The Kingdom of Boletaria is an unforgiving place. Entering it means embracing a seemingly endless cycle of death and resurrection as you slowly tread through sullen swamps, scavenge dark caverns, and sneak between looming castle walls. It's dark and dreary, as if the residents of hell have plunged a dagger into the very idea of happiness and left its lifeless form to wither away. Developer From Software's action role-playing game Demon's Souls houses this kingdom, and you should not expect the game to welcome you as an old friend and willingly share its deepest secrets. This is an uncompromising RPG of the highest order--and a brilliant, atmospheric, and visionary one. It is at once old-fashioned and innovative, a stubbornly difficult dungeon crawler loaded with wholly unique mechanics. Perhaps the game's greatest triumph, however, is that it takes qualities normally associated with frustration and discomfort--constant trial and error, slow progression, harsh enemies--and makes them virtues. It may have an unusual and unforgiving set of rules, but it stays true to them and, in the process, draws you in like few RPGs can. Demon's Souls is a stark and sulky beauty and is one of the finest games of 2009.
Demon's Souls' uncanny ability to ensnare you in its web starts with its five gloomy, meticulously crafted worlds. It takes some of the usual elements of dark medieval fantasy--roaring dragons, demon knights clad in well-worn armor, crumbling stone castles--and then molds them into a cohesive and enthralling universe. Every element is in exactly the right place, from soaring demons that look like manta rays to rows of fiends using their pickaxes to unearth unspecified valuables. Each world feels and looks authentic, as does the hub world (called the Nexus) from which you access them. There isn't much narrative to speak of, just some basic but intriguing backstory regarding the giant beast called the Old One and the demons infesting the kingdom. But you'll barely notice how thin the story strands are, for the kingdom itself weaves a story of its own as you slowly investigate its nooks and crannies, and the characters you encounter seem totally within their element. When you kneel before the Maiden in Black and she prays in her halting, affected speech, you believe in her conviction. When Blacksmith Boldwin sneers at you that he needs your business, you hear the contempt in his voice. Their lips don't move when they speak, but it hardly matters: these world-weary people, and the frightening realm they inhabit, are immediately believable.
The game doesn't just look and feel unforgiving--it plays that way too. You may tackle any of its five main regions at any time, but that doesn't mean you will easily slice your way through each one. If the first few minutes of the tutorial don't betray the challenges in store for you, the same level's gargantuan end boss certainly will. You are meant to die, and you are meant to die often. When you do, you return to the archstone at the beginning of the area and do it all again. When you are resurrected, you get to keep most of what you had on your person--your weapons, your armor, your healing grasses, and so on. However, you lose the most precious commodity you possess: collected souls. Souls are the game's currency, and the primary way of accumulating them is to kill demons. You can't sell looted weapons that you don't need, nor can you put souls in the bank for use later. You can hold onto them, spend them on important items like spice (which replenishes your magical energy), or use them to improve your core attributes (such as endurance, strength, and so on).
Should you die on your travels, the souls you've amassed aren't necessarily gone for good, however. You can return to the location of your death and touch the bloodstain you left behind, which returns the lost souls to you. Be careful, though: if you die on your way to your bloodstain, it will disappate and be gone forever, along with all your hard-won souls. The whole thing may sound incredibly harsh, and on the surface, it is. You'll cautiously traverse the same hallways and stairwells to find your bloodstain, only to have a lamp-carrying demon shock you with electricity, lift you into the air with the tentacles growing from its face, and take half of your health away with one fateful stab. The constant specter of death means you should plan how you want to spend your souls in advance. Once you get enough, you'll want to hightail it back to the Nexus and improve an attribute, upgrade your weapon, or repair your armor. Eventually, you'll make a breakthrough, and enemies that seemed so dastardly the last time will be mere speedbumps the next. Yet even when you accumulate thousands upon thousands of valuable souls, and you know that the sensible thing to do is to return to the closest archstone and teleport back to the Nexus, your curiosity may push you onward. There always seems to be a terrific surprise lurking around the bend, in the way of awesome new enemies (a giant blob made up of flailing corpses), amazing environments (the thin suspended walkways hanging over Latria's murky swamp), and precious loot (stones used to upgrade your crossbow).
