Demon's Souls has been something of an anomaly. When the game was released over a year ago in Japan, expectations were quite low. It was a brand new game featuring gameplay from a niche genre; it also had very unforgiving gameplay. However, it became something of a cult hit and gamers from the West ended up importing an English version of the game from Asia - a lot of effort for just one game. Atlus USA saw the potential and brought it to North America, but it's taken this long to reach European shores courtesy of Namco Bandai. So, what's all the fuss about?
It may come as quite a surprise, but the story in this Action RPG is actually quite sparse. At the start of the game, players are given a brief rundown of the situation, which doesn't do much more than set the scene and explain why all these bad things are happening in the Kingdom of Boletaria. A terrible fog has descended and demons have started plaguing the land as a result. To make things worse, they actually feed off of the souls of mortals. Numerous champions of the realm have attempted to enter the fog to find the cause and vanquish it, but none have ever returned. After creating a custom character, it's the player's turn to see if they can do much better - it seems initially as though they can't.
After creating their champion, players are thrust into a rather quick tutorial. Here they're taught how to attack, block and dodge - that's about it really. About five minutes after the conclusion of the tutorial, they're greeted by a rather mean looking demon who proceeds to pummel them into the floor. Welcome to Demon's Souls indeed. Scarily, this in itself is still part of the tutorial, as by dying, players are then introduced to the Nexus - their new home. You see, in Demon's Souls dying is really a fictional notion. Instead of dying, players instead just enter a different state of being, a Soul Form. In this form, they deal more damage, although it's only maginal, but they have half their actual health. Items can be picked up to help boost their soul's health, but it still feels like fighting handicapped and that's the whole point.
Players will in actual fact, spend most of their time in this form as dying is part and parcel of Demon's Souls. It's also quite difficult to return to Body Form once it's been lost - the only ways are to use a Stone of Ephemeral Eyes (quite rare), defeat a demon boss or help someone else defeat a demon boss. It means that Body Form is something that should actually be cherished, because in a flash it can be taken away - but that's the nature of the beast. You see, the levels in Demon's Souls can be very unforgiving. Expect plenty of traps, ambushes and enemies that are as awkward as possible. Curative items become a player's best friend, but sometimes they aren't even enough if the player finds themselves in a sticky situation.
It creates an odd sensation, one of preservation. There are numerous levels, some of which are quite large. Exploring them is a wonderful experience, but also a very daunting one. However, it does become slightly less daunting when playing online, in some respects. Players can bear witness to how other people have died in certain situations, and they can also view messages that have been placed by other players around the world. These can alert them to hidden dangers, or sometimes, be a red herring. There's also a flip-side to the online mode though, which comes in the form of player vs player (PvP) combat. If a player is in Body Form, other players, who're in Soul Form, can enter their world as a Black Phantom. If they successfully kill the player, they will themselves get their Body back. To make things even more interesting, the player in Body Form can actually summon up to three Phantoms to assist him. It may sound quite complicated, but it's actually very simple, although this scenario rarely ever happens in the game.
As mentioned, there are numerous levels of differing lengths and locales. There's also no linearity, players are free to start on any of the five worlds and attempt to progress. They may find some easier than others, but experimentation is all part of the game. After they have traversed through the level, they are then greeted by a boss demon and by defeating this, they can regain their Body Form and then use this as a waypoint for the level. Some of the levels have four bosses, some have three, but there's definitely enough to keep people occupied for a lengthy period of time - if only because the deaths are so punishing. Upon dying, players go back to the start of the level, or the waypoint if they've unlocked it. They lose all of the souls they've collected up to that point, but they can be recollected. The bad thing is that to regain them, players have to retrieve their body from where they died and all the enemies have respawned. Some levels allow short-cuts to be opened up, but others don't and it can be very gruelling to collect a large amount of souls, die, and then die again before they can be retrieved.
Souls themselves can be spent on various equipment throughout the game and on levelling up. With each stat point added, the amount of souls required increases and there is quite a high level cap so there's plenty of room for those with time. One of the main problems is the lack of variety in the equipment and weapons. There's almost no randomness, most of the items can be found in specific locations or are guaranteed drops from certain enemies. It would have been nice to see much more variety, with more weapons dropping from random enemies, a better selection of armour and perhaps stats that aren't identical. If they make a sequel, it's something that really should be mandatory, it's one of the elements that really drives games like Diablo, and it could really help to expand Demon's Souls.
From the perspective of presentation, Demon's Souls is quite a mixed bag. The size of the levels and viewing distance is rather impressive, but at the same time, the game sometimes suffers from crippling drops in frame rate, which can become a bit annoying. It's rather strange though, because this problem doesn't seem to happen when there are enemies around. The sound also has its ups and downs. Often it drifts into the background, providing an unnerving accompaniment to the action, but sometimes it glitches out. It's a bit strange to be running around in a heavy suit of armour and not even hear footsteps.
For those who just can't get enough of the punishment that Demon's Souls throws at players, there is the option to play numerous times, through new game+. This means that all equipment and stats are carried over to a new game, but there's a catch. All of the enemies are a bit harder each time the game gets completed, but weapons and armour don't improve. By the time it gets to around 3/4 new games, things start to get even more dicey. Starting a new game does allow for different equipmen to be collected though, and it might even be recommended to play offline in these new games so that the World Tendancy, which is the alignment of the world, can be affected more often. When playing online, everyone's actions affect it, as opposed to just the players.
Demon's Souls brings to the table what few other games have in recent years. It's a very challenging experience, but there's also a degree of fairness in the challenge. If players die, it's usually their own fault and to succeed, they need to improve. The story perhaps isn't the best ever told, but the gameplay is very solid and there's so much depth within the levels. In its chosen domain, Demon's Souls is unrivalled.