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But the fear for the Dark Souls faithful, those who view the game's unflinching challenge and indifference to the player's choices (no matter how much those choices might interfere with the pre-defined story) as its essence, is that From Software is somehow dumbing down and protecting players from themselves. To someone like myself who accidentally killed a crucial blacksmith no fewer than 40 hours into Dark Souls and willingly restarted the game from scratch, the idea that the sequel is going soft is worrisome.
It's a fear exacerbated by the introduction of life gems, glowing pick-ups dropped at random by enemies that regenerate some of your character's health without the need to drink a draft from your precious Estus flask (the main non-magical ways in which to restore your character's life in the previous game). As the Estus Flask could only be refilled by resting at one of the game's intermittent bonfires, one of the few sanctuaries in the Dark Souls universe, life gems appear to be a generous concession to struggling players.
These fears, however, are unanimously dispelled when I round a treacherous corner to be met by a mob of glowing red phantoms, a group that descends, kicking and screeching en masse. This onslaught of overwhelming force appears just as capricious as in its predecessor. I die and, back at the bonfire - Dark Souls' respawn points which restore your health, replenish your spells but which also regenerate every enemy you've slain in the world - the sequel's next grim secret is revealed: your health gauge is increasingly capped as you die, lowering your maximum life with each subsequent death.
It's a tweak to the Dark Souls formula as clear and obvious as the new graphical engine, which purrs pleasingly as the long grass sways and the trees grip their leaves. Undead rise from their rotting slumps, hooded rogues skip and dart while dual wielding curved swords and fat-bellied executioners swing zinging scythes in the night air: not once does Dark Souls 2 miss a beat or skip a frame.
Once I rocked my black robes, I felt completely at home and started wrecking shop. Hilariously enough, immediately after starting the beta (every participant gained access at the exact same time), I saw some bloodstains on the floor, which meant that some other players had died mere seconds into the launch, falling off a cliff or into one of the holes in the first cave.
I made my way through said cave, making sure to avoid the pits that claimed other souls, and fought a few standard zombies before making my way to a castle. With my shield prepped, I predicted an enemy ambush, and sure enough, an undead thief-type enemy sprung out, which I quickly dispatched. I made my way through the castle and down into a forest area, where I encountered my first challenge -- a putrid executioner enemy with two sickles in tow.
Most of his moves were fairly predictable as he was slow on the draw, but depending on your character he can easily rip through your stamina/guard and kill you in a few hits. I decided to avoid this encounter for now and head up a hill, where I tangled with a smaller version of the executioner, and four red NPC phantoms in a row (two had sickles just like the prior enemies, and two had whips).
After baiting out one phantom after another to avoid a giant battle royale, they were gone forever, and I made my way across a bridge to the first boss fight -- and thus my first death, turning me into a Hollow (undead), and chipping off a bit of my maximum health in the process. In Dark Souls II, subsequent deaths now chip off more and more health if you're Hollowed, so in that regard you do have to watch your death count. But you shouldn't be dying as much in general, which I'll get to later.
Although I would come back later and best said boss by solving its puzzle of sorts, I decided to go the other path and see what I could find before I returned to him -- but not without using an item to regain my humanity and health bar. In that area, I found a network of mountains and caves, which we've all seen before, but designed very well nonetheless, and filled with thief-like enemies that were quick on their feet.
The thieves were formidable, if only because you usually encounter three or four of them at once. Given the fact that they can attack very quickly and bust out a bow at will, damage can add up fast, especially if you happen to get stun-locked. Using a rush-down technique and whittling down their numbers fast is the best way to go.