Prepare to die. In Demon’s Souls you can die hundreds of ways, even in the tutorial level. Scratch that. You will die in the tutorial level once you Vanguard smashes you with its giant axe. Later in the game, you’ll get a chance to avenge your death.
So, what makes Demon’s Souls so difficult? Demon’s Souls is a precise game. You have to be tactful in combat since your character has a stamina meter. Attacking, parrying, blocking with a shield, even dodge rolling depletes it. Running out of stamina leaves you open to attacks and, well, death. Since your moves are limited you have to be cautious. Keeping your shield up at all times mixed with well timed shield bashes that deflect attacks and stun enemies are more effective strategies than mashing attack hoping to hack through an army of fire breathing lizards.
Demon’s Souls also has 8-bit game design. You warp back to the beginning of an area if you die. There aren’t any mid-level checkpoints or save points between the boss and the start of a level. You rise from each death a little bit wiser, a little bit better, and if you’re conservative you’ll have a few more healing herbs. Maybe a nice new sword too. But, you won’t be able to over level your way through Demon’s Souls by repeating stages. Stat points cost souls, the game’s general currency used to purchase everything from spells to spears. Let’s say you spend 1,000 souls to increase your strength. After the boost the price for all stat points goes up, which prevents players from getting too strong too fast.
And, Demon’s Souls gets harder after you die. When you awake in the Nexus, with a splitting headache from Vanguard’s axe, you revive with about half your life. In soul form your character is weaker and you can’t summon human allies, represented as Blue Phantoms, to help you face bosses.
Life is lonely in the Nexus. The only way to get your soul back, in the beginning of the game, is to beat the boss in Boletarian Palace. Time to get started.
Touching the archstone moved my thief, one of the base character classes, out of the Nexus and into the ruined palace. I dabbled with a few classes before sticking with a thief. Thieves are more agile and seem to get more item drops than the other classes at the beginning of the game. Having more healing herbs is always a plus. Since you can customize your character’s stats, the class is just a starting point. You can turn a barbarian into a master healer if you put the time into it. The only class in Demon’s Souls that’s rather unique is the Royal. This group starts out with the lowest stats, but gets a spell and the fantastic equipment including a MP regenerating ring.
I cut my way through demented slaves hiding behind makeshift walls to the top of the stairs. Enemy placement is constant so monsters leap from the same spots. There’s little light inside the castle, which gives plenty of chances for slaves to surprise you from dark corners. In fact, a berserk slave will do that in the first ten minutes of the game, but I didn’t need to play through that part to know that would happen. A helpful player (fellow journalist?) left a glowing note, made from bits of pre-assigned text, warning a foe was lurking. Other players rated it positively, so I knew something was up and vigilantly raised my shield. It’s a good tactic to always keep your guard up, but I had to die at least two more times before I got in the habit of holding L1 while running. I left helpful tips in return, hinting when enemies were about to launch fire attacks and where treasure was.
Players can also inadvertently alert others to danger by dying. When you die you leave a bloodspot behind that shows the last seconds of your life. Clusters of bloodspots mean trouble is close. Perhaps, a powerful enemy or a deadly trap. One area had a group of bloodspots that all did the same thing when reanimated. All of the players ran down a narrow path before perishing. What they ran into was a set of explosive barrels, set off by an archer behind a wall. I didn’t know that when I approached the corridor, but all of the bloodstains were a clue that something ahead was dangerous so I fired an arrow, in attempt to lure enemies out. Inadvertently, I triggered the trap and avoided death.
After exchanging blows with a defensive knight that kept restoring its health with herbs and wandering around the castle to open the main gate, I met Phalanx and his posse. Dozens of black blobs shielded Phalanx from damage while throwing spears in all directions. Great. The blobs are protected from head on attacks too, which made Phalanx pretty safe… except from fire. A tip left by another player informed me of its weakness so I applied turpentine to my blade to ignite it and finished Phalanx off. Good thing this was an honest tip!
With Phalanx slain my character revived, his life bar was restored, and I felt a small sense of accomplishment. Then, in the next hour, I died again. Which meant it was time to persist through a new level and take down another boss.