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.
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.
Game: Ori and the Blind Forest
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~8 hours
Buy If You Like: Journey, Metroidvania, Action Platformers
The simplest summary of Ori and the Blind Forest would be “Journey Metroidvania.”
After playing through the equivalent of the opening scene from the movie Up, you are thrust into the controls of Ori, a sort of cat creature as she (?) begins a quest to return life to the Spirit Tree. While the gameplay can be described as Metroidvania, I consider it more along the Action Platformer scale – certainly the majority of the challenge of the game comes from the platforming elements rather than defeating enemies. As you explore the map and solve various platforming puzzles, you eventually unlock additional movement abilities such as Wall Jumping, Double Jumps, Floating, etc, which allows you both access to brand new areas, and new corners of old spaces.
One thing that shocked me while playing was the difficulty. For as lush and beautiful as the game looks, Ori spares no punches with insta-kill mechanics. While the player can create save locations practically anywhere (at the cost of a renewable resource), the onus is on the player to remember to do so. Spend 15 minutes backtracking to grab that HP power-up, only to get squished by a falling stone trap? Well… I hope that power-up is now worth 30 minutes of your time. Indeed, later stages of the game become absurdly difficult with 2-3 minute (or longer) “chase” sequences in which any mistake is punished with death, forcing you to redo the entire sequence. Reminded me of Super Meatboy in that respect.
All that being said, though? I absolutely loved my time spent in Ori. The game is a visual feast, the soundtrack amazing, the animation fluid, and the gameplay interesting. Indeed, one of the movement unlocks later in the game – called “Bash,” which was a complete misnomer – single-handedly took the game from good to great in my eyes; the move allows you to grab enemies or projectiles, pause time, and then rocket yourself one direction and the grabbed object in the other. You end up needing to use Bash a lot by the endgame, but it was fun enough that I would play an entire game based around just that mechanic in the way Ori used it.
Highly recommend picking the game up next time a Steam sale or Humble Bundle comes along.
Game: The Swapper
Recommended price: $5
Metacritic Score: 87
Completion Time: 5 hours
Buy If You Like: Puzzle Games, Unique Premises, Questioning the Nature of the Soul
The Swapper is one of the more innovative puzzle games I have ever played. Not so much exactly for its puzzle mechanic – you create clones that mimic your actions, like that level in Braid – but the way in which the mechanic is intertwined with the narrative is unparalleled.
Things are mysterious and surreal and dark from the very start, as you make your way from being stranded on a mining colony to back on a seemingly derelict spaceship. In such a setting, finding a gun that creates clones of yourself doesn’t seem that big a deal. Which then leads you to start being a little cavalier with your clones, as you leap off ledges, slow time down to create a clone already standing on the rapidly approaching floor, then “swapping” your soul between the two as your now-empty original self smashes itself to pieces on the bulkhead below. You can do the same thing in reverse, creating a vertical body of soul bridges, each clone creating one more at the height of its vision, with all but the last falling to his/her death, their last moments spent walking in the void, just as you do, towards a door they shall never reach.
The Swapper is precisely the type of game that inspires sentences like the previous one.
The puzzles themselves straddle closely the “too clever for their own good” side of the scale, and a few require more reflexes than I thought entirely necessary. The primary impediments are the different colored lights, which impede clone creation, soul swapping, or both. Beyond that, the majority of the time you are creating, killing, and scratching your head over how to arrange clones on the correct floor switches. While it might sound monotonous, again, the overall mood and narrative absolutely sells the entirety of the five-hour game.
Given the above, I must both recommend that The Swapper gets played, but at a discount. It’s worth a spot on your wishlist in time for the next sale.
Game: A Valley Without Wind
Recommended price: Bundle
Metacritic Score: 54
Completion Time: ~13 hours
Buy If You Like: Metroidvania action platformers, infinitely long games
A Valley Without Wind (hereafter AVWW) is a procedurally-generated action-platformer in the Metroidvania style. The premise is that some unknown cataclysm has rent time and space, placing enemies like robotic mechs into Ice Age biomes. As a “glyph bearer,” your job is to scavenge materials from bombed out buildings, complete missions, and then take out the continent’s Overlord after killing off his/her/it’s lieutenants.
If all this sounds… strangely disjointed, that is because it is. The entire game comes across as more complicated (or simply arcane) than it has any reason to be. Basically, you jump around and kill enemies with ranged spells. The spells you have access to come from “spellgems” that you can either craft from materials you scavenge or earn via Missions. You also have several slots for enhancements, which are items you equip that have randomly-determined stats and abilities. For example, you might have a Foot enhancement that let’s you double-jump and have +20 mana, or Pants that eliminates all falling damage and gives +20 Haste.
Missions are one of the few things that give direction and meaning to AVWW, but after a while they too seem irrelevant. Essentially, Missions are a guaranteed way to acquire some particular thing, like a Spellgem. Missions themselves come in different types, such as Falling (character floats down long shaft avoiding enemies/spikes), Boss towers, Perfection (must restart if hit by any enemy), Rescue missions for additional survivors, and so on.