The monsters may be tough, but the game grants you the flexibility you need to take them on as you see fit. You'll create your character using Demon's Souls' robust customization options and select a class when you first begin, but you aren't stuck with one particular play style. As long as you meet the necessary statistical requirements and own the requisite item (a talisman for casting miracles, for example), you can use any weapon, any armor, and any magic you please. It's a good thing, too, for certain circumstances may dictate that you follow an unplanned path. Perhaps you had no intention of using magic, but a simple soul arrow spell can come in mighty handy when you're dealing with flaming bugs fluttering about in the sky. You may plan to pour all your souls into your strength attribute, only to realize that leveling up endurance is the better idea, because you'll be able to absorb more damage with your shield before losing health.
What makes extreme difficulty and incessant trial and error such wonderful qualities in Demon's Souls, when they are so loathsome in other games? It starts with the deliberate and wonderful combat, which doesn't seem complex at first, but reveals its subtleties in time. Rarely will mindlessly hacking and slashing get you anywhere, unless death is your ultimate goal. You need to contemplate every move, swing only when you are sure you won't be countered, and switch weapons or use items only when you are sure your window of opportunity is wide enough. You'll encounter all sorts of awesome and unnatural beasts, from tumbling skeletal fiends to frightful three-faced larvae, and while they have a set number of attacks, they still behave unpredictably. You will undoubtedly take a lot of damage until you learn the subtleties of fighting each enemy, but combat feels just right. You move with the right amount of weight, combos take time to pull off, and animations are silky smooth. Everything moves and interacts in the way you'd expect. If your sword hits the wall instead of the enemy, it will glance off. If a demon knight rears back just before you do the same, his sword will make contact at the part of your body that you left unprotected. These touches may seem small and unimportant, but when every second counts, and when life and death are separated by a millimeter or two, you rely on such consistency.
The challenging combat is enhanced by a number of innovative online features that invite players to interact with each other. To survive, you not only need to pay careful attention to your environs, but you must be mindful of the clues other players have left for you, both purposeful and accidental. The game's online integration is nothing like you've ever seen, and it's a core component of the Demon's Souls experience. The signs and indications of other players are everywhere. You'll see translucent white ghosts roaming your world, moving about and swinging their weapons, though you can't directly interact with them. These spirits are actually other players. They are fighting the same enemies and sprinting across the same bridges, but they inhabit their own worlds, not yours. You see only their apparitions, but those apparitions may be enough to clue you in to a surprise ambush up ahead or a bit of hidden loot around the corner.
These ghosts are only one of several ways other players will be assisting you on your journey. You'll notice plenty of bloodstains coating the ground; by activating them, you'll witness an instant replay of another player's final few seconds before the unfortunate victim succumbed to death. These bloodstains may warn you of an upcoming drop into nothingness, a particularly difficult enemy encounter, or a deadly trap waiting to be sprung. If you wish to assist a player more directly (after all, self-sacrifice might drop a helpful bloodstain for your fellow players, but it doesn't do you much good), you can leave a note. You must choose from a preselected list, but there are dozens of messages to choose from, and you'll likely find a sentiment that communicates exactly what you need to share. If there's a deadly drop ahead, leave a note (which appears as a rune on the ground) warning your fellow players. Not only will it help them out, but if they find it useful, they can rate it. When a note is rated, it replenishes some of the note-givers health. Low-rated notes fade away quickly, while high-rated ones stick around longer. It's a superb system of give and take in which the writer and the reader can both benefit. Those who offer and receive true help are rewarded, and those who provide incorrect, pointless, or misleading information are simply wasting their own time.
The most direct way of helping other players, however, is to join them on their quest. Demon's Souls' ingenious implementation of co-op play is hardly straightforward, though it is incredibly imaginative. Players exist in one of two forms: body form and soul form. If you are in body form, you have full hit points, while in soul form, your hit points are generally halved (though a terrific ring you can find early on will give you a boost). You start your adventure in body form, and when you die, you are resurrected in soul form. Because you are only restored to body form when you defeat a boss or use a relatively rare stone, you'll spend most of your time as a soul. When in soul form, you can drop a soul marker; a player in body form can then activate that marker to summon you to his or her world. At that point, you join the player in his or her realm and tackle the challenges at hand together. If you are in body form, you can summon either one or two players, for a maximum party of three. There is no way to invite a friend, and no voice chat to communicate strategies or warnings. Yet while that sounds limiting, this imaginative system works in the context of Demon's Souls' harsh world and backstory. You feel as if you occupy a single node on a vast web of interconnected realms that mesh and overlap in mysterious ways.
