Demon's Souls is an action RPG by From Software, with the emphasis on action. The RPG elements are old school: Picking up loot, learning skills and upgrading those skills and weapons. There are no branching dialogue trees here; no moral choices that drastically change the course of the story just simple mechanics that many of us have seen numerous times before. Don't let that put you off though; Demon's Souls has a few tricks up its sleeve to elevate it beyond what has gone before, including some ingenious use of the online, connected features of the PS3.
The developers of Demon's Souls weren't targeting the casual market when they made this game. When you make a mistake in Boletaria - the mythical land that Demon's Souls is set in - you aren't taken back to a checkpoint from 30 seconds ago; When you screw up in Demon's Souls - and many will screw up a lot, especially in the beginning - the game says to you 'You did that wrong. Try again, from the beginning of the level'. There is no way to manually save in this game, nor is there any way to pause the game (not as big a problem as it at first sounds). To get the most out of this game you will require patience, tactics and no small amount of skill. Many modern games do not place these demands on you and as such Demon's Souls can seem daunting at first.
Difficulty warning out of the way it's time to talk about why you should play Demon's Souls. After choosing your character class (the usual suspects are all present) you are thrown into the world of Boletaria with no real tutorial, save for a few tips such as 'Press R1 to attack', and off you go on your journey. Within five or ten minutes most players will die at the first boss encounter and it's here that the game reveals its first twist on this, sometimes tired, genre. Death does not mean game over in Demon's Souls; death just means your character takes the form of a soul, until he or she gets their body back. Most people will play the majority of the game in this soul form as getting your body back requires you to defeat a boss, or use a somewhat rare stone. Whilst being in soul form has its disadvantages (your HP is reduced by 50%) it does have benefits too such as your character making less noise when they move and eliminating the worry of Black Phantom invasions (see online features).
Boletaria is split up into five regions, each with several levels. Each region is reached from a central hub called The Nexus. Initially only the first level of the first area is made available. However, once that has been cleared you can visit any of the other areas, although you can only visit the levels of each area in order. This becomes useful if you find yourself dying once too often on a particular area as you can always tackle another area to give yourself a break. Each area has a distinct look and feel to it, but, whilst the architecture and environment of the areas is quite varied, the atmosphere created is generally one of dread. Graphically this game will not win any awards on its technical merits, but the art style and use of lighting, in combination with the subtle ambient sound perform a stellar job of immersing you into the world that has been created. Death awaits you at every turn and sunlight has abandoned this land it seems. Each level ends in a boss battle of some description; some of these are tough, others not so tough and one in particular, if handled in a particular way, is the easiest ever seen in a videogame. In all cases though these battles are fun and often epic. The sheer size of one of the bosses in the first region will have many gamers running for their lives whilst at the same time grinning from ear to ear at the thought of taking him down and daring to imagine the reward they will receive for performing such a feat. In almost all cases, however, the real challenge is in reaching the boss in the first place. Defeating one opens up the next level in that area and rewards you with that Boss's soul. Boss souls can be traded in the same way as other souls, but in most, if not all cases it can instead be used to trade against a unique weapon, spell or miracle, thus giving the player a much greater reward for their hard work.
The levels are generally well laid out and are open to exploration. There is one highly complex labyrinth that spoils the fun somewhat though and the absence of any form of map only adds to the frustration of this particular level. On the other hand, this is an isolated case though and at no other time does the lack of a mapping system feel like a problem. Exploring is a risky business; every new area you venture into will be populated with enemies as well as potential natural, and man-made environmental hazards. But, like all the best RPGs, failure to explore means you'll miss some of the best items in the game.
Enemies are many and varied. Overcoming them requires the player to learn their attack patterns and weaknesses, as well as judicious use of either the dodge move or a timely shield parry, depending on the style of play your character is set up for. There's no fancy AI here; for the most part the standard enemies remain still until you trigger them by entering their proximity. Learning to attract one enemy without alerting three of his cohorts is a skill you'll want to learn early on if you are to survive any length of time. It is sometimes possible to sneak past enemies, but killing them earns you souls and there's always the chance they'll drop something useful. Decisions, decisions. Whether it's timing your evasions and counter-attacks to perfection, or choosing the best combination of magic attack and defence, taking down a swarm of enemies always feels satisfying, with every slain enemy contributing to your Soul tally.
