Straight off the bat, Demon’s Souls is hard, very hard.

On top of that it is unforgiving, relentless, frustrating, and punishes people who mash buttons hoping to blitz through the game.

It's an action role playing game, and the latest from developers From Software based in Japan. These guys have always thrived to give gamers a challenge; from the Kings Field games on the Playstation One to Otogi on the Xbox, they are masters at balancing gameplay. It's really their ability to let you progress at just the right pace - whilst still keeping you on your toes and never giving you an easy option - that makes them stand out in the Japanese development crowd.

The game teases you from the start, as your first introduction consists of a training level teaching you valuable information about the combat, such as defense, and dodging. It’s not until you reach the end of the training level and you get absolutely slaughtered by the boss that you'll cry out ‘that’s unfair!’ and raise your fist in disgust at the screen. Well, get used to it, because that's Demon’s Souls in a nutshell.

After you die in the training level, you'll learn that you can be in two forms, the Body form and the Soul form. Soul form will give you only half the health of what you would have in Body form, and it is only possible to be in Body form after the slaying of a Demon boss.

You start off in Soul form in a hub called Nexus that will link you to five other worlds, each as beautiful and unique as the last. You won’t be able to select any of them in the beginning (apart from the first one) until you defeat the first Demon boss. This is the part of the game that will make or break most people.

During the first section of the first world there are no options to level up, it’s simply live and learn. Or, more accurately, die and learn - because you will die. A lot.

When this happens, your character will drop souls. These souls are earned by killing the enemies in the level, and double as experience and currency. At the point of your death, the souls you dropped will remain in the same spot should you make it back to retrieve them - but rest assured whatever killed you will still be lurking around, and should you die prior to picking up those previously earned souls they will be lost forever. It's worth being familiar with this concept, as you might feel frustrated losing 10,000 souls due to a stupid mistake early on, but it is nothing on what you could lose later in the game because of a lack of concentration, or too much haste.

Once you defeat the first Demon boss then you can spend the souls you have on levelling up your character. Each time you ‘purchase’ a level attribute to a particular skill, the price slowly increases, requiring you to earn more souls in order to level up. The best part about this is that no matter what sort of character you choose at the start of the game, you are not tied to playing any particular way, and you can fine tune your character to reflect your preferred playing style.

Despite how insanely hard and unforgiving Demon’s Souls is, it’s the innovative online capabilities that can really help you along your quest. When logged into the Playstation Network during your game you can see messages left on the ground, or choose to write your own from a plethora of presets. You can also recommend the messages that appeal to you - someone may have left a message that a leap of faith is required off a particular ledge, and if that message is recommended many times then you know it is genuine. These messages can range from telling you there are traps ahead, or that you’ve just passed an item, or even that you should expect an ambush.

As well as the message system, you can also see occasional players in ghost form running around, fighting or talking to NPC’s much like you'd expect from an MMO. On top of that, there are the odd pools of blood which you can stand over and choose to see the last few seconds of another players demise - perhaps as he took that leap of faith that might not have been recommended, or simply ran into trouble.

Once you reach a certain experience level you can also offer your services for some co-operative play online, which supports up to four people. You can also invade someone else's world for some PvP action, where the winner gets the losers souls. Of course, who joins your game is pretty much random, so don’t think you’ll be having a small group of friends plodding through the game. If the host dies, the others are sent back to whence they came, and the same goes if you finish that particular world. There is no communication between each other apart from a few preset gestures, so a headset is not required.

Despite the difficulty of the game, it is well balanced and rewarding. All playing styles are catered for, and the combat is extremely satisfying. As mentioned earlier the very first world is difficult because there are no levelling options, but you can return to any unlocked world from the hub. In addition, all enemies with the exception of the bigger Demon bosses will respawn, but they won’t appear again till you either leave and re-enter that world, or die. This gives you the chance to gain souls and level up, making that other level you’ve been having trouble with a bit more manageable.

The ability to play each world in whichever order you like is welcome, the only exception being worlds 1-3 which have certain entry requirements. Additionally, you can swing the game world from a neutral tendency to either Pure White (good) or Pure Black (bad). White will mean the enemies are a little easier, although the penalty for this is that they won’t drop as many souls. Black will make your adversaries that bit harder, allowing them to drop more souls, and both modes offer the chance to open up new areas which are normally locked and contain otherwise unobtainable items.

Scattered throughout the game are the occasional non-playable characters, which you may choose to rescue and reap the rewards, or kill them hoping they will drop something better. Whichever you choose, they will remember. If you attack a merchant they may not sell to you again, and if you kill Stockpile Thomas (the NPC used for storing your items) then rest assured, you won’t see your items again. Mistakes are permanent - even a reload of your save won’t help you as the game is constantly updating your save file as you play. The only way to change it back is to start the game from scratch, so it is best to think before you strike.

For a while there it almost looked as though this game wouldn’t make it to our shores, despite universal acclaim and a remarkable number of ‘Game of the Year’ awards bestowed on it by gaming media. For once, however, PAL gamers have a chance to rejoice, as packaged within the local version is a hardback artbook with soundtrack CD and an exclusive strategy guide which was not available in other territories. This strategy guide has been written and contributed to by fans of the game from all over the world, and is thoroughly accurate and helpful.

Lastly I feel I should mention that as someone who has played less than a handful of RPG titles in his lifetime, there is something strangely compelling about this game. It has just the right balance of everything, from combat to item management, progression, and rewards. It really is the whole package and it comes as no surprise why this game has received worldwide recognition.

This game will steal your soul, and comes highly recommended.