Friday, 21 October 2016

October Nightmares II #21: Dark Souls III (2016) - Prepare to Cry

One time, in school, I remember being sat in a class on early 20th-century Russian history, avidly listening as the teacher described the assassin of Rasputin, the creepy mystic adviser to the Tsar. Poisoned, shot, beaten, drowned, and forced to read Lena Dunham’s memoir, the picture my teacher painted of Rasputin’s final moments was certainly vivid. As it transpires that story was a load of bollocks, one of those legends that are passed down through history. Like Hitler having only one ball. But I bring it up anyway, as it makes an apt comparison for the type of brutality the player has to endure in FromSoftware’s Dark Souls series. The final instalment of which is going to be the subject of today’s review.

And before anyone points this out: yes, I am aware that FromSoftware’s Lovecraftian themed Bloodborne would have made the better choice. But I have an Xbox One not a PS4. I’ve made my poor life choices and have to stick with them.

Dark Souls III is a strategic role playing game set in world that’s caught in an endless cycle of prosperity and decay. Each game usually takes place during the final shakes of the Age of Fire’s pre-bed piss, just as the Age of Darkness wakes up and civilisation is steadily declining like the value of the pound after Brexit. If there’s one thing the Dark Souls games are good for then it’s depicting grand castles, settlements, temples, and even people fallen victim to neglect and decay. Every single character is an undead repeatedly brought back to life for a special purpose before they inevitably turn ‘hollow’. A degenerative state of rot and mindlessness. Usually in a Dark Souls game, it’s up to the protagonist to reignite the flames and prolong the death of this miserable world. Dark Souls III mixes things up slightly by having the protagonist round up the workshy bastards who are supposed to light the flames instead. It’s like Adventures in Babysitting if it went to a renaissance fair and caught the bubonic plague.

The story in Dark Souls III is so obscure you barely notice that it’s there, not unlike that one friend who is part of the group purely to make up the numbers. Hidden behind item descriptions, lore entries, chance encounters with NPCs, and (mostly importantly) environmental storytelling, the plot of Dark Souls III is as involving as you want it to be. You can comb the game’s secrets and delve into the wiki to find out exactly what was the deal with that parasitic boss in the beginning who took the pompadour to its logical extreme; or you can simply kill him, move on, form a gank squad, and humiliate noobs online. The passiveness of the storytelling places Dark Souls III on the same level as Silent Hill 2 – mostly suggestive and left entirely to the player to unravel, like deciding whether you should or shouldn’t respond to the cute girl’s flirty message with a dick picture.

RPGs are usually an awkward fit for a horror game as they’re a genre revolving around player progression. Horror games typically tend to keep progression restricted, doling out the better weapons gradually whilst upping the threat levels of the enemies. Dark Souls III is somewhat divergent in that, if the player’s willing to put in the work, you can get swords that resemble the fucking monolith from 2001 if someone attached a handle to the bottom of it, and yet it’s still a genuinely fraught and oppressive experience. Sure, you can grind endlessly and incrementally improve your laundry list of stats and weapons. But that’s not going to save you when the zombie assassin stabs you in the back with its lacerating knife - too occupied you were with posting “beware of fatty” messages online for other players to read.

Known for its unique brand of difficulty - which is rarely unfair but expects a lot from the player – Dark Souls is the sort of affair where the basic enemies (undead, dogs, etc) can easily kill you if you lack discipline, and fighting the middling foes (giants, red-eyed knights, and so on) is like trying to play the floor is lava in a room made of dildos – one slip and you’re fucked. The game’s biggest threats - mouldering dragons, God-devouring eldritch horrors, and colossus skeletons – require the player to rise to the challenge of learning their attack patterns through trial and error and multiple deaths. You die a lot, but that’s to be expected when the enemies only need to brush past for you to drop dead as though you’ve pissed off the creepy kids from The Village of the Damned.

Dark Souls III may feature more swords, maces, staves, bows, and armour sets than a The Hobbit-Lord of the Rings marathon, but it has a more unsettling atmosphere than most of the other games of this list. The player is thrust into a dying world, rife with feelings of isolation and mourning. Although the game takes players through a variety of unwelcoming locations – medieval Ravenholme, poison swamps, mountain peaks lousy with wyverns – it’s the places which are supposed to feel welcoming that filled me with the most dread. Dark Souls III features more ruined ornate cathedrals than a David Starkey documentary on the dissolution of the monasteries. Christ, what a middle class reference.

Everywhere in Dark Souls III either lies in ruin or has fallen to the corruption. An overlarge, yet elegant, world abandoned by the Gods it was built for - now bubbling under the rank disease ridden corruption. The corpses of misshapen pilgrims line the entrances to the castles, alongside rotting dragons and slain knights. Visible corruption and body horror oozes from the putrid enemies which still shamble mindless along. Mostly notable are the quadruped enemies with a gigantic hand for a head – those guys resemble something David Cronenberg would design for anti-masturbation propaganda.