The old Japanese adage 'The nail that sticks up will be hammered down' could be the design brief for Demon's Souls. You are the nail. You must be hammered down repeatedly, without mercy, with extreme prejudice, forever. The end.
Like most of the useless souls that roam the defiled world of From Software's immense action RPG, I died a pitiful, inglorious death a long time ago. Ill prepared and most certainly ill-equipped, I got used to running around without my body, being crushed like a bug, over and over again.
Take the Tower Knight, for instance. Your first meeting with Mr Knight and his cronies is designed to emphasise that you're a feeble, useless no-mark, and that you might as well just go back to the Nexus and reflect on perpetual failure. Come within 30 feet of this metallic monster and you're likely to resemble little more than a bug smeared on a car bonnet at 130mph.
Fortunately, even 100-foot monsters in 12-inch-thick armour have their Achilles heels, and in this case quite literally. In classic videogame style, anyone brave or stupid enough to wander behind the Tower Knight while he's smashing up the world will notice that hacking him furiously around the ankles yields results.
Your mileage may vary, however. If you're brave/stupid enough to wade in with a puny little rapier and poke away manfully for 40 minutes, that's up to you. Wallow in the improbable glory. Me? I ran furiously up the back stairs, systematically hacked his weedy archer friends to death, and eventually found a beautiful sniping spot where I could periodically wield my magic in relative safety.
Protected by the blasts of his infernal magic-spewing lance, I found my moment and blasted soul arrows in his face every time he tried to fry mine off. With barely a scratch, the Tower Knight shuffled off in a blast of blinding light, leaving me, arm aloft in glorious celebration to no one.
Demon's Souls ought to be a hateful experience. It's a sobering and routinely punishing game that makes offers precisely zero concessions to failure, and yet somehow it's ended up as one of my favourite games of all time. It's a complex, uncompromising punishment-reward relationship like no other.
The enjoyment is all about the context. For all its RPG leanings, it's undoubtedly the survival-horror element that works best on me. Each and every encounter, from the very first shambling tutorial grunt onwards, is filled with the kind of eerie tension that keeps your heart rattling like a knackered clock.
Thanks to a masterful art style and imaginative character design, basic exploration becomes a key element in its appeal as you take every tentative step forward. The fear infused into every mist-shrouded stair and dank corridor ensures there is never any room for complacency, and it's this inherent need to focus every step of the way that makes for such a darkly compelling adventure.
The cold fact is that if you try and play Demon's Souls like a normal game you'll probably hate it, and question the sanity of those who find it so appealing. The complete abandonment of modern concessions is refreshing, but completely contrary to the way most people like to play games nowadays.
For instance, the way Demon's Souls treats death is darkly amusing in its almost fetishistic brutality. Not only does it force you to restart that stage from the beginning (regardless of whether you'd reached the boss), it also repopulates the area with most of the enemies you just killed, and then delivers the final kick in the nuts by taking all your hard-earned souls from you. Because you need these souls in order to upgrade, you then have to patiently battle your way back to where you last died to recover them and hope that you don't suffer the same fate again and lose everything.
With such astonishingly harsh punishment meted out at every opportunity, it's clear the game wants you dead, so the problem becomes learning how to fail. We're not used to much failure in games these days, and the extent of it in Demon's Souls can be hard to accept if you're used to recharging health, auto-checkpointing and forgiving difficulty.
It sounds insane to get so excited about a game so resolutely old-school in its mercilessness, but you find you can because any and all failure is your fault. I must have died several hundred times over the 50 hours I've sunk into Demon's Souls, but not once did I ever blame the game for doing something 'cheap'. Perversely, such crushing failures only hardened my resolve to go back and do better.
Perhaps the main reason for this is the fact that the process of 'doing better' is extremely rewarding over time. There can't be too many games where trudging through the same portion of the same level is still as enjoyable 30 attempts later, but the degree of satisfaction you glean from eventually kicking the arse of everything that got in your way is something few games offer.
Another curious element of Demon's Souls' appeal is the fact it rarely tells you anything helpful - so much so, in fact, that it almost feels deliberately designed to inspire a community to help each other out. First of all, the game allows players to write messages for one another on the ground to warn of trouble ahead, while bloodstains offer an insight into how other players met their end via an animation of their last few seconds.
But as wonderful as these ideas are, they sure as hell don't help you find out which class is best to choose, how best to upgrade, where the essential weapons and armour reside, or who best to give your Demon's Souls to. Without the community Wiki to lend a hand in those dark moments the game would be a complete bitch to figure out. Rather than take away the surprise element, the Wiki enhances Demon's Souls, as the experiences and trials of fellow travellers, catalogued on the internet, come to your aid. No surprise, then, that the deluxe US version shipped with a 160-page guide.
Even 50 hours in, I'm not done yet. Having become slightly less rubbish at the game and levelled up to a semi-acceptable rank, I'm starting to roam around in body form more often than before, and experiencing the joys of Black Phantoms - other players forcing themselves into my world in order to battle me and bring themselves back to life in their own game. Brilliantly, not all of them are here to grief, either, with some helping me clear entire sections before bowing and making their exit. Blue Phantoms, meanwhile, introduce a superb co-op element.
The fact I'm still not done with Demon's Souls, and the fact that so many people seem happy to play the game through over and over again, demonstrates the quality of the core gameplay. Far from making the game predictable, repetition reveals more layers and, more importantly, ensures you get better.
The question for many Demon's Souls addicts now is whether this uniform critical appreciation will eventually secure a European release, but with region-free gaming making its non-appearance less of an issue there's every chance that prospective publishers will assume its niche audience has long since imported it. In other words, if you're one of those people who has held out on buying it so far, don't wait: there really is no excuse not to get one of the landmark games of the generation, if not the decade.
It won't be an easy ride, but then by the end of it you'll be glad that it wasn't.
Check out the Editor's blog to find out more about our Games of 2009.