Dark Souls: The Ethics of Linking the Fire

In case I haven’t made it obvious yet, I love the Dark Souls franchise. I adore the challenging, clever and strategic gameplay, but just as important to me is the series’ lore. FromSoftware have crafted an incredible mythology for these games which, in my opinion, is the main reason why this franchise has had the longevity it enjoys, as it encourages players to dwell on their own theories and piece them together even when they’re not actively playing the game. FromSoftware have also baked in an intentional amount of ambiguity, meaning that every player is going to have their own interpretation of the world and events that occur within it. On that point, several months ago Jim Sterling put out a video about his interpretation of the politics in Dark Souls and, while I agree with his interpretation of the lore for the most part, I found it interesting that our ultimate conclusions on how to complete the story differ. I had kind of taken it for granted that my interpretation of how to proceed in Dark Souls and its sequels was “correct”, so it was intriguing to see other peoples’ takes on how one should proceed in the game. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that the Dark Souls franchise provides a fantastic case study to explore the philosophy of ethics.

Before we go on, it’s worth establishing the basic lore of Dark Souls somewhat in case you’re not familiar. In the world of Dark Souls, there was first the Age of Ancients, where immortal dragons ruled the world and nothing really ever changed. Then, one day, fire and souls appeared and the greatest of these souls were claimed by those who would become the four lords – Gwyn the Lord of Sunlight, Nito the Lord of the Dead, the Witch of Izalith and the Furtive Pygmy, possessor of the titular Dark Soul. Gwyn, the most powerful of the lords, kindled the “first flame” and used its power to wage a war against the dragons. The downfall of the dragons ushered in the Age of Fire, with Gwyn as its ruler. However, during all this the Furtive Pygmy split the Dark Soul into fragments, a small piece of which was possessed by every human. The Pygmy knew that one day fire would fade and that this would usher in an Age of Dark, which humanity would now possess. Indeed, while Lord Gwyn’s reign was prosperous and saw the establishment of many powerful kingdoms, the first flame did begin to slowly fade, threatening to end his rule over the world. In desperation to prevent this end from occurring, the Witch of Izalith accidentally destroyed herself and her entire kingdom, turning them into demons, while Gwyn ultimately sacrificed his own life to the first flame to restore and prolong the Age of Fire.

The original Dark Souls picks up some time after Gwyn’s sacrifice, with the first flame fading once again. As the fire fades, humans have begun being afflicted with the “curse of the undead”, which causes humans to be unable to die, but they lose bits and pieces of their humanity and personality until they enter a zombie-like existence as a “hollow”. The player takes the role of one of these undead who is tasked with gathering souls to become powerful enough to acquire the four Lord Souls. The driving force behind the player’s actions is never quite clear – first, it’s a vague prophecy about an undead who will collect souls and end the curse of the undead. Then they are confronted by Gwyn’s daughter in Anor Londo, the city of light, and a serpent named Frampt who tell the player to collect the Lord Souls and use them to “link the fire”. Ultimately, the player then has to confront Gwyn in the Kiln of the First Flame, where they then are presented with the choice of linking the fire, an act which the player probably still doesn’t fully comprehend – which is what brings me to the point of this post. What should the player do at the end of Dark Souls?

There’s one more thing that we need to establish before we can answer that question. It’s worth mentioning that there is deception at foot in Dark Souls which many players will likely never even realize on a first playthrough (if ever). Anor Londo, the city of the gods, has been abandoned and darkened all this time and Gwynevere, who directs us on our quest, is an illusion. Furthermore, Frampt is not the only serpent out there, for there is another one named Kaathe who tells the player the “truth”, that Gwyn usurped the Age of Dark from humanity in order to extend the Age of Fire, a process which he says goes against the natural order of the world. Frampt has been coercing undead to relink the fire through deceptive means and if the undead he was shepherding understood what this meant, they might not be so keen to see it through. In contrast, Kaathe reveals that he’s looking for a “Dark Lord” who will rule humanity in this Age of Dark and is hoping that the player character will fulfill this role by slaying Gwyn and rejecting the fire.

Okay, now that we’ve got all of that out of the way, we can finally start looking at whether the player should link the fire or not. In his video, Jim Sterling talks about how he chooses to not link the fire because he likens it to real-world politics, where the gods are akin to the rich and humanity are akin to the oppressed working class who are exploited to give more power to the rich. In this reading, linking the fire is akin to holding up unequal power structures which are to your detriment. In that scenario, Jim chooses to not link the fire and to tear down the power of the gods in favour of humanity, which is a perfectly valid reading of this scenario. However, even being aware of this deception, I still choose to link the fire in Dark Souls because I believe that this is the most ethical ending.

There are several ethical philosophies that can be applied to try to determine what course of action is the most ethical to pursue. Paul Martin Lester lists and briefly explains six of them on his website: the golden rule, hedonism, the golden mean, the categorical imperative, utilitarianism and the veil of ignorance. For our purposes we will focus on utilitarianism for now, as it is the closest to conventional views of morality. According to the University of Texas’ “Ethics Unwrapped”, utilitarianism is a moral philosophy where “the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number [of people]”. You may look at this and wonder how linking the fire produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people, especially since we have already revealed that the prolonging of the Age of Fire benefits the gods, while humanity is meant to inherit the Age of Dark. However, there is a key factor worth considering here – when he established the Age of Fire, Gwyn linked humanity’s souls to the first flame, thus bringing about the curse of the undead and hollowed states. The undead may actually be intended to be humanity’s natural state in an Age of Dark, but the Age of Fire has made it into an awful state of being which collapses societies and tears away the self. We see this many times over the course of the games, as colourful characters such as Solaire of Astora, Siegward of Catarina, Lucatiel of Mirrah and the crestfallen knight slowly lose themselves to hollowing, a condition that becomes more and more prevalent in society as the fire fades. As a result, the longer that the fire is allowed to fade, the more disruptive the curse of the undead is going to be for the lives of humans everywhere and the more people who are going to lose their humanity. When viewed this way, linking the fire is clearly going to cause the least disruption to the lives of the people, especially if it is done sooner rather than later.

The whole Frampt vs Kaathe debate is also worth a second look when deciding whether to link the fire. At first glance, most players who encounter Kaathe are going to assume that he’s he one telling the truth about the world and the player’s situation and therefore has your best interests in mind when he tells you not to link the fire. However, it’s worth noting that Kaathe is a foil to Frampt and that both of the primordial serpents are kingseekers – Frampt wants to find a successor to Gwyn to link the fire, whereas Kaathe wants to crown a “dark lord” to usurp Gwyn’s throne. As the player, that works fantastically for you, since you spend the whole game collecting souls and becoming (likely) the most powerful being in this world. However, is having one powerful overlord really the best option for humanity in the end, or is it better for humanity if one powerful individual is sacrificed instead to keep their way of life intact? Are we better off with another Gwyn-like figure ruling this Age of Dark, only more powerful since he or she has absorbed all of the lord souls? We, of course, don’t really have an answer to this question, but it’s worth keeping in mind when appraising the situation – we can’t assume that Kaathe has the best interests of humanity in mind and, while it’s great for us as the player that we could be the most powerful being in the world, it may not be the best situation for everyone else. As a result, Frampt’s deception is likely warranted, as a being strong enough to link the fire is extremely unlikely to do so willingly. We actually see this play out several times in Dark Souls III, where the truth of the linking of the fire has become common knowledge and the man tasked to link the fire rejects his calling. Not only that, but three of the four resurrected Lords of Cinder who have already linked the fire once before reject the call and refuse to go through with linking a second time (not to mention that Aldrich was forced to link the fire the first time and Ludleth of Courland vividly recounts the pain involved in the experience, so there’s little wonder why they don’t volunteer to go through with it again). One can easily see how this deception would be necessary to convince the most powerful being in the realm to unwittingly volunteer to give up their power (and life) to link the fire.

Since the Age of Dark is supposed to be the time of humanity, wouldn’t that inevitably be the best for humans though? This is, unfortunately, an answer that we simply don’t know based on the lore that From Software have given us. This is, as “Ethics Unwrapped” puts it, a drawback of utilitarianism: “because we cannot predict the future, it’s difficult to know with certainty whether the consequences of our actions will be good or bad.” In the Dark Souls franchise, we simply do not know what an Age of Dark is actually like. The closest we get is the Untended Graves in Dark Souls III, which seem to portray a dim future in which an Age of Dark has fallen (although this is definitely debatable). Since we can’t even conclusively look to the Untended Graves for an Age of Dark, we only really have the Abyss to go off of. The Abyss is a place in Dark Souls which seems to have some connection to the true nature of the Dark Soul and humanity. The Abyss spreads across lands and swallows them up. The Abyss is so corrupting and dangerous that we know of three entire kingdoms (Oolacile, New Londo and Carthus) who have succumbed to it have to be destroyed and contained to stop its spread. It’s worth noting that Kaathe is heavily implied to have been behind the spreading of The Abyss in Oolacile and New Londo, further suggesting that it plays some sort of role in his quest for a dark lord. The results aren’t pretty though – the people who come into contact with The Abyss all go mad and/or have their bodies twisted into monstrous forms. As one goes deeper into The Abyss, they find numerous mysterious, incorporeal phantoms which are clearly meant to symbolize humanity. Whether these are the souls of the people who have been swallowed up by The Abyss or a more base form of humanity is up for interpretation, but all that is certain is that they drain the player’s life force on contact. It’s also worth noting that, in the original Dark Souls‘ DLC, The Abyss seems to stem from the unrestrained desires of Manus, thought by some to be the Furtive Pygmy himself and perhaps Kaathe’s original candidate for dark lord. This lends further credence to the idea that the dark lord is just the most powerful being of their age, one who can shape people and the world around them with their overwhelming dominance. There is so much ambiguity about The Abyss and the Age of Dark though that it’s hard to make a concrete judgment call on them. Is everyone living a terrible existence, but humans are living the least-terrible existence of them all? Is life as a humanity phantom or a maddened, misshapen monster really all that bad? I can’t say that The Abyss is bad with absolute certainty, but it is clear that to bring about an Age of Dark would change our fundamental understanding of human life. In my opinion, the risks are not worth it, especially since we know that life in the Age of Fire is perfectly fine for humans.