The RPG nature of the game means you're expected to improve your character's abilities as you progress. This is achieved by trading 'Souls', the standard currency of Boletaria. You are awarded souls whenever you dispatch an enemy and they are used for every type of advancement, from weapon and armour upgrades, through to learning new spells and miracles and of course for upgrading your stats. Every time you upgrade one of your stats the cost to upgrade goes up; at first less than one hundred souls will buy you a stat enhancement, but by the end of the game you'll be paying tens of thousands for each upgrade. Lucky then that the enemies that inhabit the end levels are tough and reward you with more souls. This constant need for souls is the major contributing factor to the level of tension in the game. Souls cannot be stored anywhere, they remain on your person until used and are easily lost. When you die in a level you are taken back to the start of that level, all enemies re-spawn and all the souls you'd gathered are gone! Maybe. If you can get back to the point you died then you'll find your bloodstain; touch that and you get your lost souls back. Making it back to the Nexus and trying to choose what to invest your souls in is a game in itself due to the permanent nature of your decisions. Venturing out of The Nexus with your newly honed skills or upgraded weapon delivers fresh thrills as you discover that previously troublesome enemies are now slaughtered with a single swipe of your Scraping Spear!
The more you play Demon's Souls the deeper it becomes. You discover areas that cannot be reached unless the region you are in has moved to a pure black or pure white tendency. Tendency shifts affect the difficulty of enemies and the quality of loot they drop. Tendency shifts are controlled by many things including the number of times you die in a level, black phantoms you kill and whether or not you kill a demon in body or soul form. Experimentation is the key and, realistically, repeated playthroughs are required to see all the areas and events in the world, adding vast re-playability to the game.
From Software have been highly imaginative in their use of the online facilities available to them. You will often see white 'ghosts' of other players running through the levels. You cannot interact with them, but these are representations of other real players who are also playing the game and help to make the world feel more alive. More useful though are the messages left on the floor by other players; these messages are created from a menu of set phrases and can be used to warn of impending peril, tip you off to the location of treasure or even set traps for the uninitiated (hint: treat messages with a zero rating with caution). The message you will read most often is 'This is harsh. Evaluate me'; if you do evaluate (rate) a message then the player that placed that message will receive a small HP boost, so it can be worth your time to place helpful messages as you journey through the levels. You will also see bloodstains that mark the floor; clicking on these reveals a red ghost depicting the final seconds of another players death. You don't get to see what actually caused the player to die, however this feature can be useful in trying not to replicate their fate! Other inventive uses are made of the online functionality, but to detail them here would spoil the game.
Extra care needs to be taken when you are travelling through Boletaria with your body intact as you may be invaded by a 'Black Phantom'. Black Phantoms are other players who, with the use of a special stone, have decided to enter your game with a mind to kill you and regain their body back in their own game. The level of fear and panic felt when this happens is overwhelming and is topped only by the feeling of sheer euphoria the first time you defeat one of these Black Phantoms!
It is also possible to summon the help of other adventurers by placing a special stone on the floor. Your stone will appear in other players' games as an invitation to help you. When another player answers your call for help you can see the stats of that player and choose whether or not to accept their help. This 'co-op' mode is not like that of traditional games as you can't simply summon help from someone on your friend list and this will certainly prove an annoyance to some. Once you complete the game you may be rewarded with another type of stone that allows you to challenge other players to a duel! A nice addition for those that like their PvP action.
Demon's Souls asks much of you. For some it may ask too much, but, if you are prepared to rise to the challenges it presents you will be rewarded with one of the most satisfying gaming experiences of this generation. And when you finally complete the game you get to keep all your kit and do it all over again, except with tougher enemies. Well, you wouldn't want it easy, would you?