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Impressions: Hollow Knight

One of the games I have been playing in relatively short bursts is Hollow Knight.

HollowKnight_1

Beginnings

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.

HollowKnight_3

Super Metroid vibes can get pretty strong.

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.

Gameplay of the Year

So, Polygon released the list of Game of Year 2015 contenders last month:

  • Bloodborne
  • Fallout 4
  • Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
  • Super Mario Maker
  • The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

While I might be alone in railing against inexorable fate and media narratives, I will be very disappointed if Witcher 3 wins Game of the Year (again). But in examining the feelings that give rise to this disappointment, a question surfaces: what deserves to be a Game of the Year anyway?

When it comes to mechanics, systems, and everything that makes games games, it seems clear to me that Metal Gear Solid 5 deserves to be Game of the Year. Everything in MGS 5 simply works. The controls are tight, the stealth gameplay compelling, and the Fulton system synergizes brilliantly with every other game mechanic. You can kill people from afar, but you want to steal them for your base more, which leads to close-quarters sneaking and higher tension gameplay. The way all the pieces of MGS 5 harmonize with one another is simply a thing of beauty and elegance.

…which is a real shame, considering how much of a disaster the story ends up being. “Disaster” is a bit uncharitable, but the abbreviated ending leaves one with a sour taste in one’s mouth, making it easier to forget how ~60 hours of incandescent joy preceded it.

Then you have Witcher 3. Mechanically, the game is just bad; none of the various systems fit together, and often actively clash. You are encouraged to collect hundreds of different crafting components, including junk you can break down for parts, but the vast majority are completely pointless. Random loot will give you high-level blueprints for items you will never be able to use, while recipes for staple items are conspicuously absent. Everything about the first two games that established Witchers – and Geralt in particular – as a fantasy noir detective that needs to plan encounters ahead of time to survive, flies out of the window mechanically, as Geralt gets to pop infinite potions and bombs like they were MMO abilities with per-encounter cooldowns.

…but Witcher 3 will still likely win Game of the Year. Because of things like the Bloody Baron quest. Or when Geralt (spoiler alert) finds Ciri. Nobody will remember mindlessly pressing Alt and Left-Clicking a million times to snore through the combat even on the harder difficulties. Hell, nobody will even remember that, for however good the Bloody Baron quest was, how ridiculous it was in a narrative ostensibly about a race against time. Or how Novigrad was one giant slog through completely unrelated nonsense. Or how little sense it made, pacing-wise, for there to be an open world at all.

It seems to me that what is really being voted on here is “Game Experience of the Year.”

Which is… okay, I guess? Hell, I’m usually the guy defending story over mechanics from the people who believe plot has no place in gaming. In this specific scenario though, I hate the idea that MGS 5 is going to lose because it lacked 1-2 missions to seal the deal, whereas Witcher 3 is going to win because it had a few bright spots in an ocean of bad design.

Ironically, Fallout 4 has thus far hit the sweet spot inbetween the two extremes for me, but I don’t believe it will win because it didn’t hit the sweet spot hard enough. Plus, ugh, that useless ass UI. How could they have they spent so much time coding in Settlements and approximately zero minutes giving us an interface worthy of that descriptor to interact with it?

Bah.

I will say though, I’m happy to see Ori and the Blind Forest show up under four different categories. While there were some difficulty spikes in there, Ori is one of the best-looking, best-sounding, and more entertaining indie-esque titles I have played this year.

Reviews: Ori and the Blind Forest, The Swapper

Game: Ori and the Blind Forest
Recommended price: $10
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~8 hours
Buy If You Like: Journey, Metroidvania, Action Platformers

Random gameplay screenshot, or million-dollar painting?

Random gameplay screenshot, or million-dollar painting?

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.

How I felt playing the game.

How I felt playing the game.

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.

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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

Original body, I hardly knew ye.

Gazing upon the crumbled remains of myself… and I feel nothing.

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.

It's sad that you can't appreciate exactly how awesome I am in this moment.

It’s sad that you can’t appreciate exactly how awesome I am in this moment.

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.