One Year On, #1 (2017)

One Year On, #1 (2017)

Dark Souls III and Ratchet & Clank


On April 12th last year, new additions to two beloved video game franchises were released to much anticipation and fanfare. In most ways, they couldn’t have been more different from one another: there’s Dark Souls III, a moribund slog through an oblique medieval world full of blisteringly difficult enemies requiring precision and strategy to defeat, and then there’s Ratchet & Clank, a happy-go-lucky romp in a Disneyfied explosion of colours and silliness that was often easier if you just winged it.

Within their respective franchises, they seemed to serve diametrically opposed purposes. Sure, both of them relied heavily on their own legacies and reputations, but to a different end. Indeed, if From Software’s statements following the release of DSIII are to be believed, it will be the final title in the Dark Souls series, a fittingly dour conclusion to a cluster of games revered for their mercilessness. On the other end of that spectrum, R&C will never fucking die so long as Insomniac and Sony have it in their withered, moth-eaten clutches. In fact, the latest edition (a remake of the 2002 original) was released in order to coincide with that impressively shitty movie from last year, and there’s no doubt in my mind that many more cinematic sequels and interactive remakes will be sure to follow.

“We’re immortal, bitches!” (Insomniac)

Now, before we wade further into a divided discussion of these two games and their individual showings in the year that’s passed (and this is mainly for those who have had no actual exposure to either of them), let’s acknowledge one more place of overlap, being that neither of these titles is so groundbreaking or innovative as to be irreconcilably different from one another. Yeah, the setting, story and gameplay of each are almost as far apart as you’ll get in modern gaming, but the basic tenets of video game structure and execution are adhered to: traverse the world at your disposal, build your character’s armoury, learn more about the story, live, die, repeat. We’re not comparing Pong and The Beginner’s Guide here, is what I’m saying.

So, now we’ve established that there’s no outlandishly significant disparity between DSIII and R&C, let’s pinpoint the main difference at hand: one of these game wants you to live and have fun, while the other is – at best – woefully indifferent to your entire existence. It’s the chasm that exists between spending your weekend in a candy store with your best friend and being trapped for the night in a dark closet with an irate, hungry possum that has a bayonet strapped to its face.

See it’s nose? That colour is from years of dried blood. (Photo Forum)

Out of respect for our inner-child (and the fact that I played it before the other one), let’s start with Ratchet & Clank. Besides the tweaked narrative device that renders the events of the first R&C as a flashback told by the jailed Captain Qwark, the story here will be a pretty familiar – if slightly watered-down – version of what fans remember from the original. Those you encounter throughout, including Big Al and The Plumber, are re-imagined but still much the same, while the designs for new members of the cast – from the many Galactic Rangers to minor boss Victor Von Ion – are compelling enough for late-in-the-day additions.

However, if there’s one area when it comes to the characters that underwhelms, it’s the voice acting. Jim Ward as Captain Qwark plays the blustering hero as hilariously inept as ever, but James Arnold Taylor and David Kaye as Ratchet and Clank, respectively, are starting to sound terminally uninvested. Meanwhile, Eric Bauza’s bland take on Chairman Drek makes a once domineering villain something of a non-entity, and none of the new characters’ voices really register at all. Regardless, there’s enough here story and character-wise to give diehards a nostalgic twinge while remaining accessible to a trove of younger gamers for whom this will be their first R&C foray.

This photo gets a lot creepier when you realise he’s got his dick out. (Insomniac)

What’ll bring you back, though, time after time is that distinct feel and smooth playability of a platformer as accomplished as Ratchet & Clank. The intuitive controls, gorgeous and mostly friendly visuals, quick-t0-grasp combat and vast, vast array of weapons are, undoubtedly, the game’s chief selling point. Seriously, while we’re on it, the variety of guns at your disposal and the unique concepts behind many of them is staggering.

Here’s just a few: the Pixeliser is a short-range blaster that harms enemies while making them look like those low-def sequences from Wreck-It Ralph; there’s the Sheepinator, which turns those who are targeted into bleating kickbags, and its upgraded form, the Goatinator; and, of course, there’s Mr. Zurkon, a floating robot who has no greater joy in life than reiterating his purpose over and over again whilst fulfilling it: “Mr. Zurkon is here to kill!

Also, there’s a weapon that makes everyone dance. This game is amazing. (Insomniac)

This arsenal only magnifies the key impression this games aims to instill into you, that this is an expansive playground where you can choose your own toys. If you’re an even slightly accomplished gamer, little in R&C will truly challenge you, but the degree to which you can enforce difficulty upon yourself is found in these tools. For those who want to, there’s a selection of basic aim and shoot or toss and ex-fuckin’-splode weapons available to ease your movement through the game.

On the other hand, any thrill-seeking completists looking to upgrade every weapon (with the new and greatly expanded-upon upgrade system) will be required to use each of them as often as possible to do so, even in situations where it would behoove you to choose the easier route. That epic variety is at the heart of R&C and one of the main joys of the game. And, shit, that’s not even to mention the beautiful environments and awesome boss designs throughout but, really, we should move on from the land of bubbly leisure to a place where pain and sacrifice meets addiction.