That’s the situation in the original Dark Souls, but what about Dark Souls II? Should the player ascend the Throne of Want, or turn their back on it? There are a couple new elements introduced in this game which are worth taking into consideration. First, the concept of cycles is introduced. Dark Souls II reveals that there is a constant back-and-forth of ages of fire and dark. As a result, we discover that even if you did embrace an Age of Dark in the original game’s ending, the fire returns eventually and all of this will have played out again. Considering that the curse of the undead still persists, this would suggest that humanity is still linked to the fire and that these cycles of the Age of Dark aren’t even beneficial for humans, further giving fuel to the idea that linking the fire is the safest choice. In Dark Souls II, Aldia calls the linking of humanity to the first flame “the first sin” and says it has corrupted the natural order of the world – however, until humanity can be unlinked from the fire, it is unavoidable. However, just because something is natural, that doesn’t mean it is therefore the right or best option and Aldia knows it, as he rages in search of a solution to this problem.

The other variable worth taking into consideration in Dark Souls II is the theme of kings and their queens of Dark. Dark Souls II reveals that the defeat of Manus split his soul into fragments which became four granddaughters. These granddaughters would seek out kings, the most powerful people in the land, and seek to corrupt them and eventually take the first flame for themselves. Unfortunately for them, their corrupting influence would eventually be the downfall of each kingdom before their efforts could come to fruition, leaving only ruins or kingdoms in decline. Interestingly enough, by taking the crowns of each of the lords, you can actually stave off the effects of hollowing – it doesn’t cure or end the curse, but it is a way to freeze it in place and effectively become a god of the Light and the Dark. In Dark Souls II, your ultimate goal is to take the kingdom of Drangleic for yourself and Queen Nashandra is your final opponent. In this game, it is explicitly the Dark which is manipulating you, as Nashandra is waiting for you to be powerful enough to take the throne before swooping in to take it for herself.

So, with Nashandra defeated, do you then sit on the throne and therefore link the fire? The answer feels simpler, yet more ambiguous than it did in the first game. The Throne of Want is analogous to the First Flame, but the exact effects of sitting on it are uncertain – unlike Dark Souls where you become human kindling, in Dark Souls II the ending implies that you’ll establish your own kingdom. Or, if you choose to forgo the Throne of Want, you’ll allow an Age of Dark to take hold once again. Considering the journey of this game, the ending where you take the throne is far more satisfying. I’d also argue that, since humanity is still linked to the fire, taking the throne is the best option in order to stave off the curse of the undead once more.

Finally, we have Dark Souls III, where things have taken an interesting turn. In this game, the fire has been linked so many times that each successive linking has produced a shorter and shorter Age of Fire, and now the fire itself is nearly spent. It’s gotten to the point where the heir meant to link the fire refuses, figures who have previously linked the fire are resurrected and also refuse to link it again, and so people who failed to link the fire before are resurrected to try to get them to link it. The situation is so bad that space and time itself has become reshaped and distorted, desperately trying to bring about the linking of the fire that has become so fundamental to existence. Dark Souls III has several possible endings, but once again the “right” ending seems much clearer than in the first game. However, the variety of endings allow us to explore some of the other ethical philosophies in more detail.

There’s only one ending which allows the player to link the fire, but the flame has become so feeble that it merely dances along their arms, instead of becoming a surging conflagration like in the first game. It’s clear that the fire’s power has faded almost entirely and that this act of linking at this point it is functionally pointless. However, this ending could be viewed as the “categorical imperative” ending. In the ethical philosophy of the categorical imperative, once something has been established as “right”, it should always be done and there are no excuses not to not perform this action. Since the linking the fire has long been established as the “right” thing to do, it should be linked regardless of the long-term benefits (after all, have we not been looking down on Prince Lothric all this time for not linking the fire to begin with?). However, I personally find this ethical philosophy far too restrictive and inadequate. From a utilitarian perspective, since the fire is spent the curse is already wracking humanity, and the world itself has twisted to try to relight the flame – it’s clear that the time to link the fire has past and that embracing the Age of Dark is the only option left to us (in fact, considering that the Age of Fire was becoming shorter and the curse of the undead more frequent, the most ethical thing to do would probably have been to embrace it sooner than this). So, what options does the game give us to bring this about?

In the normal ending, the player summons the fire keeper to snuff out the first flame. She reveals that although an Age of Dark is now settling, eventually fire will come again anew. Perhaps this will be a new flame, no longer linked to humanity. This seems to me like it is the most ethical of the endings from a utilitarian perspective, since it severs humanity’s ties to the first flame and allows the Age of Dark to finally settle in on its own merits. It also gets around the problem we had in the original Dark Souls of one extremely powerful being dictating the flow of this age – a new Gwyn, using their power to extend the Age of Dark in the same manner that the Age of Fire has been unnaturally extended. This ending could also be seen as the “golden mean” ending. The golden mean ethical philosophy posits that the most ethical approach is to find a middle ground between two extremes (in this case, linking the fire and becoming the Dark Lord). Since you have chosen to not link the fire, but have not become the new lord of the Age of Dark, this ending strikes about as close to a middle ground as possible. The fact that this ending satisfies two different ethical philosophies is just further evidence that it’s probably the best outcome for this world.

There’s also a secret ending where, just before the fire keeper snuffs out the fire, the player betrays her and steals the last of the flame in the final seconds. It’s the kind of ending you take if you’re roleplaying a complete bastard who is collecting souls, any soul, to empower themselves at the expense of everyone else. One could view this as a particularly nasty “hedonism” ending. In ethical philosophy, hedonism posits that the most moral thing to do is to maximize pleasure while you can, because you don’t know what tomorrow may bring. In the dark and brutish world of Dark Souls, your character has been slaying people and collecting their souls to empower themselves all game and with your journey at its end, there really isn’t any reason not to just collect one more soul from this viewpoint. That said, obviously, viewed from any other ethical philosophy (not to mention conventional morality), this is by far the most unethical ending in the game.

Perhaps the most interesting ending involves completing a quest for the Sable Church of Londor, a coven of undead. During the course of gameplay, you can discover that the Sable Church are dedicated to fulfilling the legacy of Kaathe and want you to become the Dark Lord. Knowing this, it is perhaps unsurprising that if you choose this ending then you absorb the remaining power of the first flame into yourself and bring about an Age of Dark with yourself as its appointed Dark Lord. However, the ethics of this ending are dubious – not only do you have to marry and then kill Anri of Astora to bring it about, but the ultimate implications of this ending are left up to the player to interpret. As a result, this ending could be categorized as hedonistic or utilitarian, depending on how you imagine your rule as Dark Lord will play out. Interestingly enough, the eclipsed sun which has been in the sky throughout the late game turns into a pale, dark eclipse upon your ascension to Dark Lord, perhaps signifying that you have indeed become the Dark foil to Gwyn and your legacy may mirror his. Knowing this, allowing the fire keeper to snuff out the flame is probably the most conventionally-ethical option since it keeps the most people on an even footing, but the Dark Lord ending is the most interesting in my opinion.

Considering how much interpretation is involved in Dark Souls, a clear “ideal” solution is almost impossible to declare definitively. A Dark Lord ending may indeed be the best possible ending if you decide that your character will rule benevolently and not make the same mistakes as Gwyn. Similarly, not linking the fire may be best if you believe that it will end the cure of the undead – again, we just don’t know and it’s up to your interpretation of that ending to decide. This interpretation and debating over the lore and its implications is a major factor in Dark Souls‘ enduring popularity – as I said in my Love/Hate article on the series, the original game has been eclipsed in terms of performance, gameplay and challenge, but the world it has created is damn-near unparalleled and makes this game still stand out to this day.

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Ranking the Albums I Listened to in 2019

It’s that time of year once again, when I look back on all of the random-ass, new music I’ve listened to in 2019! I’ve been slowly curating this article all year as there have been plenty of new albums by my favourite bands, which has given me plenty of time to parse my feelings on them. Also, if you’re curious about last year’s picks, you can read that list here.

Anyway, with that out of the way, let’s get to the rankings!

23) Jesus Is King, Kanye West
If you’ve checked out any of my previous annual album rankings then you’ll probably know that I skew towards rock and metal rather than rap or RNB, so perhaps it wouldn’t be all that surprising that my white, heathen ass would rank a Kanye West album so lowly. However, I did enjoy My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and some of my all-time favourite albums are pure gospel music (Worship and Worship Again by Michael W. Smith are just inspiring to listen to back-to-back), so suffice to say I was pretty intrigued by the hype surrounding the release of Kanye West’s big Christian music debut. It’s undeniable that Kanye West is an asshole, but the guy has a way of crafting really interesting music so I was very curious to see what he could come up as an outsider in the Christian music scene. However, the results are pretty disappointing. With 11 tracks and clocking in at only 27 minutes long, this album just feels half-baked, like Kanye put out a bunch of demos instead of taking the time to actually craft something satisfying. Only 3 tracks manage to get over the 3 minute mark, “God Is”, “Hands On” and “Use This Gospel”, and these are clearly the most enjoyable and well-crafted tracks on the whole album. There are some potentially interesting aspects to “Selah” and “Follow God” as well, but these tracks are so brief and incomplete that they leave you very unsatisfied. I also got a bit of a kick out of the gospel choir opener “Every Hour”, although it is little more than an enthusiastic mood-setter. Most of the tracks are just lacking in substance. All this said, the only track on this album that I actually liked and would listen to on its own is “God Is”, a fantastic gospel choir and RNB fusion which is helped immensely by Kanye West’s sincere singing and declarations of faith and praise to God. It’s actually moving, has something to say and is easily the best track of the bunch. However, this is just one well-crafted song on an entire album and it’s not enough to justify how scattershot, incomplete and uninteresting the rest of Jesus Is King is. Now, if Kanye would gimme a whole album of gospel tracks similar to “God Is”? I’d be all over that, but as it stands Jesus is King just feels like Kanye is dumping his half-completed homework on us.

