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In the Stonefang Tunnel, a rock worm incinerates the players while flying bearbugs hover around it.
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Fail to dodge an attack. Die. Walk into an “atmospheric” fire. Die. Fall off a castle wall. Die. Beat a boss, then walk into a dark tunnel and get ambushed by dogs. Die.

Demon’s Souls (yes, complete with that tongue-twisting double “s”) is a brutally difficult game developed by From Software and published by Sony Computer Entertainment exclusively for PlayStation 3. The game seems to have been created as a retort to people griping that modern games don’t have the grueling difficulty and body count of old games.

As the opening explains, King Allant the XII made a Faustian bargain with a being known as the Old One to gain power and bring prosperity to his kingdom of Boletaria. The Old One inevitably betrays him, releasing a colorless fog and soul-stealing demons into the land. Many heroes have tried to rescue the kingdom, but all have perished. So, like a true hero, you head blindly into the same fog, either saving the kingdom or falling prey to the lust for soul power. This plot isn’t groundbreaking, or even unique, but merely serves as a garnish for the inventive levels and challenging combat.

At character creation, you get to choose between ten different classes, each suiting a particular play style. I favor the Royalty class, as they start out with magical attacks and Magic Power regeneration, which suits my inexperienced combat style of sniping from a distance. Others may prefer the Knight’s heavy hitting or the Thief’s amazing item drop rate. No matter what class you start in, you can customize your characters by spending souls gained by killing enemies.

The game’s narrative is unhampered by long cutscenes or romantic subplots; rather, the sometimes tedious but ultimately rewarding combat system is where the game truly shines. Attacking and parrying use up stamina, leaving you vulnerable while the meter regenerates. Each enemy has a unique warning sound and attack pattern, and the monsters are quite innovative, ranging from a shielded slime with a spear to flying stingrays raining death from above. Ambushes are common, although after playing through a level many times, you memorize where all the enemies hide. Once you have mastered the combat system, you can parry and stab an enemy with panache, earning a satisfyingly bloody animation.

Of course, before you master combat, you’re going to die. A lot. When you shuffle off this mortal coil with an arrow in your chest, you start back at the beginning of the level in Soul Form, which caps your health at half. That’s right — dying makes the game harder. And the game constantly saves, meaning there’s no turning off the game to restore yourself to life. The only way to revive yourself is to kill a boss, use a semi-rare item, or enter another player’s game.

Online play is unique in that you seldom interact directly with other players. Instead, you see the ghostly images of other players in the level, and you can touch their bloodstains to see their final moments before death. They can also leave messages on the ground, both helpful and spam-full. In the rare case you do meet another player, they can be either a helpful Blue Phantom or a murderous Black Phantom.

From the corpses of enemies, you can collect Hardstone, Mercurystone, Moonlightstone, Cloudstone, and a plethora of other ridiculous stones to upgrade your weapon, allowing you to plow through mobs.

Once you defeat the first boss, a tarry demon called Phalanx, the rest of the world opens up to you. Demon’s Souls particularly excels in level design, creating atmospheric and challenging worlds. There’s the Boletarian Palace, guarded by two dragons that burn players without a sense of timing; Stonefang Tunnel, a system of mines that descends to a pool of magma; the Tower of Latria, a gigantic prison full of brain-eating Mindflayers; the Shrine of Storms, guarded by skeletons; and the Valley of Defilement, full of plague and rickety wooden platforms from which to fall.

The greatest complaint I have about the game is the targeting system, used for ranged weapons and magic. It is difficult to pick out single enemies in a crowd, which will quickly drive you to profanity as your character shoots the furthest enemy and gets stabbed by the closest. In addition, locking on can cause awkward shifts in camera angle as the enemies move. Another gripe is that you can sometimes receive damage from attacks that did not appear to hit — especially annoying for one-hit-kill attacks.

The greater the challenge, the sweeter the reward. Whether it’s backstabbing an enemy for massive damage or striking the finishing blow on a boss, mastering Demon’s Souls proves your mettle as a gamer, all for only $20. My final words of advice are “buy more items.” You’re going to need them.