When Demon's Souls was first released in October 2009, everyone was quick to propogate the hype that it was a brutally hard, soul-crushingly challenging game. After all, it had once been advertised by the publisher, Atlus, as "a game that enjoys the taste of your tears." There are numerous bosses and enemies that can kill you in one hit, and you're expected to be slaughtered to death before even finishing the opening tutorial sequence. When you die, you lose all of the souls you collected (your currency and experience points), you get sent back to the beginning of the level, all of the enemies respawn, and you suffer a penalty to your maximum health.
For a new player unfamiliar with the ropes, this means repeatedly finding yourself back at the start of the level with all of your progress undone, and with no souls to spend buying extra healing items, ammunition, upgrading your stats, or repairing your armor until you can get back to your bloodstain to reacquire your lost souls. Dying once is bad enough, but fighting your way through the level can be even harder the second time around, especially if you used all of your healing items trying to survive in the first place. And if you die enough times in body form, your game's world tendency will shift to black, populating the level with even tougher enemies.
Whereas most games help you get back on your feet after death, Demon's Souls punishes you hard for dying. And yet it's not an unfair game, and actually becomes incredibly easy once you know what you're doing. While virtually every press release has touted the game's challenging difficulty, and many gamers have accused it of being exceedingly cheap, tedious, and frustrating, the simple fact of the matter is that Demon's Souls is not that hard, as long as you approach it intelligently.
The key to success in Demon's Souls is pattern recognition. Every single attack from every single enemy gives you some kind of warning cue, usually in the form of an animation or a sound effect. When a black skeleton is about to unleash a devastating leaping assault, it crouches down slightly and crosses its katanas in front of its body; that's your cue to strafe behind it, thus dodging the attack and putting yourself in position for a critical backstab. When a fat official is about to cast a fire spell, he pulls one of his arms back; that's your cue to begin side-stepping, and to be ready to attack as soon as he finishes the spell.
Enemies always forecast their attacks in this manner, and most enemies leave themselves vulnerable after an attack or a certain combination of attacks. When you learn to read their attack patterns, you can start luring enemies into attacking you a certain way, dodge the attack, and kill them while they're still recovering from their own attack. Fights are entirely predictable. As long as you approach new enemies with a little reservation, take your time progressing through the level, and you're observant of your surroundings, there's no reason you shouldn't be able to beat a level in your first run through it.
Dying isn't even as bad as it sounds, once you get the hang of the game. When I first started, I was terrified of dying because of how much everyone emphasized the penalties of death, but they're really only minor setbacks. Every level has two or three unlockable shortcuts near the start, so as long as you get far enough to trigger a shortcut, you don't have to repeat long sections of the level upon dying. Getting back to your bloodstain is usually a pretty manageable task, especially since you'll already know what encounters lie ahead of you, and you actually gain more souls in the longrun by dying and working your way back to your bloodstain.
Despite how hard and challenging the game was supposed to be, I actually managed to get through the first level and defeated the boss on my first try, all because I took my time patiently observing patterns and not doing anything reckless. I was able to kill nearly every boss in the game in a single attempt, and with minimal stress. Only two bosses ever managed to kill me, and both of them became much easier with just a little bit of trial and error.
I remember struggling a lot with the boss of Stonefang Tunnel, Armored Spider-Man, because he kept combo'ing me with webs (which slow your movement speed) and fireballs (which knock you down) as I tried to get close to him, and once I did get close to him, he killed me with a super-powered flame blast that you can't dodge at that close range. After dying twice, I'd learned all of his attack patterns and knew where to stand, when to attack, when to block, when to run, so on and so on, and now the Armor Spider is perhaps the easiest boss in the game.
Such is the basic principle of Demon's Souls: once you know what you're doing, the entire game becomes a piece of cake. Sometimes figuring things out requires a little bit of dying, but for the most part, if you take your time testing the waters, you can get through it just fine. The game is not unfair; it only kills you mercilessly if you're terrible at it and don't bother playing it intelligently. The game is only as challenging as you let it be; when you start to understand the combat system a little better, and more importantly, once you figure out how to exploit each enemy's AI patterns, the game can be beaten relatively easily on even lowest-level characters.
When I reached the end of my first playthrough, I decided to make a new character who would use different stats, and thus use different combat techniques. The plan was to cap myself at a low level so that I could invade other low-level players and scare them to death. Knowing where to go to get certain pieces of good equipment, and knowing how to use enemy AI to my advantage, I found it pathetically easy beating all of the levels a second time around -- I even beat the entire game with a level 6 character (most players complete a first playthrough around level 60).
From what I can tell, most of the times people die, it's because they rush into an encounter without bothering to assess the situation, or because they don't have the finer nuances of the combat system under their belt. I'd venture to guess that most people who complain about Demon's Souls being too hard are treating it like Oblivion or God of War, where they just charge forward spamming attacks without any form of tact or strategy, or they're just terrible gamers in general.
To put the difficulty into perspective, I think I died more times in the first 10 hours of Skyrim than I did in my first 10 hours of Demon's Souls. The combat in Skyrim is a pretty mindless button-mashing affair, where you just stand in front of an enemy clicking until one of you dies, and the only real determinant for victory is who has the higher stats or who has more healing potions. Consequently, I stood no chance in a lot of fights, so I died a lot against the likes of giants, mammoths, dragons, chaurus, trolls, and even certain bandits when I was still pretty low level.
Demon's Souls, by contrast, can be beaten at an incredibly low level because your success is based more on personal skill and strategy. By playing patiently and observing patterns, I was able to make it through the first several hours of the game without a single death. My first death in Demon's Souls came from accidentally falling off a high cliff as I tried to drop down to a lower ledge for some hidden loot. My first death from an enemy came at the hand of a fat official because I was carelessly spamming attacks, and didn't have enough stamina to block or dodge his fire spell.
From my entire experience with Demon's Souls, most of the times I died were completely my own fault and had nothing to do with the game being unfair. It rewarded my careful diligence and punished my recklessness. Whenever I died, I rarely felt frustrated or annoyed with the game -- I felt frustrated with myself for making a mistake. Instead of getting pissed off at the game for killing me, I took it upon myself to do better with the knowledge I'd acquired.
Basically, I feel like the difficulty was over-hyped, because Demon's Souls is not that difficult. It can be very challenging at times, yes, but I think Demon's Souls represents an ideal for challenging gameplay; it's not afraid to punish you for your failures, which makes your successes that much more meaningful, and it rewards you greatly for playing well. The challenge is neither tedious nor frustrating; it's intelligent and personal. As long as you play intelligently, it becomes a surprisingly easy game.