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Hollow Knight!

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There were a ton of cool games that came out in 2017.  I wasn’t anywhere close to playing everything that I wanted to play.  Around November of last year, I sat down and wrote a list of games from the year that I wanted to complete or at least try, and Hollow Knight ended up getting the priority because I thought I could knock it out quickly.  My expectation turned out to be totally wrong. Hollow Knight ended up being an epic experience that drove me deep into unraveling its secrets. It’s one of the best games that I’ve played in a long time, so much so that it actually took me a few months before I decided I was satisfied enough to move on.

Hollow Knight is the story of the fallen, subterranean kingdom of Hallownest, whose citizenry was composed of a wide range of sentient arthropods, principally a beetle-like race that are simply called bugs, but also spiders, mantises, moths, and maggots.  In the distant past, Hallownest was a utopic nation that was beset by a strange infection that drove many of its inhabitants into violent insanity. Life has seemingly continued on at the fringe of the once great civilization, but the infection continues to slowly spread into this periphery.  Upon this desolation enters the quiet, wandering Knight, who is drawn to the surface city of Dirtmouth, which serves as the entrance to Hallownest. From there, the player journeys as the Knight down into the kingdom’s ruins to discover and thwart the source of the infection.

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Hollow Knight joins the huge pile of games that take their inspiration from Metroid’s large contiguous side-scrolling worlds.  In the past few years, there’s been so many games coming out that use the Metroid formula that you would think Hollow Knight would have a hard time standing out, but I think its been fairly popular.  Part of the reason for that is that its other big inspiration is Dark Souls. Mostly this is seen in how it takes place in a world built on the ruins of a once great civilization that fell to decay and madness and relates the ancient history of this culture through purposefully cryptic means.  Fortunately, while the games that influenced Hollow Knight are clear, I found that this game managed to create its own identity and introduced enough of its own ideas that it didn’t feel like a cheap attempt to recapture the nostalgia of its inspirations.

For the most part, Hollow Knight is a fairly straightforward hack and slash game.  Most of the game’s challenge comes from studying the enemies and bosses and then building a strategy around their strengths and weaknesses, very similar to how you would approach a Dark Souls game.  It has an ethos that I describe as the best offense is a good defense.  You must learn and understand enemy attack patterns so that you can identify when you have an open window to attack safely.  If you attack carelessly, you will get utterly steamrolled.

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While the Knight’s moves are fairly standard (slash left, slash right, dodge, charge attack, etc.), there were two aspects of his abilities that I particularly liked.  The first was the way healing works. The Knight heals by casting a spell that must be charged first. He is immobile while charging the spell, and if he takes damage, the spell gets interrupted.  This adds an additional layer of strategic depth to the game, since its important to understand when and where its ok to heal. The player needs to understand the enemy attack patterns well enough to know when they have an opportunity to safely heal and where to position themselves so they’re unlikely to get hit.  The other thing that I really enjoyed is that the Knight can slash downwards while in the middle of a jump. This can be used to attack enemies beneath the jump, and the Knight gets a little bounce when he does this. Bouncing from enemy to enemy like this is a lot of fun, and the air time can be used to evade certain complicated attacks.  Sometimes, it also allows the Knight to reach some hard to get to places that hold secrets. I love games like Duck Tales and Shovel Knight that have bouncy pogo moves like this.

The world of Hallownest was fun and interesting to explore and is dense with secrets to uncover.  The exploration aspect of the game is probably what resonated with me most about Hollow Knight. Each area of the map feels visually distinctive and presents challenges and enemies that mostly feel very unique.  Around the same time I was playing Hollow Knight, I was also playing Metroid: Samus Returns on the 3DS. While I kinda like that game, I have to say that everything in it just sort of blurs together. The levels and bosses I’ve played feel rather same-y and don’t leave much of a distinctive impression.  