22) The Change, Awake At Last
I did a post several months ago about bands who had followed me on social media, one of which was Awake At Last. I didn’t really have much to say about them though – their debut EP was distinct with theatrical, enthusiastic hard rock, but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I figured it was worth giving them another shot with their first full-length album, The Change, but this album ultimately just told me that Awake At Last aren’t for me. Awake At Last certainly have their own style, especially because of lead singer Vincent Torres’ theatrical (perhaps even overwrought at times) vocals. It’s not like they’re playing the same music over and over again either, they sprinkle their hard rock with electronics and vocal effects, although they don’t tend to get too heavy. When it comes down to whether or not I enjoy their music though, I really can’t bring myself to care about it too much. Usually when I listen through an album for the first time for these countdowns, I’ll write some notes about each song and put down any first impressions I have about whether I like it. For The Change, I did this for about the first five songs but just stopped because I wasn’t really into it at all. In fact, my notes ended up being just me trying to figure out which bands Awake At Last reminded me of, and I realized that they most remind me of Papa Roach… so take that how you will. I dunno if it’s just because this is positive hard rock (I like to wallow in my misery, thank you very much!), but it just didn’t work for me at all. I’d still recommend checking them out if you’re into bands like Shinedown, Saliva or Papa Roach, but for me at least I don’t imagine I’ll be checking back for their next album.

21) Armageddon, Art of Dying
I saw Art of Dying opening for Disturbed years ago… oh God, I was still in high school, it must have been around 2008 or 2009. Anyway, I was pretty impressed with their self-titled debut album, it was a solid post-grunge which gave me a lot of promise for the band going forward. Their follow-up, Vices and Virtues, was decent as well, but clearly not as good as their debut. I felt like they were drifting towards more of a mediocre radio-rock sound and so I kind of stopped paying attention to them. Since then Art of Dying has put out three more albums so I figured that I might as well check out their latest release and see if I’ve been missing anything in the meantime. I have to say that, if their other albums are anything like Armageddon, then I haven’t really missed much. The uneasiness which drove me away from Art of Dying in the first place has definitely manifested to reality, because the band is very clearly chasing radio trends here. That’s not to say that radio-friendly music is bad by any means, but there’s a difference between putting out music that you want people to hear and putting out music which is supposed to get mass-appeal radio play. Art of Dying are talented enough that Armageddon isn’t exactly “bad”, but at least in terms of the songwriting it feels like a band that’s several albums deep going through the motions and trying to pay the bills.

The album opens in irritating fashion right off the bat with the title track which is clearly ripping off the pop-rock sound of Imagine Dragons. While your mileage is certainly going to vary, I find Imagine Dragons’ sound annoying, especially because their popularity has led to several other bands mimicking it (spoiler alert: this is far from the only band on this list which has been riffing on Imagine Dragons). Taste-aside, frontman Johnny Hetherington’s vocals sound really strained on this track for some inexplicable reason. The guy has a pretty good voice so I’m not sure why he’s stretching himself so far here. The lyrics here are also typical of the whole album, in that they’re generic and uninspired. Even reasonably decent songs like “Cut It All Away”, “Rearview Mirror” or “Shatterproof” are let down by the lyrics, which is especially unfortunate when it deflates the impact of the enjoyable guitar solos in tracks like “Rearview Mirror” and “I Believe”. This culminates in a real disaster with “Unoriginal”. Look, if you’re a band like Art of Dying and you decide to put a song on your album called “Unoriginal”, you need to make sure that that song is amazing or you’re just setting yourself up to get pilloried. So what do Art of Dying do? They basically come right out and admit that they’re just going through the motions. I mean, check out these lyrics:

“I’m so fucking bored / Keep coming back for more / It’s all been done before yeah”
“It’s just the same old / Is this really where we’re at right now / Are we so, are we so unoriginal”
“I’m so sick and tired / Of being uninspired / Nothing ever changes”

Wow… I wouldn’t have expected the band to just come out and say that they just don’t give a shit, but there you have it. Sure, they probably aren’t actually intending for the song to be taken as a serious declaration, but in the context of such a limp album it’s hard to interpret it any other way.

20) Live From Alexandria Palace, London, UK, Disturbed
Oh look, Disturbed are once again bringing up the low end of the album rankings this year, although I can say that at least this live EP is better than Evolution. The main reason this ranks so low is that I really don’t understand why they decided to put out a bite-sized live EP at all. The band put out their full live album, Live at Red Rocks, only a couple years ago and 3 of the 5 tracks on this EP appeared there in essentially the same form (and, in my humble opinion, their live recordings don’t sound as good as their studio recordings). That leaves us with only two new live tracks from Evolution. Luckily, “A Reason to Fight” is far more effective when sang live than it is in studio. While the studio recording just came across as melodramatic, the live version really gets to show off how well David Draiman can sing. It doesn’t solve the issue that the lyrics are uninspired, but it is definitely the superior way to experience this song. It also helps that David then goes into a speech for almost 5 minutes about not falling prey to addiction, depression and suicide, which is honestly more raw and moving than the song itself. Cutting from this sombre moment into “Inside the Fire” is a pretty inspired move in my opinion, but the rest of the tracklist is strangely erratic. “Inside the Fire” was clearly the last song on the setlist when this was recorded, and all subsequent tracks on the EP are just faded into and out of haphazardly. The lowlight is, in my opinion, the second song from Evolution, “No More”. I already didn’t like this song, but it’s not improved any in a live setting. It’s just the same sort of protest song about greed, government and war that we’ve already heard more effectively thousands of times, not only from other bands, but Disturbed themselves too. Other than that, tracks like “Inside the Fire” and “Ten Thousand Fists” which sound fantastic in studio and great in a live setting are robbed of much of their effectiveness when they’re recorded live, since David Draiman has to sing at a higher pitch to avoid ruining his voice. The best track on the EP though is the closer, “The Game”, which manages to make the live transition without losing any of its energy. I’ve always enjoyed this song, although the message certainly makes me uncomfortable. I like to assume that there’s an unreliable narrator thing going on and that this song is actually about how much men suck, although I seriously doubt that that was the intent. Anyway, like I said at the outset, this is a pretty limp EP which doesn’t really have much to offer to anyone. Even bigger Disturbed fans than me will probably be disappointed that there’s only 2 newer songs on here and I wouldn’t say that either of them make it worth a purchase or more than a cursory listen.

19) Victorious, Skillet
Throughout this past decade if you asked a mainstream rock music fan if there were any good Christian bands, odds are the most common answer you’d get would be “Skillet”. While their fame has always bothered me, I can kind of understand why it happened. After experimenting with weird industrial/electronic rock and straight-up worship albums, Skillet finally hit their stride with Collide and Comatose, a one-two punch of hard rock albums that really resonated with me back in 2006. The thing is though, I was an angsty high schooler at the time and have grown up since then. Meanwhile, Skillet have released 4 albums in the last 10 years and each one is clearly just trying to rehash Comatose. Like… John Cooper is 44 years old. Hearing him angst about parents who don’t understand and girls not paying attention to him was contrived enough when he was 31 years old (and married to one of his bandmates, I may add), but at 44 it’s hard to imagine that he really has much connection to “kids these days”. At least Victorious has shifted lyrically from angst to encouragement for its teenage target audience, although as I said on The Change that doesn’t tend to be my cup of tea either.

Anyway, Skillet come swinging right out of the gates with “Legendary”, clearly intended to be their big radio single. What does it sound like? FUCKING IMAGINE DRAGONS, UGH. I get that they’re going for a completely different audience than me, but holy shit there are so many bands aping this same sound right now because it’s popular (and shows up on several songs on the album). Guys, trendsetters don’t follow, they lead… As I’ve said for a lot of these bands so far on this list, the songwriting on this album is just so rote and uninspired (sidenote, I came across this image from the lyric video for “Legendary” and it made me laugh). Unlike some of the other albums on the list up to this point though, Skillet are at least talented enough that they can serve up some decent songs every once in a while. The title track is appropriately triumphant and inspiring, “Terrify the Dark” has a fantastical air about it and “Anchor” is like a straight-up worship track. Fans of the band’s past few albums will probably dig Victorious regardless, but Skillet clearly aren’t making their music for me anymore and I can only really speak to my own feelings on the album.

18) Breathe in Colours, Forever Still
Like Awake at Last, Forever Still were on the list of bands that followed me on social media. However, Forever Still’s debut album, Tied Down, had actually impressed me and so I was excited to see what their 2019 album would be like. Unfortunately, their sophomore album Breathe in Colours didn’t impress me nearly as much as their debut. The band’s greatest asset remains lead vocalist Maja Shining’s vocals (also, holy shit, what a name!!!), which are able to range from screams to operatic melodies. I made this comparison in the social media bands post, but she definitely reminds me of Sleeping Romance’s Frederica Lanna, although Forever Still hew more towards “vanilla” metal than symphonic metal (although there are a few songs which dabble with symphonic elements). The main issue with Breathe in Colours is that, other than Maja’s voice, nothing really stands out. The music is fine, but it’s treading firmly in typical metal/symphonic territory and is nothing special. The songwriting is also just fine, only a few tracks really stood out to me, such as the title track and “Pieces”. Perhaps the best track though is the acoustic version of “Is It Gone?”, which strips back Forever Still’s weaker elements and puts everything down on Maja Shining’s vocal talents. It makes the song far more enjoyable in my opinion. Hopefully Breathe in Colours is just a sophomore slump which will help Forever Still to figure out where to take their music in the future, because I believe they still have the talent to really stand out as a female-fronted metal band.

17) Stairway to Nick John, Mastodon
As I said in my 2017 album rankings, Mastodon have a pretty reliable album cycle, putting out a new one approximately every 2-3 years. Knowing this, I expected that we might get a Mastodon release in 2018, but imagine my surprise when I open up Spotify and see that the band has put out a surprise cover of “Stairway to Heaven”. It was a weird turn of events for me, but when you look into the story behind it, it’s actually quite poignant – Mastodon’s longtime manager, Nick John, died and as a tribute the band played an emotional cover of “Stairway to Heaven” at his funeral. Unexpectedly, someone recorded the performance on their phone at the time and so the band decided to re-record it in studio as a record store day release.

