"One day you will stand before the decrepit gates of Drangleic, without really knowing why."
Those are the words uttered during the Dark Souls 2 opening cinematic. It's a phrase that resonates, because no one ever really knows "why" in a Souls game. The lore is cryptic and the rules are cold, unforgiving and abstract.
Still, as a seasoned Souls fan, I thought I'd do well enough to impress both the local Namco rep at a media hands-on event last week, as well as other reporters. I've finished both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. I figured out that the Drake Sword is lame. I visited and conquered the Painted World of Ariamis. I visited Ash Lake and made friends with a dragon.
I sucked at Dark Souls 2.
Don't be alarmed, but Dark Souls 2 does not bludgeon the player to death from the outset like its predecessors. The adventure begins inside a cave, lit by a blanket of sunlight seeping through a distant, gaping crack. The creatures here don't kill you: they run away. I tiptoe cautiously, shield permanently up, across a ropey bridge suspended over a calm river. I find a creepy old lady, who in customary Souls fashion imparts cryptic wisdom and then laughs maliciously at me. If a Souls character doesn't laugh maliciously at you, it's probably there to kill you.
The creepy old lady helps you build your character. I opted for a Warrior. There are seven starting gifts, none of which I want to spoil, but their functions are more explicit than in Dark Souls. One of them, the Bonfire Ascetic, makes the game harder from the outset.
I make my way through a large tunnel with a promising warm glow at the end. I exit onto a cliff overlooking a lonely sea. To the right are the ruins of a small village. Ethereal music plays, and I feel safe. This is Majula - the Dark Souls 2 equivalent to the Nexus or Firelink Shrine - and it's a beautiful place to be.
"Each time you die, a fraction of your HP meter shrinks, meaning you'll be worse equipped for each consecutive run."
There are several paths you can take once you've emerged onto Majula. Remember, in Demon's and Dark Souls the world dropped you straight into a boss battle and demanded that you die. While other game tutorials teach you how to crouch, jump and swipe your sword, Souls games teach you how to die. It is a central mechanic.
There's no such tough love to be had in Dark Souls 2, but be warned: don't be lulled into a false sense of security. Getting a foothold on Dark Souls 2 is in many ways more difficult than its predecessors. While there are several paths to choose from in Majula, you need to figure out which is the most sensible quickly, and here's why.
Dark Souls 2 punishes death more severely than in previous games. It punishes you for superfluous deaths. Each time you die, a fraction of your HP meter shrinks, meaning you'll be worse equipped for each consecutive run. The only way (that I know of) to raise the HP meter back to its full capacity is to use a Human Effigy, which also evolves you from undead into human form (you need not be at a bonfire to become human anymore). These Human Effigies are not in abundance, and if you die you'll be rendered undead again and the gradual decline will commence.
This means 'suicide runs' - a quick dash into an area you're not yet equipped for in order to obtain one or more items before you're inevitably killed - are not as viable anymore. Not only do you have your Souls to worry about - the game's notoriously slippery currency - but also your very mortality. In this way, Dark Souls 2 demands that you assess your path more carefully than ever before: if you're getting flogged in one direction you're well-advised to start off in another. Those Human Effigies disappear fast.
To add to the tension, players can now be invaded by other human players when in an undead state. This means you can be at a fraction of your health in a dangerous location and then suddenly be pounced on by a cruel invader. You're gonna want to ration those Effigies and the game is cruelly strict on these terms.
The one concession is a seeming abundance of Life Gems, which slowly regenerate your health while allowing you to walk, albeit slowly. The Estus Flask is back, but it only allows one draught at the beginning of the game.
To make matters more tense, levelling up early in Dark Souls 2 is not as easy as it was in Dark Souls. With the average grunt enemy netting you 30 souls, it'll take a while before the player can feed the requisite 901 souls to the Majula lady in order to achieve just one level point. This makes death even more undesirable early in the game.
It's for these reasons, after a few deaths at the hands of some obscenely powerful and giant knights in some nearby ruins, that I decide to poke around Majula for an easier path. Eventually I find a discreet spiral staircase running along the edge of a cliff face, leading into another dark network of tunnels. I cross through a watery cave - presumably somehow connected to the first cave - and exit into a bright forest area.
The most important question left to be answered regarding Dark Souls 2 isn't about its difficulty or its fidelity to the series' earlier gameplay motions. It's about atmosphere, and whether the world is as compellingly strange and bizarrely structured as its predecessor.
During my hands-on time we saw half a dozen distinct areas - ruined castle ramparts, giant oceanic ruins, claustrophobic underground crypts, lush green forests - and this is just scraping the surface. Frequently I encountered pits, locked doors and inaccessible perches I could tell, instinctually as a Souls fan, would eventually provide clues as to the proper shape of the world.
A determination to unlock the world's mysteries is indispensable in a Souls game, because without that incentive you'd never press through. That urge is well and truly intact here, because Drangleic is obscenely beautiful. While Dark Souls famously warned its players to "prepare to die", Dark Souls 2 knows that we're fated to it. It doesn't bludgeon us immediately, but promises a world which we'll need to work hard to see in its grim totality. Prepare to suffer, and prepare to wonder.
Dark Souls 2 releases for PS3 and Xbox 360 on March 11 in the US and March 14 in Europe and Australia. It will release for PC shortly after.