I love puzzle games, but that hasn’t always been the case. When I was much younger, the term “puzzle game” was more synonymous with falling block games, that is to say games that relied on the old Tetris formula in which the player’s goal is to arrange pieces of junk falling from the sky according to some idiosyncratic rule that causes the mess to disappear. I really liked Tetris, but I also got it for free with my Game Boy. It simply never crossed my mind to use the limited opportunities that a youngster has to get new video games on the numerous clones of Tetris that proliferated after its breakout success. Those types of games simply didn’t offer enough content in comparison to the action-adventure games that I usually picked up.
Somewhere along the line all that changed. The “puzzle game” term was commandeered by a different game and its numerous clones. That game, of course, was Portal, and it completely reinvigorated what had become an utterly sleepy genre. The term suddenly was used less to describe games about the strategy and reflexes of arranging falling blocks, and more to describe games in which the player sets about solving puzzles built into the environment of the levels they are meant to explore. And after Portal, there was a boom in indie groups taking advantage of new digital storefronts to release new games in the genre. One game that often stands out in my mind as emblematic of this boom time was QUBE, a game that could easily be described as a Portal clone, although a good game nonetheless, worth the time of anyone interested in such games. QUBE sort of came and went, and it seemed like it didn’t quite make the same lasting impression as some of the other big name puzzle games of the time, which is why I was happy when a sequel, QUBE 2, was released earlier this year.
QUBE 2, like the game before it, is set inside a massive structure made of white cubes, ominously implied to be of alien origin. During the beginnings steps of the story, the player discovers and equips a strange, technologically-advanced glove that allows them to manipulate the properties of the cubic building blocks of the surroundings. This is the primary means through which the player interacts with the environment. The glove can confer functionality to specific cubes with each functionality having a specific color coding. Red cubes expand outward, laterally from the surface in which they are embedded, to create steps or possibly obstructions. Blue cubes act like “ejectors”, forcefully expelling the player or any other objects that touch their surfaces in the opposite direction. Finally, green cubes become detached from the structure, creating a moveable object that can be used, for instance, to weigh down switches or act as stepping stones.
These are the only glove functions that are introduced to the player. With such a limited number of ways to manipulate individual blocks, I was initially worried that QUBE 2 might be too simplistic mechanically for a large variety of complex puzzles. Ultimately, however, I found that the game had a good ramp in terms of difficulty and complexity. While the player may only have three “powers”, the game continually introduces new elements and features to the environment that keep the basic formula of the puzzles from stagnating. And while I felt the game started off maybe too easy, the puzzles progress through a fair difficulty curve, and I think the puzzle design offered a very satisfying challenge without ever becoming unreasonably obtuse.
The first QUBE was completely devoid of story, and that’s not an exaggeration. As far as I can recall, the main character never spoke, was spoken too, or encountered other characters. He/she/it simply moved through the cube structures solving puzzles to progress. I think the game may have been criticized a bit unfairly for this, as the closest point of comparison most people have for this game is Portal, and many people play Portal for the story first, puzzles second. Eventually, a “director’s cut” version of the game was released that included new story elements, but I’ve never gone back to play this version, so I can provide no comment on it.
I can say, however, that QUBE 2 puts a fair bit of effort into its story from the get go. The player takes control of Amelia Cross, a woman who awakens on a desolated planet that has been overtaken by the eponymous alien cubes which have self-assembled into enormous structures that dot the world’s surface. Taking refuge in one of these structures, Amelia begins to explore its inner workings and sets about uncovering the true nature of the cubes and their potential as friend or foe to humankind. The story is metered out in the “radio play” style with all interactions between Amelia and the other characters being carried out over radio transmissions as the player goes about their business. I thought the actual plot that unfolds was merely decent. It’s not bad by any means, but for people who have read or watched a lot of science fiction, it will probably be easy to figure out where the story is heading. But as predictable as it may be, the story doesn’t really get in the way of the overall adventure, and I felt it gave some coloring to the experience that increased immersion, meaning I don’t feel that it was a purely perfunctory element of the game. But it’s important to understand that for the kind of person who plays Portal for the story and jokes and doesn’t really care about the challenge of puzzle solving, this game probably won’t be particularly engaging.
