The word on Demon's Souls is that it's HARD. It's a lot of other things too, such as fabulous fun with genius level design and balanced, deeply satisfying action-RPG gameplay. But the main thing you've probably heard about the game is that it's a punishing old-school experience.
I won't argue the point, even though I can think of other games like Vagrant Story and Shiren the Wanderer (one an RPG, the other a rogue-like) that are tougher nuts to crack. In today's save-anywhere, dynamic help system climate, the arrival of Demon's Souls ("Are you tough enough to face the most brutally challenging action RPG?") appears to function as a declaration of principles.
If a game wears its difficulty on its sleeve, it seems to me we ought to examine how that difficulty serves the game. In other words, if a game goes out of its way to test a player and punish him severely for failure, it's worth asking why. Is it tough for toughness' sake (e.g. last year's Mega Man 9), or is there more to it than that? Can a game's difficulty, if properly designed and implemented, be meaningful?
One early moment in Demon's Souls clearly conveys the game's ethos. After completing a short tutorial sequence and defeating a few lumbering enemies, you suddenly encounter an enormous beast who proceeds to kill you in a single blow. You're sent to the Nexus, where you learn that life and death in Boletaria are dual modes of existence, and you have a role to play in each. Death means clawing your way back to life by reclaiming your soul; life means desperately trying to stay there. Either way, the game imparts an imperative. Death is brutal (you lose all the souls you've collected, and your health bar is reduced), but in death you still have a job to do. And that job is insanely addictive.
Difficulty feels meaningful if it leads to something valuable. Demon's Souls' level design encourages the player's steady progress (punctuated by failure after failure) with shortcuts, secret passages, and the occasional hidden weapons dealer. I can't think of a game I've played that makes such discoveries feel more deliciously rewarding. When you finally succeed in hacking your way through a winding staircase full of enemies, you may come across a handy weapon or health drop, but the environment itself functions as the best compensation.
Difficulty feels meaningful if learning leads to progress. In this regard, Demon's Souls is truly the school of hard knocks, and it brilliantly stitches together pedagogies from three different genres: navigating complex environments (Dungeon crawler); managing resources, upgrades, spells, etc. (RPG) and defeating large numbers of enemies (Beat 'em up). Each must be mastered, and none is the stepchild of the other. Melee and ranged combat both feel viscerally satisfying; the RPG elements are deep and richly customizable; and 20+ hours into the game, I continue to return to environments I've cleared, simply for the joy of being there. I own this place now, and I earned it.
Finally, difficulty feels meaningful if failure feels just. Demon's Souls can be brutal, but the target of my frustration is nearly always myself. Have you ever noted what you exclaim when you fail in a video game? When I die in a game like Ikaruga, I scream at the screen and hurl my controller in frustration. But when I die at the hands of an enemy, or accidentally fall off the edge of a cliff in Demon's Souls..."Agh!!! I'm such an IDIOT!!!" I've discovered that if I'm patient and avoid boxing outside my weight, this game will teach me what I must do to succeed, and I will learn through my failures. Many, many failures.Demon's Souls may be one of the finest games I've ever played. I'm not certain yet. Too much I haven't yet seen or done. But one thing seems clear. This game's difficulty is in service of something core to its mission. Demon's Souls is hard because the world it presents and the experience it offers are conveyed through trial and tribulation, discovery and learning. This game will hand you your head, and you will like it.