Demon's Souls...Demon's Souls is not a game about success and victory. Demon's Souls is a game about death, about dying, and about mistakes.
You may have heard this already, but let me say this, just to make sure: Demon's Souls is hard. This is not the same kind of hard that comes from too many enemies attack at once, from having your level too low to fight a boss, or from having too many guards to take out, lest you be seen. This is a game where you may defeat a tough opponent through attrition and pain, winning with nary a sliver of health left before letting out a battle cry and promptly mis-stepping into a pit that kills you.
Demon's Souls is a dungeon-crawler, which immediately brings forth thoughts of loot, upgrading abilities, and facing progressively tougher and tougher opponents as you progress through the game. This is true of this title, but there are actually five dungeons to progress through, and you will be forced to do them in parallel, because, and this is key, the enemies become stronger faster than you do. The game does not let up, and it does not care that you have died six or seven times in a row, because eventually you will have to learn how to dodge that large sword, or figure out where to go to avoid the massive attack that dwarfs your entire body.
The game presents a combat system that feels visceral to the point where you'll be holding your breath as you leap to avoid the latest slash, or hope that the latest attack to bounce off your shield doesn't exhaust you. The combat is built around stamina: every move, swing of the blade, or blocked attack drains your stamina meter. Bring up your shield arm, and you may block a few attacks, but if your opponent is stronger than you, it won't be long before you're forced to recoil, exposing yourself to what very may be a killing blow. Likewise, simply raining attacks down on a shielded foe may be slowly sapping them, but if you run low on stamina, you'll do nothing but expose yourself to attack.
The combat system is fantastic in many regards, especially in a game that is so unforgiving to your character. It's a tactile experience that requires quick thinking in an action-filled situation, and though enemies may only take a few hits to bring down, keep in mind that this applies to you too. Unfortunately, however, though there are magic and ranged options in Demon's Souls, these feel entirely secondary to the melee experience. You may be able to take down a foe with only a couple blasts of magic to their chest, but the magic is slow and cumbersome so if you don't have a sword and shield equipped, you aren't going to go anywhere.
This feeling of bias also applies to the forging system used in the game. Contrary to most dungeon crawlers, Demon's Souls does not offer you a lot of traditional loot. You may find a weapon here or there, and a ring or piece of armour if you search for them, but the most loot in the game comes from finding minerals and stones. With these, you can upgrade certain weapons into better versions of themselves, which is a lot more likely to happen than finding a significantly more powerful weapon. Again, if you're a wizard or ranged fighter, you'll be hard-pressed to locate a weapon that can be upgraded, harder still to find one that doesn't have some over-the-top requirements. You'll need to keep a good sword and shield with you, no matter what, and this can be a bit of a downer.
I've said before that the game is about death, and this is true in more ways than one. You see, after a brief tutorial section in which your character has come into a cursed kingdom to find treasure, power, or the cure for the land covered in a colorless fog, you die. This is quite unavoidable. When you come to, you find yourself in a bleak and lonely place called the Nexus, where souls are trapped due to the cursed fog. Since you're dead, you don't have a body. This means a slightly increased damage output with the cost of half of your maximum health. There are a few ways to earn back your body, such as using one of the finite-limit stones that you can find on your adventures, but having a body is such a fleeting thing. It's almost odd how the game places such an emphasis on the importance of gaining your physical form, when Demon's Souls is a game where death - and the subsequent loss of your new physical form - is such a common occurence.
As you defeat each demon, you gain souls, which are both the currency and the points used to upgrade your attributes. When you die (because you will die), you're summoned back to the Nexus, completely relieved of all your souls. It's a brutal mechanic, and one that can make for an extremely frustrating experience, but the game allows you to try to return to where your corpse fell to try to recover the lost souls. If you die on this excursion, however, your new corpse replaces the old one, and all the previous souls are lost. This is not for the faint of heart, or the short of temper.
The level design in this game is fantastic. The dungeons available to you all impart the same feeling of isolated helplessness: Boletaria, the cold, broken kingdom whose guards and residents have been driven mad or become food for the roaming dragons; Stonefang Tunnel presents a more standard dungeon crawl as you make your way through claustrophobic mines, feeling like your descending to the center of the world; the Tower of Latria is a horrific place, filled with nightmarish creatures and terrifying darkness; the Shrine of Storms is a bleak, forgotten temple filled with the undead; finally the Valley of Defilement is just an affront to nature, a blighted and terrible place with wicked creatures. Each of these levels harbors a powerful atmosphere that threatens to crush you in its evil embrace, and its fantastic.
