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Kindling the Fire: ‘Dark Souls’ and the Art of Obscure Storytelling

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Ever since the series began with Demon’s Souls back in 2009, the Souls franchise has had a knack for a certain method of obscure storytelling. Each time you enter one of From Software’s many worlds, you are dropped into a narrative in media res, where a lot has happened long before you arrived, and a rich history exists which defines your current circumstances and reverberates in the worlds of Dark Souls.

Sure, you are given some vague information and an initial goal (slay the archdemons, ring the bells, find a cure) but the actual state of the world and how it got that way is always obscured behind layer after layer of mystery, deceit, misinformation, and obfuscation. These mystifying themes carry through all four of the main games in the extended Souls universe, up to and including Bloodborne, but there is no greater example than the plot of the core game of the series, Dark Souls.

Dark Souls begins with a prologue that explains how mankind and creation dawned in this world when sentient beings first rose from the flames and found the souls of lords. It lets you know that the denizens took the world over from giant beasts, much in the same way that we did in our own reality, though these early precursors did so by more violent means–slaying the dragons at the top of the food chain with the genocidal ambition of those who are so new to power.

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At the core of the story is the fallen king Gwyn who sacrificed himself to save the kingdom, but went mad as a result.

However, there is no power without consequence, and so it was the with the souls of the Lords. Each possessor eventually became corrupted and in time, so did the lands they ruled over. The supreme ruler Gwyn, the Gravelord Nito, the Witches of Izalith, Seath the Scaleless, and the Four Kings all fell prey to the growing darkness inside of them, and as their hearts blackened and their souls charred, they crawled into the bowels of the earth, far away from the rays of the sun.

This is where your character enters the narrative. As one of the cursed undead, a fate that will eventually befall all who have survived the calamity up until now, you are one of the last denizens of a world which is slowly dying. As the chosen undead it is up to you to rescue the land of Lordran from the darkness that is slowly consuming it…or at least that’s what the official story is as you are guided along your way by one character after another, but it doesn’t take much pondering to see that all is not as it seems.

The first two characters that guide and advise you are Oscar of Astora, a suicidal knight teetering on the edge of sanity, and the Crestfallen Knight, a cynical loafer who spends his time giggling madly to himself at a bonfire. Both tell you to ring the bells and seek the path to salvation, but neither one is really in a position to give advice. Still, with no other direction or path, you follow their guidance until it leads you to the fabled city of Anor Londo.

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Seath the Scaleless is yet another of the cursed beings struggling to maintain his tenuous grasp on power and avoid paying for his past sins.

Anor Londo is a bright and beautiful place that seems untouched by the curse of the undead, and after a few scuffles with the last remnants of the king’s guard, you find yourself standing at the sizable bust of a giant princess, Gwynevere, who urges you to succeed her father and save the world from the curse. However, a bit of digging shows that the king had two children, the second of which, the sorcerer Gwyndolin, is hiding in his father’s supposed tomb. Making matters even more suspicious, if you have the gall to shoot the gorgeous, glowing princess with even a single arrow she dissolves immediately into the mist of illusion.

Here’s where the first hole appears in the official story. Do a bit more research in the world, through item descriptions and lore details, and you’ll come to find that Gwynevere left the kingdom long ago with an errant knight and never returned. So who is this transparent woman advising you to murder her father? Well, it turns out that she is merely a mirage crafted by the sorcerer Gwyndolin, a phony harbinger he created to convince the chosen undead to slay his father and take his place in the bowels of the earth where the ashen King Gwyn currently resides.

In the so-called “good ending”, after you overcome the mad king and the other lords, you do just that. You make the choice to slay the fallen king, and then valiantly step into the primordial fire, burning yourself to a cinder as the king himself did before you, It’s a weighty and awe-inspiring finish, but few first-timers will realize that it is actually just a way to extend the life of this world, and keep the status quo alive, rather than allowing it to succumb to the curse.

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Artorias the Abysswalker and his companion Sif exist as reminders of what happens when you try to “do the right thing” in Dark Souls.

In fact, the true good ending is actually the “bad ending” in which you walk away from the fire like a coward and embrace the trust of the dark serpents of the underground. If you find their leader, Darkstalker Kaathe, hiding in the darkest abysses of Lordran’s flooded and abandoned capital, he will tell you what is really going on, how Gwyndolin and the primordial serpent Kingseeker Frampt are carefully manipulating people into fulfilling a prophecy that they themselves set into motion, and despite his seemingly sinister nature and the terrible place where you discover him, he is indeed telling the truth. Just like in our own world, there are a lot of people who know about the secret tragedies occurring behind the scenes, and many of them are happy to lie through their teeth so long as it maintains a happy status quo that keeps the gears turning in their favor.

In this fashion, Dark Souls crafts a sneaky and deceitful core story by using the standard conventions of RPGs and the fantasy genre to trick you into believing what you want to believe. I mean, who would you rather follow? A beautiful princess and a wizened sage telling you that you’re the savior of the world or a snide and cynical wretch telling you that everything you believe is a lie and that the only way to truly save the world is to abandon it to the void?

