Pretty much everything you need to know about Sundered is encapsulated in this picture:
That’s the first boss.
The premise of the game is that you are a human (?) adventurer who gets sucked into a desert temple by some tentacles, and are tasked with defeating some monstrosities by the Shining Trapezohedron. If that sounds Lovecraftian, it is. In fact, that being in particular is straight-up from a Lovecraft book, and the rest of the game takes heavy, sometimes direct, direction from the genre.
Indeed, the eerie disquietness of the game proper has been a wholly unique experience for me. I have seen tentacled monsters with teeth and eyes in all the wrong places in games before. That’s common.
What I never really experienced is a sense of trepidation regarding a gorgeous, hand-drawn background that features nary a monster or blood stain, but simply a construction completely out of human scale. The whole time, you are immersed in an environment very clearly not made for you. Hell, even the Sanctuary – the place where you spend Shards to increase your stats – feels “off” due to the massive, smooth stone in the background. It reminds me of looking up at a skyscraper from the street, and feeling as though the whole thing is moments away from falling on me.
The weakness of Sundered comes from its gameplay direction. It plays as a semi-modern Metroidvania, akin to Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest. However, the map features no pre-set monster spawns, and has randomly-generated sections that change upon your death. You will be randomly beset upon by “hordes,” which are essentially a dozen or so enemies at a time. Defeating them sometimes grant you Shards, which is a currency used to purchase your way through a FFX/Path of Exile-esque ability grid.
The gameplay loop itself doesn’t necessarily feel bad, and the horde spawning mechanic does allow you to take in the environment more than if there were set spawns in specific locations every time. But it does end up feeling… weird. And not the Lovecraftian weird, but the sort of “okay, here we go again” weird. Also the “weird” in which you might find yourself overwhelmed and possibly dead due to what feels like random chance. For example, you might have been able to easily handle a specific horde composition if you were not “ambushed” in a tight corridor with spikes everywhere.
In any case, if you can persist through the first hour or so of the game, before you have unlocked any interesting abilities or encountered tricky enemies, you will possibly come out the other side… changed, as I did. I have not quite played a game that made me feel this way, not even The Forest or other traditional survival horror games.
In those games, the monsters were the invaders. In Sundered, it is you who doesn’t belong.
Sense of Pride and Accomplishment
In addition to Hollow Knight, I have been playing a bunch of Dead Cells lately.
Because apparently I hate myself.
Dead Cells is basically a roguelike Metroidvania that has more in common with Rogue Legacy and Binding of Isaac than, say, Hollow Knight. Defeating enemies occasionally gives you a currency (Cells) that you can spend at the end of each level to unlock permanent upgrades and blueprints of items that are then seeded into the item pool of future runs. Of course, that assumes you make it to the end of the level – die before then, and you lose everything you were carrying, and have to start over at the beginning of the game.
Of course, that’s how roguelikes work. It’s expected that you start over a bunch of times. And in this regard, I definitely felt less terrible after a death in Dead Cells than I did in Hollow Knight.
…up until The Hand of the King encounter, that is.
The final boss in Dead Cells is so absurdly more difficult than anything that comes before it. While its attacks are not inherently “unfair” beyond their massive power – they can be dodged just like everything else – most of them will prevent you from utilizing health potions, lest you get hit again mid-swig. Thus, you have very little opportunity to practice learning his moves, and dying here means it’ll take at least ~30 minutes of re-clearing everything else along the way to get another shot.
Well, after 26 hours /played in Dead Cells, I finally killed the last boss.
According to conventional wisdom, I should be feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. I died to this boss at least ten times, re-clearing the entirety of the game to get another chance each time. The fight itself is difficult, and difficult = rewarding. Permadeath confers a sense of risk, and overcoming risk = rewarding. Right?
I feel none of that. And it sorta makes you question the whole “difficulty” edifice.
To be fair, I did not expect to win on the particular run that I did. The items offered on each run are random, and while you can sometimes affect the odds by resetting shop items, the best gear drops from bosses and you don’t have many shots at those. I had strolled up to the final boss several times before with what seemed to be unassailable combos, only to die embarrassing deaths. On the winning run, I made a last minute substitution that basically had no particular synergy with anything – it simply offered an extra 30% damage reduction, which apparently was enough to get me over the finish line.
I have never particularly believed that difficulty was valuable in of itself. But the total emptiness of having beat Dead Cells makes me question why I ever tried to debate anyone on difficulty previously. It is often taken as a given that “log in, collect epix” is bad, and defeating the game on extreme permadeath Ironman mode (or whatever) is good. But I know for a fact that I would have enjoyed Dead Cells more had I beaten the last boss two runs earlier than I did two runs later. And that disappointment and dissatisfaction I felt at losing was not made up by eventually winning.
What makes the situation all the more absurd is that there is a lot more left to Dead Cells. Defeating the last boss unlocks “Boss Cells” which are essentially bonus modifiers you can apply to all enemies and bosses. Defeat the last boss on this new, higher difficulty and you unlock another Boss Cell slot. And so on, up to 4, which is the current limit. Ergo, the last boss could have been easier, and everyone else who craved a harder game could have been more than satisfied with four additional difficulty tiers.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m still just salty from winning when I didn’t expect to, and losing (several times) when I did. Perhaps that was the secret sauce all along – expecting to lose from the start led me to have lower anxiety levels during the fight. Or maybe I had seen the boss’s moves enough to commit them to muscle memory.
