The first thing you get from Demon’s Souls in its intro is a sense of bleakness. Then, during the tutorial that involves killing you, you get hopelessness. By the time you’re actually playing the game you’re probably suicidal.
Praise for Demon’s Souls seems to come from the fact that people aren’t used to games with such a western feel coming from Japanese developers, especially when that developer is From Software. It’s not even a case of appearances being deceiving, this isn’t Final Fantasy masquerading as Oblivion, it’s its own thing.
What thing might that be? Well, in Demon’s Souls you’re given the beautifully realised kingdom of Boletaria to explore, albeit nervously. The main areas of the game include a dank prison, pus-ridden swamps, claustrophobic mines, a castle harassed by dragons and so-on. Acting as a hub for it all we have The Nexus; a safe haven where your hard won souls can be spent on upgrading your stats, repairing equipment, stocking up on arrows and the odd bit of verbal exposition. Much of the motivation for your actions is explained here after your first boss fight: Stop The Old One, so the world might be mended.
As you explore, you’ll see the occasional white ghosts of other players, bloodstains and writing on the ground. These latter two can be interacted with, the bloodstains revealing the last actions of a player who died and the writing revealing advice from other players. If the message isn’t “This is harsh. Evaluate me.” then it’s probably helpful. Helpful messages can be rated or new ones written by simply pushing Select on your controller. These are what you’d call passively online features; you’re making use of online functionality without the harried pacing of playing with others.
However, if playing with others is your thing, there’s also a co-operative element in that players can volunteer to help out others. Upon doing so, a blue message appears on the ground, allowing other players to check out how useful you’ve been in the past before accepting your offer of help. The dark side of these online components is that players who have lost their corporeal form can break into the games of those who have theirs. The net result is that Demon’s Souls can have the feel of a persistent MMO, but benefits from having more of a focus on action.
The action is handled by cycling through your chosen weapons, items and spells on the directional pad. Left-equipped items are used with L1 and L2, whereas right-equipped… Well, guess. This all means that you can quickly switch between your sword and shield or bow and catalyst. These hot-swappable items are chosen from inventory, so their order and type are entirely up to you.
The areas of the game have Soul Tendencies you’ll need to pay attention to. These dictate difficulty; an area having White Soul Tendency will be easier than one whose tendency is black. Dying darkens a tendency, but it also increases the number of souls you get and frequency of item drops. This means that you will be given more to upgrade your equipment and self with when you’re having a hard time of it and, if you’re canny, you’ll always be choosing the area with the darkest soul disposition in order to keep a good pace for improving your character.
Since it’s inevitable for difficulty to come up when talking about Demon’s Souls, let’s say something about it. The punchline is that it’s actually not that hard! If you just take your time, don’t get too cocky and keep your wits about you, that is. Actually, asking the player to either think or take their time is pretty refreshing, especially in a market saturated with numbered first person shooters.
So, to sum up, Demon’s Souls is pretty much one of those things everyone should have at home, like a good dictionary or running water.