If you know "Dark Souls," you know the warning.
It looms over the game like "Abandon all hope" over Dante's "Inferno" — caution tape of some godless origin.
"Prepare to die."
Those words were perfectly fair in the first "Dark Souls" because of the price you paid when you did die — or, rather, the price you didn't have to pay.
You lost nothing at all if you could return to the site of your most recent death, a luminous green plume where we'd paint a chalk outline. That blood stain contains your souls. Both currency and XP in FromSoftware's action RPGs, those souls are what you've earned from killing enemies — from surviving to that point. Die before you reach them, however, and say goodbye to all that progress.
That was the contract of one of the greatest, most rewarding games of our time. "Dark Souls II," however, renegotiates. Now, dying has another, more urgent price: Your health dwindles. That's right: The most notoriously hard game in years gets even harder.
In "Dark Souls," you could perish 10 times at the same spot, reclaiming your souls each turn or going in with none in the first place. (Or don the rare ring that breaks upon death, but retains your souls.) Whatever your tactic, dying didn't have to mean giving up anything.
Now, in "Dark Souls II," you lose a little something with every death, no matter what. Prepare yourself all you want — you're still going to get punished.
Frustrating as it can be, this tweak in the formula to the epochal 2011 game isn't so bad because it's offset elsewhere by several more tweaks. Among them:
Humanity, that elusive number that graced the top left of the HUD in the first game, is gone; instead you have similarly scarce human effigies, which restore your humanity and return your health bar to full capacity. OK, cool.
Your equipment also degrades faster, but returns to peak form at bonfires. Sure, that's fair.
You can also warp between those flaming points of repose from the very beginning of "Dark Souls II." Oh? Well... huh.
That may be the sequel's most consequential change. Not only does warping cut down on your travel time, but it greatly, well, warps the way you see the new world of Drangleic. It fragments this kingdom of dark harbors and moonlit bastilles, of castle spires crowned by black clouds and foundries flooded with magma.
Where Lordran felt like one majestic rabbit hole in "Dark Souls," Drangleic feels like a hapless Frankenstein of levels. The visuals still soar — the dragons buzzing Dragon Aerie form the best, most hypnotic video game horizon in years, and Black Gulch looks like the world's deadliest DayGlo party. But the first "Dark Souls'" grander aesthetic ambitions are missed. Since the series continues to favor environmental storytelling over expository cut scenes, the plot — you're another cursed traveler seeking redemption through the slaying of monsters and mighty warriors — suffers as a result.
Also missed is the ability to mind my own business in what this stubborn loner still must admit is a clever multiplayer experience. In the first "Dark Souls," other players couldn't invade your game and duel you while you were in hollow (not human) form. That's no longer the case: You're fair game at all times now.
Thankfully "Dark Souls II" introduces soul memory, which matches you to invaders who've made roughly the same amount of progress. Still, there were times I would have preferred not to have dealt with those infrared party-crashers — namely when I was en route to bosses who required particular equipment and preparation on my part.
That brings me to the last big change in "Dark Souls II": The bosses. The source of most of that dying you do.
Curiously, there were several bosses where I, uh, didn't. I wouldn't say I made the difference. Sure, having played and endured and cherished the first "Dark Souls," I knew what to expect. But that didn't stop many of the sequel's bad guys from bloodying me before I could read their names on the bottom of the screen.
Other bosses, however, had nothing for me. They telegraphed their attacks. They succumbed to two or three volleys from my sword. They held back long enough for me to gulp health-restoring Estus flasks or, worse, form a strategy that wasn't mashing attack, dodging furiously and swearing hard enough to will a victory, if such a thing were possible. They didn't kill me, and for that they meant nothing to me. At no point could I say that about "Dark Souls."
I realize I haven't so much reviewed "Dark Souls II" as compared it to its predecessor. And that reveals the curious merit of the sequel: Compared to anything else, it's still a master stroke. It still contains so many moments of childlike expedition into the mystic, so many hard-won triumphs against worthy, terrifying adversaries, that it's easily the best game of 2014 so far.
And for players who haven't played "Dark Souls" (or "Demon's Souls," which I haven't played and thus can't account for), maybe "Dark Souls II" is the eureka moment many of us had with "Dark" or Demon's": The moment when they realize, or rediscover, how rewarding games can be when they don't hold your hand and, instead, demand you try harder. Push deeper. Care more.
But that's not a lot of players. For most, "II" is just redux, an iteration on an irreplaceable game experience. Maybe that'll change as they brave new game plus and the one after that and the one after that, forging through hardship and familiarity as deep a bond with "Dark Souls II" as with its forebearers.
Or maybe sometimes it's best not to come prepared.