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.