The result of this unique and amazing set of online features is a curious sense of camaraderie. On one occasion, we joined two other players in the host's instance, and using Demon's Souls' built-in emotes, all three players bowed to one another at the same time. That friendly moment was a microcosm of the sense of community that the game's tightly balanced cooperative features create. By dropping your soul mark, you are not only offering your service to a player in need, but also reaping rewards in the way of souls, as well as learning new combat strategies in your own realm. This is particularly helpful when it comes to Demon's Souls' exceptionally difficult--and exceptionally rewarding--boss fights. The first main boss you fight may give you an idea of the awesome character designs you'll see elsewhere, but its relatively low level of challenge won't prepare you for the dual monstrosities known as maneaters or the nail-biting and exciting storm king battle. Not all of these boss battles are as hard as the gameplay that leads to them, but they are tough nonetheless, and the boss designs are deliciously grotesque.
Nevertheless, other players aren't always your best pals; sometimes, they may be your worst enemies. Once you've progressed far enough (and procured the necessary item), you can invade another player's realm as a black phantom--and other players can invade yours. Don't worry that you'll suddenly be attacked by another player many, many levels above you: your invader must be around the same level as you, so you should be on more or less equal footing. Even so, the presence of an enemy player changes the very nature of your exploration. Not only must you cope with the array of demons seeking to slaughter you, but you must also be on the lookout for the telltale blood-red shimmer of your intruder. As a result, you'll move ahead much more cautiously--and when you do finally meet, the ensuing encounter is tense and exciting. Don't be surprised if you let out an audible gasp when you receive the notification on your screen that another player has penetrated your realm; no matter how often they happen, invasions never lose their potency. If you're the one being invaded, the intrusion is exciting and a little bit scary; you'll look around, wondering if you're being followed, and listen for signs of your foe. When you're the invader, you'll feel vaguely evil scouting about, trying to stay out of your victim's sight, and looking for the best opportunity to attack. And there may be surprising moments in which these various systems coalesce. For example, you may join another player in his or her realm, only to have a black phantom appear. The unspoken (there is no voice chat) partnership between you and your collaborator makes banishing a black phantom from his realm almost as satisfying as banishing one from your own. Of course, the souls you earn sweeten the deal.
Amid all of its elegance, Demon's Souls has a few small but noticeable flaws that bear mentioning. The game's targeting system is picky, so you may find it a chore to lock on to certain enemies when you need to most. The camera is occasionally hard to control when you're targeting demons, like when you need to deal with multiple flying gargoyles as you simultaneously climb a narrow, suspended staircase (there's no death in Demon's Souls more heartbreaking than a falling one). And there are a few areas where the frame rate tends to stutter, though these occurrences aren't frequent and are never overwhelming. Of course, the game's greatest potential drawback is its level of difficulty. If you are easily frustrated, or looking to unwind for the night, Demon's Souls isn't going to fit the bill, though that doesn't mean it's generally cheap: it always abides by its own laws. When you die, it's because the section is legitimately hard--but when you die, you learn. And you can minimize death by paying close attention to the tools you're given: player spirits, notes on the ground, bloodstains, and the cackles and groans emanating from around the corner. You know that walkway that crumbled underneath you and dropped you in the middle of some menacing fiends? Chances are you simply didn't read the note another friendly player left urging you to sprint across.
Demon's Souls harbors many more intricacies as well--nooks and crannies loaded with extra loot, a mechanic known as world tendency that changes the difficulty level depending on certain actions you take, and additional benefits (and risks) should you rescue (or kill) certain non-player characters you encounter on your travels. There's a lot to discover, and the game wants you to figure it all out on your own. But while Demon's Souls doesn't serve the answers to you on a gilded platter, it gives you a number of refined and inspired tools to help you succeed, and its astounding, oppressive world will cast its spell on you. If you crave true innovation, a fair but relentless challenge, and gripping exploration in which every step has consequences, then you crave Demon's Souls.