Non-Euclidean Physics

by Tom Ingram

Previously…

In the level’s first half, ominous silhouettes could be seen in the night sky, darker patches that hinted at something horrible. The second section of the Tower of Latria is actually in the night sky, on and around the tower itself, and we finally get to see what they’re silhouettes of. Around the main tower there is a network of smaller ones, connected by narrow walkways. It goes without saying that there is no guardrail or parapet protecting you from the drop. This is a minor frustration—you will inevitably fall off at least a couple of times, no matter how careful you are.

This level’s chief enemies are gargoyles like the ones that carried me up to this point. Some of them have stabbing weapons with a much longer reach than mine, and while they’re not tough, they can deal a lot of damage. It is important not to let them hit you, but later in the game it’s often easier to ignore them and run past. The gargoyles are one of the best illustrations of the most severe technical flaw in Demon’s Souls: the shaky implementation of the Havok physics engine.

The Half-Life 2 physics puzzles were an amusing novelty. They were contrived, but it never really detracted from the gameplay. This is partly because the Havok physics engine was smoothly integrated into the rest of the game’s technology. It never broke down and did something flatly impossible. Since that time, using a physics engine has become fashionable, which means that most games are going to misunderstand why it was attractive in the first place and implement it in a way that ruins the realism it was supposed to enhance. Demon’s Souls is one of these games.

There is rarely any reason to keep the bodies of enemies as physical objects in the game world once they’ve died. It’s awkward both technically—managing all that memory—and from a gameplay perspective—managing all that junk that gets in the way. Long-established convention allows the developers several options for getting rid of the bodies, so unless you have some special need to keep them around (as in a stealth game), there’s no good reason not to make them disappear with a cloud of smoke or some other appropriate device.

Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work with the developers’ “hardcore” posture, so the dead bodies stay around. And damn it, they payed for the Havok license, they’re going to get their money’s worth. Which means that the only noticeable effect of the physics engine is that the dead bodies occasionally get caught on your ankle and dragged around with you until something dislodges them. This effect is even greater with the gargoyles, which have large bodies with an awkward weight distribution (because of the wings). Narrow walkways mean that going around the bodies often isn’t an option. It’s not clear if this glitch actually makes you more likely to fall off the edge, but it’s certainly distracting.*

The main tower has, I shit you not, a gigantic heart suspended from chains that stretch to the neighbouring towers. These chains are held up with a magical forcefield kept in place by deranged undead worshippers. It’s a chillingly effective level design concept, made all the more creepy by the fact that there’s no explanation, no flavour text or dialogue about it. It’s just there, matter of fact, as if such things are commonplace in the land of Boletaria.

The trappings get stranger as you progress through the level. When you find the rickety elevator cage (which hangs on a chain from an unknown height that must be even greater than the tower) it takes you down to the foot of the main tower. The edifice stands in a noxious swamp populated by creatures that can only be described as giant scorpions with four human heads. Tentacles thrust themselves from the water, pulsing and swaying with calm regularity. If you follow them, you see that they lead back up the tower to the giant heart.

The goal of this level is to release the chains that hold up the heart, letting it fall. The tendrils and veiny bits will then shrivel up and shrink away, clearing the path to the boss. The chains have to be loosed at two locations—logic, physics, and tradition dictate it should be three, but forget that. The boss is “Maneater”, a lion-like creature with a snake for a tail. It has two gimmicks: first, the snake occasionally bites the lion, briefly paralyzing it. Second, there are actually two Maneaters (though again tradition calls for three). One shows up inexplicably halfway through the fight, and you have to kill both. Other than that, the boss fight is pretty straightforward. I don’t mind straightforward boss fights, but when you combine that with bland monster design, it seems pointless, a disappointing capstone to a very good section.

There are three bosses in each level in this game. Each of the first two comes after a section of the level, but the third always follows the second with very little distance and often no fighting at all. The final boss of the Tower of Latria is the mad monk referred to in the flavour text—or, more accurately, it’s the enchanted saffron robe that has taken over his mind and body and inexplicably chooses to manifest itself as a six-foot tornado-shaped turban. There is also, for reasons that are not clear, a large pile of chairs in the room where the boss fight is held.

The imagery is delightfully bizarre. It’s also the last bit of creativity you are likely to see in the game. Demon’s Souls has three very solidly designed levels. Unfortunately, it has five levels in total. The remaining two are weak, with no central unifying ideas, no real challenges to speak of, and little to differentiate them from a pair of needlessly complicated corridors leading to boss fights. It only goes downhill from here.


* The worst part is, as silly as this gruesome effect looks, it’s only the second worst physics sin in the game. [return]

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