Speaking of immersion, I thought QUBE 2 was visually stunning in its own humble way. I feel like that’s kind of a weird thing to say about a game where the player spends their time exploring environments entirely made out of white cubes. But the image quality is really sharp, and lighting is used well to create texture and dynamism in the world. Later on in the game, bits of nature and greenery begin to encroach on the otherwise sterile environments, adding a small bit of satisfying diversity. There’s not a huge amount of variety to the setting, but I never felt bored or tired of the aesthetic, which is not something I can say of the first QUBE.
QUBE 2 is interesting because its predecessor is so quaint in comparison. QUBE was a simple $15 puzzle game released in the wake of Portal’s popularity. It was a cool game, but I never really thought the core concept could carry more than one title in a series. The team behind this game apparently had a completely different idea, however, and really doubled down on what they had. With QUBE 2, they took their humble indie game and blew it up into a significantly more expansive and polished product. QUBE 2 has more extensive content, slicker visuals, and a significantly more substantial story. I find it to be the often too rare kind of sequel that stands completely on its own, and in no way requires experience with the prior game in the series to fully enjoy. Personally, I often tend to be compulsively driven to play games sequentially in a series (i.e., I can’t play sequels until I play their predecessors). But with QUBE 2, I have no hesitance about recommending newcomers start here, and only tackle the original game if they are left wanting more.
Stories Untold is a series of four vignettes tinged with horror and modelled after classic sci-fi anthology series such as The Outer Limits and Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. Each vignette is superficially a standalone experience with the commonality that they each feature stories in which the player interacts with an array of (by today’s standards) vintage electronics such as classic microcomputers, microfiche archives, radios, televisions, etc. The exception is the final episode which manages to tie together the seemingly unrelated events of the preceding chapters into a surprisingly cohesive whole.
Of the four episodes, I felt the first was easily the strongest. It’s also the only episode that I felt leant deeply into the horror genre. In this chapter, the player is rooted at a home desk with a “Futuro” microcomputer, which is essentially a fictionalized analogue of machines like the Amiga and Commodore 64. Loaded up onto the system is The House Abandon, a text adventure that is essentially a game within a game. The entire episode is spent at this desk playing this one text adventure game. The House Abandon begins as a seemingly warm and fuzzy story about returning to a childhood home, but eventually reveals itself to have a more sinister side. All of a sudden, the game turns a dark corner and begins distorting the in-game reality surrounding the microcomputer. While this might sound gimmicky and a little cheesy, I found it to be executed surprisingly well. The metafictional interplay between the reality of the humble desk and Futuro computer setup and the dark residential setting of The House Abandon is one of the most creative mechanisms of producing tension and foreboding that I’ve seen in a game, and the creepiness of the experience left a distinct impression on me.
The subsequent episodes, however, were not quite as effective in creating the atmosphere and mood befitting a horror game. The second and third episodes are more sci-fi oriented. Instead of a cursed computer game, the second episode involves the player operating lab equipment in a government research facility, and the third episode takes place in a radio outpost for an expedition above the Arctic Circle. Horror is subjective, of course, and while I could see how someone might consider these chapters to be eerie, I simply did not come away with that impression.
The fourth episode diverges significantly from the rest and serves as a capstone for the disparate stories that came before it. A more grounded tale, eschewing supernatural and sci-fi elements, the final chapter is, in a certain way, the most chilling episode and deals with tragedy and deeply personal torment. Not scary in the traditional sense of the oft-surreal horror genre, Stories Untold concludes with an upsetting story of loss and regret, real world horror if you will. Beyond that, the fourth episode manages to color the entire experience with an interesting perspective that attempts to elevate the game above the sum of its parts. The blurring of boundaries between layers of metafictional reality is a theme that permeates throughout, and this peculiar aspect of the individual vignettes serves as an important hook for the conclusion.