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Meanwhile, I can easily recall most of Hallownest, because Hollow Knight does such a good job of creating a varied world with unique places to explore.  My favorite area is Deepnest, the dark and deeply terrifying caves on the border of the kingdom that are overrun with a race of hostile spiders. Second would probably be the mysterious Ancient Basin, where the secrets of Hallownest’s godlike ruler can be discovered.  I also have to mention that the White Palace has my favorite music track in the game, a somber melody that conveys the weight of the tragedy that struck the kingdom, and the area is also intensely and satisfyingly challenging.

Hollow Knight has a few different endings, but essentially there are just two.  It has a few “normal” endings that are quite similar, and then a secret “true” ending that requires a great deal more effort and secret hunting to unlock.  I went into Hollow Knight knowing this, but I expected that I would only bother to get the normal ending. As it turned out, I was so enamored by the game that I committed myself to unlocking the secret true ending.  This was a bit fortunate as there is a significant amount of content in the game that you would only see if you went out of your way to get this ending. I’m talking about huge areas that you would never find if you only followed the path that the main story directs you through.  But I have to be honest, I had to consult a guide to figure out the requirements to reveal the secret ending. There really is not a whole lot of explicit hints in the game that would give you strong suggestions as to how to unlock it. It took me roughly 30 hours to complete the game, but if I hadn’t used a guide, I could easily see it taking double that time to find the items needed to see the complete finale.

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That said, it was totally worth it.  Not only are the secret areas really great parts of the game, but I found the “normal” ending to be a bit anticlimactic.  I felt it didn’t really do justice to the epic quest that preceded it. The secret ending, on the other hand, has a new final boss fight that takes place after the original final boss.  I felt that the secret final boss was way more exciting and formidable and easily a major highlight of the game for me. In addition to revealing the true final boss, I just felt that the secret ending gave a bit better closure to the story.  The normal ending would have felt rather abrupt and confusing without the extra context of the lore found in the secret areas. I really wish that they would have made the normal ending a little more worthwhile, seeing as that’s the only ending most players are likely to see.

Hollow Knight was a game that I was excited to play due to the strong word of mouth I had heard.  There’s lots of popular games that I’m pumped to try, but sometimes I end up being let down by my high expectations for them.  Often when this happens, I question whether gaming is still something I’m passionate about. But sometimes a game totally surpasses any expectations I had and reinforces the affection I have for gaming as a hobby.  Hollow Knight is definitely that type of game. I had started out hoping to complete it quickly, but realized that I couldn’t do anything less than master it.

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Picross S!

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I love Picross.  But I also kind of hate Picross.  Picross is Nintendo’s version of nonograms, a type of pencil-and-paper puzzle similar to crosswords or sudoku.  That might sound boring at first, but there’s something about nonograms that make them more interesting in video game form than crosswords or sudoku.  Perhaps it’s the Nintendo touch, but it might also be that the relative complexity of this type of puzzle makes it work better in an electronic format.

Picross starts with a square grid of unfilled tiles with each row and column bordered by a series of numbers.  The idea behind picross is that you fill in uninterrupted blocks of tiles in each row or column based on the numbers that line the grid.  So if a row has a 3 5 next to it, that means you need to fill in a string of 3 tiles followed by a string of 5 tiles with at least one unfilled tile in between these strings.  The trick is that the tiles you fill in for that row or column must be consistent with the requirements of the columns or rows that run through it.  The game is called Picross because each puzzle should make a crude pixelated image when the tiles are filled in correctly.

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I think like most people in the U.S., I was introduced to Picross through Picross DS.  I have to confess something now.  I have a secret dark history with the Picross series, specifically, Picross DS.  There were a few weeks of my life that I was maybe a little too hooked on that game.  I would sit down after coming home in the afternoon and open up my DS and tell myself that I would only play for fifteen or twenty minutes, but before I knew it, hours would go by and the entire evening would have evaporated.   I would complete one puzzle and would tell myself, just one more!, and keep going and going.  I guess the dopamine rush I would get from solving each grid just made me not want to stop.

