Spoiled by a leveling system that allows to reduce challenge to nil just by grinding a bit
Demon's Souls is a fantasy action-RPG released for Playstation 3 and as most have probably already heard it is supposed to be quite hard. The game starts out quite typically by creating a custom character and a bit of tutorial. After beating the first level the game world however opens up and takes a different turn. The game isn't like most typical RPGs set in some giant overworld, but instead it's set in a small central hub. In that hub the player can level up, buy some items and access each of the five worlds in the game. There is no predefined order to these worlds an the player can access them as he likes. Each world itself is subdivided into three two five segments with a boss fight at the end.
The game does not provide any kinds of checkpoints, when one dies, one goes back to the start of the level. However many levels contain shortcuts, such as doors, that can be unlocked and thus shorten the path to the end of the level. Those shortcuts are however rare.
As far as story goes, there isn't really much. Just some characters, a bit of dialog and an athmosphere athmosphere, but the whole nature of the world stays quite mysterious. There isn't really a central guiding goal to the experience or a problem to solve, just said five worlds to beat and some vague stuff about collecting soals. The art style is however great and gives the world a very gritty feel.
The thing that the game does really well is it's fight system. The left trigger blocks, right trigger swings the weapon. Face buttons are only used for potions and dodging. The player is animation-locked, meaning whenever the player swings the sword, it will be swung to the end and can't be cancel half the way through. Enemies however suffer the same fate. This, along with the animation, leads to a fight dynamic that rewards paying attention. Button mashing is completely useless and will get one quickly killed, but paying attention will show when an enemy is open to attack, when it's time to dodge or block. Each enemy has a clear pattern to it's action and learning those patterns is at the core of the game. Furthermore enemy attacks are really dangerous, three hits can often kill you and those can be issued by a single enenmy with a single a combo attack, so blocking and just staying out of reach are incredible important. It essentially feels like a grown up version of the fight system that was present in Zelda:OoT.
Defeating enemies will give souls and souls act both as currency as well as XP points for leveling up your character. Dieing in the game means one will lose all the souls. These can be reclaimed if one travels back to the spot where one died, but failing that, those souls are lost for good. However, while that might sound harsh in theory, it is pretty harmless in practice. After each boss fight one is teleported directly back to the central hub where one can level up and the cost for leveling up is so small so there is never a point where one is running around with a large stack of souls. So whatever is lost can be regained by just playing the level again, enemies will respawn and simply give new souls. One can also just run back to the start of a level and teleport from there back to the hub and back, which can easily be used to grind some levels and souls, as enemies will also respawn when exiting a level.
Items, which are needed for weapon upgrades, are a bit more tricky, the basic ones can simply be bought with souls from retailers that are spread throughout the game. However the higher level gear requires items that can't be bought and have the be collected from enemy drops and those drops are extremely rare or limited to non-respawning crystal lizards. With a help of a FAQ it's not that difficult to find enough stuff, but without a FAQ one could end up searching up and down the levels for the right items for a long time.
Overall my impression of the game are rather mixed. I really like the art style and combat system, but the difficulty in the game is a problem. And no, I don't mean that in the hard way, quite the opposite. The game starts out quite fair, you might die a bit, but then learn enemy patterns and progress. That's where the game felt most like I expected it to feel and what the hype seems to center around. However, after that initial phase 10 hours in one hits kind of a brick wall. The game doesn't give any guidance on which order one is supposed to play the levels, so it's quite hard to determine if a level is supposed to be this hard or if one is supposed to play other levels and level up a bit instead, which can be quite frustrating. However if one makes it through that phase and uses the time to level up gear and character a bit, the game becomes really easy. So much that it feels like the mechanics are broken.
The game has a few spots that make grinding incredible easy, so it's hard to resists it, but doing so means that you can just run through most of the later bosses on your first try, simply by eating a lot of cheap health potions. The only difficulty at that point is that enemies might still kill you in a few hits before you can find time to eat your health potion. The final level in the game ramps up the difficulty again, but at the same time also opens up even easier grinding spots.
Essentially all the challenge and purposeful play in the game vanished due to being able to level and gear up quite easily. And the lack of checkpoints made sure that I didn't bother to much going through levels unprepared. Those level shortcut routes that where present in the first level also got quite rare later on and some levels don't seem to have them at all.
In the end it's either way to hard or way to easy, but aside from the very start, never hits the "just right" spot. It's more a game about patience then about challenge, as a bunch of health potions and the right gear let you walk through almost anything without to much trouble.
As for the online mode, I didn't make any use of it. So all I got from it was a few messages from other players, which while not game changing, was at least nice and seamless. The game however has the problem that it will drop you back to the main menu whenever you get disconnected, it only happened twice in the 42h I played the game, but that could certainly be rather frustrating when it happens in one of the harder parts of the game.
A few other random points worth mention: Fighting the dragon at the end is the most anti-climactic thing I have seen in a long while, you literally just stand there and shoot arrows at it for 15 minutes and then it dies. There is no strategy to it, nothing. That's not even an exploit, that's how you are supposed to do it, as there is no way to melee that thing from a distance. Also whats up with the armor? I upgraded that once very early on in the game, but then never found anything better.
Edit: I now dabbled a bit into NewGame+ and having some more fun then I had with the game proper. The enemy get a little harder, but since you already know at that point how to play the game and have good enough gear, they don't provide much more challenge then before and you can run through most levels without to much problems. However since you essentially reached the level/upgrade caps for much of your gear at that point it also means you can't just level out of challenges, this in turn means you can more focus on actually just playing the game and not spend so much time grinding. It gives the game a much better flow that was missing on the regular play through.