completed a stage but want to revisit it to farm some enemies, but you end up dying numerous times, the level will fall into the black and there’s nothing you can do about it for the remainder of the playthrough.

So basically, we have an incredibly difficult game, that gets more difficult upon defeat, and only gives you a few chances to set it back to normal. Demon’s Souls is essentially punishing the player for its own difficulty in this regard. It’s this convoluted World Tendency mechanic that sums up how far the series has come since Demon’s Souls. Hell, just going from Demon’s Souls to Dark Souls 1 feels like a night and day difference.

I know, I’m sounding incredibly negative, but I stress again that Demon’s Souls is a good game in its own right. And back in 2009, when there was nothing else like it, it’s easy to understand why it may have seemed so incredible. But now that we live in 2020 and have an entire trilogy of Dark Souls and the exceptional Bloodborne, it’s impossible to not see the rough edges of FromSoftware’s initial Souls outing.

Yes, the gameplay is still intricate and deep, the world and level design are still engrossing, and even when it pulls some cheap tricks, there’s some weird sensation to keep at it and push yourself ever further in Demon’s Souls. But just because Demon’s Souls laid down the blueprint doesn’t mean its successors didn’t perfect it. And boy, did they ever do just that.

While Demon’s Souls may have launched one of the greatest video game franchises out there, it has to be said that it now feels like the rough draft of the winning formula that was to come.

 

6