Crouched in the dark, shield raised against the horrors swarming in the gloom, it feels like Demon's Souls hates you. Battered within an inch of your life by a suit of armour two storeys high, you'll swear it hates you. Stuck in a room with a demon made of fire and pissed-off-edness, you will say out loud: "Demon's Souls definitely, definitely hates me."
But Demon's Souls doesn't hate you. This combat-heavy role-player doesn't hate anyone. It just doesn't care about you. And that, in a world where we're led by the hand through gaming's simplest challenges, constantly steered back on course, mollycoddled along safe paths, is a breath of gloriously fresh air.
Just a man
You, the player, are a triviality in the dark, oppressive land of Boletaria. Demon's Souls is totally fresh in the approach it has to fighting: unlike most games, even basic enemies can easily take you down. Get swarmed and you're in trouble - there's no Kratos-esque smashing of wave after wave of entry-level baddies. What you do have on your side - beyond the weapon in your hand and the supplies in your pack - is human cunning.
Timing, blocking, evading: these are your tools in Demon's Souls. Knowing when to run, when to heal or when to play dirty is as important as stabbing the 'stab faster!' button. With a wide variety of weapons, from long-distance lances and crossbows to two-handed great swords, your sidearm choice dictates your play style.
We decided to take pops from afar, using arrows to whittle foe's down over range, luring them into combat on more personal terms; but no combat style is 'correct'. If you've got the timing of a mantis, you can build the perfect assassin, a dagger-wielding speedster who ducks behind a monster as it cues up a strike and pierces its heart.
Magic is also an option; spells are powerful but prone to leaving you vulnerable if you're completely drained. Whatever stance and loadout you do pick, there's one constant - you need to scrap to survive. The concentration a runthrough of the lengthy levels demands is intense, but if you let your guard down for one second in a fight, you're creature-food.
Whether you live or die is of no concern to the demons and spooks that inhabit the game's five worlds, lands covered in a dense, persistent fog brought on by geriatric King Allant. The codger king, so the game's story goes, wanted to continue his reign beyond the lifespan of his clapped-out old body, taking part in a nasty ritual involving souls that went a bit awry.
This, instead of acting as some kind of OAP bus-pass for kingdom ruling, had the unfortunate effect of poking a great demon awake. That demon, squatting below the game's hub area, the Nexus, brought a few buddies into the world. They remain as demons, varied in form but united in one key aspect: they're all pissing terrifying.
Some are small and quick, moving from afar to strike quickly. Others are lumbering, slow things with obvious weak-points - but, like the first level's gigantic walking suit of armour, have the ability to reduce your hero into a fine red paste. But that's not necessarily a problem.
Demon's Souls is fearsome, but it's not utterly unforgiving - die once, and you'll reappear, lacking your body. Players - on being eaten/stabbed/chewed/snuffled (delete as appropriate) to death - jump back to the Nexus. Sure, they're lacking in tangible skin and organs, more of a ghostly apparition of their former selves, but they're still handy with a sword. Your 'soul' form has all the powers of your regular, still-filled-with-blood version, minus half a health bar.