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