I knew very little about Demon's Souls when I spied it on the shelves of a second hand shop. I'd heard it had something to do with the legendarily tricky Dark Souls series, but other than that, I didn't know what to expect. I certainly didn't expect to find myself plunged into one of most well-realised worlds I'd ever encountered, or to feel pity for nearly every creature who met their end at the tip of my sword.
WARNING: The follow contains spoilers for Demon's Souls, including details of the final boss.
It's evident a great deal of time and effort has been put into crafting Demon's Souls' premise, which is unsettling to say the least. The medieval Kingdom of Boletaria has been engulfed by a thick fog, a fog which is revealed to be demonic in origin. But those venture who into the gloom, hoping to free the beleaguered kingdom, never return. So why bother? Why not just quarantine Boletaria and be done with it, rather than losing countless warriors to the fog? Because the fog is spreading, albeit at an incredibly slow rate, leaving humanity facing a 'slow and steady extinction. '
Something about that phrase sent shivers down my spine so much so that I put the manual down to dwell upon it. This concept of a slow apocalypse runs contrary to the race-against-time scenarios depicted in so many games, but it's ultimately a more disturbing concept. Imagine having to get up and play with your children knowing that, if the situation persisted, they would eventually face an agonising fate.
Luckily you, as Sir Knightly Knight or whatever you choose to call yourself, are on hand to sort this whole mess out. Sword or wand in hand, you stride into the fog only to be dispatched either by the first boss you encounter or – in a cutscene – a colossal dragon. But there's no 'Game Over' scene in Demon's Souls. Each time you die you're transported to the Nexus, a limbo of sorts, where you are restored to life. Then you venture out again, trapped in a never-ceasing cycle of death and rebirth. I can only imagine the agonies that my character must have felt upon having his body broken for the fiftieth time.
But, hey, you're the hero, right? Not at all. The Maiden in Black, the mysterious figure who resurrects you claims that she is here 'For you, and for you only,' but she's likely gone through this same rigmarole again and again, each here ultimately failing her. While you may be the star of your own narrative, the broken bodies of the heroes you find scattered around the level succeed in reminding you of your own insignificance. So not only is your character suffering endlessly, you're can't even claim to Boletaria's only hope.
Not that the enemies you face have it any easier, though - they too are subject to their own torments and as steeped in misery as you are. A few of the foes you encounter are actual demons , but the bulk are former humans who have been driven mad either by their contact with the demons. Killing them may seem like a mercy but that gives them precious little respite as they spring back to life whenever you revisit their respective areas.
Yet Demon's Souls' does not specifically cast your enemies as 'the good guys', nor does it offer a pacifism route. But nevertheless it succeeded in making me feel like a complete heel, despite there being no obvious alternative to the slaughter I visited upon my enemies. When I finally fought my way to the bottom of the Valley of Defilement, a region inhabited largely by plague-victims, I was greeted with a sobering sight. The levels 'boss' was in fact a former missionary who had decided to say and offer solace to the plague-ridden, who stood around her bowing. The realisation hit me like a sledgehammer – I'd been murdering my way through legions of people who just wanted to be left alone.
Those weren't the only questionable actions I undertook during my time with the game, either. While exploring the game's prison level, I found a key and decided to release the prisoners from their bondage. They promptly started crowding around me raising their hands in worship to the point where I had to hack my way through them just to progress. To further muddy the moral waters, Demon's Souls also allows you to collect the souls of fallen warriors to improve your own abilities. I was merrily gathering these souls, adding them to my own pool until it occurred to me that I'd been using people's very life essence for my own personal game. That was an awkward moment to say the least, though I didn't feel bad enough to stop doing it.
The one point at which I felt I had the moral high ground was when I clambered to the top of the Boletarian palace to dispatch King Allant, the architect of the Kingdom's misfortune. Allant had woken the Great Old One, allowing demons entry into the mortal realm. There he stood, clad in all his finery, not a mark on him. For the first time in the game, I felt a surge of anger as I took on this aloof ruler, a man who had sought to gain power from the suffering of his people.
But it wasn't him. After this fight – the toughest battle in the game – I ventured below the Nexus to discover the true King Allant, now reduced to a deformed monstrosity, who explained that he had sought to bring demons into the realm only to end the suffering of man. Misguided as he may have been, he honestly believed he was doing the right thing. I actually felt sorry for him, despite his transgressions.
The beauty of Demon's Souls is that it creates a world steeped in shades of grey, bleak and misery-drenched, all without sinking into self-parody. Furthermore, it accomplishes this with without needless exposition or clunky NPC dialogue. And at the end of it all, as I set down my joypad and my character walked out of the Nexus, I knew he had emerged victorious but not untainted. What future awaited a man who, with the best intentions, had slaughtered his way through those who had become corrupted by forces outside their control? I may have beaten the game and saved Boletaria - what little there was left to save - but it left me feeling anything but heroic.