So, with that bit of background out of the way, how is Stairway to Nick John? It’s… fine. If you’re looking for a very straightforward cover of “Stairway to Heaven”, then Mastodon has a studio and a live recording just for you. Mastodon’s Brann Dailor usually has very questionable vocals in a live setting (as anyone who has heard their Live From the Aragon record can attest), but he does a fantastic job on “Stairway to Heaven” in both of the recordings. His vocals here are unlike any other work they have done, to the point where it’s kind of unfortunate that we haven’t heard this side of him before. There aren’t really any frills going on here, the vocal melody and the music hew closely to Led Zeppelin’s original composition, with some very light hints of Mastodon’s flavour worked in. This is no Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” or Disturbed’s “The Sound of Silence”, where they aim to recreate the song their own way, it’s just straightforward cover. It’s also worth reiterating that the live version of the song was recorded on a phone, so the audio is a tad rough, clearly being picked up from far away in an echoey hall. It’s impressive just how well it turned out, but it’s worth knowing that it’s not really captured in professional quality, if that bothers you. All-in-all, Stairway to Nick John is fine, although the story behind it is far more compelling than the release itself. It’s not the 2019 Mastodon release I was expecting, but a bit of a creative break is probably better for the band overall.

16) This Is Not the End, Manafest

Growing up as a small town church kid, Manafest was considered the cool Christian rapper in our youth group. At the time I was mainly into Christian hard rock/metal, so his rap-rock fusion worked well for me. It also didn’t hurt that his two albums, Epiphany and Glory, were both really solid releases. However, with each subsequent release, Manafest just lost more and more lustre to me. Each new album was just nowhere near as good as Glory was – they all retread the same sounds and themes, while being weaker and less inspired (although there were usually at least a couple good songs). This all came to head around the time Manafest crowdfunded his seventh album, The Moment and promised big things. At this point I said “Fine, this is your last chance to impress me”… and, lo and behold, it was probably my least-favourite album of his to date. Suffice to say, that was it for me. However, here were are now 5 years later and the guy has pumped out another 3 albums, so I was curious to see if he had improved any since 2014…
…but if This Is Not the End is anything to go by, he hasn’t really. I mean, he has diversified his sound somewhat: the title track shows off electronic elements that he has incorporated into the rap-rock fusion, while “Kamikaze” demonstrates a different style of rapping than he ever did on previous tracks. That said, he’s still just putting out the same sorts of music meant to appeal to white Christian teens despite the fact that the guy is now 40 years old, although there is a surprising amount of cheekiness, such as faking out F-bombs on the title track (as innocent as this sounds, it’s a move which is sure to piss off parents and Christian music reviewers alike). The track “Kamikaze” also has a really awkward chorus which features Manafest saying “I love the way you suck my… energy”… it definitely does not sound like he wants to say “energy” though, unless that’s the nickname has has for his dick.
But then there’s “Plan For Me”. When this started playing with its piano opening my initial thought was “oh, this is this EP’s ‘Mockingbird'”, which was actually pretty spot-on in some ways. However, then he starts singing to an unborn baby who’s been dead for 5 years and who they even had names picked out for before Manafest’s real-life wife starts singing the chorus and I was truly surprised. Shit, when I walked away from his music, did Manafest and his wife have a miscarriage and here they are airing their continued grief? It was pretty heartfelt, and then he goes into the second verse as the child, telling their parents that it’s okay, they don’t have to feel guilty anymore, they can move on because this child they never knew will still love them and see them in heaven someday. By this point, I was actually getting emotional – my son was born just over a year ago and my fiance and I both thought that we were going to lose him on two separate occasions, so the fear of losing a child welled up raw emotions in me. I was actually impressed – a Christian rap song about a real experience of struggle with guilt and pain, learning to move past it and accepting that even loss like this is in God’s hands? Even if it wasn’t a true story, it speaks true to so many real-life experiences. I listened to it three times in a row.
…and then I realized it was an anti-abortion song and my enthusiasm was deflated so quickly. Like… goddammit. It makes less sense as an anti-abortion song! Why are they picking out names if they’re not planning on keeping the baby? If he was so keen on having a baby and so cut up about it now, why did they even go through with it? The only reasons we’re given is that the parents were young and not ready, which are fine reasons actually, but it’s like Manafest can’t imagine why someone would really feel that an abortion is justified. Like, did the relationship fall apart because of the abortion and now he regrets that? We don’t even get the mother’s perspective at all during this, which is frustrating – it’s entirely from a man’s perspective, including having him extrapolate that perspective to an imagined unborn child. It’s just another reason why it’s so deflating that this is an anti-abortion song instead of a song about experiencing a miscarriage, it just perpetuates so many frustrating pro-life tropes (often from a male’s perspective). Instead of being some real, lived experience, the song is like a youth pastor’s anti-abortion skit – a moralizing, melodramatic, theoretical scenario of someone regretting their abortion and being unable to move past it, robbed of the nuance of most peoples’ real experiences. I know people who have gone through abortions and, looking back, they know that they made the right decision, but most of the guilt then comes from religious family members calling them “baby murderer” or other people making them feel like they should be ashamed about it. I’ll give the song some credit, it does at least suggest that the abortion was part of “God’s plan” all along and therefore not some abomination. It also tries to be as loving to the parents as possible, but it’s unavoidable that a song with half of its verses from the perspective of an unborn baby in heaven is going to try to guilt you into birthing that little bastard next time. Like, despite effectively saying it was God’s plan to have things go this way, it’s still very judgy about the parents’ decision and that the unborn child’s potential is never realized.
It’s just frustrating to me that Manafest wrote the song this way. When I mistakenly thought it was a song about a miscarriage it was so good… Sigh. While it deflated my enthusiasm for the song significantly, I still have to say that it’s a really good sounding song, easily one of Manafest’s best, so I’ve got to give him some credit for making one banger on this EP… even if it really, really sucks that it’s an anti-abortion song and which will totally invalidate it in other, more unforgiving, peoples’ eyes.

15) Patterns of Mythology, Falls of Rauros
I’ve been dabbling in the black metal subgenre over the last few years, and while I enjoy bands like Winterfylleth, I find that a lot of this kind of music blends together indistinctly. That said, when I was trolling Spotify one day and saw a black metal band named “Falls of Rauros” (named after the place where Boromir meets his end in The Lord of the Rings) had a new album out in 2019 I knew I had to give them a look. Patterns of Mythology is unmistakably a black metal album (the screamed/growled vocals should make that immediately obvious), although it is at a much slower tempo than, say, Winterfylleth. That said, Falls of Rauros change up the tempo multiple times throughout each song – one minute a song could be slow, moody and contemplative and then it can suddenly ramp up into a punishing wall of metal. That said, while they clearly have their own flavour, there really wasn’t much here to really make Falls of Rauros stand out enough to me. Like all the other black metal I listen to, none of the songs really stand out on their own for me and I can’t see myself playing this album as anything other than background music. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t something I’d come back to repeatedly.

14) Peace, Demon Hunter
Demon Hunter tend to put out solid music. I actually backed their last album, Outlive, on PledgeMusic (and got the big, beautiful deluxe box set!) and enjoyed it quite a bit, although the aggressive, hard edge to their music typified best by The Triptych has long since been eroded away. However, when it was announced that their double album would be titled War and Peace, I was tentatively excited. Based on the titles, it was pretty clear that they were going to give us the best of both worlds: War would be the heavy album, whereas Peace would be on the lighter side, a theory which turned out to be true when the albums dropped.

Peace is certainly lighter than any previous Demon Hunter album, but that actually makes it feel a bit fresher than if they had just watered-down their normal sound. Demon Hunter actually get a chance to experiment and do things we’ve never heard from them before, such as the western-inspired “When the Devil Come” or the full-on piano ballad, “Fear is Not My Guide”. We also get some solid, melodic tracks which show off Ryan Clark’s singing voice, particularly “More Than Bones” and “Recuse Myself” (which I’d definitely say is the track which has stuck with me most on this album). Unfortunately, Peace starts to drag very quickly. The lighter tone isn’t the issue at all, if anything it’s the tempo that’s the issue – it feels like most of the songs have been slowed down in order to facilitate the lighter tone, which ends up making most of the tracks feel sluggish. This sluggishness means that most of the tracks drag, lack any energy and become instantly forgettable. The lyrics throughout the album aren’t great either, particularly on the title track, although even tracks I like, like “More Than Bones”, are very simple and repetitive. Most of the tracks are sub-par, very few stick out to me at all, and even the best tracks are only around the baseline of quality I’d expect from Demon Hunter anyway. Again, Peace gave Demon Hunter a great opportunity to try something fresh, but I just don’t think that they succeeded at all. In fact, mainly due to how forgettable it is, I’d argue that Peace is probably their worst album ever, which is just unfortunate.

13) War, Demon Hunter
Man… Demon Hunter really didn’t do it for me this year. I had heard good things about War around its release, but I was left a bit underwhelmed. I was kind of expecting them to move their sound in a heavier direction on War. While it’s certainly heavier than Peace, it’s far from a return to the aggressive edge of old-school Demon Hunter, coming across more like a next step from Outlive, where lighter tracks outweigh the heavier tracks (and even the heavy tracks will have lighter bits interspersed, such as the choruses for “Cut to Fit” and “On My Side”). I enjoy songs like “Cut to Fit”, “On My Side” and “Grey Matter”, but they’re interspersed with mediocre tracks like “The Negative”, “Unbound” and “No Place for You Here”. The only truly great track is the album closer “Lesser Gods”, a really heavy, epic track unlike anything Demon Hunter have put out before. It’s the sort of shot in the arm that makes you wish that the band had done more like this on War, but having it as the closer just hammers home how mediocre most of the album is. On the other hand, the only particularly bad track on the album is “Ash”, which has this really weirdly-pronounced chant of the title which makes it sound like they’re saying “ASS!” each time. Suffice to say, it ruins the song and makes it impossible to take seriously when all you can hear is “Suffer the ASS!”