Surprisingly, the text adventure aspect manages to find its way into the story beyond the initial episodes. Of the actual interactive parts of the game, I found these segments to be the most enjoyable and interesting. Text adventures have a bad reputation of obtuseness due to how frustrating it can sometimes be to figure out the right wording of commands to enter into the text parser, but I didn’t find Stories Untold to be too much of a hassle in this regard. The other various tasks the player is given, on the other hand, can sometimes feel like busy work to fill in time between story beats. One part of the game has the player manipulating the various buttons, knobs, and levers of a microfiche display, and this activity was especially tedious.
Ultimately, I have no strong feelings toward Stories Untold. I can easily see that it’s competently designed with a well crafted story, but I simply did not resonate sharply with this game. I chose this as a Halloween game after seeing it on a number of horror game recommendation lists, but, honestly, I personally have a hard time characterizing it as such. The first episode featuring the cursed computer game was a great experience, but the remainder of the game felt like a different direction tonally. To me, the hook of the game is more for those interested in ‘80s nostalgia than it is for enthusiasts of the horror genre. (Which is ironic, because I felt that one of the main themes of the game was that nostalgia is a coping mechanism that deters us from facing reality.) As a ‘90s kid, I have little attachment to this subject matter, which is probably why the game didn’t leave as strong of an impression on me.
The Evil Within did not make a good first impression on me. I started the game on PS4 near the time of its release, played maybe three or four hours, decided I wasn’t having fun with the gruelling experience, and I sold it off. Years later, The Evil Within II came out to generally favorable impressions, and I thought I might give the series another try. But, I often get OCD around playing a series in order, and the first game was really cheap on Steam. What ultimately pushed me over into giving The Evil Within another shot was some encouraging words here on the WordPress community and elsewhere that gave favorable, if not reasonably measured, praise to the game. And I’m glad I gave the game another chance, as I found I enjoyed TEW after getting past the hump that I got stuck on earlier, and I feel good having seen it to the end. The game is a giant mess, of course, but it’s a mess that leaves a strange and surprising impression.
The Evil Within begins with Krimson City detectives Sebastian Castellanos (the protagonist), Joseph Oda, and Juli Kidman responding to an emergency at Beacon Mental Hospital. The lobby of the hospital has been the site of a massacre, and Sebastian is subdued by a strange assailant in a white robe. He wakes up chained deep in the bowels of the facility, the captive of a large blood-soaked man who has other corpses strung from the ceiling and looks to be cannibalizing his victims. Defenseless, Sebastian manages to evade and escape from his captor, but not before the hospital reveals itself to be filled with gruesome mechanisms designed to slaughter those attempting to flee. In the courtyard, he meets up with Oda and Kidman, and the group finds an ambulance to make their exit. As they race through the city, an immense earthquake strikes. Massive fissures open up in the ground, and buildings begin to tumble down. They narrowly avoid being consumed by the cataclysm that destroys the city, only to fly off the edge of a cliff when their driver loses control of the vehicle. After the crash, Sebastian wakes up alone in the dark countryside. With his colleagues having abandoned him and the overturned ambulance, he begins his long journey to survive the complete breakdown of reality itself.
That long and ridiculous last paragraph perfectly encapsulates the experience of The Evil Within. I feel exhausted just having written it. The game simply never settles down. I don’t think there is ever a moment when I thought to myself “I understand where this is going.” Settings are constantly being shifted, enemies are constantly changing, the story picks up in one direction only to abruptly change course. There’s never any moment of comfort to be found. There is never any expectation that will not be subverted.
There are many types of horror games that are distinguished both by theme and mechanics, and what makes The Evil Within incredible is that it basically tries to do everything a horror game can do. It manages to find a way to merge psychological horror (e.g., Silent Hill), supernatural elements (e.g., Fatal Frame), and science fiction elements (e.g., Resident Evil). Superficially, it is a game that focuses on action and shooting (like Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space), but it also attempts to prominently include stealth (like The Last of Us), run-and-hide sequences (like Amnesia), and survival and resource management mechanics (like the original Resident Evil). By trying to fuse together all of these different approaches to making a horror game, The Evil Within is at its best highly admirably for ambition, but also many times manages to go over the edge and collapse into a clumsy or confusing mess.
