Demon's Souls is hard. Harder than sailing through Nintendo's Punch-Out!! cheat-free. Harder than solving a Rubik's Cube blindfolded. Harder than luring CBS to feature you for ranking "top Guitar Hero III player in the world." Harder than scoring a fabled 3,333,360 points in Pac-Man…
Okay, maybe not harder than playing a perfect game of Pac-Man.
Atlus's action-adventure comes to the PlayStation 3 in the guise of a role-playing game about a guy who storms through gloom-lit milieus gashing, skewering, and occasionally fricasseeing demons that upon dispatch, no great surprise, relinquish souls. Those souls--bluish orbs of light that whoosh toward you like iron fillings to an electromagnet--count as currency you stockpile to improve your abilities. Grueling opponents, neck-snapping traps, startling ambushes, and set-piece encounters snarl your progress and slow what might otherwise seem a casual jaunt through a handful of smallish gothic castles, gloaming prison-towers, and ramshackle, fire-washed under-cities.
Along the way you'll slaughter throngs of sword-slinging creatures and flank others with slow-fire bows or thrusting spears. Having to master melee maneuvers and suss the precise tactical timing of opponents turns encounters into hard-fought battles that belie the conventional "lawnmowing" hack-and-slash motif. Dungeons with skeletons and stingrays, giant ticks and bearbugs, dreglings and dragons--huge, beautifully rendered, terrifyingly relentless dragons--splay between worlds accessed through sculpted stone portals. These gateways lodge along a curved, crumbling staircase at the heart of a hub-area known as the Nexus, to which you'll often return to collect your wits and possibly enhance them. Merchants here and scattered in hidden niches hawk battle kit like "crushing maces" and "spiraling rapiers" and "fluted helmets," all upgradeable by snatching shards from enemies and hoarding these until you've enough to smith better.
The world itself seems cobbled from crafty lies and paranoid truths, a massively-single-player multiverse in which players connect silently to one another and paint flickering ruby-colored text missives on floors and steps. Other players wink in and out, like ghosts bleeding through reality rubbed thin. Bloodstains trigger holographic replays of another player's final moments--a warning, a solution, even a voyeuristic bit of lurid spectacle.
Orbis terrarum memor ipsum, "The world remembers itself," to paraphrase Bill Pullman in Lost Highway, "the way I want you to remember it, not necessarily the way it happened."
"This is it," claims a message beside a gaping hole to blackness. The new single by Michael Jackson cues in my brain before I can dash through. The hole beckons, but I push on. "Be wary of the enemy's sneak attack," warns another. Unperturbed, I turn my back to peer down some stairs leading to a portcullis, and sure enough--wham!--up creeps ol' tall, tatty, and moldering, who gets off two solid brain-thumping whacks before I've wheeled and laid him flat. "It's safe here," reads a third message just outside a pitch-dark doorway leading into a tower. Thank goodness. I venture in…and five torch-swinging creatures lurch toward and then set me alight.
After dispatching them--barely--I spy another message scrawled just this side of the door's threshold.
"Beware of false messages," it reads.