It's a gentler opening, certainly. Dark Souls 2 takes care to guide you through its opening moments. It's clear where to go; down a path, over a rope bridge, towards a wooden house lit dimly from within. Inside are three old women, dressed in red, who reiterate that your curse will doom you to an eternity of suffering. They ask your name, and from there it's into the character creation screen, where you choose your distinct class and gift (I went with Warrior - I've never been able to shake the misguided assumption from Demon's Souls that magic is a coward's way out).
You follow the path down through claustrophobic corridors of rock and tree-root, into a cavern where branching paths obscured by mist doors teach you the basics of how to play: attacking, blocking, dashing, jumping, all those things that still feel like second nature to anyone that finally conquered Lordran. Giant troll-like enemies guard several exits; you can see them from the high paths, standing there and waiting for you, and you know you're nowhere near strong enough for them yet. You can take it all in, relearning the basics, lighting torches as you go to bring some measure of warmth to the place and mark where you've been - or you can stride past all of it and out into the world, ready to face what Drangleic has to throw at you. You can accept what help Dark Souls II offers, or just walk right past it. It's the only way to do a tutorial that doesn't feel totally out-of-place in a Souls world.
From then on, the game opens out. The first place you come to is a kind of safe settlement of the undead, Majula, set on a plateau with dramatic views of the land below and bathed in pale sunlight. A monument at the top of a hill keeps a tally of total worldwide deaths. Hunched-over characters rest against walls, their heads bowed, or stand looking out across the kingdom below. Possible ways forward spiral out in various directions. I wind down a hill and end up somewhere called the Forest of Fallen Giants - a place that's surprisingly bright compared to Dark Souls' Undead Burg, with grass and rivers and trees surrounding mossy, forgotten structures.
Every time you die in Dark Souls II, your health bar drops a bit. Die enough and it will drop down to 50%. This is perhaps the most fundamental of the changes to Dark Souls' basic mechanics. If you're a bad player - one who invades a lot - your sin level will rise, and your health will drop below 50% down as far as 10%. Burning a human effigy is the only way to regain your human form and reset it - and that, in turn, leaves you open to more invasions (invasions can now happen when you're undead, but they're more likely when you're human or playing in co-op). Plus, those effigies aren't infinite. With every death, your chances at success are marginally decreased. I'm trying not to imagine the effect this would have had on my mental wellbeing during my ~70 attempts at Ornstein and Smough.
Other changes are more subtle. Burning items at bonfires opens up many possibilities: one item strengthens all the enemies in an area. On the equipment screen you can now see your character, whose appearance changes as you try out different equipment. There's room on your undead fingers for four rings now, not two, allowing for more creative modifications to your stats and abilities. Also - and I'm not sold on this - there's now voice chat during co-op, though it's mutually opt-in. There's also an item that can reset your character parameters, presumably enabling you to change your playstyle by redistributing your Soul Level points more easily.
Drangleic evokes the same sense of eeriness and fascination as Lordran; in an hour, I was already starting to see how the pieces of its world fit together, and every locked door or looming structure makes you wonder, with trepidation, what lies within. Dark Souls is so fascinating for many reasons, but the most important for me was that feeling of being an explorer in a place that perhaps no living thing had seen in many thousands of years.
More than a few things about Dark Souls 2's opening remind me of Demon's Souls, rather than the original Dark. No longer do you level up at bonfires; instead you must speak with a woman standing at the edge of the cliff near the first bonfire, Dark Souls II's own Maiden in Black. At any bonfire, you can travel back to another that you've found before; like returning to the Nexus to recuperate. Despite how similar it is to Dark Souls in look and feel - the controls are all but identical - Dark Souls II's beginning shows a subtly different atmosphere.
Not long left now. The first boss I see in Dark Souls II is a terrifying spindly golem with a hole for a face. He is surely but the first of many creative horrors.