In his quest to figure out just what the hell is really going on, Sebastian Castellanos treks across a post-apocalyptic cityscape, an evil mansion, a depraved hospital, an infested sewer, dreamcapes carved out of nightmare, and essentially almost every other popular staple of the horror genre. Each of the different environments absolutely nails the aesthetics of its chosen subject and feature expertly designed atmosphere, mood, tension, and foreboding. The Evil Within never lets the player forget they are in a horror story. And despite each setting being radically different, they all feel as if they are a part of the same gruesome world. There is a distinctive aesthetic style to The Evil Within that it manages to maintain across the entirety of its expansive journey.
Principally, The Evil Within is the successor to Resident Evil 4, the prime connection between the two being legendary director Shinji Mikami. As such, the action focused parts of the game tend to dominate over everything else, which is to say that the player spends a lot of time shooting at pseudo-zombies and other warped creatures. Another important feature of the game are the stealth kills, whereby the player can sneak up directly behind an enemy and execute a sneak attack that results in an instant kill. I found this to be a fairly important element of the game considering that ammo is relatively scarce, and I also just personally enjoy games that let me sneak up on enemies like this.
But aside from these key components, the game introduces a ton of other mechanics. Some of them work really well. For instance, levels are wired with inconspicuous booby traps that can do a lot of damage to Sebastian if triggered. However, if the player is cautious enough and manages to dismantle these traps, they turn into spare parts which can be used to craft bolts for Sebastian’s crossbow. There are a handful of different types of bolts that deal different types of damage (for instance, proximity explosives, freeze bolts, etc.), so the player is offered the choice of determining the best way to spend the spare parts. My favorite aspect of the game, which I’ve never seen any other horror game do, are the matchbooks that Sebastian uses to set enemies on the ground on fire. So, for instance, if Sebastian knocks an enemy to the ground, he can light them on fire with one of the matches for an instant kill. If there are other enemies standing in close proximity to the burning hostile, they will also catch on fire and suffer the insta-kill. This also applies to corpses on the ground, which creates a fun strategy where Sebastian can lure enemies over to a defeated corpse which can then be set ablaze to chain together several standing enemies with the ensuing flames.
However for every good idea The Evil Within puts together, there seems to be at least one bad one. I thought one of the dumbest mechanics of the game were the hiding spots which presumably were meant to conceal Sebastian from enemies. Sebastian can hide under beds, under cars, in closets, etc., but enemies always seem to be able to find him in these spots. There is this one unkillable enemy that chases Sebastian through a mansion, and when I encountered him, I put some distance between him and I, rounded a few corners, and then went into a room and hid in a closet. About fifteen seconds later, the thing chasing me walked in, went directly to the closet, opened it, and insta-killed Sebastian. I looked up the best way to escape from this enemy, and most of the recommendations I saw told me to just circle strafe around him until he disappears. What even is the point of the hiding spots then? And this wasn’t an isolated incident. Each time I tried to make use of the hiding spots, the results were more or less the same: they do nothing to keep Sebastian out of sight.
One of the real highlights of The Evil Within were the boss monsters that the game is really good at building up. The bosses are all really well designed and creatively distinct from an aesthetic standpoint. The boss fights themselves tend to be more creative than simply requiring Sebastian to unload ammo into the creatures. Usually, they require the player to make use of aspects of the environment, almost like a puzzle. This tends to lead to a trial-and-error cycle, which can be frustrating at first, but I also felt was very rewarding once I was finally able to nail it. While there are a few boss encounters that just felt clumsy and confusing, on the whole, I thought these enemies were one of the high points of the game.
