Dark Souls' greatest triumph was always its fairness. Yes, it was hard, but if you paid attention you could beat it - and if you failed it was probably your own fault, a few dementedly unforgiving boss battles aside. Dark Souls 2 will be a little more transparent in its dealings with the player, according to Bandai Namco producer Takeshi Miyazoe, without sacrificing the capacity for enigma that saw its predecessor become such a cult hit.
The marginally greater emphasis on accessibility will be felt at every level of the experience. Take melee, for instance. "It's a lot of things that happen behind the scenes, like the motion capture," Miyazoe told us at a hands-on event. "In the previous game, the player motions were hand-animated, whereas this time they're motion-captured by stunt artists." The result is a combat system that feels more intuitive, less "gamey" - it's a little easier to pick up on the cues that advertise a break in a combo, for instance.
Dark Souls 2 is also more forthright about multiplayer than its predecessor. As we explored in a preview last year, it's no longer possible to avoid Player vs Player by going Hollow (which also now comes with a reduction to maximum health).
However, the enhanced Covenant system will allow wary players to receive assistance via instant Summons - for example, invaded members of the Way of Blue Covenant get automatic backup in the form of Blue Sentinels. Given a bit of exploration, many of these mechanics are spelled out with reasonable clearness in the new starting area, Majula, where you'll also be able to buy weapons, level up and speak to NPCs about the wider storyline.
The storyline itself, however, will be every bit as opaque and open to interpretation as the tale of Gwyn and the Age of Dark. "We feel that having enough space for people to be creative is as approachable as you can get," Miyazoe noted.
"The 'true story' isn't as important to us as the story each player creates based on his or her own roleplay. We want you to explore or get items and read the descriptions to find out more, so that you are able to fill in the gaps as you explore."
Speaking of gaps, you might want to be aware of changes in the wind. "You can feel the wind in certain areas of the game, and the wind itself is going to be a hint," Miyazoe observed. "If you see a breeze coming in and you see the grass moving, I hope players will catch on that there must be something coming from that side."
Players will once again choose a gift when they create a character. As with a certain pendant, some of these gifts may be less useful than others - naturally, Miyazoe was unable to share details. "'Pick a gift' was [series creator] Hidetaka Miyazaki toying with the players," he said. "It was more like: 'Don't worry about it, just pick something and live with it.'"
You now have a torch that you can light at bonfires - replenishment spots dotted throughout the open world, which respawn all the area's generic enemies when used. At the expense of your shield, you can choose to carry this in your left hand, to guide you through pitch-black caves and dungeons. You can also light free-standing torches, some of which are tucked away in hard-to-find nooks - it seems probable that there will be some benefit attached to lighting them all, though colour that guesswork for the moment.
This isn't the only guess you'll make of Dark Souls 2, assuming you're hardy enough not to seek an explanation online. "In terms of tutorials it will be a little more than in Dark Souls I, but we're not going to explain all the tools you'll have," commented Miyazoe. "We want players to be creative." You'll be able to fall back in-game on the cryptically worded advice of other players, however - the old floor messaging system is back, and there's a greater variety of phrases to choose from.
Together with the ghosts of other online players - worth paying attention to, as they'll often inadvertently alert you to traps or secret routes - those messages also help bring the game's world to life. Without them, Dark Souls 2 would be a shadow of itself. But for how long will Bandai Namco and From be able to keep the dedicated servers running?
"It's tough to say," admitted Miyazoe. "But we'll keep the servers running for as long as we possibly can - until it gets to the point where it feels like there's hardly anyone playing at all. It's very difficult to keep our game monetised and it's a cost to keep the servers running, but we think that's part of the business of being able to release a game like Dark Souls."
Dark Souls 2 will release on 11th March in the US and 14th March in the UK. Watch out for our verdict in the not-too-distant future - in the meantime, Aoife has a few concerns about the project's direction to share.
By Daniel Robson and Edwin Evans-Thirlwell