In a modern world that is filled with games littered with checkpoints, the more masochistic and perfectionist kind of gamers tend to feel a little left out. Action games end before you even know it, and progression is swift and easy with checkpoints helping you throughout (though that's not say it's a bad thing). Even in RPGs, games tend to feel a little softened up nowadays, with AI seeming a bit restrained in ruthlessness, and deaths becoming nothing but a minor hiccup that you bypass without worry.
But these 'rules' don't exist in a game like Demon's Souls. In fact, Demon's Souls rules are almost the complete opposite compared to most games. Don't die or suffer horrible consequences. No checkpoints. Unforgiving AI. No tutorials. It's a game that throws you into situations where you are outnumbered, outgunned and underpowered. And yet with all these odds against you, it feels completely fair.
The objective behind Demon's Souls is fairly simple. You are a brave warrior that's come to the land of Boletaria to lull the Old One back to sleep, a behemoth of a demon that has enshrouded the land in a thick and lifeless fog. Demon's rule over the land and it's your job to slowly vanquish each and every one of them until you face the Old One himself. It's a task that is easily understandable and crystal clear, it's just pulling the task off that proves to be an immense challenge.
Indeed, Demon's Souls is an extremely difficult game. Enemies - let alone bosses - will punish you for silly mistakes in combat. You will fall to your death through deadly traps scattered around the world. You'll simply be overwhelmed by a task that seems impossible. But despite all this, the game is completely and utterly fair. This is largely due to how the game plays, which is a more slower and methodical style involving swords and sorcery. Fighting enemies is trivial and a puzzle in itself, as discovering what their weakness is and exploiting it without getting yourself killed can take quite some time. Exploring areas requires patience and total focus, as the game will actively throw something horrific and deadly at you around many corners. It's all a matter of learning from your own mistakes, as the game isn't cheap, it's simply relentless in its quest to kill you, and this in turn forces you to think creatively and adjust to situations with a large amount of strategy. But what keeps you on your toes the most however is the knowledge of how unforgiving dying is.
Demon's Souls system works in that when you kill an enemy or a boss, you gain souls, which act as the currency of the world and allow you to purchase items, level up your stats and upgrade your equipment. It's virtually your life line when it comes down to it, as natural level progression boils down to your own consistency in keeping those souls intact and readily available. And this is why dying is so bad, because upon death, you lose all souls, though before they're gone for good you still have a chance to retrieve them. Upon death, you become a phantom, which acts as a 'soul' form of your physical body, and acts exactly the same way as well though the difference is your maximum health is literally halved. Retrieving your souls is a matter of getting back to the area in which you died and touching your bloodstain, so it sounds easy enough. But it's not, because every time you die or leave a world, every enemy you killed respawns. If you die in your phantom form before getting back to your bloodstain, all souls you have are gone for good. It's this system that will absolutely nail the fear of death into your head, as it's an incredibly punishing and brutal thing to happen, and in all honesty it will happen a lot when you just begin.
But eventually you just start to play better. The hundreds of deaths you rack up throughout your journey teach you a harsh lesson in the world of Demon's Souls and it's through this that you learn to understand the methods and tactics behind the game and become a far more efficient player than you thought you could be, and this is where Demon's Souls succeeds in the biggest of ways. Though things seem incredibly difficult and require sometimes hours to complete, the feeling of winning the fight is a feeling that games rarely give off these days. It's a game of trial and error that constantly throws you into the most difficult of situations that you die at because of your own mishaps and miscalculations, but once you've overcome the situation, you feel like you've just finished the game.
The class based system helps out in this regard a whole heap as well, as when you pick a Knight, you're not just a sword and shield based melee class, you're simply starting off with the basics of that playstyle. Demon's Souls is the kind of game that allows you to play in almost every way possible, regardless of class choice. If a boss encounter is difficult on melee and is easier to handle with spells, you can work on improving your stats on magic and then learning any and every spell you want. It's surprisingly deep and dynamic, where there are no real limits in customising and teaching your character more and more abilities. But if you've tried everything and really can't seem to figure a boss or area out, you can look for help through the game's online system, which is one of the most original and unique implementations of online play in recent years.
Demon's Souls is a single player game, but it has an interesting use of online as well. As you progress through the world, you will see transparent 'phantom' images of other players moving throughout the world as well, indicating that they were here once or they're also in the same spot as you. You'll also come across messages on the ground written by other players, which can hint you as to what lies ahead, what you should use against it, if there's treasure nearby, etc. Players can rate these messages on reliability as well, so messages left by malicious players (yes there are plenty of them) can be easily spotted. Apart from messages though, there's also bloodstains which you can touch, and it'll show a phantom image of a player that had recently died there. You only see him, so deciphering what exactly killed him is then up to you.
Co-op works similarly in the multiplayer as well, where people in phantom form can drop Blue Eye Stone messages on the ground, which physical form players can see, select and then summon the other player to aid them in a fight. The incentive behind co-op is that if the phantom helps and succeeds in downing a boss with the player who summoned him, they get resurrected and bought back to life. It's a very efficient system which comes around very often at that, as the game is so ridiculously challenging.
Then there are the Black Eye Stones, which is a more sinister online thing which allows you to invade other people's worlds and try to kill them and take their soul for your own. This also tends to happen often, but adds an unpredictable and somewhat terrifying dynamic to the game.
Apart from the difficulty and intense gameplay experience, Demon's Souls boasts some depressingly fantastic design and visuals. Though not as technically efficient as something like Uncharted 2, it's still a solid technical showcase that truly shines through its art design. Most areas are fairly dark and eerie with strange looking monsters and bosses larger than any boss in Shadow of the Colossus hiding around corners, but when you witness these beasts in action and the world lights up, you're in for a wonderful treat. It's an immersive and incredibly intense atmosphere that only heightens the senses and intensifies each situation. The sound also tends to play with your nerves like this as well, with horrific cries echoing through dark castles and roars of massive dragons shaking the very ground you walk on. Music is appropriately suited as well and only played in boss fights, creating an exhilirating experience with a fantastic dark fantasy feel to it. It's an overall great job particularly in its design.
Demon's Souls is a game that becomes an obsession the moment you delve into it. The gameplay is deceptively deep, where in the beginning it feels simple and smooth, but can quickly turn into an involving and complex system that has roots burrowing very deep on many levels, something which we haven't even talked about in this review. It's a game that brings back some of the setups of old, where dying is a punishment and checkpoints are non-existent and winning is a matter of learning from your own mistakes, but at the same time brings in a holding hand in the form of your own fellow gamers. It's a surprisingly fair and balanced game, where you get better as you play more, and even after you're done, puts you into even deeper water that will test your ability so much more. But regardless of all the hardships, the game gives off an incredibly satisfying vibe when you've finally won, and will have you remembering moments for years to come. Though it may not ever be out in Australia, Demon's Souls is an astonishing title that begs to be played, as it's one of the best RPGs to be released in recent years.