All that I know for certain is that difficulty, by itself, doesn’t particularly add anything meaningful to a game. In fact, it often can poison an entire experience. I’m not sure how you balance a game such that there are difficult moments without being frustrating, but Dead Cells ultimately did not get it right when it comes to the final boss. Which is a damn shame, because I otherwise had fun.
Ghost of Fun Past
Novelty is a finite resource. The best we can hope for in a game is that it ends before the novelty wears off. Too soon and the game feels like it missed its full potential (which it literal did). Too late, and well… we feel relief when the credits finally roll. Assuming we can bring ourselves to crawl across the finish line at all.
As mentioned previously, I have been playing Hollow Knight. It’s a decently fun game (with some reservations) with amazing music and visuals. It also has an almost tangible sense of novelty that you can feel slipping by, as sand through your fingers. Unfortunately, the last third of the game is the “gritty fingers” part of the experience.
Metroidvanias have a delicate balancing act. The hallmarks of the genre are exploration, boss fights, character progression, and backtracking. Specifically, you explore new areas, fight new bosses, unlock new powers and/or movement abilities, and then go back to previously unreachable areas to unlock new zones. Repeat until done.
The problem is when either the new zone or new power steps become exhausted and the game just continues on. This is what happens in the Hollow Knight. The base game “ended” around hour 15 but it took an additional 10 hours to finish.
Now, technically I unlocked the ability to fight the end boss and achieve an ending before the map and/or powers were totally completed. The issue is that this would have been a Bad Ending, and who the hell wants that? So I continued on, capping my movement abilities, and essentially farming harder versions of bosses I already fought for a currency to unlock the Real Ending(s). And there were technically new areas to explore too… but they weren’t the same.
A lot of games work this way, but the latter half of Hollow Knight basically transforms from what it originally was… into Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls. The White Palace area straight-up abandons any pretext of grounded world-building and populates halls with floating buzzsaws and thrusting spears. I was fine with the platforming aspects earlier in the game, because the thorns and spikes made in-universe sense. But what lumber were these subterranean bugs cutting in the stone palace, exactly?
Why are we going to such extremes to begin with? Bosses and puzzles getting harder over time is Game Design 101. But at a certain point, an ever-higher ceiling turns your living room into an auditorium into a cathedral. The entire purpose of the room changes. In an MMO, the transition is necessary as you move from the solitary leveling game into a daily/weekly set of multiplayer chores in order to keep players subscribed. Single-player games have no such need. It’s certainly disappointing when the final boss is weaker than a prior boss – be it due to greater player skill or character power – but I’m not sure erring on the side of absurdity is much better.
I did end up defeating the “true boss” in the base game a few days ago. It was an incredibly frustrating experience, because each time you fail, you have to defeat the “fake boss” all over again just to get another shot. Rather than satisfaction at finally completing a difficult task, all I felt was relief that my toil was finally over.
Those who enjoy the Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls experience will likely be happy with endgame content, and happier still with all the extended DLC that supposedly ups the ante even further. Anyone else who fell in love with Hollow Knight’s first 15 hours of gameplay, on the other hand, can presumably go fuck themselves.
Impressions: Hollow Knight
One of the games I have been playing in relatively short bursts is Hollow Knight.
I am usually skeptical about games with nigh-universal praise, because I’m fundamentally a cynical bastard at heart. But Hollow Knight is really pretty good. Amazing, even. It can also be frustrating, anxiety-inducing, and exhausting overall.
Basically, Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania minus the XP. There is side-scrolling exploration, a lot of backtracking once you unlock new movement abilities, and some fairly lethal combat with severe death penalties. Specifically, you drop all your Geo (currency) upon death, and if you die again before reaching your corpse, it disappears forever… until you get some special items. There are no particular “instant death” mechanics, but the number of invincibility frames available after taking damage is quite small, sometimes leading you to take more than one “hit” from the same attack.
I would describe the game overall as a mixture of Salt & Sanctuary + Ori and the Blind Forest, if you played either of those two. Or a melee-based Super Metroid.
What deserves every accolade attributed to it is the art and music of Hollow Knight. Beautiful, haunting, perfectly mood-setting. For a weird game about bug ghosts – at least I think that’s what this game is about – the visuals and soundtrack pull you in and makes everything… belong. Coherent. Even when there’s a lot of vague nonsense going on, you just let it slide right off as you go explore the new area or experiment with some new ability.
Like I said before though, the game is exhausting. When you reach a new area, there is no map until you find a specific NPC somewhere on the level. Then you have to find a Save bench before your map can be updated. Because reasons. This leads to play sessions that begin and end with Save benches, even though I think you can technically do a Save & Exit, as it’d be difficult to know where you left off. Plus, some bosses seem like total bullshit until you figure out the trick, and the game makes sure your face in rubbed in the carpet on the walk back to your corpse. Which can lead to behavior like backtracking all the way to a shop to spend all your Geo “just in case,” because Stiff Death Penalties are Good Game Design, Guys.
Whatever. Hollow Knight is fun despite its annoyances, but don’t assume you’ll be able to just play the game casually.