Demon's Souls is officially past nerdy import into "fetishized by morons and normal people alike" territory. That means it's time to pick it up before Atlus horribly underestimates or otherwise fucks up this print run, or somebody you absolutely can't stand endorses the game to you and forces you to rule it out. Like the Asian version, it combines survival horror, genuinely tactical action combat (but not twitch reflex, although it seems that way at first), roguelikes, and the best "storytelling via level design" I've seen in a long time. But in order to talk about that we need to set aside the myths that are being built around this title. I'm not talking about honest enthusiasm or making the point clear that it's not for every taste. I'm talking about the dickless types who operate by initially associating its first impression with their names in the minds of their victims, and then following that up by smothering the game's description in ego-stroking bullshit about how hardcore and difficult the game is, and how tough you have to be in order to persevere. Here's the game in its basic progression, which might give you an idea of how it works.
Tutorial: Kills you. That's how it ends, with death and being trapped as a soul. This is supposed to get you used to the default state of the game (you as a soul), but instead gets treated as this huge statement about hardcoreness because the soul form has half as much health as the body form. All you have to do is revamp what you consider your default state, and take into account the first lesson of the game: if you are taking any damage from an enemy as a matter of course, there is probably a better way to do it because there is a minimal margin of error in terms of taking hits. You can adjust that later in the game and create more of a tank if that's your thing, but the hope is you'll realize that HP is not the shield it usually is.
First level: You progress through this, and everyone immediately notices three things: some enemies are very difficult to beat in melee combat (they are marked with bright red eyes), you have nowhere to invest your souls so they keep being "wasted" when you are killed before you reach your last bloodstain where you died before, and you lose your souls on hand every time you die (they are stuck in a blood stain where you were killed until you retrieve them) but not your gear. Notice how the last two are kind of similar? Well, that's just a reflection of what everyone fixates on. What they should be noticing as well is that you are constantly unlocking shortcuts throughout the level, which means that it gets much easier to navigate levels and is the closest thing to checkpoints. This will be important later, whereas bitching about soul loss will continue to be a red herring. As for red eyes and the like, most of them will populate areas that can be bypassed or ignored; they have weaker versions of themselves (blue eyes) for you to train on, and will only be thrust in your face in the last level of each world where they will be a standard enemy.
|Plainly visible, from left to right: dangerous, less dangerous, about to get fucked for worrying about blue before red.|
The game opens up: Now you can invest souls in statistics and items. Yay! And you have a choice of four other worlds to explore, all of which have different challenges are their core mechanic. What this tells morons is that they should keep banging their head against the same level while trying to use the same tactic but slightly better. Most importantly, it tells you you've got a bunch of different places worth trying, which even if you don't complete them when you are frustrated somewhere else might provide you with a tool that saves your ass in the other. What this tells non-morons is you have a bunch of other options, in which (translating your goals from the first level), you should be accruing items, shortcuts, and information on what works on certain kinds of enemies. You'll realize quickly that the only barrier to using different kinds of weapons is a modest stat requirement and your ability to lift them...that should tell you that you need to experiment no matter how much you wanted your build to look like X. You want a magic user primarily? Fine, but just realize you're going to need melee and a bow at some time, so you make sure that the ones you choose build on your magic stats or at least aren't strength reliant, which is very possible.
Finally, the multiplayer: You can only invite people into your game if you are alive, which means you need to either have beaten a boss or spend a consumable item which isn't plentiful until you've been playing a little bit. The good news is you can be invited into other live people's games as a spirit, or invade live people's games as an evil spirit. So a plan B if you are getting your ass handed to you is to volunteer to try it in someone else's game. You are spared the voice chat unless you are coordinating with a friend across skype or something, which is usually a blessing because you work with other people as if you had only the game's mechanics to communicate. So you try to complement each other's weapons, pay attention to what the other guy is doing so you don't leave him hanging when he draws attention, etc. The main thing is that it's a zero risk proposition for you (you are right back where you were when you were first summoned, and so long as you don't get crazy with consumable use no worse off + some souls even if you didn't finish the level), a great way to earn souls, and a great way to see others playing the game and see different approaches without having to actually interact with strangers. Finally, you can always use the consumable right in front of a boss area and invite as many as three people to come fight the boss, which changes the dynamic as much as you'd expect. Demon's Souls includes what Fable 2's floaty friends thing would have been if it had been intelligently implemented instead of a bullet point novelty, namely by having the spirits of other players occasionally flit through your game as they go about their business, as well as the option to activate their live bloodstains that give you the last few seconds of their life reenacted with only them in the picture.