Sebastian’s journey took me approximately 16 hours to complete which seems to be typical going by howlongtobeat.com. That’s a huge amount of time for a linear action game like The Evil Within, and the entire quest definitely felt epic as a result. This is in spite of the story being largely meandering and insubstantial for the first three quarters or so of the game. Sebastian’s warped reality is constantly shifting, and at any given moment he can be teleported to a completely different setting with seemingly no rhyme or reason behind it. This results in plot threads being constantly interrupted with no resolution until the very end. In one moment, Sebastian will be trying to help a doctor and his patient survive a haunted village, and then abruptly the world will change around him, and he’ll be trying to survive an onslaught of monsters in the basement of a hospital, all with no thought given to the doctor and patient that were just left in danger in the countryside.
In this way, The Evil Within feels like a nightmare. A real nightmare. When I wake from dark dreams, for the fleeting moments I can remember them, I usually realize that they don’t have any form of sense. Nightmares and dreams are largely illogical, unstable, internally inconsistent experiences. The only reason they can feel the way they do is because the mind exists within them in a semi-conscious, semi-functioning state. When thought and reason are applied, they fall apart. Of course, I don’t necessarily think a desire to replicate the qualities of dreams was the intent behind the sloppy story of The Evil Within. I think they just had a lot of ideas they wanted to include in their game and gave no real thought toward creating more substantial connective tissue between them all.
Nonetheless, The Evil Within is best appreciated when simply opening oneself up to raw, uncritical, moment-to-moment experience is prioritized over the need for overarching narrative to create a coherent world. The Evil Within, as a story, is utterly unsatisfying otherwise. The last stretch of the game does begin to try to satiate the player’s need to understand the events of the game, and for the most part, I understood the broad strokes of the plot. But there’s still so many things I don’t understand, and I don’t know if they’re just the result of plot holes, or if there are things that just went over my head. The game has three DLC chapters that perhaps shed more light (I have yet to play them), but I find it unfortunate that the main game really left me with more questions than answers.
I have basically done a complete turn around on The Evil Within, and I’m glad that I gave it a second chance. It oozes style. It’s boss monsters are well designed terrors. It has a satisfying loop of stealth and action. It’s almost an encyclopedia of horror. However, everyone I’ve known who likes this game will immediately admit that it has numerous flaws and sharp corners. It’s incredibly ambitious, a creation that wasn’t designed to be restrained. This is precisely what makes the game special, as it wouldn’t have nearly the gravity if it wasn’t as expansive as it is. But at the same time, the game struggles under the weight of it all. It has a ton of weaknesses, and patience and perseverance is required to enjoy the totality of the experience. I’m glad I was able to finally get past all of these faults, but I don’t necessarily begrudge anyone who can’t.
Each year for the Halloween season, I try to dedicate my playtime and writing to a selection of spooky games that I’ve always wanted to try. This time I’ve been really excited for these Halloween posts all year, and I feel like I’ve actually gotten a bit ahead on my plans for once, so I’m optimistic that this might be the best Halloween on the blog yet. Previous Halloween posts are all collected on this tab. This year, I’m starting off with Little Nightmares, a creepy adventure game that released fairly recently on basically every modern gaming platform.
A small child shrouded in a yellow raincoat awakens at sea on a mysterious ship filled with danger and foreboding. As she begins to explore her surroundings, she finds other children in cages and begins getting glimpses of the grotesque giants that crew the dreary vessel. The quest that follows pits the defenseless protagonist against the strange appetites of the pitiless but hapless denizens of this otherworldly domain.
Little Nightmares immediately draws comparison to Limbo and its pseudo-sequel Inside. It’s easy to feel like the former was inspired by the latter. All three are puzzle platformer games about a defenseless youth trying to survive in a strange and creepy world. Little Nightmares does, however, manage to differentiate itself from the other two with a few key new ideas. Most importantly, while Limbo and Inside are essentially sidescrollers that confine movement to a 2D plane, Little Nightmares offers movement in fully 3D environments.
Furthermore, while the game starts off mostly about solving environmental puzzles to progress in a similar fashion to Inside and Limbo, later portions of the game become heavily focused on stealth and evasion. The protagonist of Little Nightmares is a small creature in a world of giants. Everything in the world she is travelling through is oversized, both objects and people, very much like Jack and the Beanstalk. Thus as the game progresses, gameplay becomes less about Limbo-style puzzles and more about sneaking through this jumbo-sized world while evading, hiding, and sometimes needing to outrun the ponderous creatures that view the child as nothing more than a pest to be squashed.