Eventually, I sort of triggered on the fact that spending so much time with the game was probably unhealthy.  I considered just throwing the game in the trash to deprive myself of the addiction, but I ultimately decided this would be wasteful.  I distinctly remember pulling the game out of the DS and sticking it back in its case and then burying it deep within my closet so that it would be hard to get to.  And with that, my obsession with the game just sort of dissipated.

Since then I’ve been more successful at playing new Picross games, although I haven’t played them all.  I’ve been able to avoid falling down the rabbit hole that I did with Picross DS.  But each time one comes out, I still get a little suspicious that it might make me fall into the old habit.  I especially liked Picross 3D and a few of the Picross e games that were released on 3DS.  Pokémon Picross I thought was interesting, but I’m not a big Pokémon guy and didn’t really feel the need to pay to unlock the full game.

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The latest Picross game that I’ve hopped on board with is Picross S, recently released on the Switch.  Unlike games like Picross 3D and Pokémon Picross that attempted to inject new ideas into the series, Picross S is a fairly standard expression of Picross.   There are two modes, standard picross and mega-picross, each which I think have 150 puzzles a piece.  The standard mode is Picross according to its most basic ruleset, while the mega-picross mode changes up the formula by having hints that span adjacent columns or rows.  Mega-picross has been featured as a side mode in previous editions, but I think this game has the largest collection of mega-picross puzzles in the series yet.

To be honest, even though I’ve been a picross addict in the past, something about this version just wasn’t doing it for me.  The standard version of Picross just felt rote and boring.  I got fairly deep into this mode before realizing that I just wasn’t really enjoying it all that much.  My guess is that my lackluster feelings are more a result of me burning out on Picross and less a result of the quality of work they’ve done on this game.

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As the monotony of the standard mode set in, I turned my attention to Mega-Picross mode and……wow, I got more than I expected out of it.  Mega-Picross has been featured in some of the past editions, but I don’t think it has ever been given equal focus to the standard mode like it has in Picross S.  It’s always really been a side mode.  Personally, I’ve never really messed around with this variant of the game much.  I guess I’ve really just been too lazy to learn it. The new rules can be quite intimidating at first.  But after really taking some time to understand how it works, I could immediately feel myself getting hooked again like old times.  The new dimensions of logical reasoning this mode adds were a real shot in the arm for the Picross formula.

Picross S is a good package.  With just standard picross and mega-picross, it’s far from the most innovative or ambitious title in the series.  While other releases (with the exception of Picross 3D) were also heavily focused on vanilla picross, they did try to introduce new side modes and mechanics to experiment with the formula.  But Picross S fortunately makes up for its lack of adventurousness with just a lot of content.  I don’t think any of the picross games on 3DS delivered this many puzzles for $8.

Honestly though, I don’t think I’ll be going back to anything that is simply vanilla picross.  It’s just gotten old to me.  While mega-picross has been satisfying, I think it’s time they come up with another major reinvention of the game like they did with Picross 3D.  Hopefully, picross will see as bright of a future on Switch as it did on DS and 3DS, and we will see something revolutionary materialize.

 

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe!

In the wake of the release of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, I’ve heard a lot of people contend that Mario Kart 8 was the best of the series, and I think they probably have a reasonable point.  I personally feel that it’s kind of hard to name one Mario Kart the “best” out of all of them.  They each have their own unique strengths, but also their individual quirks and idiosyncrasies.  MK8 was and is a really amazing game, though, and quite possibly my favorite of the entire series.  It’s great that it’s come to the Switch., but I vacillated quite a bit on whether I would purchase this new deluxe version.  Ultimately, I bit the bullet as it’s always hard to resist this series.

