Version tested: PlayStation 3
Editor's note: Demon's Souls is finally released in Europe this week. Here we present our original import review of the game from last year, which to the best of our knowledge is still completely accurate with respect to the European version.
From Software is a strange and fascinating developer. Mention the name and Armoured Core is what usually springs to mind, or occasionally Otogi, but when it's not making mech games From's output encompasses a vast range of extremes - cutesy co-op platformer Cookies and Cream, Tenchu, card-battler Lost Kingdoms, horror adventure Echo Night, broken, miserablist cult series King's Field. And this, the most interesting PlayStation 3 exclusive I've ever played.
Demon's Souls is a brutal, bleak action combat RPG that pits your lone character against a universe full of violent demons. They range from former human soldiers to agile, double scimitar-wielding skeletons, pouncing flame-creatures, octopus-headed guards, embryonic plague-carrying monstrosities, even Death himself. The game's five worlds - all massive - are split into four different sections, each guarded by a horribly large and hardcore boss monster. Everything in the entire world is designed to kill you, quickly and often without warning.
The only safe place is the Nexus, a haven for tormented souls. It acts as a hub from which you can access the five worlds, or buy and upgrade your character's weapons and abilities to give them a slightly better chance of survival. It is one of the most difficult modern videogames in existence, refusing to make even the slightest concession to your happiness or mental well-being. For this reason, developing a devotion to Demon's Souls has been the gaming equivalent of falling in love with an emotionally stunted, occasionally violent sociopath.
It's not a hack-and-slasher, though Demon's Souls incorporates the best elements of that genre into its accomplished weapons combat. The pace is slower, and you can learn to use magic, miracles, ranged attacks, scavenged items and enchanted equipment to give you a wealth of alternatives to slicing things up with a sword.
Demon's Souls is deeply tactical, preferring to pit you one-on-one against vicious and high-level enemies that can use the same tactics, weapons and magic as you rather than drowning you in a sea of lesser foes. You slowly build up a large inventory of vastly differing equipment and skills for yourself as you inch your way through the levels, finding treasure, killing demons and using the souls you get from them to buy a tiny bit more health, strength, magic power, carry weight or life-saving equipment.
What you fight with is entirely up to you. Any character can scavenge, buy and use any weapon. Go with a sword and shield and you can parry enemies' attacks with the latter before stabbing them through the heart in slow motion, if your timing's good enough (mistime your parry, and you'll probably die). Choose a dagger and light armour and you can roll and dart around before stabbing demons in the back for a similar, satisfyingly gory critical hit.
Using a bow lets you stalk enemies in first-person from a distant turret. Find a wand, and you can cast magic; find a talisman, you can heal yourself with miracles. The closest comparison is Monster Hunter, but Demon's Souls' combat controls are more precise; the weapons feel realistic rather than comically extreme. Fighting is physical, violent and cathartic, and you find yourself forming genuine attachments to favourite weapons.
There's unrestricted scope for developing your character in different directions. You can play it as a nimble magic user with an assassin's dagger, or hide behind a heavy shield and two-inch-thick body armour whilst skewering things in the dark with a lance, and you can switch between these two strategies at will by changing your equipment.
That flexibility prevents the game from ever getting stale and equally prevents you from falling into easy habits or closing off interesting options from yourself through your choice of class. You're constantly forced to change your approach, if not by choice then by the sheer variety of aggressive enemies that the game throws at you. No one strategy works against all of them.
When you die in Demon's Souls - and you will die, a lot - you lose your physical body, becoming a soul with half a health bar (although in practice it's more like a three quarters, as there's a ring in the very first world that lets you cling a little closer to life). The only way to get it back is to kill a boss monster.
When you die again you lose all of the demon souls you've collected from your hard graft, and have to fight your way back through the level to your own bloodstain to regain them - at which point you either have to sprint for dear life away from whatever killed you the last time, or face getting unceremoniously dispatched by it once more. Die a third time before you make it back to your bloodstain and those souls are gone forever, which is truly heartbreaking when you have to work so hard for them.
To summarise, you end up playing the vast majority of Demon's Souls as either a dead person or a dead person with no money. Every time you die, you start again at the beginning, with all the enemies you just struggled to overcome back where they were. There is no compromise. There's not even a pause button. You get better, or you get nowhere.
(Oh, and also - after a certain point, other players can invade your game at any point and attempt to assassinate you, just to make life even easier. But more on Demon's Souls' online capabilities later.)
If that sounds unbelievably frustrating, well, yes, it can be. It's harshly punishing. But it's not unfair. Demon's Souls puts you up against impossible odds, after all - you're the only living thing left in the world, apart from the stranded, struggling survivors that you occasionally come across exploring some dark tunnel in the Tower of Latria, or down a forgotten mineshaft in Stonefang Tunnel.
The only thing to do is try again, and again and again, observing the demons' behaviour and the layout of the levels, learning the cruel tricks that the game plays on you to lure you towards death, until, finally, you're capable of winning.
