Early on in Dark Souls II, players come upon a monolithic stone statue on the edge of a cliff far off in the distance that casts a menacing silhouette into the air. When you finally make your way up to it, you find not an entrance to a new area or some hideous boss but simply a sign on the base of the statue that calculates how many deaths you and fellow players have suffered in the game worldwide. When I started playing the game, that number was already over six million. When I finished it a little more than week later, that number had climbed to 30 million.
There's no reason the game needs to give you this information, especially in such a grandiose and ceremonial way, yet simply checking that forever rising number represents the first test of many the game will put you through to see if you're worthy of completing it. You can either surrender to the game's unending cycle of death or you can embrace it, realizing that everyone else is dying just as much as you are and let that inspire you to keep moving forward even when it seems impossible.
That fine line between cruelty and comfort is one the series has toed since its initial inception under the name Demon's Souls five years ago, and one that it has now perfected in the second sequel under the new series moniker Dark Souls.
There is little story to introduce you to the world of Dark Souls II and what plot is there remains so vague and distant that at times it feels like you're playing some foggy dream. It's an intentional decision, and the mysterious, off-kilter world the game drops you into feels all the more dangerous because of it; a section of castle floats inexplicably in the air on thin cobblestone platforms, a lush forest somehow exists underneath a warm and sunny town, an elevator in a stone tower leads down to a massive cavern complete with mining village and pirate ship-filled dock. The world feels real, yet it exists in no plane of reality, a constant trek deeper and deeper into an M.C. Escher painting that continually loops back into itself.
The twisting unreal landscape is all the more fitting considering the game itself is structured like some Groundhog Day-esque karmic circle you need to break out of, an unchanging series of events you continually replay until you finally get them in the correct order. The game is extremely difficult and has no qualms in punishing even the tiniest mistake with death, but it's hoping it will push you to persevere, not to quit. You need to dodge right instead of left when the knight swings its sword at you, you need to roll back from the rigged treasure chest to avoid the arrows it shoots out. You need to get it right.
When -- or, more fittingly, if -- you do get it right, there are few games that can give a greater sense of satisfaction. It'll take all of the skill and patience in the world, but the game wants you to become more than just a statistic on a statue.
Mel Stefaniuk is a freelance writer whose love of both video games and writing have been intertwined since growing up with the text adventures of the '80s. He can be found on Twitter as @DisgracedCop.