In which I reconsider the wisdom of the way I spent June 2012
by Tom Ingram
The Shrine of Storms level is set on an island in the ruins of a storm-worshipping, human-sacrificing civilization. Its connection to Boletaria and the game’s core plot is unclear—it seems that the dearth of people and prevalence of monsters is unrelated to any Deep Fog, colourless or otherwise. Isolation from the rest of the game is not the least of the level’s problems, but it doesn’t help. It’s hard to build up a sense of what’s at stake or why you should care if you have no idea of where you are or what you’re doing. In this respect Demon’s Souls is especially frustrating, because when you track down the rare bits of exposition, you find that rather than explaining things, they make the game world even more senseless.
The main enemies of this level are metal skeleton creatures that curl up and somersault toward you when they see you coming. Eventually you get a feel for the rhythm of their approach, and it becomes possible to hit them before they’ve finished rolling. These skeletons come in blue- and red-eyed varieties—the convention in this game is that blue-eyed enemies are weaker and more common, while red-eyed ones are stupidly powerful and placed in a couple of choice locations throughout the level. The red-eyed knights from the Boletarian Palace eventually become bearable, but at least in my play-through the red-eyed skeletons in this level never did. To make matters worse, almost all of them are located at awkward angles or long distances from the nearest safe spot, which makes it time-consuming to pick them off with arrows.
There are also “storm beasts”, which are like flying manta rays that can launch spikes at you. They cause no end of annoyance even after you have a practically unlimited supply of arrows. The level’s central area is a walled courtyard strewn with piles of rubble and rotting wood. When you get here (which takes some doing, early in the game), you are also faced with the demon Vanguard—the axe-wielding tiny-winged giant who kills you in the tutorial. He blocks off the courtyard at a chokepoint, closing off the easiest path to the rest of the level.
Getting anywhere near Vanguard is a dicey proposition. His swing takes a long time to wind up, but it’s all over if he hits you even once. His reach is so wide that this is likely to happen even if you time your incursion perfectly. A frontal attack is, in short, not an option. Vanguard infallibly knows where you are whenever you’re in striking range, which precludes any kind of sneak attack. It’s not clear how the game makers intended you to kill him. I eventually did it with the aid of several hundred arrows and about an hour of my life I will never have back.
Later in the level there are yellow skeletons with impractically large swords. They don’t roll, and their AI seems a few notches below the rest of the enemies, but their placement on a narrow path means there’s no way around them; you have to fight them, every time, no matter how long and pointless a grind it is. Once you’ve passed all of them, you come to the only red-eyed skeleton you have to fight. It’s stationed at the bottom of a staircase and is pretty easy to pick off without putting yourself at risk. Which is good, because the first boss is in the next room.
Does this sound like an awfully short summary? In truth, it’s just an awfully short level. This does not need to be a bad thing. I can recall some excellent short levels from other games. What makes it seem so pointless is that there are no twists at all. It’s basically a straight line from the beginning to the first boss fight, and it’s only brought up to almost-respectable length by the tedious and widely spaced enemies. The second half is even worse—it’s basically the same large room repeated twice, and then a boss fight. Not even a hallway separates the second boss from the third.
For that matter, the bosses are all basically large enemies with lots of health. If the developers weren’t willing to put much work into their level, I’m not willing to put much work into this article, which is why the Shrine of Storms and the Valley of Defilement have been compressed into a single post.
If the Shrine of Storms is too small, the Valley of Defilement has the exact opposite problem: it’s expansive, but there’s nothing in it. The first section of the level is on rickety wooden walkways high above the ground between the walls of a narrow chasm. The goal is to get to the boss at the bottom. Right from the start, this is a bad idea. Making use of vertical space in a 3D game is always difficult, especially when the game isn’t designed around a platforming concept (and doesn’t have a jump function). This level has walkways even narrower than those in the Tower of Latria, and they are densely packed in layers with plenty of exposed edges to fall off. There is very little colour contrast between the rotting wood and the purply-brown cliff faces. The close quarters entail the obvious camera difficulties. It’s also quite samey. Not an auspicious start to the level.
It’s not clear whether the epithet “of Defilement” dates from before or after the Deep Fog—i.e., is this place supposed to have been ravaged by the game’s Big Bad, or was it a pre-existing dump that just looks less out of place now? The latter, given the high rat population, lakes of poison, and tonguy pterodactylesque beak-people (“Depraved Ones”), seems to be more likely. These last are the level’s main enemies, armed with spears, short stabbing weapons, or poison magic. They’re not especially strong, but they can crowd you and pose a serious risk on the narrower walkways. The larger Depraved Ones are the worst, because they are exactly as difficult to kill as the equivalent red-eyed creatures from the other levels, but more abundant and harder to run away from.
There’s not much else to say about the level’s first half, unfortunately. The boss is the absurdly named but straightforward and forgettable Leechmonger. Sitting at the bottom of a cavern, the Leechmonger is suitably large and demonic-looking, but it turns out to have a glass jaw. The fight takes only about five minutes and involves nothing much more complicated than hitting it with your sword lots.
The level’s second half is taken up by the poison lake. If you happen to be well-stocked with poison-resistant items (as I was by this point), it doesn’t rise above the level of annoyance. The problem is that it slows you down, which is one of the cardinal sins of game design. Especially when you consider that this is a large, open area with islands to explore, so you are going to have to do a lot of walking. Unfortunately, there’s nothing much to find in this part of the level, and it’s easy to get lost. The only landmark you have to steer by is the distant flames of a whole Depraved Village, which turns out to be a disappointingly bare row of two or three structures followed immediately by the next boss: the pornographic-sounding “Dirty Colossus”.
Most unusually, the final boss is one of the NPCs from the opening video: the Maiden Astraea and her knight Garl Vinland. Really, Garl is the boss, because Astraea gives up without a fight once he’s killed. This is perhaps the most disappointing fight of all, because it takes pains to be unusual, but the novelty is not in service of a challenge. When you beat the “boss”, you’re left with an otherworldly feeling. Did this really happen? Apparently it did, but who cares?