All-in-all, War and Peace just did not work for me. About half of War is mediocre and brings down the overall quality of the album. I really think that Demon Hunter would have been better off taking the best tracks from these two albums and putting them on one album, with the rest as harmless B-sides on a deluxe edition. It may not have made for their best release ever, but it certainly would have felt more satisfying and on par with their usual level of quality. For what it’s worth, War has a bit more energy to it which helps it come out on top, but both albums are just mediocre releases from a band which usually does much better.

12) Kiss of the Cobra King, Powerwolf
It was pretty surprising when Powerwolf announced a new version of “Kiss of the Cobra King”, one of their favourite tracks from their debut album. I expected to just get a cleaner version of the song, but Powerwolf have actually gone and rewritten the song from the ground up, only retaining the iconic chorus from the original song. The resulting song is immediately more epic, showing off the polished production quality you can expect from a Powerwolf track in 2019, akin to something from The Sacrament of Sin. It was a nice surprise to hear and I’d say that this new version of the song is easily as good as the original, if not better.

Instead of just releasing this by itself though, Powerwolf also threw a live version of “Army of the Night” onto the release. This feels like a bit of a pointless move to me though, because we’ve already gotten a live version of the song on The Metal Mass a couple years ago and it hasn’t changed much in the interim. Still, it can be looked at as a bonus track, because most people are just going to be interested in the solid “Kiss of the Cobra King” anyway.

11) Secrets, Written By Wolves
I was going through my Daily Mix on Spotify when I decided to check out a song called “Let It Burn” by Written By Wolves… and holy crap, it was awesome! It was a really solid metalcore track, energetic, well-written and with just the right amount of angst. Suffice to say, it caused me to track down the rest of Written By Wolves’ material and, lo and behold, it turns out that they had just put out their debut album, Secrets. “Let It Burn” was the opener and it really got me hyped for the rest of what Written By Wolves had to offer.

…and, uh, well let’s just say that “Let It Burn” is NOT indicative of what Written By Wolves’ sound is like. Hell, I’m not entirely sure that they even have a distinct sound, based on what we’ve gotten from Secrets anyway. Like, immediately after the heavy, metalcore sound of “Let It Burn”, we get a couple indie/alternative tracks, then we get EDM on the title track and “Demons”, then “Something to Save” mixes in some gospel of all things, then a heartfelt ballad in “Lucky Stars”… the band is all over the place, throwing everything they can at the wall and seeing what sticks. It’s impressive, but also exhausting to experience and especially disappointing because they never really return to the heavy sound that sold me on the band in the first place. That said, Written By Wolves have some clear talent on display and, unlike many of the bands on this list, they’re clearly giving it their all and not just going through the motions. There’s so much variety here that odds are you’re going to like at least one track, but you’re also just as likely to not care for half of the songs on here. It’s a bit of a crapshoot in that regard but I have to give Written By Wolves some credit for going for it regardless, I just hope that they can focus themselves a bit more in the future.

10) The Inveterate Fire, Firelink
Several months ago I stumbled across an article about a band producing Dark Souls-inspired metal. As a pretty big fan of the franchise and of metal in general, I knew that I had to check this band out for myself as the Souls franchise is just so rich for artistic adaptation (and they’re not even the first Souls-inspired metal band I’ve come across). The album cover and the song titles were all getting me to geek out and there’s even an audio sample from Dark Souls III of (I believe) Prince Lothric on one of the tracks. However, you don’t necessarily have to be a big fan of the series to enjoy Firelink, because the music they’ve crafted is interesting in its own right. In some ways they remind me of Winterfylleth, with metal that can be slow, ambient and introspective, and then suddenly rev up into fast, punishing black metal with howled vocals (although, regrettably perhaps, these vocals do make it hard to appreciate the lyrics, which is another reason why you don’t necessarily have to be a fan of the franchise to enjoy the band).

“Vessel of the Primordial Serpent” kicks things off in brutal fashion, with very fast and aggressive black metal. “Kindled” opens a little closer to the traditional soundscape of Dark Souls, with a strong bassline and plucked, echoing guitar giving the song a more moody, thoughtful and lonely tone. Just as it’s starting to drag, it kicks into the punishing metal sound which typifies this album (one could say that the song is kindled itself, much like the bonfires in the game). Interestingly enough, Firelink sound almost like Dragonforce at times, they have the same sort of wailing-guitar sound which isn’t so common in the bleaker tone of black metal. The album pinnacles with “Manus”, which shows off some of that very impressive Dragonforce-style guitar work. It’s easily one of the most distinct and enjoyable black metal tracks I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, “Beckoning Sun” then feels scattershot, like the band recorded themselves improvising an ambient tune – it doesn’t feel like there’s any sort of intentional craft behind this track and it makes it feel super forgettable. The album then closes on “The First Sin”, which just continues more of the heavy and fast black metal we’ve already gotten to this point. All-in-all, The Inveterate Fire is worth checking out for fans of black metal, the Dark Souls links are fun but the music certainly stands on its own.

9) When the World Becomes Undone, A Pale Horse Named Death
My God, just look at that album cover. Just look at that title. Just look at that band’s name! Yeah, I was sold on this album the moment I saw it, it’s clearly My Shit™. I’ve seen A Pale Horse Named Death being classified as “doom metal” and “gothic metal”, but at least based on this album I would have to say that they also have a distinctly grunge sound, very reminiscent of Alice in Chains (y’know, if Alice in Chains’ music was all about despair and the death of the world). This actually gives When the World Becomes Undone a shocking amount of potential crossover appeal, as tracks like “Love the Ones You Hate” and “Fell in My Hole” are solid enough that I could potentially see them getting radio airplay. That said, as much as I enjoyed this album, there are a couple glaring weaknesses. First of all, vocalist Sal Abruscato’s singing is not great, it sounds like he’s putting on an affectation and mumbling the lyrics half the time. Listening to him, I can’t help but imagine how much better these songs would sound if they were sung by Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley or William DuVall, or even if they were screamed or growled. The second big weakness with this album is that there isn’t much diversity to the songs. When you consider that the album is over an hour long, it really starts to drag as it goes on. Still, I really liked what I heard here and will definitely be checking out A Pale Horse Named Death’s back catalogue.

8) Rewind, Replay, Rebound, Volbeat
Volbeat are one of my favourite bands and usually they can be depended on to put out really good albums, especially since they have a longer release cycle than many bands. They have a very distinct sound that you don’t really get anywhere else in popular music (I call it “hard rockabilly”) and Michael Poulsen’s wonderfully illegible vocals which make nearly every release feel special. They also rarely rest on their laurels, usually going for a different “feel” on each album (eg, Guitar Gangsters & Cadillac Blood feels like turn of the century saloon tunes, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies has a country-western theme, etc). Suffice to say, I was expecting good things from Rewind, Replay, Rebound.

The album starts out at its highest point with “Last Day Under the Sun”, an infectious (if slightly repetitive) rock tune which has gone down as one of my favourite and most memorable tracks of the year. The only other other track that comes anywhere close to that level of quality is “Rewind the Exit”, although that’s not to say that the rest are bad. In fact, the first half of the album is pretty enjoyable, especially the Elvis-like swagger of “Pelvis on Fire” and the surging energy of “Die to Live”, but there are two big issues with Rewind, Replay, Rebound. First of all, the album feels very bloated. I like that Volbeat put out hour-long albums, but the music has to be consistently high-quality for it to work. Normally, I’d say that Volbeat manage to clear that barrier easily, with maybe one or two tracks at most that don’t really stand out, but in this case at least half of the tracks feel pretty mediocre by Volbeat’s standard. This is especially the case in the second half of the album, where a lot of the songs are so indistinct that they just start to blend together. This is especially egregious in the case of the closing track “7:24”, just comes and goes so uneventfully that you go “oh wait, that’s the end of the album?” It’s too bad too because the earlier track “Maybe I Believe” felt like a more natural and satisfying closer.

The second big issue is that the album feels very familiar. It starts at just the second track on the album, “Pelvis on Fire”. I like the song quite a bit, but the song is unmistakably ripping whole sections off from an earlier Volbeat song, “Sad Man’s Tongue” (they also name-drop the song in the lyrics, so obviously this wasn’t unintentional). Hell, even the lyrics in both songs match up at times and as someone who is familiar with Volbeat’s catalogue I just can’t not hear this, it always takes me out of the song at least a bit. Then only two songs later we have “Die to Live”, which would almost certainly be named “Let It Burn”, except that Volbeat already named a song that on their last album. Obviously, that’s less of an issue, but it continues the feel that Volbeat are just recycling the same ideas. This still wouldn’t be much of an issue if not for yet another obvious recycled song, this time on the track “Cheapside Sloggers” which not only sounds similar to “We” on the verses, but very clearly rips off the opening guitar riff from “Hallelujah Goat” and a bit of “Pool of Booze, Booze, Booza” for good measure. Again, these are just the instances which are unmissable if you’re familiar with Volbeat’s work. There are a few other tracks which have a niggling air of familiarity to them, but I wouldn’t even care if there weren’t so many obvious instances already of them plundering their back catalogue here. It would be one thing if it was a theme for the album overall, but instead it just feels like they’re trying to reintroduce elements from deep cuts to new audiences who haven’t heard the rest of their music. Maybe there’s some merit to that idea, but it takes me out of the album with how obvious it is.

There’s also a Deluxe Edition release with 2 B-sides, an alternate version of “Die to Live” without guest vocals, and a bunch of demos. The B-sides are solid and basically all that makes the deluxe edition worthwhile, since the demos sound virtually indistinguishable from their slightly more polished versions and the alternate version of “Die to Live” is basically a less-interesting version of the standard track. All-in-all, if you like Volbeat already then the Deluxe Edition is basically a no-brainer anyway, but considering that 6 of the 8 tracks on it are basically more filler on an album which feels bloated with filler already, it doesn’t exactly help the overall feeling about the album. I enjoyed Rewind, Replay, Rebound well enough, but it’s very clearly on the lower end of Volbeat’s catalogue. I’m sure I’ll continue to give it listen-throughs into the future, but I can already tell that it’s not going to get nearly as much replays as their past classics. I just hope that the band doesn’t rest on their laurels when the next album cycle rolls around.

