I trek through a wooden, dark path as a haunting sound builds into an isolating melody. My fingers are ripe with unnerving anticipation and I ready myself for that first Soul's encounter. Then I see a light. I enter the beautiful and empty hub-world of Majula. The serene area encapsulates me as I try to figure out what the hell is going on.

                During my first five hours of Dark Souls 2, I died 47 times, repeating the same mistakes again and again until I achieved that satisfying breakthrough moment of triumph. I have never been good at the Souls series, but damnit if I don't love them. It's that love relationship, however, that makes the game so polarizing. Why would I spend a total of 97 hours playing a game that beat me down? Why would I want to try over 50 times to take on a single boss? Why would I want to play a game so difficult that it makes me want to snap my controller in half? Masochism isn't for everyone, after all. But if you are a stubborn gamer like myself, Dark Souls 2 a distinct type of obsessive fun that you won't find anywhere else.

                For those not familiar, the Souls series is a grueling action/adventure, RPG hybrid where you journey through punishing locations, receiving "souls" after you defeat each enemy. Souls are the game's only currency as you use them to level-up, purchase items and upgrade your equipment. Souls are also very easy to lose. After each death, you lose all the souls you've collected up to that point. And after you respawn from your last Bonfire (markers that serve as a save points), you will only have one chance to go retrieve them. If you die again, those hard-earned souls will be lost forever.

                At the beginning of the game you'll get to choose from several character classes, but these classes won't mean a lot as you progress further into the game. A knight can take on sorcerer attributes and vice-versa. Your yield with attributes are determined by how you level-up. You can pour more souls into the endurance attribute to beef-up your stamina or invest in vitality and grow your health. You custom your character's strengths as you go along. Same goes for equipment. You can start the game as a broadsword wielder, but later start experimenting with a spear only to find what you are really comfortable with is big-ass ax. Experimenting is half the fun and it's important to see what weapons and armor weight you are most fluid with.

                Despite the massive amount of hours I poured into it, Dark Souls 2 is a much easier game than Dark Souls. Some of that might be the skills I honed from its predecessor, but I think more credit should go to the game's design. I hate using this word, but Dark Souls 2 is more accessible than previous installments. The severe degree of obscurity has been cleared just enough so you're no longer scratching your head for as many time-consuming, frustrating stretches.

                There are other differences from Dark Souls that make your travels easier. Enemies disappear after so many deaths, clearing your path while the immediate fast travel also helps speeds things along. There is also a new constant health diminishment  that leaves you with slightly less health after every death, but that obstacle is balanced by Lifegems that are peppered throughout the game and will help keep your health bar full. Because if the Dark Souls series is anything, it's a game of balance.

                There were a handful of changes I wasn't fond of, though.

                While I like the sanctity of the hub-world structure where merchants gather in one convenient place, being able to level-up at only one location was annoying. This approach didn't offer any greater challenge or provide the gamer another layer of depth. It just became a hassle. I also wish load times were faster. I know that's asking a lot in terms of the game's scope and lack of glitches, but some time efficiency for all my deaths would have been nice. And the PC version will be sure to get rid of a lot of those waiting load times, but as I played, I couldn't help but wish Dark Souls 2 was made for PS4 and Xbox One.

                This game feels much larger than the original. I kept thinking I must be close to reaching the end only to discover there to be so much more. I'm glad From Software created such a large game to explore, but I believe the pacing suffers for it. Dark Souls was a much tighter game. As for the land of Drangleic, it has all the makings of a Dark Souls world. It's dark. It's twisted. And it's ambiguous.

                For anyone brave enough to play Dark Souls 2 and enter the world of Drangleic, and stick with it, there will be a breakthrough moment where the frustrations from its difficulty ebb away, and you think to yourself, "hey, I got this." I know what my moment was. And for anyone else willing to find theirs, I salute you, fellow traveler. Welcome to the world of gaming's most pleasurable and painful experience.