If you've ever thought that games these days have become too easy *coughElikacough*, From Software's awkwardly-titled Demon's Souls is the for you. It will gladly eat your face, like any properly challenging game would, and spit out an incredibly satisfying dungeon-crawler experience.
I don't say this lightly, either. I've said before that I'm not really into difficult games, but Demon's Souls has me hooked, and for reasons beyond just the sadistic face-eating.
First, there's the design work. The inimitable Jim Sterling said it best as he noted how "not enough games put you in a full suit of medieval armor", and Demon's Souls really rocks it in that respect. Even Oblivion, once the place to go for reasonably realistic medieval fantasy, flat-out refuses to hide your character's ugly mug behind a plate mail helmet. Not so here, for without a protective metal mask your face would be eaten off quite handily. A few concessions are made to Japanese sensibilities, with an extra-large greatsword here and there, or a large shield painted up with pictures of saints, like a fresco on a cathedral ceiling. Oh, and speaking of shields, you can dual-wield them. Even better, it's a perfectly valid strategy!
The intro video and tutorial + some early gameplay. It's cute that the VO sounds like native Japanese-speakers were asked to read lines written in ye olde English in whatever they thought sounded like a medieval European accent.
The environments, too are a creepy sight to see. If you've ever complained about how large the light radius seems in the latest screens of Diablo III, you'll find ample comfort here. Your little crystal torch is about as effective in a claustrophobic castle passageway as a cellphone-screen backlight, and you're left to listen for heavy breathing, shuffling sounds, or other telltale clues to find out if some face-eating monster sits around the corner or if there's an Indiana Jones-style rolling boulder trap's set up at the top of the incline.
The enemies are also pretty tough. There are Cthulu-faced monsters, grim reapers, giant floating stingrays that throw spikes the size of telephone poles at you, and these screaming armored skeletons that somersault their way towards you like gymnasts from hell. Carefully is how you play the game.
And you will be pretty careful, as Demon's Souls is fucking harsh. Getting killed in a stage spawns you back at the nearest waypoint, but all of your soul points (cash for buying levels and loot) are left at your bloodstain, which you have to get back to and touch. Worse still, you're respawned in "phantom form", which means your health is capped at 50% (75% with a special item), and all the enemies have been restored to their places. To add insult to injury, the only way to get your body back (and remove the cap), is to kill a boss! And those bosses are pretty epic. Just check it out below.
Imagine if all the colossi in Shadow of the Colossus were as pissed off as that guy. That's what a boss fight in this game is like.
Well, you can also get your body back through multiplayer. Demon's Souls' online mode is pretty interesting. You know Fable II's online, where you could see friends who were playing their own game walking around as glowing orbs, and you could summon them as a random character to do some co-op? Demon's Souls takes it a few steps further.
When playing online, you can see white ghosts, which are other players (within a certain level range) playing in the same area in their own games. You (and they) can leave messages on the ground which can be seen and read by everyone. The messages are canned, and usually read "treasure here," "beware of fall," "boss here", or "cute foe ahead" (seriously). You can read and "rate" messages (basically a thumbs-up), and rating messages refills the health of the poster, so areas before boss fights are usually plastered with messages that say "I'm dying, please rate this message."
An interesting little aside is that other players' bloodstains are also visible in your game, and touching them activates a kind of "kill-cam", where the last ten-seconds or so of that character's life is shown scurrying around the stage as a red-tinted ghost. Some of the deaths, particularly the ones to accidental falls, are as hilarious as they are informative.
If you're alive can summon up to two phantom-form players as "blue phantoms" to play some co-op. If those blue phantoms help you kill off a boss, they get rewarded with a free revival and are returned to their game. The best part, though, is that the summoning isn't just limited to co-op. You can also choose to become a "black phantom" and force yourself into another player's game, in which case your job is to HUNT that player! It's sanctioned griefing! Killing your victim gets you get your body back, but getting killed wipes out all your soul points and can even level you down in some cases. One of the best boss battles in the game isn't even against the AI. Once you enter the room, a random player from the same area is summoned in to be the boss, and you two have to fight to the death, ala' Thunderdome.
It's not perfect, though. There's very little hand-holding going on. Other than killing all the bosses at the end of each area, you're given nothing in the way of an overarching goal. You just enter a dungeon, explore it, pick up loot, eat faces and get your face eaten off, and maybe find a switch or two that opens the gate to the boss. The dungeons are well designed and relatively easy to navigate, even without a map or objective compass, but the premise is a bit simple-minded. There be demons in them thar dungeons, go in there and kill 'em. Also, there's no quicksave, so there's no reloading if you got killed by the giant ooze monster with a shield for a face.
Anyway, it's nice to see a game on current-gen systems that hasn't sacrificed challenge for accessibility, but it's weird that no one's announced a US release! The asian version of the game is in full English, text and speech, and the multiplayer is already global. And yet they announced and demoed Ninja Blade.