A game which proudly warned you that you should "prepare to die," Dark Souls charged away from the increasing accessibility of modern triple-A games. With few tutorials to guide you and not a single hand to hold, you were thrust helpless into the unforgiving world of Lordran, where death was the only teacher.
Dark Souls II's new director, Tomohiro Shibuya, stated that the sequel would be more "accessible" and "streamlined," which had me worried what role death would play. Would I still learn from every fatal failure? Would those who have rung the bells of Lordran feel that sweet sense of challenge? After playing from the very start of the sequel, my fears were quelled, and a more familiar fear of death set in. Once again, you should prepare to die. Here, then, are my first 20 deaths, for most of which I was clearly not prepared.
The opening cinematic introduces me to my character, an unarmed wanderer suffering from a "hollow" zombifying curse, after which the game drops me in a grassy field in the heart of the world of Drangleic. I don't remember seeing grass this tall in Dark Souls, I think to myself, as I take a few steps forward and am immediately swarmed by hunchbacked goblins rushing at me from the thickets.
Death #1: Eaten alive, unarmed, within 15 seconds of taking my first steps.
What I learned: Running away is still a legitimate tactic.
Respawning, I sprint through the grassy field to a small house inhabited by three old women in red robes. It's here that I choose the warrior class and can customise my appearance. In Dark Souls' typical cryptic dialogue, the old women give me parting advice that amounts to, "You're cursed, sucks to be you. Also, you're going to die a lot, so have fun with that. Bye!"
Heading out the house's back door, I light the first of Dark Souls II's bonfires--checkpoints that save the game, but also respawn every enemy in the area. One of the new mechanics introduced in this sequel is the ability to light and carry a torch from any bonfire. Taking the place of a shield in your equipped items, a torch provides crucial visibility in pitch-black areas, whilst also scaring some enemies if waved menacingly in their direction. It's as reassuring as telling an arachnophobe that a spider is more scared of him than he is of it.
But the area I come out into is completely free of darkness. This new hub world is bathed in the warm glow of the sun. Against the beautiful shoreline vista are actual houses. The fact that these abodes look like liveable spaces is new to me. This doesn't feel like a Dark Souls area at all. I want cold, unfeeling stone, mouldy catacombs, and an overwhelming sense of dread. This place looks nice.
Engraved into a rock is a real-time global death tally for every player in this preview build. It sits at just over 18,000. A sense of dread begins creeping back. I take a winding path away from the hub world into a small, circular cavern. A lower platform in the middle, with an item pickup clearly visible, is surrounded by running water. A message left on the ground by another player that reads "Try jumping!" spurs me on. I jump. At the apex, it's clear I'm not going to make it. I fall and am swept away by the rushing current.
Death #2: Drowned, because Dark Souls II players still be trolling.
What I learned: Trust no one.
I later return to the cavern to touch a bloodstain on the ground, which reveals a ghost of another nameless player falling to the same fate. At least I'm not alone in my gullibility.
The cavern leads me into a lush, green forest bisected by a tranquil running stream. This is even nicer than the hub world, I think--just in time for a squad of undead soldiers to remind me that this is a paradise lost. Dark Souls II's combat mechanics are almost identical to those of its predecessor, so I'm immediately able to block, parry, and strike with confidence. One minor change involves the kick being altered to resemble more of an elbow strike; it still functions as a push and a guard break, but the animation doesn't feel as satisfying. After running past a couple of other undead soldiers, I climb halfway up a ladder and, assuming I'm safe, turn to ask the PR rep a question about the combat mechanics. Halfway through the rep's response, I turn back to discover a zombie has climbed up the ladder after me and stabbed me in the butt.
Death #3: Skewered in the rear.
What I learned: Zombies can climb ladders.
I respawn, cut my way through the undead, and climb the whole way up the ladder this time, where I'm immediately trampled by a large stone man.
Death #4: Flattened by a rock monster.
What I learned: Rock beats sword.