Little Nightmares is scary like a fairy tale, not necessarily suspenseful in a traditional sense, but creepy and unsettling in how it contrasts innocence with monstrosity. The monsters the player faces are grotesque and unpleasant to look at, and their designs emphasize themes of decadence and depraved overindulgence. These giant beings don’t feel like highly threatening apex predators, as they’re rather hapless and clumsy at times. But the moments where the girl is discovered and pursued by these beings are tense thrills as she scrambles to find a safe hiding spot. I don’t really feel any reservations in calling this a horror game, even if it is an offbeat amongst the genre.
And while the game is not particularly scary in the same sense as most horror games, the final monster encounter was a surprising exception. While I tend to find that most horror games become less scary as the story progresses and I become more comfortable in the setting, Little Nightmares managed to end on a high note. The final section has an amazing sense of atmosphere and dread, but it was also regrettably the shortest part of the game. After seeing how capable the designers of this game were at creating such an unnerving experience, I kind of wish they had imbued earlier parts of the game with this kind of atmosphere.
However, my principle issue with Little Nightmares is the brevity of content. The game is roughly three hours long. I don’t necessarily think a game is bad if it’s short, but I do consider it a negative when a game feels short, and Little Nightmares definitely felt short to me. I thought the game really only scratched the surface of the concept and world it introduced. The ending felt like it came on way too abruptly. The final area of the game should have been a bit longer, and the game could have really used one more major monster to encounter. Frustrating the issue is that there is a $10 DLC pack that offers three additional chapters to the game’s original five and features a different character from the original story. (I do not own the DLC, so I can’t comment on its quality.)
I like Little Nightmares. I thought it was a cool game. But for the reasons above, I think it’s a little hard to give the game an unqualified recommendation. I find it hard to provide justification for purchasing the game at full price, and I would also recommend playing Inside, a similar game, first, as I thought it was a considerably better game, although it doesn’t lean as much into the horror genre. Little Nightmares is a good Steam (or PSN, eshop, etc.) sale game, interesting and fun and worth playing, but not necessarily worth paying full price, especially when the DLC is factored in.
From the makers of FTL: Faster than Light comes Into the Breach, a peculiar kind of strategy game that is completely unlike anything I’ve ever played before. In the far flung future, global flooding has left only four small islands as the last habitable land mass on Earth. Civilization continues on until a race of giant subterranean insects known as the Vek begin attacking the citizens of these new nations. After a long war, the remnants of humanity are driven to extinction with the exception of the last squadron of mech pilots who open a breach in the timeline to travel to the beginning of the Vek incursion and relive the war as many times as it takes to secure the safety of mankind.
Each mission takes place on small, randomly generated maps that fill up an 8×8 grid of tiles. The player is in command of a squad of three mechs that drop down onto each map and must defend cities from the onslaught of Vek emerging from underground. Each mission requires the player to hold out and survive for roughly 4 or 5 rounds before the Vek retreat. As such, Into the Breach is really a strategy game that is more about defense than offense. Whereas strategy games such as Fire Emblem and Advance Wars are mostly about eliminating all enemies in a given mission or capturing an objective defended by said enemies, there is no requirement to annihilate the Vek in Into the Breach. Missions are failed only when a certain number of cities are destroyed.
The acute scope and defensive nature of the game result in something that is a hybrid of puzzle and turn-based strategy elements. The puzzle-like nature of the game is strongly reinforced by the idiosyncratic way in which turns play out. In most strategy games, the player and opponent alternate moving and committing actions with their units. Not so in Into the Breach. Each round begins with the Vek moving into position and then indicating which tiles they plan to attack. After this phase, the player is allowed to move and take actions with their mechs. Following the player’s go, the round concludes with the enemies attacking the tiles they are targeting.
