This review is based on the US import version of the game. The European release comes with a strategy guide in addition to the game.
While reviewing Demon’s Souls, quite a few people have asked the question, “Is it really as hard as everyone says?”. The answer is no: it’s harder – but before you go back to Virtua Tennis 2009’s career mode, allow me to explain further.
There are different kinds of hard in a video game. There is the Mirror’s Edge hard, where you know exactly what to do but you always mess up one tiny little move and the whole game becomes a trial of nerves and shouting. Then there is the Resident Evil 5 boss hard, where you need pinpoint accuracy and tons of luck and ammo to take down a tricky enemy, you repeat it over and over and eventually get frustrated to the point of throwing your controller.
Demon’s Souls is different: it’s all about the planning. On the face of it, the basic combat system in this hack’n’slash-style adventure RPG is fairly simple to operate, and as long as you retreat and heal when you need to, you can progress. The difficulty comes from a few things: first, the world is full of traps, ambushes and areas that are tricky to navigate. What this basically means is you will repeat the same areas over and over, slowly memorising the correct path and where the traps are, getting a little bit further each time. Each attempt is like a training run allowing you to improve your strategy bit by bit. Having said that, it is annoyingly easy to fall to your death while fighting an enemy on a narrow platform, and sometimes you’ll be randomly overwhelmed by enemies you’ve successfully tackled many times before; so expect to repeat each area many, many times.
The second prong of difficulty is grounded in the absolutely punishing conditions which befall you upon death. Die once and you turn from living form to Soul form and your health is cut to half (or some other percentage depending on your stats) until you complete the area or satisfy certain other conditions like taking down one of the epic bosses or completing a co-op or competitive multi-player task (more on that later). You’ll also lose all your currency, although your weapons and inventory stay intact.
To recover your money – which is denoted as Souls in the game – you need to get back to where you died and touch your bloodstain. Woe betide you if you die on the way though, as only your most recent bloodstain is retained, and there is no bank – the Souls you have on you are all you have – so the chances of you losing the majority of your Souls altogether is excruciatingly high. Expect to play the vast majority of the game in Soul form with half your health points. The other difficulty is that the distance between checkpoints is bordering on the insane; be prepared to lose 30-45 minutes of play time on a regular basis.
As a final word on difficulty before we get to the meat of the game, it took me over 6 hours and probably 40+ attempts to complete the first dungeon. I’m not great at video games, but I’m not terrible either. There are no difficulty settings to make it easier. However, the game exudes a certain elusive addictiveness. You will get fed up of re-spawning at the same point over and over and turn the game off, but a couple of hours later you’ll be ready to try again with the “this time I’m going to get further” attitude. Because each individual fight isn’t usually intrinsically too hard, Demon’s Souls has a knack of keeping you coming back to try just one more time, and see what comes next.
Here we are then, in the strange and eerily desolate northern land of Boletaria. The story is simple enough: everyone has turned into demons and you have to liberate the land and restore it to its former glory. This is done, as you might expect, by killing anything that moves.