I will be honest, I have been very skeptical of Demon's Souls, which was developed by Sony and From Software and coming to the States thanks to Atlus. This combination could be hazardous: From Software because they can be hit and miss, all in one year; and Atlus, because their dedication to bringing Role Playing Games to the U.S. can be blind to many gamers. However, any doubt I had has since washed away as I travel in the kingdom of Boletaria. Demon's Souls is one of the most polished, rewarding Action RPGs I have ever played, and is a gem of a game that should not be overlooked.
The game starts out in pretty dark times; King Allant XII has brought more than just property to the kingdom, he has awoken the Old One, and with that a thick black fog has blanketed the land. Crazed demons have started attacking everyone and everything, and no one has made it out alive. So, of course, it is your duty to rid the land of this mess.
Things start out in fairly standard fashion, you have a wide assortment of 10 character classes to chose from — your basics such as barbarian and magician, to temple knight and priest — and the tutorial level walks you through all your controls. Then you make it to the boss at the end of this introduction and get slaughtered and die (I hear it is possible to win this fight, but I would have to see it with my own eyes). Here is where Demon's Souls sheds the basic Action RPG structure and gives us something unique; you do not really die, you just turn into Soul Form. Once you are introduced to and become familiar with the Nexus, the game's central hub, your game really starts.
Soon you will come to realize that you will be "dead" most of the game, but that is not all bad. Sure, you only have half the health of your living self, but you incur fewer penalties if you die and return to the spawn point. There are a few ways to gain life again; one of those is to kill a major demon or level boss. Demon's Souls has many concepts at work, and they all come together completely seamlessly, even online play. All the trappings are here that you would expect, including stats such as Vitality and Endurance, a multitude of weapons to be found and forged, and plenty of loot to be had, plus a karma system that I will touch on soon — these are all things to be expected in a modern day RPG.
You gain souls from the demons you kill, as well as from dead NPCs found in the levels. Souls are the currency of the fantasy world of Boletaria, used to repair and upgrade your weapons, purchase new ones, and increase your stats, all of which is done in the Nexus in between your questing (there are merchants out and about, too).
Once you kill the first demon and have been revived for the first time, you get to chose which area of the game you want to tackle. The game has a built-in hint system which allows users to write short messages you can find littering the ground. The interface for adding these is convenient for a console, with mad lib style notes, filling in the blanks to tell other players how to deal with the enemy around the corner. Messages that receive votes stay in the game longer, and the person who wrote one receives a full health bar when their message is recommended. The system works well, and the bad or misleading messages disappear from the world in time.
Also helpful in your journey are blood stains left from others who have fallen. Once you select one, you watch a translucent animation of the last few seconds of their demise — this can be very helpful while getting through a tough spot (or quite funny). Both the messages and the blood stains work in the persistent online world, which the game connects to with no hassle on your part. That is not to say you are all running around in an MMO, however you may see ghosts of others wandering here or there. You can play the game alone or you can summon other players in Soul form, but everyone inhabits the same game world. The game is still playable offline as well — without some features of course.
Shortly after the game starts you receive Soul Stones, you use these to gain access to another player's game. You can get a party of three together, two of which are in Soul form, and go about the story together. Later on, you learn you can even break into games and try and kill other players. There are advantages to playing the PvP card, as you can revive yourself if you in fact win — of course you will have half health and the other person will have full in the battle. You have to weigh your options. The other way to regain your life, and with it all the benefits, is to use a costly Soul Stone, but most would rather just slay a demon, or help another player slay a demon.
And you are going to want help in Demon's Souls. The game does not hold your hand, but it also does not feel cheap. You really get satisfaction from toppling the huge, towering bosses in the game. When you die (and you will) you don't feel like it is the game's fault. You are the underdog in this realm, and you have to be cautious at every turn, as you can be taken down just as easily by an archer or a mini-boss. Even after a couple Soul Levels, you still are not comfortable in your own skin, and that tension keeps the game's pace moving along well.
The game has a good/evil system at play, governing both the world and your player character itself, called World and Character Tendency. There are five worlds in the game, and each can have increasingly light or dark Tendency, depending on how you choose to play the game. Extreme forms of light and dark will yield different items, quests, and mannerisms of NPCs. Shifting World Tendency happens if you slay a demon or if you die in the world. There are also ways to shift Tendency back the other way. You may want to sway the Tendency because you may wish for one world to have a dark Tendency, this makes the enemies harder, and yields more Souls and goodies.
Player Tendency is managed in a similar vein, however is controlled by your actions. If you start attacking friendly NPCs, your Character Tendency darkens, your overall health will lower, and your soul form is affected. Being Light or Dark has other advantages, of course, as you unlock things to do in the Nexus, and different quest lines in the game. World and Character Tendency is also affected by your actions in online multiplayer, so this really does become a bit of a strategic element to the game, much more than simply good vs. evil.
Character models and the world around you look worn and lived in, it is graphically an impressive-looking PS3 game. The only glitch to be found has to do with the way the Havock engine handles rag-doll physics, and this is a common issue in any number of games. You also have some haunting orchestral melodies interwoven in the game. While the game looks lush and detailed, the real shining aspect is how it controls. Button mapping seems just right, and hot keyed items, always important in an Action RPG, are easy to get to. You can dodge and roll with the use of Circle and the left analog sick, and even change your grip to two-handed which drastically changes your strikes from wide ones to short, accurate cuts. Most games of this nature don't get the controls down, but Demon's Souls nails them.
The game has been accessible to North American gamers since its release in Japan, as PS3 imports are not region locked. Even though Sony Computer Entertainment helped with the development, and published it in Japan, Atlus USA has taken on the task of translating the game for our shores. The voice work, which is great, and the game play has remained unchanged. Major changes come in the form of stat screens and localizing the Engrish found in it. Atlus takes special care in the localization process, and clarity in a stat-heavy RPG can go a long way. One last thing to note about the North American release: the server you connect to is separate from the Asian server for the game.
Another good reason for grabbing the North American release is the Deluxe Edition's bonuses, or even standard edition's ones for that matter. Known for taking care of gamers, Atlus has a free art book and soundtrack CD available to pre-orders of both editions of the game. You get a strategy guide and a nice slipcase in the Deluxe Edition, costing you an extra $10. Demon's Souls is the type of game you are going to want a strategy guide for, so that is a pretty good deal. Look for Demon's Souls exclusively on PlayStation 3 on October 6.
Bottom Line: Fans of role playing games are going to be spending quite a lot of time playing Demon's Souls, it is a challenging, engrossing experience and a solid exclusive to the PS3 library. Many worlds and stages have paths that are not accessible the first time through, so you must go back once you are stronger, adding even more to the replay factor. Although the year is not over yet, Demon's Souls is a shining example of one of this year's best games.
Demon's Souls is rated M (Mature) by the ESRB for Blood, Violence.