The problem is that not only is everything procedurally-generated, e.g. infinite in scale, there is not any real sense of progression. The “world” levels up after you kill an enemy lieutenant, but all that really means is that you need to re-craft all your Spellgems to the higher level to match the increase in monster HP. Finding stash rooms in buildings feels fun at first, but then you start to realize that the actual number of materials you need for any one thing is tiny. Alternatively, maybe you are missing just a single resource type and are forced to delve into dozens of buildings in order to find one inside.
But the biggest buzzkill for me was how absurdly limited the spell selection was. Once I found the most useful spell (and one backup of a different element type), every other spell was practically useless, which meant getting mats for them was useless, which meant pushing back the wind from new terrain squares (e.g. unlocking them) was useless, which meant farming the building to push back the wind from the lieutenants to access the Overlord and end the pain was useless tedious.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some interesting things going on in AVWW. The hybrid roguelike feature that is permadeath-but-you-keep-all-items made enemies feel threatening without punishing exploration, for example. Of course, the designers then made the decision that your avatar is a faceless nobody you have no attachment to, and the survivors are essentially reduced to extra lives with slightly (very slightly) different base stats. The granularity of the difficulty is extremely nuanced, allowing you to increase mob strength, platforming difficulty, or “citybuilding” complexity all independently.
At the end of the day though, I just did not feel particularly compelled by A Valley Without Wind. There is a vague sense of progression – defeating the lieutenants and then face the Overlord – but that never really trickled-down to the individual levels you were navigating. When the game comes right out and tells you to not bother exploring every nook and cranny for items (since the world is infinite), it makes you start wondering why you are looking for anything in the first place.
Game: A Valley Without Wind 2
Recommended price: none
Metacritic Score: 68
Completion Time: n/a
Buy If You Like: Throwing money away, poorly implemented games
There are very few games which I simply give up on. Of those games that I abandon, it is usually due to either frustrating game design or simple boredom. When it comes to A Valley Without Wind 2, it joins that sorry company with the distinction of having both qualities.
If you have played the original A Valley Without Wind, the first thing you should know is that the “sequel” has really nothing to do with its (much better) predecessor. The formula has changed. Radically. The premise is that after infiltrating the inner circle of the Overlord Demonaica and being gifted with an Oblivion Stone (aka the Glyphs of the first game), you reveal your true intentions to fight the Overlord’s power. You do so by… running away.
Basically, you order members of the resistance to move around the overland map in a turn-based manner, constructing farms and scavenging scrap to build other structures while you unlock more of the map by destroying rain machines (evil versions of the Windmills). Each resistance member can move once a turn, and they will not actually perform any actions until the end of the following turn. The turns themselves are advanced only when you enter into one of the rain machine maps and destroy it. Before doing so, you are free to explore any of the maps to look for Perks or… no, that’s it.
If this sounds nothing like the Metroidvania of the first game, that is because it isn’t. At all. In fact, the platforming aspects of AVWW2 has taken a thousand steps backwards. You cannot aim with the mouse any more, meaning that you are firing spells in just (usually) the cardinal directions. Instead of your own custom spells, you have to choose one of five “classes,” which have a total of four spells that do not necessarily even cover a wide range of situations. On top of that, spells have a sort of “priority” system where your projectiles are almost always destroyed by enemy projectiles, unless you have some specific spell with a high priority in your repertoire. This might sound tactical, but it’s really not. All it means is that you jerk clumsily around the screen, spamming your spells in a few directions while plowing into a screen full of enemy projectiles.
This is not even getting into the fact that the random loot and equipment strategy of the first game has been cut off at the knees neck. You have exactly one “equipment” slot, with no inventory; if you pick something else up, it replaces whatever you had equipped. The equipment also degrades as you take damage, so it will eventually break on its own. While the equipment you find is still random, there is no strategy or even thought required. “Is this better than what I have/an empty slot?” If yes, equip. If no, skip. The only customization you have is choosing which Perks to use, which basically amounts to 1 of 4 different Perks per level. Do you want +10% jumping height or +1 Heart (even the HP has been dumbed down)? Then again, considering that the platforming aspect is practically nonexistent, the Perks don’t really matter.
The funny thing (in a sad way) about all this was that the turn-based part of the game seemed sorta passably fun. Monsters would periodically come out of the Overlord’s tower, and you have to position your resistance members intelligently to intercept them without getting overwhelmed (each deals damage equal to their HP to one another), while also not leaving valuable structures open to destruction. Plus, around Turn 14, the Overlord himself was going to come out and destroy everything in his path. From there, you had a few things you could do while on the run, and the race against time angle was kinda compelling too. The problem was that the platforming aspects necessary to advance the turns and beat the overall game were so comically bad.
Ultimately, I am not even sure who A Valley Without Wind 2 was even made for. Metroidvania fans of the original will encounter perhaps the worst, most boring platformer ever made. Strategy gamers might have some fun, up until they are forced to play the worst, most boring platformer ever made to advance the turns. And… that’s it, the entire audience. The game simply fails at everything it was trying to do, when all they had to do was do what they did the first time around. I am not sure what the designers were thinking when they made this game, but whatever it was, it didn’t work.