Since the player can see where the Vek are going to attack, they can effectively prioritize which enemy to focus damage on. Essentially, the player has the opportunity to sabotage the Vek before they can do anything. The Vek that are targeting cities are generally top priority in most sound strategies. The best thing about Into the Breach, however, is that the player is allowed to operate creatively in how they handle the situation. As an example, perhaps there is a Vek that is preparing to attack a city, and the player isn’t able to deliver enough damage to it to take it out this turn. However, most mechs have weapons that have some sort of knockback effect, so you can use that to knock the Vek away from the target. That seems simple enough, but it gets even more elaborate. Perhaps there is already an enemy on the tile you’ve knocked the first Vek into. The collision will do damage to both Vek, possibly destroying both. Or perhaps something even more interesting can happen, if there isn’t a second Vek already there. The first Vek is already committed to attacking the same tile relative to its new position. What this means is that if you knock the enemy 1 tile to the east, then the tile it’s targeting will shift 1 tile to the east. If there is an enemy on that tile, the Vek you moved will deal damage to this bystander.
The complex ways in which you can manipulate enemies makes Into the Breach feel like a puzzle game at times. Beyond the knockback effect I mentioned above, there are a large number of unlockable mechs that have special abilities that lead to even more strategically interesting effects. One of my personal favorites is a mech that can kick up dust storms on the tiles it attacks. These dust storms blind any enemy standing in them and render them unable to attack. This can be paired with another mech that confers electrical charge to all of the dust storms on the map, so anything standing in those storms takes damage each turn.
This is what really hooked me on Into the Breach. Experimenting with the various mechs and their abilities and discovering the ways in which their abilities can augment each other keeps the game from ever feeling stale. It is absolutely like a puzzle game. There are times when I would be in a difficult situation, on the verge of hitting game over, and I would spend several minutes going through the various possible moves in my head until finally I would have an epiphany and realize a way I could save myself from the situation. Of course, it’s immensely satisfying when this happens.
Like its predecessor, FTL, Into the Breach can be considered a roguelike game. That’s a bit of a nebulous term these days, but in this case it means that if the player gets a game over screen then all their progress is lost, and they must begin the game from the beginning. In the game’s story, this plays out as the mechs opening another temporal breach and time travelling back to the start of the war. I had mixed feelings about this when I started Into the Breach. In the past, I’ve really enjoyed games like this, including Spelunky and Rogue Legacy, but lately I’ve started to feel that this formula just isn’t for me anymore. The issue is really that I don’t have as much free time as I once did, and as roguelikes make you replay a lot of the early content in the game many times over, I worry that these games really aren’t the best use of my limited free time.
Fortunately, I feel like Into the Breach managed to narrowly sidestep this concern. There are a few reasons to which I attribute this. First, you reach a point where you can start on any of the game’s four islands. Initially, only the first island is available to play, but once you beat that island, the second island will be unlocked in all future instances that you start the game over. The same goes for the third and fourth island. Ultimately, you can play the islands in any order you please, and the final mission becomes available once you clear two islands in a given run (although there is a reason not to go the the final mission until three or four islands are cleared). Each island has sufficiently unique mechanics that choosing a different island to start on each time keeps the game from feeling stale.
It also helps that there is a wide variety of unlockable mechs that promote experimentation each time the game is started from the beginning. New squads of mechs are unlocked by completing special achievements in the game (similar to how starships were unlocked in FTL). Each squad comes with its own unique gimmick. The squad that is initially available at the start of the game are the Rift Walkers and are fairly straightforward, focused almost purely on direct damage dealing and some knockback effects. But then, for instance, there is another squad, the Flame Behemoths, that focuses on turning tiles into hazards by setting them on fire. My two favorite squads are the aforementioned Rusting Hulks, which are built around taking advantage of dust storms and electrical electrical damage, and the Zenith Guard, which make use of energy weapons that do chain damage to groups of adjacent enemies. There is a good variety of strategy represented by the different squads, and I feel like everyone tends to find their own favorite. It’s also just fun to experiment.
