The question on most readers' minds will not be the one posed in the title, but rather, "what is Demon's Souls?" While I won't have anything to write that likely hasn't already been written elsewhere by now (since the game has been out for several months), I haven't read anyone discussing the title here and I believe this is a game that deserves as much print as it can muster.
Demon's Souls is a dark fantasy action-RPG from developer From Software which aims to be a spiritual successor to their previous series, King's Field. Played from a 3rd-person perspective in real-time, Demon's Souls charges the player with ridding the land of (what else?) soul-stealing demons. The game is largely influenced by western RPGs — you'll select a character class with a set number of attributes, level up, and equip your character with various weapons, armors, magic, and miracles. Those are the basics; the other gameplay concepts are what really make Demon's Souls worth your time.
Combat tactics are varied and abundant. The huge range of weapons have different attack types (such as blunt, slashing, and stabbing) and damage types, which are more or less effective against particular enemies. Knowing which weapons to use in what situation requires plenty of trial-and-error, but also adds a layer of depth and skill to combat.
You also have a range of combat maneuvers that require precise timing to execute, but give your character an edge in combat. Your repertoire includes rolling, dodging, back-stepping, shield-bashing, and parrying — perform certain moves in the correct context at the correct time to open an enemy up for a devastating counter-attack. The amount of variation keeps combat refreshing and fun throughout the game.
The souls you collect from your fallen enemies act as both currency and experience. Souls can be used to level up a character's attributes, upgrade existing weapons, repair weapons and armor, or purchase new weapons, armors, and items.
Perhaps one of Demon's Souls biggest innovations is the way multiplayer meshes with regular gameplay. The game defaults to "online" mode. In this mode, you will see other players appear in your game as white phantoms. While unable to interact with your game world, you will see these white phantoms running around and attacking seemingly invisible enemies. These other players serve an important role in your own game — players have the option to leave messages on the ground for other players to find and read. Messages can warn of a trap ahead, a particularly difficult foe, or hint at the location of treasure.
Players from other games will also leave bloodstains on the ground when they die. You can touch these bloodstains and watch that player's final moments before death — valuable information for any yet-unexplored area.
In addition, you can summon other players into your own game as blue phantoms. These blue phantoms work cooperatively with you to help get past a particularly difficult area. But it's not all peachy in Demon's Souls — players can also invade your game as black phantoms and hunt you down for the kill.
Another game concept ties this all together: Your character has two basic forms, physical and soul. You'll start the game in physical form, which means that you'll have 100 percent health. If you die, you'll resurrect in soul form with a maximum of 50 percent health. You can regain your physical body in a number of ways, such as killing demons (end level bosses).
Each form has other benefits and drawbacks as well. In physical form, you have the ability to summon other players, but other players can also invade your game as black phantoms. Soul form is the opposite — you cannot summon players for assistance, but your game cannot be invaded, either.
All of this adds up to Demon's Souls offering a hefty dose of challenging gameplay. Most games these days strive to be more accessible to more people; developers usually shy away from harsh consequences for death. Demon's Souls offers no such hand-holding. You will die, and you will die a lot.
Death in Demon's Souls means that you will lose all the souls you're currently holding, and be transported back to the beginning of the level you're playing. All of the enemies will respawn, and you'll have to fight your way back through. Although you've lost your souls, you'll leave a bloodstain where you last died — touching this bloodstain will return all your souls to you, but beware: If you die again before making it back to your bloodstain, all those souls will be lost.
Comparatively speaking, these are harsh penalties for death. But the game doesn't feel cheap. You're not dying because the game unfairly pits you against enemies with ridiculous amounts of health or unfairly placed booby-traps. You're dying because you suck at playing Demon's Souls.
As others have said, Demon's Souls is much more about your growth as a gamer than anything else. Learning how to master the controls, to perform moves quickly an effectively, to take advantage of your surroundings and know your enemies — this is what you'll master in Demon's Souls.
This isn't a hack-and-slash-race-to-the-boss kind of game. Demon's Souls rewards patience and competence — understanding a boss's attack patterns and waiting for the perfect time to strike is a much more rewarding experience than shooting a glowing weak spot. Mastering the ability to dodge a tough enemy's attack and quickly counter-attack requires skill; taking a big hit because your high stat numbers are godlike is merely evidence of time served.
So, why aren't you playing Demon's Souls? Most likely because the game has only been released in Asia, but don't fret! While we can contemplate why Sony has decided against a North American or European release, especially considering the speculation that Demon's Souls has boosted PlayStation 3 sales in Japan, your time is better spent importing one of the versions that has full English voice and text.
It's a damn shame that many American and European gamers are unlikely to know about this title. If you've been searching for the reason you bought a PS3, or a reason to get one, this is it.