"Do me a favour," a Polish journalist tells me, "don't ask him about Dark Souls." I laugh - we laugh - because I know what he's getting at. But I'm going to do it anyway, because there's no denying it: Lords of the Fallen is like Dark Souls - a next-gen Dark Souls, to say it right.
Developed by CI Games and Deck 13, this is the PC, PS4 and Xbox One action role-playing game where one hero takes on singularly powerful enemies, and bosses, in over-the-shoulder combat. Feet shuffle, hands are watched and attack patterns scrutinised. Get your timing wrong and you're dead, and quickly - and the experience you've earned falls with you, lingering by your corpse awaiting your return. Sound familiar?
"I'm over it," replies executive producer Thomasz Gop when I bring it up. "A year ago that would have been insufferable, but now I don't care. We're so far into the development of Lords that I can already sleep soundly." What he means is that after nearly three years, he's confident Lords can stand on its own two feet, and that people will see more than a clone. If being compared to Dark Souls was ever a bad thing, he says, "it's not a bad thing any more".
The most immediate difference is the look, which is more Darksiders than Dark Souls. Characters are chunky and vibrant, great jagged flourishes of armour ornamenting our anti-hero Harkyn's silhouette - at one point he looks like a more muscular Witch King than the one in The Lord of the Rings films. Enemies are charismatic and memorable, such as grotesque spiders that squelch out eggs, which pulse and ooze and hatch if left too long. Stony corridors are warmed by candles that sag and drip on every step, and sun lances in through cracks and windows from outside. The sombre veil of Souls is lifted.
Then there's the story. In Souls it was obscured and you joined the dots yourself, sometimes never joining them at all. There was a "loneliness" about it, Gop observes. "It was so mysterious." That will change "majorly" in Lords, where you're a pre-defined character on a mission to prevent the Fallen God from returning to the world. Exploration will be open to an extent, "but I don't want to fool anyone that it's an extremely branching and non-linear storyline", Gop says. "It's definitely more straightforward than that." There will be cut-scenes, multiple endings and NPCs to talk to. "It will be possible and relatively easy to put together the pieces," he adds.
Then there's gameplay. "For a lot of people who are just starting with Souls, trying to learn that is like learning a chess game: block, riposte, move away, riposte. Here it's faster," he says. "I used to recall Tekken a lot, a very tactical game, but it's extremely fast paced." There are combos, sneak attacks and you can even perform the fighting game staple of attack-cancelling. "Dark Souls would never have that," he smiles.
"Lords is the game that presents you with a challenge and you actually have to practice your skills"
What about difficulty? The Souls games base entire marketing campaigns around it; it's what the series is known for: being hard and killing you, over and over. "We're not afraid of stating clearly that Lords is the game that presents you with a challenge and you actually have to practice your skills - you have to make your fingers work hard," answers Gop who, as if in answer to the question, dies in the blink of an eye during his demonstration. But Lords isn't going to be punishing as Souls.
There will be shortcut ways to defeat enemies, such as by leading them onto rickety boards boarding up a deep well. You're light enough to tread on them but the hulking brute in Gop's demonstration isn't. The trade off? You don't get to collect the goodies from your enemy when it dies.
Then there's death itself, wherein lurks Souls' omnipresent threat of losing all your progress - your souls that are your currency and experience - when you die. You can reclaim them if you can get back to your corpse without dying again, but that's obviously easier said than done.
Lords uses a similar technique but the XP by your corpse slowly depletes, so you need to hurry up. Lords eases the pain, though, by allowing you to bank XP at strategically placed floating shards around the map. Too easy? "When you don't bank your XP, when you don't die, the amount of XP that you get from the next opponent grows slightly," Gop explains. "There is a multiplier on top of that that you get. It's a risk-reward."
Lords will also be kinder with environmental deaths - things like falling off ledges. "We ditched that. Not completely, but it's not going to be quite often that you can just fall off. Because of that," he adds, "the game is going to be similarly challenging but not as difficult all-in-all."
You will start the game as a relative weakling, though, and eventually become powerful through spending XP on abilities and magic, and by acquiring a host of equipment - light and heavy - that significantly affects the way you fight. There are classes, there is lots of customisation - in that regard, the games are the same.
The entire experience of Lords won't be as long as in Souls, though - a series where 60-hour game saves are pretty common. Gop finished Lords recently in around 18 hours, but he doesn't expect you will. "I don't think anybody who tackles this game for the very first time could make it in that time. I don't think that's feasible. I would say closer to 30 hours for not even an average player, but a guy who likes challenging games."
There's no multiplayer planned for Lords at the moment to draw things out - no invading other people's worlds. Whether there will be any way of sharing your experience online, he says it's too early to say.
Lords is between alpha and beta now and preparing for a vague autumn launch. We may get a more specific date at E3, he grins, because "if it's going to be 'fall' then we would have to know [by then]".Why would someone spend five years retranslating all of Final Fantasy 7? Beacause.
That's not far away, and with production needing to wrap in the next few months for certification, minds have already turned to what's next. "We're not hiding that we would love Lords to spawn a franchise," Gop shrugs. "Once the game is on shelves, we can't just then start thinking about what is next because you already have to start thinking and pre-producing elements if you want to do it next. Thinking time is now," he adds. "We would love to work on next instalments of Lords if people want it."
What I see demonstrated on stage before me (an area called The Catacombs) shows a meaty, confident game that catches the eye both through design and technical capability, showing flashes of Darksiders, God of War and even Ninja Gaiden - two claws, one boss - along the way. The omnipresent influence is Souls of course, but look deeper and there's more to see.
Lords unravels a barbed concept to make it less obtuse, offering a broader audience a taste. That drink may be diluted and not linger on the lips as long, but the flavours are still there - and as Dark Souls 2 fades to a memory and people look for something to play on their new consoles this autumn, many mouths may indeed water for what Lords of the Fallen provides.