First things first: Demon's Souls is hard. That is, it will punish your ignorance, your poor reflexes, and leave you dead, penniless, and without a soul. Do its ingenious online systems, solid combat, and lengthy quest make it worth enduring the abuse?
Boletaria and its power-hungry king have gotten into a wee spot of trouble by bargaining with unspeakable evil powers. Demons have taken over, enshrouding the kingdom in an inescapable fog. Valiant heroes are constantly attempting to free the land from its curse, but end up dead, as souls bound to a mysterious nexus that links the realms. You are one of those souls, desperately trying to reclaim your corporeal form and free the world.
And that's about it. There're a few monologues at the beginning, but that fog has crept from the lands into the very plot, making the nightmare a hazy one. The rare NPC conversation flavors the story and provides atmosphere, but a deeper narrative is only hinted at.
After choosing an origin and making a character, you'll soon find yourself dead via the tutorial, brought down by a giant demon. But death is just the beginning. Spirited away to a hub called the Nexus, the quest begins at the Domain of the Small King, filled with slimes, knights, and dragons setting the sky ablaze. Only once this stretch of kingdom is conquered can you level up and explore the other lands in any order, five in all, all divided into multiple segments, each ending with a big boss.
The opening is a trial by fire. Without being able to level, this is the make-it or break-it spot. Other areas are even more difficult, but brute force via leveling can help you inch toward victory. Conquered levels are repopulated with enemies upon reentry or death, and only bosses, loot, and a few paltry switches and gates keep their persistent status. But there's more than one reason to fear the reaper: you also lose your entire collection of precious demon souls, the game's all-in-one currency that also doubles as experience, which you gain from slaying foes. If you can make it back to where you expired, you can reclaim them, but be warned: whatever killed you will still be lurking there, and a second death forfeits those souls for good. And that's Demon's Souls in a nutshell: quest through dangerous terrain, slay monsters, take their souls, and banish big boss demons into oblivion, with a few special scenarios in between. And then there's online.
You won't always be questing as a rogue soul as long as you're logged into PSN. Upon defeating a boss or using a rare expendable item, you are restored to flesh with full hit points, compared to the paltry half you have in soul form. Life has other advantages as well: like the ability to summon other dead players to help you with a level. If you defeat a boss together, your partners are restored to life, which makes it easier to progress through the harsh reality of Boletaria, since the enemies don't get more health or You won't always be questing as a rogue soul as long as you're logged into PSN. Upon defeating a boss or using a rare expendable item, you are restored to flesh with full hit points, compared to the paltry half you have in soul form. Life has other advantages as well: like the ability to summon other dead players to help you with a level. If you defeat a boss together, your partners are restored to life, which makes it easier to progress through the harsh reality of Boletaria, since the enemies don't get more health or swell in numbers if you're playing co-op.
Demon's Souls' brand of PvP is similarly harsh: it lets you break into a living player's game and try to assassinate them in order reclaim your own life. And there's no opting out, so if you play online, prepared to be invaded. There are even a few big surprises along these lines that we won't spoil.
The online play's other claim to fame is how players leave their mark on the world. The levels may not change, but you can post pre-written messages for other players to read--hints or disinformation, depending on how impish you're feeling. You can also see ghostly white players flicker into existence, showing what other people are doing in the same area as you at that moment. But the best are the blood stains, which you can activate to view the last few seconds of someone's death in a grisly pantomime.
Demon's Souls isn't willing to break its mythology in order to suit gaming conventions, so its online features may take some getting used to. It's not easy to play with specific friends and communication is limited to a few gestures, and the difficulty remains static. Still, trouncing through a dungeon as a three man team, with a chance to lose hours of progress and thousands of souls, invites a sense of urgency more intense than any deathmatch. The level of satisfaction in turning the tides on the endless hordes, or banishing a shambling horror and claiming their big old juicy demon soul, is on par with beating an entire game. Demon's Souls lets you experience this multiple times. Just don't kill any shopkeepers. They'll hold grudges and have long memories.
The overarching design gives way to some excellent play mechanics. While magic and archery give the game some distance, it's the meaty hand-to-hand melee that strikes home. Anyone who wanted more sword play in Zelda will be happy with the ample opportunities to parry, riposte, slash, bash, and strike, and how they're mapped to the variety of different weapons and shields. Combat tactics are entirely about reflex and stamina management; you can't just spam attacks and hope to roll away.
But there's a greater underlying strategy involved in weapon selection. Some have a larger angle for backstabs, while a bigger shield will block more damage, but you'll lose the ability to dodge or run. Planning an encounter and then executing it correctly is beyond rewarding, running the line from plan to attack. Enemies are a mix of reactions and patterns, and manage to put up a fight due to their quickness more than their brains, but more than a few have special attacks or weaknesses to exploit.
Treacherous terrain, alternate paths, and traps keep things interesting, and there are a few hidden acts in the game that will change the nature of entire areas. And while you may die repeatedly, the game does throw a few bones your way. You'll unlock shortcuts, increase your defense every time you level up, and there's even a ring that boosts your health in spirit form in the very first area. Items are plentiful and imaginative, getting more and more esoteric as you advance. Add in a deep crafting system and plenty of rare items, and there's a good deal to satisfy the loot monger within.
Demon's Souls nails the dark fantasy look, though it's so strictly by the book that it comes across a bit generic. But while your tormentors might be ripped straight out of the Monster Manual, they're varied and well animated. Bosses are appropriately threatening, and the various realms are brooding, dark and dreary. They're each unique without scarifying the atmosphere or overlapping. Making a decent looking character may be impossible, however, but that's what armor is for.
The look may be good, but not so much with the Havok physics. Corpses, even the undead, have never looked this jittery. Music and voice acting fare better, with wispy clues weaved into the scant utterances of the survivors, and music from actual instruments.
Anyone weaned on Zelda and tempered by Diablo will have a strong attraction to the wonders of Demon's Souls. Some will be spurned by the unforgiving opening segment, while others might be jilted by the idiosyncratic and claustrophobic online components. But those that bargain with the darkness will find a nightmare world they'll not want to wake up from. This gumbo of game miscellany hits the innovative spot in a world of sequels. Each level gained is a victory, every minute spent alive a triumph. If the above intrigues you, then your time in Demon's Souls will be quite well spent.
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 3.