Precisely because the odds are so stacked against you, precisely because the game sometimes seems to hate you with every fibre of its being, when you do finally kill the bastard f***-off enormous boss monster that ended you within half a minute the first time you approached it, the resulting heart-in-mouth euphoria is the purest kind of gaming thrill. Demon's Souls is about facing up to the impossible, and winning.
Because dying sends you straight back to where you entered the world from the Nexus you spend a lot of your time working through the same sections to make it back to where you were, especially if you were slaughtered by the boss at the end of that section. But it's not grinding. It's not about slaughtering things mindlessly until you've built your stats up enough to progress, though repetition is a part of it - instead it's training, learning, figuring out new strategies, experimenting with different techniques.
Skill is what determines your strength in Demon's Souls, not numbers. Technique will always make up for thousands of souls spent on attribute points. Every time you die, you learn that little bit more, get that little bit further; it's addictive, masochistically so.
And yet, the game manages to hold the constant threat of death above your head without ever feeling meaningless. In games where you spend a lot of time dying, that fear of death tends to dissipate - death is rarely even an inconvenience in modern videogames, nothing more than the threat of getting sent back two minutes to the last automatic checkpoint - but not here.
Once you get your body back, finally, the very fear of losing it again makes you chicken, reluctant to probe too far into unfamiliar caverns. Demon's Souls can inspire sheer terror, make you fear for your life; you never know what's lurking around the next corner, exactly whom those two glowing red eyes in the dark at the end of the tunnel belong to, but you do know that whatever it is, it will probably hurt you. Badly.
Demon's Souls' foreboding atmosphere reinforces this fear. One of the first things the game asks you to do is turn the brightness down. Its world is comprised of dark, ominous places - a prison tower wracked with the tortured screams of undead captives, an abandoned mineshaft that gradually opens out into a massive underground complex inhabited by a variety of horrible things, a crumbling fort guarded by skeleton warriors.
You spend a lot of time creeping down pitch-black corridors with your shield up, waiting for something to attack you from the darkness. The monster design and animation can be superb; the way some of the demons look, move and sound is enough to send shivers up you. It's a detailed and well-crafted dark fantasy.
Integrated into all of this,there's a unique system of online play, the game's most forward-thinking feature - though like everything in Demon's Souls, it's a double-edged sword. Assuming you have your body, which is an achievement in itself, you can call upon other players to help you, and they can join your game as blue phantoms to fight alongside you.
It's a way to even out the odds a little, or progress if you're completely stuck, though you often find yourself running after more experienced players as they rush through a section of the game they've seen 40 times. Players can also leave helpful messages for each other on the ground (“WATCH OUT FOR THE GIANT FALLING BOULDER”).
The downside? Playing the game online opens you up to invasion from Black Phantoms, other players who force their way into your game in order to assassinate you for your souls. You've no control over when this happens.
The best you can hope for, as an invaded player, is that your opponent isn't smart enough to stalk you, manipulating the level to make things harder for you before appearing at the most unwelcome possible moment to dispatch you, and instead rushes straight up to you in search of a quick kill. Then, at least, you have a chance of outmanoeuvring them in a face-to-face fight instead of panicking that every shadow behind every wall is your would-be assassin, armed to the teeth and with an enchanted arrow notched and aimed at your chest.
The prospect of playing as a Black Phantom yourself, of course, is seductive, once you have the ability and skill. But you always run the risk of being defeated. Besides, everything that you do online affects the world around you; defeating boss monsters and invading players shifts the World Tendency of a level towards white, whereas becoming a Black Phantom yourself shifts it towards black.
Black tendency makes a world's monsters more aggressive but increases the rewards for killing them, white tendency does the opposite, and both trigger events in the levels themselves, opening up previously locked doors or dropping in unique NPCs to help or hinder you. The tendency system is so complex that players haven't yet figured out all of its implications. Whichever way you choose to use Demon's Souls' online play, though, there are consequences in your own game.
What should be clear from all this lengthy exposition is that Demon's Souls is a deeply complex character. It incorporates an array of concepts and hidden secrets that can be as bewildering and mysterious after fifty hours as they are at the start. It should, however, also hopefully be clear that it's entirely worth taking the time to get into Demon's Souls, to begin to understand it.
As you spend longer in its company, your relationship with the game becomes less and less one-sided as you learn to navigate areas that once slaughtered you over and over again with confidence, even ease. You can learn from other players, and - time and time again - from your own mistakes, enabling you to eke more and more entertainment and satisfaction from Demon's Souls the deeper you delve into it.
Demon's Souls is absolutely compelling; dark, detailed, unforgiving, creatively cruel. It gets under your skin and becomes a personal obsession, daring you to probe further into its worlds, fall for more of its traps and overcome more of its impossible challenges; it slaps you in the face with your own incompetence and dares you to overcome it.
It's stoic, uncompromising, difficult to get to know, but also deep, intriguingly disturbed and perversely rewarding. You can learn to love Demon's Souls like few other games in the world. But only if you're prepared to give yourself over to it.
9 / 10