7) The Evening Hate EP, Red
I went over a bit of my history with Red in my 2017 album rankings – suffice to say, we’ve had a rough relationship. I’ve gone from loving Red, to being sick of them, to loving them again and then back to trepidation, all due to the inconsistent quality of their releases and balancing between different parts of their fanbase. So you can understand if I was a bit cautious going into The Evening Hate EP, but luckily for me the band was firing on all cylinders with this release. This is classic Red – the music is heavy (especially “From the Ashes”), the backing strings are beautiful and the electronic elements that permeated Release the Panic are almost entirely absent. The fight between using electronic elements versus strings seem to have been dogging Red for years, but I’m hoping that The Evening Hate EP is showing us a glimpse of the future, because everything on here sounds great. The title track has some unique elements for a Red song, while also managing to sound epic like something from their best album, of Beauty and Rage. It’s a great way to start the album. The next track, “From the Ashes”, is a very heavy and solid track, and while it is more typical Red fare than “The Evening Hate”, it doesn’t really hurt it any. “Hemorrhage” slows things down significantly and has wildly different vocals than anything Red has ever done, but this is in part due to it being a cover of a Fuel song. It’s very different for this band and I like the vocal style they used here. The album then closes out with an alternate version of “The Evening Hate” and an acoustic version of “From the Ashes”. The acoustic version of “From the Ashes” isn’t really anything special, but the alternate version of the title track is awesome. It slows the song down, making it more ethereal and puts more emphasis on the backing strings. It completely changes the song, to the point where both versions easily stand on their own. It even starts to build when the chorus kicks in, keeping it from stagnating like so many slowed-down, alternate versions of songs do. All-in-all, The Evening Hate makes for a very solid EP, to the point where it would be nice if it wasn’t so bite-sized! I just hope that this is a glimpse of where the band is heading because I definitely like this direction.

6) N.A.T.I.O.N., Bad Wolves
Bad Wolves’ Disobey was one of my favourite albums of 2018, but I was surprised when I found out that they were following it up with another full album just over a year later. I was also pretty surprised when I saw the album cover for it – an underwear-clad and tattoo-covered model was a pretty far cry from the imposing riot cop that adorned Disobey and perhaps signified a shift towards Five Finger Death Punch’s brand of bro metal. However, I’ve kind of turned around on this album art since my first impression – I actually like how deeply contrasted the colour of the model’s underwear is to her skin and tattoos, it looks striking. I’ve seen people say that the fact that there’s a woman in underwear here at all is “tasteless”, but I don’t feel like it’s overly-sexualized, especially considering that they’re intentionally covering up the model’s underboob.

Enough about the album art though, what about the music? Well, I can’t say that I like it nearly as much as Disobey, but N.A.T.I.O.N. is a solid-enough follow-up, especially considering that it was pumped out only a year later (and is 42 minutes long at that, some bands can barely manage 30 minutes in 3 years). There are some delightfully heavy and aggressive tracks on here, particularly “I’ll Be There”, “L.A. Song” and the brutal “The Consumerist”. When Bad Wolves are unleashed like this they’re at their absolute best, but they can still restrain themselves somewhat and put out a solid, radio-friendly rock tune. “Killing Me Slowly” is a great example of this, managing to be clearly written as a single while also being one of the best tracks on the album. Unfortunately, there are also several songs which were clearly written to be singles which just suck in comparison to the rest of the album because they make Bad Wolves sound so defanged. “Better Off This Way” is the first sign of this, a slowed-down, heartfelt breakup song right in the middle of an album full of blistering metal. It feels more like the cliche, emotional album closer rather than the start of the middle of the album. It’s a masterpiece though compared to “Sober”. Here I was hoping for a Tool cover, but what I got instead was another breakup song (this time with addiction added in!) that sounds exactly like an Imagine Dragons song, complete with claps and the layered vocal harmonies. It sucks and is clearly intended to get more of that radio airplay after the success of “Zombie” on their last album. Personally, I hope it bombs because I do not want Bad Wolves carrying on in this direction in the future. That’s the thing though – when they’re sticking with the heavy, aggressive stuff Bad Wolves sound fantastic. It’s these transparent attempts at radio friendliness which suck a lot of the life out of this album though – up until “Better Off This Way”, this album was shaping up to be in my top 3 of the year, but the quality of the tracks becomes extremely inconsistent from that point onward. As a result, I can’t say that it’s a step up from Disobey, but it’s a good enough release that I’m certainly going to be listening to it into the future many more times.


5) Fear Inoculum, Tool
Holy shit, it’s finally here! It’s been over 13 years, but the long-awaited Tool album finally saw release in 2019. For what it’s worth, Fear Inoculum sounds like Tool haven’t skipped a beat in the last 13 years, with the only real change in their sound being that frontman James Maynard Keenan sounds more like he did on last year’s A Perfect Circle album, Eat the Elephant, than he normally does on Tool tracks (which works for me, his voice sounds better this way in my opinion). However, the music landscape has changed drastically since 2006 and having such a blatantly esoteric, technically-ambitious and non-commercial album come out is, somewhat ironically, a major selling-point. While this gives Fear Inoculum a definite novelty factor, it’s hard to argue that it was worth the 13 year wait. Previous Tool albums always had their own distinct flavour, but Fear Inoculum sounds very much like their psychedelic, mystical tour de force, Lateralus. The problem with this though is that, while you can appreciate the craftsmanship and commitment to just being simply weird, the songs here aren’t as enjoyable as the ones on Lateralus. That’s not to say that there aren’t enjoyable tracks – the title track and “Descending” are really solid, but there’s nothing quite as impactful as Lateralus‘ “Schism” or “The Grudge”. Luckily, the latter half of the album starts shedding some of the trappings of Lateralus and we get interesting tracks like “Chocolate Chip Trip” (which sounds like something Iron Butterfly might craft) and the absolutely epic “7empest” (easily the best and most easily-enjoyable track on the album, even if it is almost 16 minutes long).

Oh and like The Great War, there are two versions of this album you can get, the physical edition and digital edition, which actually comes with 3 additional instrumental tracks. Normally I’d say to go for the additional songs… but man, I thought that all three of these bonus tracks were by far the worst music on the whole album. They’re just weird interludes for the sake of being weird and just get in the way of enjoying the actual good tracks in my opinion. Worst of all is “Mockingbeat”, which channels some of that old trolling energy the band used to display on Ænima and gives us a bunch of unbearable screeching for 2 minutes. I get it, ha ha, you’re literally mocking us Tool, but no one is going to want to listen to that shit. Just do yourself a favour, buy the album on CD or vinyl, you’re not missing out on anything good in doing so.

4) The Great War, Sabaton
Since finding their sound after a few rough, early albums, Sabaton have been one of the most consistently reliable bands in heavy metal. Their music doesn’t change very much from album to album, but they are always of a high quality, reinvented just enough that it doesn’t feel like they’re doing the bare minimum each time. If you’ve never heard Sabaton before, their music is all about war history, with their last three albums all having a central theme (the Swedish Empire in Carolus Rex, war heroes in Heroes and final stands in The Last Stand). With their newest release, Sabaton look to World War I with The Great War, which sees them putting more emphasis on the history of their subject than ever. In fact, they’re so dedicated to education that this time they’ve released a special edition of the album called the “History Edition”, which has short voice overs before each track. I actually bought this version of the album and while it does provide some very interesting context for each song I’m not sure I’d say it’s the recommended version to buy. Having to listen to the same introductions to each song every time is kind of annoying and some of them aren’t that informative anyway (eg, Verdun’s intro is about 5 seconds long). It’s worth a listen at least once, but I kind of wish that I had just gone with the standard edition, since you can glean the history from the lyrics anyway.

In the past, Sabaton have towed a fine line between glorifying war versus honouring the soldiers who fight in it, but The Great War probably strikes the most clear position on it. As is appropriate for an album about World War I, several songs decry the brutality and pointlessness of the war and there is a sombre tone to the whole affair, such as the doom-laced title track or “The End of the War to End All Wars”. This sombre tone is most clearly seen in the closing track with a choir rendition of “In Flander’s Fields”, which sees Sabaton dropping their entire sound in favour of a sober reflection to show how serious a tragedy WWI was.

Of course, it’s not all melancholy and seriousness; Sabaton have some awesome tracks which pump you up. Right out of the gate, “The Future of Warfare” is a killer opening track with an energetic chorus which makes you want to shout along with it, while also hammering home the idea that World War I was a conflict which changed the world. Other than the anti-war tracks, the rest of the tracks could have easily made their way onto Heroes, as Sabaton recounts various heroic soldiers’ actions during the war. All of the tracks are very solid, but they’re also just “more of the same”. If you’re into Sabaton already, this will certainly be fine, but it’s not likely to change any minds. The Great War is another solid album from Sabaton, but it’s a little unfortunate that they can’t evolve their sound much. The injection of sombreness at least gives The Great War a slightly different tone than previous releases, but at this point I just expect the band to rest on their laurels whenever a new album comes out.

3) Volume III, September Mourning
This list was supposed to come out about a week ago, I had it all ready to publish, when September Mourning dropped the news that their newest EP was coming out December 13. September Mourning are easily the best band I’ve discovered in this past year, so the opportunity to give them some more exposure was one that I wasn’t going to pass up. Even if their music wasn’t great (and it is), and even if frontwoman Emily Lazar wasn’t gorgeous (she seriously is), September Mourning are also a Gorillaz-style transmedia project. This means that every song is advancing a this deliciously-nerdy story about a half-human half-reaper character who tries to give people a second chance, played up by Emily Lazar’s elaborate costumes in live shows, along with a whole graphic novel line if you want to really dig into the lore. I love the whole project and Volume III was easily one of the releases I was most looking forward to this year.