Atlus has contributed events where according to the holiday they change the world tendency, which is the second closest thing to a difficulty slider in the game (the first closest is character class, where choosing a royal makes the first level dramatically easier to learn). World tendency can be altered in game by your deaths and victories, but they periodically set the default at extremes. So Halloween was pure black tendency (harder enemies, evil NPCs come to life with good items you can pry from their cold dead hands, more experience and better drops), Christmas was pure white (easier enemies, less experience, good NPCs come to life, access to special weapons open), all of which change your experience significantly. Both of those have succeeded in luring me back to the game, as they change the game experience and your access to items.
Demon's Souls is superficially similar to highly regarded "small" puzzle games (Braid, Portal) in that the feedback for "You're doing it right or wrong" is in the steadily evolving gameplay rather than than tutorial tips, but I feel like it's much more open-ended in the way you can circumvent problems. It also connects to those in that if the setting resonates with you at all, it's going to be continually reinforced by the levels themselves primarily, although they do slip in a few fairly well executed cutscenes with the same production values as the opening cinematic.
An example: In the second stage of the swamp world, they take away your mobility in much of the level by confining you to rickety ramps or mud that keeps you from moving quickly. Which poisons you, over time. So if you're stupid you'll play it exactly like other levels with a notional effort like putting on a partial poison resistance ring. But if you pay attention, you realize that melee is going to hinge on never fighting groups of enemies and winner-takes-all kind of hits. Or using distance and archery. Or using stealth equipment to sprint to a safe spot out of reach (you can move quickly in a straight line forward in the bog), and initiate contact from there hoping it buys you enough space to be out of reach before they croak.
Demon's Souls excels at providing tension and pressure in ways other than putting a timer on the puzzles. The enemy AI is based around a very rigid sense of what each enemy will do as part of their reaction scheme, but a big part of it is based around pushing you to do something stupid and hasty. If you hold on to your shit and react like it's testing your nerves and creativity instead of your reflexes, you'll be fine. A lot of the survival horror component comes from that, and not just from the fantastic settings and level design.
So I just want to make it clear that most of the hardcore crowd is simply trying to create a barrier to entry as well as add some kind of merit badge to their list of fucking pointless achievements. It is different from other action RPGs based around linear character progression and grinding to surmount obstacles easily, since straight grinding (without targeting a specific skill or tool to get around a situation) will only get you so far. Switching to a crushing weapon on difficult skeleton enemies does much more to help your cause than grinding for ten hours and then still hacking away at them with a spear or sword. It sounds different, the damage reaction is immediate, and you wonder why spent so much time poking at a bone when you could have been smashing it. Then you realize you were too wrapped up in the imminent danger of the game to notice you were setting yourself up for failure for yourself by sticking only to "tried and true" routines. And then the cycle begins again with the next time it kicks your ass.
Information + items is the most important combination in the game, and souls are just a means to that end. Therefore, they become a reasonable penalty for dying rather than the controller flipping catastrophe that RPGs and roguelikes (when played by RPG fans) have conditioned us to view it as. It is entirely possible to talk anyone who can handle basic game controls through any part of the game they are stuck at, because offering a different strategy changes things dramatically (and it's been out long enough that almost every major obstacle has an option someone has found based on using the sandboxiness of the game against it-think of it as being able to shoot a guy in mid argument before the GTA car chase). And I can't say enough good things about the level design and world aesthetic, which seems unimpressive until you are actually playing it...the prison tower is probably my favorite level in any game in years, and I'm still noticing new details in it now, although I don't fall off cliffs as often as I once did.
The problems are almost negligible in the grand scheme of things. You climb ladders too slowly (although they are infrequent), the collision detection or whatever it is that determines when exactly you are on an edge or falling off it has a floaty feel to it that is unfriendly to beginners given the precision demanded at times, and then there are game mechanic issues that are probably too reliant on extensive experience in the game to be anything other than matters of taste. For instance, the awkward level of control the player exercises over world tendency (via suicides and one-off-per-playthrough boss battles) is not really compatible with the way that world tendency gradually recenters over time if you are online. And there are at least two levels that could have used revamped shortcuts to a boss (2-2 and the False King level) because they are beyond the pale in terms of discouraging experimentation with risky tactics on some well-designed bosses that are invariably replaced with tiresomely cautious approaches. But these are nosehairs on the Mona Lisa compared to the problem of its fanbase, once fully co-opted by assholes.
It is not reflex based, it is not grinding oriented. People who play it that way will probably be fine, but that's why they think of it as an unhealthily stressful pastime. I've now beat both editions of the game, and there is no poop in my socks yet.