On the second stage of Demon’s Souls, I conquered a dragon. I encountered the beast in the very first area during a tense set piece where I had to dodge blasts of fire while sprinting across a bridge. It was in the second stage that I realized I could actually hurt the gigantic creature. I climbed up a tower and proceeded to spend 15 minutes taking pot shots at the dragon with my weak “Soul Arrow” spell every time it took a pass at the bridge below. Slowly but surely I chipped away its health until it crashed to the ground.

The whole of Demon’s Souls’ experience is easily compared to this battle of attrition. This isn’t a game where you perform amazing feats by tapping a few buttons in a quick time event. If you want to accomplish anything, you need to dig in your heels, roll up your sleeves, and stubbornly tell the game: “I will defeat you.” If that’s intimidating, let me assure you that I, too, was scared. But in this case, the sense of pure satisfaction from doing something like killing a dragon – a task that seems downright pedestrian in many games – is so great that time and time again it completely toppled any frustration I was experiencing.

The biggest reason that Demon’s Souls succeeds in the face of overwhelming difficulty is pure excellent design. Each of the levels – split into five “worlds” of three to four areas each – feel like real places. The ramparts and walkways of Boletaria Palace look like they were once bustling but were only recently abandoned for some sinister reason – especially once you begin meeting the few members of the kingdom left alive. The third world, Latria Tower, is a prison for the damned that completely creeped me out and stood out as one of the most disturbing locations ever realized in a video game.

Devil’s Advocate

The “Other” Perspective

For every great triumph you experience in Demon’s Souls, you should also be prepared for a devastating setback. The smallest mistakes or single bad encounters with the game’s touchy camera can end with your character cut to pieces. Even worse, if you die on the way back to your body, all the experience points you’d accumulated but not yet spent on leveling are gone. Warn your television to watch out for flying controllers before you risk trying to tackle this beast of a game.

The sense of difficulty and desperation that Demon’s Souls creates is aided greatly by the game’s unique use of the PlayStation Network. Rather than hooking up with other players through a menu or your PSN friends list, you can summon random “blue phantoms” (other characters who are currently dead) in any area where they’ve dropped a summoning stone. Though there’s no easy way to communicate with your ally, it works out because the goal is always the same: Kill the demon at the end of the level, which will allow you to progress and allow the blue phantoms to be resurrected in their own game.

The helpfulness of the blue phantoms is balanced out by the terror of black phantoms, online enemies randomly placed into the world of another player who they must hunt down and kill to be resurrected. The atmosphere of Demon’s Souls is already intense and moody, but when you receive a flashing message notifying you that “Black Phantom Noobkiller3000 has invaded,” it’s hard not to start sweating.

In the end, though, the game’s PvP works for the same reason that the regular demon-hunting does: You are always in full control. The action is much slower and more measured than most action games, but no matter how incredibly big or powerful your opponents seem, you have the tools to defeat them within your grasp. When you die in Demon’s Souls, nine times out of 10 it’s because you made an identifiable mistake, and one that you know to avoid next time around. The game only falls back on trial-and-error laziness in one or two regrettable levels, and even those can be overcome with perseverance.

Demon’s Souls has received a lot of hype for being monstrously difficult, and while it’s clearly not the kind of game you can pass in a weekend, its finer points shouldn’t be lost in all the fear. This game is tough, but also rewarding, interesting, evocative, and, in its own special way, brilliant. Add in extensive new game-plus options and the strangely compelling multiplayer, and Demon’s Souls is one of the first truly great Japanese RPGs of this generation, and certainly the most remarkable.