This game gives you a warning on the cover. You're already dead.
Demon's Souls is a bizarre entry into the action-RPG genre. At first glance, It seems like it would frustrate the average player. Yet this never really happens when playing the game proper. This occurs due to a structured balance that developer From Software somehow managed to achieve, but I will go into that later. There are a ton of mechanics and ideas present in this game, so this review itself may be a bit long.
Speaking of first glances, the title of this review, and the box art itself are pretty accurate indicators of what you'll be doing in this game. You will die. You'll likely die tens if not hundreds of times, depending on your play style. In fact, the tutorial ends with a boss you're not expected to beat. Even if you do somehow manage to beat that behemoth, you're faced with an even more grandiose boss that is truly unbeatable.
But besides falling off a cliff to your doom, death in this game never feels cheap, which is a feat in itself. Take an example death of mine in the very first world proper. I was feeling pretty self confident, as I had been dealing with the enemies in the area far better than I had earlier on in the map. I ran full tilt into the next room, only to be set upon by a group of enemies wielding flaming swords. I died pretty quickly. Upon returning to that room, I moved in at a much slower pace with my shield raised, taking out the enemies one-by-one without much problem. I also noticed that had I listened closer before running in, I could have easily heard them all shambling around. You do also have to think on your feet a bit, as there is no actual pause in the game.
Game Mechanics:The game eventually trains you to go through this treacherous world like it is just that, treacherous. This is not God of War. This is not Kingdom Hearts. Your character is a mere human with fighting experience trying to survive, and you should treat them as such. While you can eventually gain some pretty spectacular magical spells or holy blessings, you will still die if you get impaled by a spear a few too many times. The game wants you to behave accordingly. Eventually you will begin to learn to enter a room with your shield up, listen for footsteps or groans as you wander, and watch your enemies for their tells. The process of going from being destroyed to surviving actually feels very rewarding. From Software has made sure that they've balanced everything to the point where if you are careful and observant, you can always be victorious.
This brings us to something else very interesting in Demon's Souls. While you will die a lot, death itself is actually quite important to the core game.
You basically have two modes of play. Body Mode and Soul Mode. When you are in Body Mode, you have 100% of your health and can summon Blue Phantoms to assist you in combat when you desire. However, you also do less damage than in Soul Mode, and can have your world also be invaded by malevolent Black Phantoms intent on destroying you. If you do die, you negatively effect one of the game's other mechanics, World Tendency, and switch to Soul Mode. The only way to return to Body Mode is to defeat a level's Boss Demon.
On the other hand, in Soul Mode, you do more damage, dying doesn't effect World Tendency, cannot have your world invaded by a Black Phantom, and can be summoned as a Blue Phantom yourself. However you only have 50% your maximum HP(75% with a crucial item found in the first 30 minutes of the game), and cannot summon your own Blue Phantoms. Some people will actually play their entire game in Soul Mode to avoid the black phantoms, changing the world tendency, and to train themselves to survive with less HP.
I mentioned World Tendency, and while the whole explanation on how that works is better suited for a detailed guide, the easiest way to understand it is alignment. Certain events will occur if you have full white World Tendency, and some will occur if you have full black World Tendency. It will also effect what enemies appear, their drops, and their difficulty as well.
The other thing to consider about death in Demon's Souls is the effect it has on the game's experience/currency itself: souls. When you die, you are warped back to the checkpoint you entered where the world and all enemies respawn. In addition, all of your hard-earned souls are left embedded in your bloodstain, which is left where you died. You must trek back to your original place of death, and touch your bloodstain to reclaim the lost souls. However, if you die again in the process, you leave a new bloodstain, and the original disappears, taking those souls with it. You will likely have an internal struggle when you're about to leave the hub world, trying to decide if you should make another run through a map, or use up all your souls before you leave so you don't have a chance to lose them upon dying.
Souls are used for a few different things. They are both your currency and your experience points. You can use souls to upgrade your stats from one of the NPCs in the hub world, the cost increasing each time you upgrade a stat. You can also use souls to purchase items and spells from the various vendors in the hub world, and scattered about the main worlds themselves. In addition, you can also spend souls to repair your weapons and armor, or even upgrade your weapons, assuming you have the right item drops from certain monsters. The weapon upgrade system is a bit more advanced than I expected, with quite a few branching paths, plus an additional blacksmith hidden in another world with even more branches. So if you like customizing your weapons, you can spend quite some time gathering to do just that.
Combat:UPDATE: I did not originally add a full section on combat, which is a large oversight on my behalf. So here we are.
Demon's Souls has an interesting implementation of combat. Weapons and armor have actual weight and feel solid, so carrying heavier gear means you will attack and move slower depending on your stats. You have to pay attention to where you're fighting because your sword or axe will bounce off the wall if you try to swing it in a tight hallway. This can give your enemies with large opening to take advantage of. They, however, are held to the same restrictions in that hallway, so you can use that same advantage on them with a forward-thrusting spear while they're clanking off the walls.