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While there have been several tweaks to the racing side of Mario Kart 8, a revamped battle mode is the most prominent addition, which replaces the Wii U original’s relatively hated and water-downed offering.  This time they’ve actually created 8 new arenas specifically for battle mode, as opposed to what they did on the Wii U which was to reuse the racing tracks from the grand prix.  This alone makes the new battle mode a huge improvement.  In addition, they’ve added several new game types that offer a lot of variety to the player.  To be honest, I haven’t really put a lot of time into battle mode since Double Dash.  They’ve really neglected this part of the series over the years, as it was also less than stellar in Mario Kart Wii.  I’m a huge fan of car combat games, and MK8D’s improvements in this feature have been a great addition, but, to be honest, I still find myself leaning more to the racing side of the game.  There’s just something about the raw adrenaline and speed of the racing mode that gets me hooked.

While the revamped battle mode may be the big new addition to Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, they’ve also made some tweaks to the racing mode, as well.  Unfortunately, it’s nothing major, only two changes really stand out.  The first major tweak is that drifting now rewards a third tier of sparks, pink sparks, that give an even greater boost than the blue sparks. The more noticeable change, however, is that racers are allowed to hold two items at a time, similar to Double Dash on the Gamecube.  Unlike DD, though, they can’t switch between the items they’re holding.  Whichever item comes up first must be used first before the second item can be fired off.  

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It’s a bit annoying, as sometimes I find myself wasting the “top” item just so I can use the “bottom” item.  I imagine this was a feature that was actually meant to improve battle mode by reducing the amount of time the players have to spend seeking out item boxes, but even so, Double Dash’s implementation offers much more strategic depth.  I’m actually wondering if the reason they don’t let players switch between items is because it would require an extra button, and the game already uses all the buttons available on a single Joycon controller.  

There are a few new characters added to the game, such as King Boo and the Inkling characters from Splatoon, but regrettably there are no new racing tracks added.  The 16 DLC tracks for MK8 on the Wii U are included out of the box, however.  The lack of new racing content is probably the biggest bummer to me.  Historically, there has only been one Mario Kart game per Nintendo console (not including VC), and I guess a big part of my disappointment stems from uncertainty as to whether or not this will be the only MK released for Switch.  I really really hope we don’t have to wait for the Switch’s successor to get new MK content.

Ultimately, I went back and forth on whether I should spend money on MK8D.  I was a huge fan of the game on the Wii U, but I questioned whether MK8D offered enough new content to be a worthwhile reinvestment.  In the end, it came down to my interest in battle mode as a car combat fan, but mainly was due to my desire to retire my Wii U.  When I travel to see family and friends, I often lug the Wii U with me so we can play Smash and MK, as I did with the Wii before it.  Nintendo systems have always been the “party systems” to me, at least since the N64.  Unlike Sony, Microsoft, and all the third parties, Nintendo still puts a lot of emphasis on local multiplayer.  It’s hard to even think of great local multiplayer games from recent times that weren’t made by Nintendo.

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The Wii U was just super annoying to travel with, however.  Between the gamepad and its charger and the console and its power box and the sensor bar and the extra controllers, it’s all just a lot to have to pack up and carry around.  Worse yet, I got a big scratch on the corner of my gamepad while traveling with it that just drives me crazy.  The Switch, on the other hand, also has a number of pieces to keep track of, but it’s all much more compact and manageable.  I was able to buy a nice carrying case on Amazon that I really like that can fit both the Switch tablet and the dock, as well as extra controllers and cables, and it makes taking the system on the go with me much less frustrating.

Honestly, it’s just been great to play MK8 again, and I’m really enjoying both racing and battle modes.  If you haven’t played MK8 before and own a Switch, I highly recommend it.  For those of us who’ve played MK8 on the Wii U, it’s a harder value proposition, since I don’t think the new additions will necessarily justify a full price purchase for everyone who has already played the game to death.  Regardless, I don’t think it’s a game that will leave any Mario Kart fans unsatisfied.

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