Volume III features four songs, all of which have their own kind of flavour. “Unholy” strikes a rather sultry tone with the way Emily Lazar sings, very reminiscent of Maria Brink of In This Moment. Of course, I love In This Moment, so this works well for me although that’s not to say that September Mourning are just a clone of a more successful band – on the contrary, they have their own flavour. Most female-fronted metal bands, such as Evanescence, Sleeping Romance or the aforementioned Forever Still will end up in the symphonic or operatic metal subgenre, but September Mourning end up somewhere in between those are more “traditional” metal. “Hiding From Heaven” was released as a single earlier this year and is a fantastic demonstration of the band’s entire shtick, with their nerdy subject matter, empowering vocals and excellent songwriting. It’s a catchy song that will stick with you long after you hear it. The latter-half of the EP gets a bit heavier too, with “Madness” and “Overdose” being some of the heaviest music that September Mourning has produced thus far. That said, “Overdose” gets a bit repetitive on the chorus and may be the weakest track on the EP because of that… not that that’s a huge criticism though, because everything on here is solid. Easily the most frustrating part of Volume III is that it is just so bite-sized, it’s less than 15 minutes long in total! That’s way too short to be satisfying, but considering how good everything on here is I really can’t hold it against them. I love September Mourning and I really hope that I get a chance to see them live sometime in 2020!

2) The Nothing, Korn
Few bands have been through the wringer quite as badly as Korn. After helping to establish a whole subgenre with “nu-metal” and several successful albums in the 90s, the band became a punch line and put out terrible album after terrible album for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t until 2013 when original guitarist Brian “Head” Welch returned to the band that there were glimmers of a resurgence with The Paradigm Shift. 3 years later, The Serenity of Suffering was easily their best album since their heyday and this year’s The Nothing is unquestionably one of the band’s best albums ever, putting the band back at the forefront of the metal scene in tragic fashion. There’s a rawness to The Nothing that this band hasn’t seen in quite some time and this obviously is a result of the death of frontman Jonathan Davis’ wife to an accidental overdose. You can hear the pain and guilt in Davis’ words and voice, most explictly on album closer “Surrender to Failure”. It’s some of the darkest material the band has ever put out, but the band has gained a maturity over their 25 year career that keeps it from becoming too overwhelming. Songwriting was always a weakness of Korn in their heyday, with the band relying on emotion to carry them through rather than the lyrics, but the writing here has matured significantly. Tracks like “H@rd3r”, “This Loss”, “You’ll Never Find Me” and even the extremely dark “The Seduction of Indulgence” are really solidly-written and don’t come across as insincere or undeservedly angsty. I’m particularly impressed that this album remains rock solid throughout – I often complain that an album dips halfway through (or vice-versa), but The Nothing retains a consistently-high quality from start to finish. I’m happy to see that Korn have definitely gotten themselves back on track and are putting out the best music of their entire career now, it’s just unfortunate that it had to come from such pain. Here’s hoping that the future holds some joy for Jonathan Davis and company.

1) We Are Not Your Kind, Slipknot
Who would have thought even 15 years ago that the icons of nu-metal would be putting out some of the biggest and best rock albums in 2019? That said, Slipknot have always been viewed as the critical darlings of the subgenre but they don’t always get the respect they deserve, perhaps because they are such a brutal band. I like how CagyCylinder describes Slipknot’s place in the metal scene: “the heavier parts are still more brutal than anything any other ‘mainstream’ metal band will ever serve up”. I like this description – there are certainly heavier bands, but among the bands in the mainstream, they’re almost certainly the most brutal, almost approaching death metal levels of brutality at times. Coming off of The Gray Chapter, which synthesized the heaviest parts of early-Slipknot with the more mainstream-minded work of their third and fourth albums, we now get We Are Not Your Kind which picks up from their and sees the band experimenting with their sound more than ever. Hell, no two songs on this album feel quite the same and the band has clearly worked to make every track on this album stand out on its own. This is particularly impressive since, while there are individual songs on previous Slipknot albums that I like more than some of the songs here, as an overall package this is the first Slipknot album I’ll happily listen to from start to finish every time without skipping over anything.

The first half of the album sounds like classic Slipknot, with all the aggression and heaviness you’d expect, but things really start getting interesting with “Spiders”, a piano-led track that sounds kind of like the Halloween theme. It gives it an air of creepiness which is appropriately-Slipknot despite sounding unlike anything they’ve ever done before. Even more unusual is “My Pain”, which is equally-creepy and has an incredibly sparse and unusual soundscape to it. Like… the music in this track makes me think of the sound of a grandfather clock at night when you’re lying alone in your bed. Somehow I don’t think that that’s an accident that it brings back those same sorts of childhood anxieties. We also get a bit of a return to the norm with “Orphan” (one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album), but the last two tracks, “Not Long for This World” and “Solway Firth”, fuse a bit more of this experimentation with Slipknot’s usual sound, closing out the album on something familiar yet different. The experimentation in the latter-half of the album works and clearly comes from a desire to try new things rather than get more mass appeal.

The songwriting is also on-point and matured in this album. It’s basically just a lot of facing personal demons and battling depression, but that resonates with me. I complained about bands with positive hard rock earlier and that’s partly because, as someone who goes through anxiety and bouts of depression, those sorts of music don’t make me feel any better, stuff like this does. I can channel the emotion of “Unsainted” and use that to express what I’m feeling in a cathartic manner. It’s also nice to note that, unlike say Five Finger Death Punch, Slipknot’s aggression isn’t directed at random nobodies who piss them off or women who dare break up with them, it’s more introspective and, consequently, justified. We Are Not Your Kind is probably the most consistently-even Slipknot album they’ve ever put out and there is very little fault I can find with it, hence why it landed on the top of the rankings this year.

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Love/Hate: PS4

Love

  • The Games – The PS4 has been a massive success and that mainly comes down to one thing: Sony have done an incredible job of cultivating high-profile exclusive games in a variety of genres. God of War, Detroit: Become Human, Gran Turismo, Until Dawn, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Ni No Kuni… I’m just barely scratching the surface, but that gives you an idea of the variety of games available to satisfy various tastes.
  • Social Features – The social features built into the PS4 are possibly my favourite PlayStation innovation of all time. Being able to automatically capture the last fifteen minutes of gameplay and then share videos and screenshots from it is a revelation and instantly made me regret buying an Elgato HD months before the PS4 came out (although I’ll finally be putting it to use with the Switch soon enough when Pokemon comes out).
  • Rest Mode – I already loved rest mode on the PSP and PS Vita, but when it came to the PS4 it was better than ever. Not only can you suspend your progress in games, but the system will download updates while in rest mode, meaning that you no longer have to wait for lengthy updates when you turn on the console!
  • Controller Innovation – Finally, after the questionable PS3 controller, Sony really nailed the changes to the PS4’s DualShock redesign. The sticks feel more precise, the touch pad is awesome, the triggers are great and the overall weight and feel is perfect. It’s easily the best PlayStation controller and I hope that the PS5 only improves upon it.
  • My Favourite PS4 Games – As usual, here’s my list of favourite games on the PS4: God of War, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III, Uncharted 4, Nioh, Metal Gear Solid V, Battlefield 4 and Rainbow Six Siege.

Mixed

  • Remasters Out the Wazoo – Remasters were a thing late in the PS3 era, but they feel far more prevalent in the PS4 era. That said, the remasters we’re getting now are of a much higher quality, with straight-up remakes like Shadow of the Colossus and Resident Evil 2 in some cases, but it makes the industry feel creatively stifled. Hell, many of my favourite PS4 experiences are just remasters, such as Dark Souls and The Last of Us.

Hate

  • Mandatory Paid Online – PS+ was cool when it was an optional service, but having to pay for it every year sucks, especially since the price went up to $80 a year (in Canada). It’s at a point where I rarely play online now so I haven’t even bothered to renew my subscription – it’s just not worth it for me. This sucks though because it means I can’t just drop into a game of Rainbow Six Siege without dropping a big upfront cost to play with my friends.
  • Corporate Interests Have Sucked the Fun Out of Gaming – The PS3 era was just a taster for how bad gaming has gotten in the PS4 era. Major publishers have scaled down the number of games they release per year to a small handful, and seemingly every game we get is unfinished at launch, a multiplayer experience and filled with microtransactions in a transparent attempt to bleed you dry. For most publishers, “fun gameplay” isn’t even a consideration anymore, it’s all about getting you addicted and then extracting your cash. It’s hard to find story-driven, single-player experiences these days and it just makes gaming feel nowhere near as fun as it used to be.
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Love/Hate: PS3