There are two basic attacks, mapped to the L and R buttons. When each hand is equipped with a weapon, L1 and R1 are your simple quick attack, while the L2 and R2 do stronger attacks with a bit of a build up. There are a few special attacks you can do, such if you attack right as you're coming out of a dodge roll, or if you attack while dashing. But they are mostly situational. The game does have a few more advanced tactics, however, such as sneaking up on your foe and doing a stealth kill or sneak attack. This is pretty much a guaranteed kill, and you get a special animation to boot. If you are wielding a light shield, you can use L2 to do a parry. Assuming you time it right, you can then do a counter attack that is also an instant kill. If you don't time it right, it's like not blocking at all. If you're wielding a heavy shield, you'll do a shield bash instead of a parry.
There are some even more advanced maneuvers if you seek them out, which is one of the appeals of combat in Demon's Souls. The more you put in to it, the more you get from it. The main thing you learn as you play is that no matter how comfortable you may become with the combat, you will always find a challenge. If you observe your enemies, and counter their attacks appropriately, you will succeed. When you're first exposed to it, it'll seem brutal, but that tends to be because you're expecting it to hold your hand at the start. The game will drop you into the thick of it, and it expects you to travel methodically, and carefully. Heed that ideal and you'll have victory.
Multiplayer:I'm sure that by now many of you have heard of the unique implementation Demon's Souls takes with multiplayer. There are both cooperative and competitive aspects of multiplayer within Demon's Souls, but not like most would expect. First, you will find messages and other player's bloodstains littered throughout the worlds. The messages are just like the ones you find throughout the tutorial, only these are left by other players. Players can select from a nearly all-encompassing list of words, phrases, clues and drop a message anywhere on the map. This shows up for all other players for a day or two. If another player reads a message and finds it helpful, they can recommend it. Recommending a message does two things. First, it makes the message stay available longer. Second, it completely heal the player who left the message originally. This has, so far, given players all the more reason to leave helpful information, especially since players can see how many times a message has been recommended. Messages that aren't helpful don't get recommended and disappear quickly, giving the (likely) attempted griefer no benefit.
Bloodstains, on the other hand, are like warnings. Touch one that isn't yours, and you can see how that player died. You do not see what he was fighting, or what happened exactly, but you see the player's entire movement and actions a few seconds before, and leading up to, their death. Think of it like temporary prescience.
Now, into the more unique co-op and PvP multiplayer. Earlier in the review, I mentioned blue and black phantoms. When in Body Mode, the Blue Phantoms that you summon are actually other live players who are in Soul Mode. They are summoned into your current world, and you attempt to work your way to the boss together. While in soul mode, you can set yourself as summonable, in hopes of helping another player. On the other hand, the destructive Black Phantoms are live players who have forced their way into your world (you receive a message warning you so when it happens) and are attempting to find and fight you. These methods of play are both similar to and unlike any co-op or PvP I've ever seen before while still containing the kind of fun you expect from a multiplayer game.
The only downside, and the reason why this game doesn't get a full 5 stars, is that while these are all great and interesting mechanics, they are not explained very well in the game proper. Your controls are explained to you in the tutorial, but not many of the actual mechanics are: such as how to be summoned as a blue phantom or how to summon your own, nor how to invade another player's world as a black phantom. They are explained decently in the manual, but I'm not sure how many players will actually read it. Had From Software included a more in-depth tutorial, or a NPC that provides training, the game would be just that much better. Now, with all of the single and multiplayer mechanics out of the way, lets move on to visual and audio fidelity.
Audio:Audio in Demon's Souls is both subtle and important. In normal areas, there is no overworld music. You are really meant to listen to your surroundings. All creatures have their own sort of audio cue to let you know they're there. For example, creatures walking on feet make footsteps or shambling sounds. Music usually only plays during boss fights, however those songs are very intense and epic, meant to convey the sense of inescapable doom these creatures could lay upon you. The music itself is quite good, possibly because they put so much effort into the few tracks there are.
Graphics:As far as graphics are concerned, Demon's Souls delivers. The environments are drab where they need to be, full of color when there is call for it as well. The reflection effects of water (or slime, depending on what you're facing) are done quite well. Where the graphical quality is really apparent is the bosses themselves. These creatures are almost all gargantuan, sometimes even surpassing the collosii from Shadow of the Colossus. The few that are almost man sized are usually within areas that contain massive amounts of chaos, so the environments or surrounding areas are also a visual treat. The giant bosses are incredibly detailed and spectacular to behold.
Conclusion:Demon's Souls is a fantastic game, one not for the faint of heart, one that expects you to play through it without rushing, one that expects you to die a lot, but somehow keeps those deaths from feeling cheap. If you persist, it will reward you greatly, but it can just as easily take that all away. It is a game that gives you a great sense of accomplishment as you progress, has fun and unique multiplayer aspects, and contains an interesting crafting/upgrade system, all of which will keep you coming back for more. This is a game that is definitely worth playing, and owning.