Deaths #5, #6, #7, #8, #9: As above.
What I learned: "Aaaarrrrgh!"
As I experience some difficulty getting past this stone man, I'm told that certain enemies will only respawn near each bonfire a certain number of times, which the PR rep estimates to be about 15. However, you'll need to actually kill them rather than simply respawn at the bonfire for this counter to increase. The developers made this change to stop you from grinding; with no enemies to gather souls from to then spend on levelling up, you are eventually forced to venture into dangerous, unknown territory. This also makes repeated runs to a boss encounter less frustrating. The knowledge is reassuring as I finally sprint past the stone man and down a dark corridor to safety, whereupon I turn a corner and am skewered by a zombie wielding a claymore as large as his own body.
Death #10: An impressive puncture wound.
What I learned: Approach corners with caution.
My second attempt at taking down this claymore-wielding undead fared much better. Rather than roll away from his massive weapon's equally massive range, I parry his first strike. Parries in Dark Souls used to afford the opportunity for an immediate critical damage riposte, but the mechanic has slightly changed in the sequel. Now, enemies will fall to the ground after being parried, giving you the opportunity to stand above them and perform a downward finishing strike. This leaves you far more vulnerable than the previous game's riposte, because the animation is longer and more deliberate. I learn this as I'm recovering from my first successful parry-finisher combo, but my elation lasts a mere second as I am suddenly hit by a fire bomb from a zombie at the top of the stairs beyond.
Death #11: Incinerated by incendiary grenade.
What I learned: Don't stop to admire a finishing move.
Deaths #12, #13, #14, #15, #16: As above.
What I learned: The true meaning of despair.
With each death permanently decreasing my maximum available health and turning my skin more pallid upon respawning, I burn a rare consumable item at a bonfire called an effigy to return to human form and have my health bar fully restored. This new approach to the health bar means every life in Dark Souls II is tense, even if you aren't carrying a bounty of souls to the safety of a bonfire.
Finally busting my way past the grenadier, I come upon the next bonfire as well as a merchant who sells me a key to a blacksmith's forge back in the hub world. Because Dark Souls II's bonfires now allow you to freely fast travel between each of them from the start of the game, I warp to the hub and spend my remaining souls on a better broadsword. This fast travel is one example of the sequel's careful attempts at streamlining the Dark Souls experience.
Warping back to the merchant, I descend a ladder into a stone mine and encounter a skeleton wielding a halberd. Taken by surprise, I block his rapid swings, but doing so quickly consumes my stamina, and I have no choice but to roll away. Off a ledge. Into a plume of flames a hundred feet below.
Death #17: Falling into a flame geyser.
What I learned: Stay away from ledges.
I return the favour on my return trip by elbow-striking the halberd zombie off the very same ledge I fell from. Continuing down the mine, I see a source of light in the distance and sprint down the dark corridor toward it--failing to notice the undead soldier waking up behind me.
Death #18: Stabbed in the back.
What I learned: If it looks dead, you should still double-check.
Armed with the knowledge of the dormant zombie's whereabouts, I return and position myself behind him to score a critical damage backstab as he's in the middle of his awakening animation. The backstab move in Dark Souls II is functionally similar to that of its predecessor, but its animation has changed from a single strike to a series of smaller blows about the neck and back.
With the soldier dispatched, I walk toward the light and find myself outside, admiring a breathtaking view of massive, ancient tree branches bursting through the parapets of a stone castle. After exactly six seconds of standing still to take it all in, a dozen arrows plant themselves in my chest and I fall to my knees.
Death #19: Collapsed lung.
What I learned: Never stop to admire the view.
My time with Dark Souls II nearly up, I return to the hub world and examine the global death tally. It has risen by over 1,600 in the time I was playing. The hub's warm sun, cosy houses, and waves lapping gently at the shore--none of these are indicative of the game's tone. This is simply Dark Souls II's way of providing you a single moment of respite. I put down the controller, turn to the PR rep, and prepare to suffer my final end as I request assistance.