Speaking as a seasoned loser of Souls, playing the first two hours of Dark Souls 2 doesn't provide the culture shock of the previous two games. Demon's Souls bellows its cruelty by killing you mercilessly within minutes of starting, while Dark Souls literally sends you round in a circle like some kind of sick joke, but there isn't something in the opening of From's latest action-RPG that screams out "I am what Dark Souls 2 is!" Not that this is a bad thing.
If there is something that defines the opening beyond its genetics, it's a new attention to accessibility. Yet that DNA of slow, torturous exploration remains encouragingly unscathed.
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Dark Souls 2 (Characters and World)
No, what's interesting about this opening area is that there's a mystery inside the winding caverns, a reward for exploring the tutorial beyond its tutoring. Delve far enough and there's a beach with some kind of weird, lumbering bastard on it; I would provide a better description, but I didn't go all that near it. A fellow player told me about finding a coffin, lizards and treasure on the beach, and it all sounded great. Like a coward - and it's often good to be a coward in a Souls game - I retreated.
Then, the game itself: A statue proudly proclaiming 25,864 deaths worldwide, ghouls hiding behind ramparts, powerful undead soldiers queuing up to kill me on a staircase, like that scene with the frenzied woman from Airplane. Then, a circling beast swooping out of the sky and dropping a slab of purple-glowing knight onto a ledge, a Scotch soldier resting wearily against a tree, a gate locked from passage by a statue of a woman stuck against its gears. And deaths, so many deaths. Tribulations, temptations, and deceptions; the familiar evils are all present and accounted for.
As with Dark Souls, some of the subtler changes are soon apparent, such as the gradual depletion of maximum health with subsequent deaths, or how lifegems can be found and restore health in a trickle, rather than in one go. And, while the game retains a roughness, there's a flourish of imagination to the environment, a flourish built upon success. The ruins that lead to the opening village almost jaunt at Escherian angles, while the village itself has the amber serenity of a wheat farm, belying the pitfalls ahead, or even nearby.
Nonetheless, the abundant feeling at the end of those opening hours is the real Dark Souls 2 lies in wait, for better or worse. Little can be judged on this opening area, or without seeing how grander changes affect the landscape, changes like opt-in voice chat in co-op (now confirmed), or being able to teleport between the checkpoint-like bonfires, a feature that wasn't made available until the latter stages of Dark Souls. Moreover, even with the way Demon's Souls and Dark Souls reveal themselves in their openings, it's just a glimpse of what lies beyond. Surely the same applies here, and hopefully with the same results.
[Images: Namco Bandai]