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The only task left to a noble creature like Sif is to guard the grave of his centuries-dead friend, Artorias. It’s sad a fate for this former hero.

The world of Dark Souls is filled with stories like these, and if you’re not the type to obsessively read through item descriptions or carefully examine the words of the NPCs of Lordran than these truths could easily drift right past you. From the cannibalistic rites of kings guard member Executioner Smough, to the Dark Moon-Sorcerer, Gwyndolin, being secretly raised as a girl for most of his life, to the cursed fates of every great and honorable warrior of the kingdoms past, a series of unfortunate events that prove the conspiracy, and remind players relentlessly of that old idiom about no good deed going unpunished.

Like the Silent Hill series, the Souls franchise is happy to let players believe whatever they want to believe about the world or worlds that they’re inhabiting, but the more careful and curious you are about the little pieces of the narrative that you discover, the closer to the truth you will eventually come. The fact that you have to go looking for these truths make them all the more satisfying when you finally stumble upon them.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

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‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

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The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

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In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

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Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

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At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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‘Resident Evil 3: Nemesis’ — A New Height to Survival-Horror

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Resident Evil 3 Nemesis

If we can forget that Nemesis was a poorly designed rubber goof in the Resident Evil: Apocalypse movie, we can easily state that he is the apex predator of the series. The follow-up to Resident Evil 2 had quite a few expectations to fill and, for the most part, Resident Evil 3 delivered. While not so much a fan-favorite as RE2, there was a lot to like about RE3. The return of RE‘s Jill Valentine, some new intuitive controls, and, of course, theNemesis.

RE3 marks the first time in the series where you are limited to one character – Jill. Through this, the story is slightly more focused and straightforward – despite the plot being all about Jill trying to leave Raccoon City. RE3 director Kazuhiro Aoyama cleverly sets in pieces of RE2 to make this work as both a prequel and a sequel. If you’ve never played RE2 – shame on you – you would not be able to scout notable tie-ins such as the police station. With a large majority of the building still locked up, Marvin Branagh, the wounded police officer who helps you in the second game, is still unconscious and has yet to give anyone the keycard which unlocks the emergency security system.

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Where RE3 really shines is in its latest entry of Umbrella Corps. bio-engineered tyrants called Nemesis. The hulking tank brought a new dimension to the series, invoking more cringe-inducing terror and stress than ever. As if zombies and critters jumping through windows weren’t bad enough, now you have to worry about an RPG-wielding maniac busting through a wall and chasing you around the entirety of the immediate environment – and chase is certainly brought to a whole new level indeed. It became a running joke when you would encounter a handful of zombies, but could escape unscathed by simply running into another room. Nemesis, on the other hand, will continue his pursuit no matter what room you run into. At the time, this brought a whole new level of detail in the genre. Knowing that at any given moment he will just appear and will certainly derail whatever key or plot item you’re quested to look for made Nemesis a very intense experience.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror.

The gameplay also takes a few different approaches in this game. There will be moments when you encounter Nemesis, or certain plot occasions where you will be prompted to make a decision. It was a great alteration to the series, as it added new layers and weight for the player. Another addition to the gameplay came in the form of control although as minute as it sounds, is having the ability to turn a full 180 degrees – yes you read that correctly. Resident Evil quintessentially coined the term survival-horror, and survival certainly predicates the genre. There will be times – if not numerous times, you will run out of ammo. When those moments used to occur, you would have to make your character turn in the slowest fashion imaginable to make a run for the door and to safety. It was those moments back then that would pull the player away from the action. With the addition of the quick-turn ability- which was actually first introduced in Capcom’ Dino Crisis game – it gave the player the chance to just cap a few zombies and dash creating more seamless and dynamic gameplay.

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The level design of Resident Evil 3 is grand, if not grander than RE2. A lot of the setting and scenery take place in the open air of the city and a few other places around the vicinity. RE and RE2 mostly took place indoors, and those settings helped create unique moods especially when it is all about tight corridors adding a more claustrophobic feel. Aoyama definitely went with a bigger setting and atmosphere in the follow-up. The game takes you through a police station, a hospital, a local newspaper office, a clock tower and a factory. More often than not, though, people tend to forget the scope and grandeur of RE3. Not to mention you can only… spoiler… kill Nemesis with a Rail-Gun at the end.

Resident Evil 3 is the pinnacle of the series and the last of old-school survival-horror. It took everything that it did so well in the previous titles and made it bigger and better. Nemesis encapsulated fear and dread in ways rarely experienced at the time. The scene where he popped through a window and chased players through the police station has always remained a nostalgic moment, much like anything that comes through a window in the RE series. In fact, a bit of advice for anyone playing the first-gen of RE titles: beware of windows.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on May 16, 2016.

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