Games of 2009: Demon's Souls

Loss leader.

The old Japanese adage 'The nail that sticks up will be hammered down' could be the design brief for Demon's Souls. You are the nail. You must be hammered down repeatedly, without mercy, with extreme prejudice, forever. The end.

Like most of the useless souls that roam the defiled world of From Software's immense action RPG, I died a pitiful, inglorious death a long time ago. Ill prepared and most certainly ill-equipped, I got used to running around without my body, being crushed like a bug, over and over again.

Take the Tower Knight, for instance. Your first meeting with Mr Knight and his cronies is designed to emphasise that you're a feeble, useless no-mark, and that you might as well just go back to the Nexus and reflect on perpetual failure. Come within 30 feet of this metallic monster and you're likely to resemble little more than a bug smeared on a car bonnet at 130mph.

Fortunately, even 100-foot monsters in 12-inch-thick armour have their Achilles heels, and in this case quite literally. In classic videogame style, anyone brave or stupid enough to wander behind the Tower Knight while he's smashing up the world will notice that hacking him furiously around the ankles yields results.

Your mileage may vary, however. If you're brave/stupid enough to wade in with a puny little rapier and poke away manfully for 40 minutes, that's up to you. Wallow in the improbable glory. Me? I ran furiously up the back stairs, systematically hacked his weedy archer friends to death, and eventually found a beautiful sniping spot where I could periodically wield my magic in relative safety.

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Protected by the blasts of his infernal magic-spewing lance, I found my moment and blasted soul arrows in his face every time he tried to fry mine off. With barely a scratch, the Tower Knight shuffled off in a blast of blinding light, leaving me, arm aloft in glorious celebration to no one.

Demon's Souls ought to be a hateful experience. It's a sobering and routinely punishing game that makes offers precisely zero concessions to failure, and yet somehow it's ended up as one of my favourite games of all time. It's a complex, uncompromising punishment-reward relationship like no other.

The enjoyment is all about the context. For all its RPG leanings, it's undoubtedly the survival-horror element that works best on me. Each and every encounter, from the very first shambling tutorial grunt onwards, is filled with the kind of eerie tension that keeps your heart rattling like a knackered clock.

Thanks to a masterful art style and imaginative character design, basic exploration becomes a key element in its appeal as you take every tentative step forward. The fear infused into every mist-shrouded stair and dank corridor ensures there is never any room for complacency, and it's this inherent need to focus every step of the way that makes for such a darkly compelling adventure.

The cold fact is that if you try and play Demon's Souls like a normal game you'll probably hate it, and question the sanity of those who find it so appealing. The complete abandonment of modern concessions is refreshing, but completely contrary to the way most people like to play games nowadays.

For instance, the way Demon's Souls treats death is darkly amusing in its almost fetishistic brutality. Not only does it force you to restart that stage from the beginning (regardless of whether you'd reached the boss), it also repopulates the area with most of the enemies you just killed, and then delivers the final kick in the nuts by taking all your hard-earned souls from you. Because you need these souls in order to upgrade, you then have to patiently battle your way back to where you last died to recover them and hope that you don't suffer the same fate again and lose everything.

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