3. Shin Megami Tensei 3: Nocturne
At least the later games in the Shin Megami Tensei series have to be brighter than that, right? Wrong. Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne begins with the end of the world and only gets crazier from there. You take the role of Hitoshura, the Demi-Fiend, an ordinary high school student who just wants to hang out with his friends, visit his sick teacher in the hospital, and not get murdered by apocalypse cultists. Then a creepy little boy–actually the devil–shoves a magical parasite in your eye, causing your body to transform into that of a demon’s. When you wake, you’re in the Vortex World, a hollow mimicry of the world that once was, populated by monsters and the echoes of the dead. When you set out to search for other survivors, you find only your increasingly unbalanced friends, your possessed teacher, and the leader of that apocalypse cult. They’re still human, so they’re capable of developing a Reason that will guide the creation of the new world, none of which sound particularly nice. As a part-demon, you can’t form a Reason of your own, which means you’re stuck picking from a world of isolation, a world of violence, and a world without free will. Or you could turn on them all and hit the reset button, but let’s be real here, you can’t go back to being a normal kid. Not after you’ve tasted this much power. No, if you’re going to turn your back on humanity, then you’ll do it to become a full demon. They wouldn’t have included the True Demon Ending if they didn’t want you to take it, after all.
Content warnings: murder, genocide, body horror, religious horror, people get eaten by demons, the world has already ended, and you are not going to fix things.
2. NieR: Automata
At first glance, this game may seem out of place on this list–both because NieR: Automata changes up game mechanics like it’s going out of style and because it’s not, you know, a horror game where people get eaten by demons. But existential dread is its own brand of darkness, and if there’s one thing this game does extremely well, it’s make you increasingly uncertain about the fundamental underpinnings of the universe. NieR: Automata is about the slow realization that everything you know is a lie. That the cause you were born to believe in does not and has never existed. That everything you’ve done has been meaningless. That there’s no reason you’re alive. And that if you find out these things, the powers that be will order the people you love to kill you, because the fabric of society relies on these lies to function. No wonder 9S keeps breaking down when he finds down the truth. Robot gore aside, that’s terrifying. Also, humanity went extinct a long, long time ago and it was covered up completely, which is, again, terrifying on an existential level. Nothing like a game that questions how much humans as a species really matter.
Content warnings: suicide, genocide, body horror, existential horror, gaslighting, the world has already ended, everything you believe in is a lie and your loved ones are going to kill you for finding out.
Here we are. The crowning jewel of dark fantasy. The game so surreally and creatively messed up that it spawned an entire franchise despite having the dullest combat mechanics imaginable. Drakengard is, to put it bluntly, a mess. But goddamn, is it an entertaining mess. Protagonist Caim is a gleefully homicidal war criminal who spends most of the game mute (except for the occasional burst of maniacal laughter) and soul-bonded to the Red Dragon, who absolutely loathes humans and yet is still a better person than her partner. The rest of the party includes a mad, baby-eating elf, an ageless little boy searching for his missing sister, an incredibly xenophobic religious leader, and a kindly forester who is also a pedophile. Other allies include Caim’s sister Furiae, who serves as one of four seals that keep the world from being consumed by horrors straight out of Lovecraft, and Inuart, Caim’s best friend who is head over heels in love with Furiae. Opposing this motley crew are the Empire, which is determined to destroy the other three seals and capture Furiae, and the Cult of the Watchers, which wants to break every seal and unleash the monsters on the other side. Long story short, Furiae commits suicide upon having her less-than-sisterly love for Caim exposed, the Cult succeeds, and the player is treated to one of five increasingly deranged endings, many of which lead to mutually-exclusive sequels. Ending A, the most sensible–if tragic–outcome, leads to Drakengard 2, which did not have Yoko Taro involved and is thus absent from this list. Ending E, meanwhile, turns the final battle into a rhythm fight with an enormous giant literally giving birth to the end of the world, and leads straight into NieR and NieR: Automata. And there are three more endings to rattle around in your skull forever. This game is such a trip. At the time of writing, it truly deserves the title of darkest RPG.
Content warnings: suicide, murder, genocide, body horror, religious horror, incest, pedophilia, very poor censorship of the incest and pedophilia in the English release, people get eaten by… things, the world is actively ending around you, everyone goes nuts and/or evil, and each ending is worse and more surreal than the last.
Can you think of any other games that should be on this list? Let us know in the comments below.
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