When the game starts you can customise your avatar’s appearance to a very impressive degree and choose from one of ten classes. Referring to the manual is a must here because these classes are not described at all in the menus and make a really crucial difference to the initial gameplay experience. On my first run with the Soldier, I could barely get anywhere at all. A skim of the manual and starting again with the heavily-armored Temple Knight – who can also self-heal – yielded much more bearable results.
The class you select really only matters in the initial phases of the game because it simply determines your initial stats, weapons and spells where applicable. All characters can use any weapon or spell as long as they are suitably equipped and meet the stat requirements. There is no experience system; instead, stat points are purchased with Souls. As you reach new stat levels your character’s Soul Level will increase, which makes future upgrades more expensive.
The game kicks off with an adequate tutorial which sets the tone of what’s in store rather well. Combat varies depending on your starting gear but generally consists of simple light attack, heavy attack, block and parry. You can also dual-wield to break the enemy’s guard. While you are shown how to use items, switch weapons and cast spells and miracles, no explanation of the HUD is given, nor the overwhelming raft of statistics in any of the menus. Once the tutorial ends though, you can press Select over any stat to explain it, which is a welcome touch, and the printed manual just about covers most of the bases while also being somewhat sparse.
Your home base is the Nexus, a central hub which gives you access to each of Boletaria’s five major areas, each of which is divided into dungeons which are gradually unlocked as you progress. Overall progression is largely linear, although it is worth re-visiting earlier dungeons as you level up to tackle areas that were previously too difficult. Within the dungeons themselves, there are sometimes multiple routes to explore, although again they are fairly linear – there are no swathes of open space to go exploring for chests here, but you can complete them in the order of your choosing once unlocked. Thankfully you can open up shortcuts in places to get quickly back to where you were after you die. Quickly is a relative term in this case, though, and there are no maps, so be sure to remember where you are going.
I mentioned above that individual combat encounters are not usually too difficult, but that is not to say they are trivial. Wading straight in hammering attack is a recipe for instant death. You will need to block and parry effectively, know when to retreat or just to back step. A single hit will often take a significant chunk out of your health, so it’s smart to know when to quit. Enemies generally won’t follow you too far if you run away, giving you chance to heal and regroup, which is a relief. Large weapons generally have an area of effect, so anything nearby will take damage regardless of which mob you have targeted. However, in tight passageways, large weapons will just hit the walls instead of your attacker, so switching to a shortsword or knife at the right time is important. This is a game where you will want to walk slowly, pay constant attention to your environment and whenever possible, try to tackle your enemies one at a time.
Long range attacks require accuracy and you can zoom in to get the perfect shot. Most mobs stand still until they notice you – often hiding around corners – but once you know where they are you can take them out with relative ease. You will of course be using up your limited supply of bolts or arrows as you perform these attacks. As in other RPGs, flanking the enemy and stabbing from behind will inflict a critical hit.
Stat fans will love Demon’s Souls as the game is absolutely overflowing with them, with three screens needed just to describe each weapon’s information, and another three screens to describe your character. My usual complaint applies: equipping new weapons doesn’t let you easily compare with the rest of your inventory, and that’s particularly baneful in a game of this complexity. Memorising all those numbers is far from easy. Status effects have been reduced in complexity to just four buffs (strength, dexterity, magic and faith) and four negative effects (bleeding, poison, plague and critical). With everything you have to keep track of, this is a good thing. There are four weapon types (normal, blunt, slashing and piercing) which perform according to how you have leveled up your stats.
Everything has an item burden (weight) which slows movement. Weapon durability degrades with use and when they are down to 30% their stats become reduced – and trust me, on your 15th attempt of the same dungeon, you are going to love it when you get half-way through only to be informed your weapon is broken because you weren’t paying attention to its durability. The Nexus has a blacksmith and some other vendors who will repair and upgrade weapons for you (ore and Souls are needed for upgrades), and there are some more dotted around world of Boletaria, though they are relatively few and far between. You can’t sell any items, which makes your stash of Souls even more important.