Yes, Dark Souls III – which, to put it mildly, is not concerned with your enjoyment, understanding or even basic ability to function within its world – allows us entry into a land of sadness and unending torment, mostly self-inflicted just from playing it. If it had the capacity to thrive, it would do so on your perplexed misery and mounting frustration with its insanely hard boss fights, labyrinthine level design and almost total lack of exposition as to why any of this is even happening. Seriously, there’s getting off on being withholding and then there’s just laughing at a blindfolded cripple in a sandpit, and this is very much the latter.

One picture, a thousand heartaches. (Gardenatics)

Sounds fun, right? Here’s the thing: I can’t recommend it enough. Apart from 2015’s Bloodborne – another From Software Souls-ish game which has a slightly more-realised atmosphere and preferable combat system – I’d struggle to think of another eighth generation console release as compelling and inexplicably replayable as Dark Souls III (which requires us to all pretend that Overwatch isn’t basically crack).

Even though this game is of a piece with so many other titles that are renowned for how hard they can be to play from the get-go, it’s true that – without getting wanky or elite about it – it’s not in spite of that difficulty but because of it that DSIII is so remarkable. The game utilises its seeming-impossibility to essentially place you on an arc that mirrors its oppressive environments and shrouded, inscrutable narrative. Whilst playing, your capability at any given point could be rendered as a fluctuating parabolic wave, where you become adept for just long enough that your next inevitable defeat cuts twice as deep.

It’s a fiercely dynamic approach to engaging players: on the one hand, there’s always the chance of them reaching a point of impassable frustration and completely bailing on the game, but then there’s that teasing lure at the core of DSIII that makes them want to push harder just to finally fucking get a win. The satisfaction derived from defeating the infuriatingly nimble Dancer of the Boreal Valley or truly, almost impressively punishing Lothric, Younger Prince is like no other, even when paired with the dawning realisation that not only is the next boss going to destroy your life, but just the next area of the game will be miserably tough to cleave through.

Just looking at this makes my thumb start twitching to spam the roll button. Ugh, fuck this guy. (From Software)

There are so many other layers at play here that cohere and payoff with restrained but delightful frequency (and yes, that is the only time someone has used the word “delightful” in regards to this game). The world of DSIII, set in the decaying Kingdom of Lothric, is a mystery both on a narrative and explorative level. As mentioned, the startlingly simple degree to which you can be murdered in this place plays into this design perfectly, as every sepulchral corner and ruined passage of this game is littered with treasures and hints as to the significance of what has happened here, all coupled with beasts and undead beings to properly fuck up your day.

There’s an unquenchable pull to that sort of suggestion, inhabiting and moving through a world that once contained people and something of a functioning society. You can almost sense some of the grandeur that must have been contained in these withered halls and empty, decrepit castles. Beyond what you can learn from the few NPCs scattered around and reading the descriptions of items you pick up, there’s something sublime and alluring about that space that exists between being and knowing.

Pretty and deadly are not mutually exclusive here. (From Software)

Even compounded with the fear of simply walking through Lothric and facing off against its various ghouls and demons, I’d find myself wondering what this world must’ve been like when it was young and flourishing. Every second of play is tinted with that thought, as you see the land as it is now. What’s more, there’s an intractable affinity that develops between yourself and this kingdom simply due to your stated purpose, to link the fires that keep it in an age free from darkness or the folly of man.

Yeah, that sounds a little unparsable to some I’m sure, but what it basically boils down to is that everything you see in this shattered realm is waiting on you to redeem it. You’ve no way of knowing its glorious past, occupy only its horrific present and have now been tasked with overseeing its future. That’s a hell of an onus to put on a player who can fully buy into the stakes of the game. Due to this and it’s many other dazzling features, I’ve found that over the course of the last year – with the exception of the aforementioned Bloodborne and life-ruining Overwatch – there is no other title I’ve returned to with as much regularity as this one.

Even though no one’s ever set me on fucking fire in Overwatch… yet. (From Software)

All of this to say, having a year to evaluate each of these games has definitely allowed a suitable amount of time to plumb their depths and assess their longevity. Yes, Ratchet & Clank was certainly the more immediately gratifying experience, completed in a week and change; rarely stultifying or anything like a test of my endurance or patience, it did what it said on the box and I didn’t even think of asking for my money back. But then, even in the lead-up to writing this piece, I haven’t felt the urge to play it since, and it’s safe to say I probably never will.

Dark Souls III is a totally different, smog-filled, arse-scolding, essence-sucking beast altogether. If this is the sort of game you’re naturally inclined towards, it stands to reason that once you start playing it, you continue doing so (on some level) for the rest of your life. I’ll never truly be rid of it, such are the indelible marks it’s flayed into my being. When I’m moved to think of it, it intrigues me; when I gaze upon it, it stupefies me; when I play it, it abuses me and pissed me off more than I’ve ever been in my entire fucking life… and I may never, ever be able to stop.

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