Each of these levels are divided into multiple sections, and each of these sections has one exit: the beginning. Which means that as you progress further and further into the enchroaching evil, you're getting further and further away from safety. And in a game where death means the loss of more than just a couple minutes of play, this is a substantial thing. And when you've regained the use of your physical body, the fear of death is doubly strong. It makes you slowly creep around corners. It makes you draw your shield at the shadows ahead. It makes you wonder if those two lights at the end of the tunnel really are torches or exploding wisps. You begin to really worry about if the next bit of combat will be the last.
I'd like to draw your attention, if I may, to the Tower of Latria, my favourite, and my least favourite of all levels. You begin the dungeon in a jail cell, In the distance, you hear the moans of prisoners driven mad by torture and pain, so already it's a pleasant place. The corridors of the prison are filled with horrible, tentacled creatures with small bells that make sharp rings every now and then, reminding you that they are getting closer, ready to paralyze you and devour your brain. These creatures are not invincible, but the sound of those bells still set me on edge. Then there's the darkness-enveloped walls you must walk across, filled with gargoyles that swoop in from the night, or the swamp...I do not like the swamp below. It's filled with creatures most unnatural. And yet through it you must trudge, ever moving forward to your goal. It's areas like this that I love to fear, and which actually make me worried about progressing further, surrounding by nothing but your tiny halo of light and the darkness beyond.
I can say with some relative confidence that the multiplayer in Demon's Souls is entirely unique. There are two types of multiplayer, a community multiplayer and a more face-to-face multiplayer. In regards to the first, the game has you learn from others, whether from their mistakes or their successes. As you walk around the worlds, you'll see messages that other players (or you) have left burned into the ground. These come from a wide range of pre-set messages, ranging from warnings of ambushes, tales of treasures, or even just quips and cries for help. Picking which ones to trust is up to you, but you're able to recommend any message you want, which not only helps other players choose which ones to listen to, but also gives the player who left the message a boost in their health.
The second part of multiplayer is a lot more involved. Players can use a blue stone to place down markers that other players (who must have a body) can use to summon them. These 'Blue Phantoms' can not interact with the world, such as getting treasure or activating switches, but they can kill things. If they and the player manage to defeat the boss of the area, the blue phantoms get their bodies back as well as a chunk of souls for the reward.
On the other side of the spectrum is that of the Black Phantoms. Completely opposite that of the blue stone, the black stone allows you to find other players' worlds and invade them as a Black Phantom, an enemy. If you can hunt down the player and get them killed, then you get your own body back, not to mention bragging rights. They can't escape from the dungeon while the phantom is there, so they only have the option of defeating you in combat. These two kinds of contrasting multiplayer make for some certainly interesting scenarios, whether you're fleeing from the phantom who's coming down the hallway for you, or rushing a giant boss with three other blue allies to bring it down quickly.
As fun as Demon's Souls is, it's not without flaws. The camera tends to get caught on walls and has caused a foolish death on more than one occasion. The game is difficult to all hell, and can border on the frustrating. And like I've said before, the game is definitely biased towards the melee users, though the price for this is an impressive combat system.
That said, Demon's Souls is a terrific game. It sets such a high standard for dungeon crawling titles that can only be matched by the best of them. Fantastic atmosphere, simple controls that allow for a diverse portfolio of combat options, a feeling of success that is unmatched by any other title I've played to date, and an unmatched feeling of dread for when you walk into the lair of something that's ten times bigger than you, and hungry. Simply put, Demon's Souls should be on your shelf if you've ever played an action-RPG title before. It's fun, it's impressive in scope and depth, it's unmatched on the market, and it's fun (did I say that already?) Yes, it's hard. Yes, you'll die. Yes, you'll die a lot.
But in the end, when you see the death knight collapse to your blows, when you see the giant behemoth finally fall after a fifteen minute battle, when you see the rest of the level open up before you, there will be a feeling of satisfaction so strong that you will have no choice but you move further, shield, wand, or sword ready, into the darkness.