Hard but satisfying for a specific niche of gamer
Demon's Soul is a new offering developed by From Software, often compared to the King's Field series developed by the same company. It's a pretty open-ended fantasy action RPG known for a punishing sense of difficulty that will turn off most of the casual gamer crowd. This is probably an unfortunate turn of events, as one of the greatest features of Demon's Souls is how it integrates online content into the single player game. In the end, Demon's Souls is going to be remembered for the difficulty more than anything else.
The game's story offerings are limited, but the developers don't attempt to make the story a central focus of the game. You are a lone warrior that ends up having your soul dragged (quite literally) into a losing war against the demons that are encroaching upon the world. The story sets up the very bleak and dark atmosphere of Boletaria successfully, but doesn't really attempt to create a moving narrative. This is an action RPG at the heart, don't expect to see normal JRPG structured storylines here.
This dark atmosphere is highlighted by the game's graphical offerings. The areas seem bleak and barren without seeming empty. There are plenty of nooks and crannies with hidden treasure buried under rubble and debris. Monsters and your player characters move pretty smoothly, though the textures here aren't anything that will push the PS3 to the limits. There aren't really any moments where you will stop to awe at your surroundings, but at the same time the atmosphere is well set up by the bleak surroundings.
Speaking of bleak, there is virtually no soundtrack in the game. Sounds are done well: swords clank as they bounce off stone walls, enemies give off verbal cues warning you of their incoming attack, and large beasts sound appropriately fearsome. However, there is just no soundtrack or score tying anything together at all.
The gameplay is where this game is focused, and it delivers a lot of depth for the hardcore gamer there. For those familiar with other dark fantasy RPGs, the setup will seem pretty familiar. There is an initial limited character creation that affects very little, just how your stats start off at. The player is based off a central town area called Nexus, where all the shopkeepers and support NPCs reside, that is connected to all the adventure areas via portals called Archstones. Nexus offers the standard features that a game like this has: blacksmith to handle weapons and armour, teachers to teach you miracles (priest version of spells) and spells, and a woman that will raise your stats. More NPCs and vendors can be added by finding them in areas throughout the game and bringing them back to Nexus. Interestingly, all these features use the same exact currency of souls that you get for defeating enemies. This will guarantee that souls will always be in short supply, as you will need them for everything in town.
These souls are gathered by defeating enemies in one of the five major areas that Nexus is connected to. This is where the game's punishing difficulty begins to become noticeable. Enemies hit hard, fast, and come often in surprise attacks or waves that cannot be easily predicted. Enemy AI is often effective, especially when you encounter some of the harder enemies. When you die, and you will, you will drop all the souls you have collected where you die and then respawn at the start of the level as a phantom (you'll do less damage and have half health). Getting back to where you died and tagging the bloodstain there will recover all your lost souls, but you remain as a phantom.
So you might ask, how do I get around these ambushes, or how do I get my body back after I die? This is where the online components of the game come into play. You are able to view the bloodstains of any player that dies, seeing a short replay of their scene, often warning you of traps coming ahead. Additionally, players are able to leave messages for each other warning of traps, pitfalls, and ambushes. This system is encouraged by healing players that leave messages that people vote as 'recommended'. This system is FANTASTIC, as it lets you follow other players that blazed the trail while enjoying a fully featured single player game.
When you die and are forced into life as a Phantom, which will be most of the game, the only way to regain your body is to kill one of the game's bosses (either yourself or as a Blue Phantom) or to steal somebody's life as a Black Phantom. As a phantom, you are able to join other player's games as a Blue Phantom, to help them fight monsters and bosses, or as a Black Phantom, to fight them as an enemy and kill them to steal their lifeforce and regain your body. This cool mechanic adds some actual multiplayer elements to the online components of Demon's Souls.
In the end, these elements show such a fascinating integration of online components into a single-player game that should be considered more often in this age of always-online consoles/games. However, Demon's Souls INTENSE difficulty and grinding nature are going to leave it regulated to the realm of hardcore action RPG gamers. For players that expect this going into it, it's a fantastic experience. It is very challenging, fun, and extremely satisfying when you manage to down a major demon. If you aren't prepared to be frustrated by the challenge this game offers though, I'd have to recommend that you give it a pass. It's a game entirely focused on the challenging gameplay style, and this just won't appeal to casual gamers in the same way that it will to the hardcore action RPG crowd.