Love

  • Trophies – Probably my favourite innovation that the PS3 brought was the advent of trophies (which, to be fair, were modelled after the Xbox’s achievements system). These things are so addictive though. Basically, as soon as I start a game I head over to the Trophies section to see what trophies I could realistically go for and whether I actually want to bother going for the Platinum.
  • Blu-Ray Player – Like the PS2 and PS1 before it, the PS3 came with a new media format innovation, this time with a blu-ray player. Also similarly, the PS3 was cheaper and better than most blu-ray players at the time, which helped to tip the format war between blu-ray and HD-DVD into blu-ray’s favour. Like DVD’s, the PS3 was my first blu-ray player and was the reason I stopped buying DVDs and made the switch to HD media.
  • Free Online Play – While it was widely agreed that Xbox Live had the more robust and reliable online system, you did have to pay an annual subscription for it, whereas online play was free on PS3. There was an optional ability to get PS+ if players wanted additional perks, but leaving it free by default was honestly the better move, since there really isn’t a good excuse that online play is a paid-for service on modern consoles.
  • Strong Hardware – While the PS3 was thought to be difficult to develop for early in the console’s life-cycle, by the mid-to-late period of the PS3’s stronger hardware was allowing the system to run games much easier and smoother than the comparatively underpowered Xbox 360. In addition, the PS3 did away with region locked games, meaning that you could play games from other regions out of the box (this was good for gamers who wanted to play Japanese-exclusive games, for example). When you consider that the PS3 also had a built-in wi-fi adapter and the blu-ray drive, whereas the Xbox 360 had to get a wi-fi adapter as an add-on, had only a DVD drive, and you had to pay an annual subscription for Xbox Live, the higher cost of the system was actually quite comparable.
  • My Favourite PS3 Games – Not a definitive list of the best games on the system, but my favourite games include: Uncharted 1 and 2, Dead Space 1 and 2, Battlefield Bad Company and 3, Bioshock, The Walking Dead, The Last of Us, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Fallout 3 and Dark Souls.
Mixed
  • PS3 Controller – I’m really mixed on the PS3 controller. On the plus side, they were all wireless by default (another leg up on the Xbox 360, which also required AA batteries on their wireless models) and you could finally connect up to 8 controllers at a time without requiring an add-on peripheral. Buuuuuut… the triggers were really strangely designed and unappealing, the SIXAXIS motion controls were badly utilized and the controllers originally lacked rumble functionality. I mean, at least the controller is better than the awful boomerang concept that we were initially shown, but the product we got is still a real mixed bag without any clearly-good innovations.
Hate
  • Backwards Compatibility Phased Out – The original PS3 release did include backwards compatibility and I did manage to snag one of these models back in the day (although the system eventually died and was unsalvageable, riiiip). However, in order to cut costs, backwards compatibility was cut out in subsequent models. This, in my opinion, was not worth it and has unfortunately weakened the PlayStation brand ever since as a result. Now I either have to track down a PS2 to play older games, or hope that they have been made available as remasters or digital downloads on PSN, which isn’t really reliable at all.
  • The Cost – I’ve already tried to justify the cost of the system a bit, but there’s no denying that the PS3’s initial asking price of $600 was a huge barrier to entry. I snagged mine after the first price drop, but even then it was around $500. This was probably the biggest factor in the PS3’s slow adoption rate and the Xbox 360’s dominance throughout this console era.
  • Network Stability and Security Was Unacceptable – Sure, PS online was free, but history shows that that came with some major caveats. Extended network outages happened far too regularly, including one major outage which lasted a whopping 23 days as hackers breached the network and stole customers’ personal information! This was simply unacceptable and a major black mark on the PlayStation brand for years.
  • System Updates – Throughout its life, PS3 players would often sit down to get into a gaming session, only to have the system reveal that they have to perform a system update before they can get online. These would often take up to ten minutes to complete, leaving you frustrated and potentially not even wanting to play anymore by the time it was complete.
  • The Gaming Landscape Began to Get (More) Corporate – Gaming was changing by the time the PS3 era rolled around. Major publishers were starting to rake in serious cash and profit was starting to noticeably interfere with enjoyment. DLC began to become egregious (probably most offensively with the online pass), pre-order culture kicked off, games began seeing “feature bloat” (such as tacked-on co-op and multiplayer modes that no one wanted or played, which existed only to provide an excuse for cheap DLC), and we saw the start of microtransactions in games such as Dead Space 3. Publishers also began trend-hunting, with Activision riding the sudden success of Guitar Hero into the ground in a couple short years after saturating the market with crappy spin-offs and sequels. Everyone was also chasing after the success of Call of Duty with numerous FPSes which didn’t come close to replicating the same success. This also led to “niche” genres, such as survival horror, starting to become more scarce, while those that remained where “Call of Duty“-fied and stripped of their own identity (see: Resident Evil 6). Basically, gaming was no longer the domain of hobbyists looking to succeed by putting out good products, it was no becoming a calculated profit-making machine.
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Love/Hate – Nioh

I’m going to do something slightly different here – normally I’d just be looking at the Dark Souls trilogy itself when doing a love/hate series, but I’m actually going to change it up slightly and include other games in this subgenre that I have played and which I feel could make for a strong comparison. As a result, I’m bringing you the Souls-like samurai game from Team Ninja, Nioh! Having gotten into Bloodborne and Dark Souls from my itching for a new Ninja Gaiden game, could Nioh live up to Team Ninja’s reputation for rich and satisfying combat? Read on to find my thoughts…

Love

  • Amazing Combat System – I’ll just come out and say that Nioh has the best combat system in any Souls-like game. Team Ninja really hits it out of the park, nailing a really precise combat system while the game’s speed somewhere between Bloodborne and Ninja Gaiden. The result is a very fast-paced game that is deep, skillful and incredibly satisfying to master. There are also a couple of big innovations which help make Nioh‘s combat stand out so much:
    • Ki Pulse takes the stamina regeneration of Souls games and adds in an active-reload system which will allow you to replenish your stamina instantly if you do it correctly. This creates a balancing act where you can risk running out of stamina but get it back quickly in order to keep your attacks going longer. It takes a bit of practice, but once you get the timing down it becomes second-nature and allows you to be incredibly aggressive.
    • Weapon stances are also a huge addition in this game. All weapons can be held in high, mid, or low stance, which significantly changes the way the weapon performs. Each stance changes your combat and dodge speeds, and some enemies are best fought in different stances (for example, Yoki are susceptible to high stance sword strikes which will hit them in the head and stun them when they break their horns). While you might be tempted just to stick with one stance, learning to master stance chances makes a huge difference in combat and just further deepens the experience.
    • You can see your opponents’ ki meters, meaning that stunning them becomes a reliable strategy should you choose to go for it. I liked using a heavy axe as my secondary weapon for this very reason, with only a single strong high-stance attack I could destroy most enemies’ ki bars.
  • Addictive Loot System – Nioh features a Diablo-like loot system. Unlike Dark Souls where each piece of equipment has fixed properties (until you upgrade it anyway), all equipment in Nioh has randomized perks. You can spend ages in the blacksmith just reforging your armour and weapons to get the perfect perks which complement your build and playstyle. It can be addictive just collecting all the loot drops and looking for that one piece of armour or weapon that is better than the one you have already.
  • Spirit Guardians Are Cool – Even if it was just aesthetic, the idea of picking the spirit guardian that accompanies you on your journey is awesome (I went with the Paired Raiken, because having two lightning puppies with me is amazing). However, each guardian provides unique bonuses while they are with you which can further optimize your build, while also being able to help in a pinch. However, the trade-off is that when you die, your guardian spirit stays to protect your lost Amrita (this game’s souls-equivalent) and no longer provides you with any bonuses unless you choose to sacrifice your lost Amrita. It makes for a pretty interesting trade-off and makes death just that much more tense.
  • Fun Side Content – Nioh‘s mission-based structure allows for the inclusion of various side content for players to enjoy. These are all pretty fun and provide you with more loot, from bite-sized side missions, to challenging duels, to the challenging-but-rewarding twilight missions. This side content allows you to get your equipment and levels upgraded without having to do repetitive level grinding and farming like other Souls-like games tend to.
  • Meaty DLC – Team Ninja did a good job with the DLC packs for Nioh, providing players with three expansions with plenty of new missions, weapons and challenging bosses to sink your teeth into. This extends the length of the base game by several hours per pack while also providing an epilogue to the main game’s story. The bosses are also all consistently fun and challenging.
  • Builds on the Souls Formula – Nioh definitely cribs many elements from the formula of Dark Souls – stamina-based fighting system, clever level design emphasizing traps and exploration, shrines are this game’s bonfires, etc. However, Nioh also adds plenty of its own elements and twists to the formula, which allows it to stand out on its own and not feel like a ripoff (unlike, say, Lords of the Fallen). Even something simple like the bloodspots in Souls games have been given cool twists – in Nioh, blood spots can be used to spawn revenants, which have the equipment of the player who was killed and which can provide you with amazing loot drops if you risk spawning them into your game.

Mixed

  • Living Weapon Feels Like a Crutch – As I mentioned earlier, your Guardian Spirit can provide you with help in a pinch. It does this by building up a “living weapon meter” over time as you attack enemies. When the meter is filled you can unleash your living weapon, which makes you invulnerable and allows you to dish out a ton of damage in a short time (similar to Spartan Rage in the newest God of War). Certain builds can also optimize living weapon build-up, meaning that you can potentially cheese your way through boss fights. I’d say that Nioh can to be more difficult than Dark Souls, but when you can just pull out your living weapon in a fight it makes battles feel much easier and more forgiving.
  • Onmyo and Ninjitsu Skills Feel Like an Afterthought – One of the other different elements of Nioh is that it features a skill tree. Usually this provides you with bonuses to your weapons, but players can also spend them on onmyo magic and ninjitsu skills. In practice, they function similarly to consumable items in Dark Souls where you equip them, select them on the d-pad and have a finite number of uses. The system could have been interesting, but as it is it just feels like an afterthought that you can’t reliably build around, unlike pretty much every other aspect of the combat system. On occasion I’ll bring out an elemental resistance pill for a boss battle or use magic missiles on foes, but that’s about it.

Hate

  • Loot Management is an Obligatory Chore – Basically every mission in Nioh ends with you spending 5+ minutes just going through your inventory and selling or breaking down all of the useless loot you acquired on your journey. As addictive as it is to find better loot out in the game world, most of it is crap and having to actually sift through it all and dispose of it quickly becomes annoying. The upcoming Nioh 2 needs to find some sort of way to streamline or automate this process because as it is right now it is a major pain in the ass.
  • Menu-based World Design – Perhaps the biggest difference between Nioh and Dark Souls is that Nioh is played out over a series of missions and that the world is navigated through menus. The missions themselves are quite good, but this structure makes the world itself feel considerably less interesting and cohesive in comparison. Your mileage may vary, but this makes the game just a bit less compelling and engaging than Dark Souls or Bloodborne for me, despite being by far the funnest in terms of its actual gameplay and mechanics.
  • Story Leaves Little Impact – Unlike Dark Souls, the story in Nioh is told in a much more straightforward manner, with cutscenes before and after each mission. Unfortunately, the story is not very well told, seemingly just jumping between scenes with little connective tissue to contextualize everything. I enjoyed some of the characters, such as Hanzo, Edward Kelley and Saoirse, but I quickly stopped caring about what was supposed to be happening around me because I couldn’t follow it. It’s unfortunate too, because a better-told story could have made for a much more engaging game and a more interesting world too for that matter.
  • Online Interaction is an Afterthought – Online play in Nioh isn’t nearly as accessible as it is in Dark Souls, requiring you to dig through some menus in order to use it. Without an equivalent to summoning signs, the odds of getting summoned to someone else’s game are pretty low. There’s also a global clan battle system somewhat similar to covenants, but this also feels like a total afterthought and only provides you with some bonus resources if you sacrifice specific resources every few days. I basically didn’t even bother exploring the online in Nioh because it felt so inessential.
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