Into the Breach has a unique approach toward difficulty and victory. At the beginning of a run, a player chooses to start on any island they’ve completed so far. Each time an island is cleared out, the difficulty is increased for the next island the player chooses. After completing only two islands, the final mission appears on the map. The player can then proceed to this last mission or complete one or both of the remaining islands. Thus the game can be won in a two, three, or four island victory. Since difficulty increases based on the number of islands cleared, the two island victory is the easiest to achieve, while the four island victory is hardest.
I’ve honestly never managed to beat this game’s predecessor, FTL. I’ve made it to the final mission twice in FTL, and after the second time I realized that I would probably never be able to beat the game, simply because the final battle was so incredibly difficult. Into the Breach has a far more attainable ending, and the final mission is not nearly as insurmountable. In a way, this was a relief, because it meant I could obtain some closure on the game, but I can’t deny that it also felt a bit anticlimactic compared to the awe-inspiring final boss of FTL.
I actually managed to beat the final mission on my first try at it while going for a two island victory, but it was still a fair challenge. At one point, I was only a few turns away from victory, when I suddenly hit a wall. As I sat there strategizing, it suddenly dawned on me that every move I could think of would result in my team of mechs getting wiped out. Since I couldn’t see a way out, I was almost ready to resign myself to defeat, when I had a better idea. It was really late that night, and I settled on simply saving the game so I could come back with a fresh mind in the morning. (You can save at any point in the game and pick back up where you left off.) I came back the next morning, stared at the game for about 10 minutes, and then like a bolt of lightning, I was suddenly struck by a set of moves that would let me survive. With my persistence rewarded, I only had to survive a few more relatively easy turns before I attained victory.
Since then, I’ve also managed to achieve a three island victory. Someday maybe I’ll come back to try at a four island victory, but for now, I’ve set Into the Breach aside to move on to other games on my stack. In my post about Hollow Knight, I discussed how exciting and rare it is to find a game that isn’t merely just good, but is something that I truly love and hold in high regard as one of the reasons I enjoy gaming so much. Amazingly, I’ve played two games back-to-back this year, Hollow Knight and Into the Breach, that met this lofty standard. Years from now when I reflect on why I love gaming, Into the Breach will be one of the reasons. I think it’s that good.
Despite holding a long time devotion to Nintendo’s handheld gaming machines, I’ve never played a WarioWare game. Those games always seemed to disappear from stores really fast, and most of them are for systems that essentially predate digital storefronts. If you didn’t buy them at release, it was hard to find them later on. I guess Nintendo considers them niche and don’t ship a lot of copies. I like the Wario Land games a lot, so I’ve always wanted to try the other big series to carry Wario’s name. Thus, I jumped on the newly released WarioWare Gold for 3DS.
WarioWare Gold, like the rest of the series, is a collection of hundreds of minigames that are designed to be densely simplistic and only last a few seconds. Nintendo has dubbed these microgames, since they’re so short. In almost all modes of WarioWare Gold, the microgames are played as a random, rapid-fire sequence. As the player progresses through the sequence, the microgames speed up and also get harder and more intricate.
Really, WarioWare is a test of mental reflexes. Since the microgames only last a few seconds each, the trick to success is generally being able to quickly recognize and mentally orient oneself to each game as it pops up. Even though they’re simple games, you have to think fast to be able to complete them before the timer runs out.
For the most part, the microgames aren’t terribly hard themselves, but they do get more elaborate on the higher difficulty levels. So for instance, there is one microgame that features two breakdancing cats. The first cat displays a sequence of buttons on screen that the player must remember and input to get the second cat to copy the other’s dance moves. At high difficulty levels, more buttons are added to the sequence and the game speeds up. The microgames come in 3 flavors: mash, which utilize the d-pad and a-button, twist, which use the gyroscope in the 3DS and require rotation, and touch, which use the stylus. Less commonly there are also games that require the player to blow into the microphone. The game does a good job of using the myriad capabilities of the 3DS in ways that are gimmicky, but a fun kind of gimmicky that works considering the frivolous nature of WarioWare.
The story of WarioWare Gold is about as flippant and unserious as you might expect from a game about 5 second challenges. Wario is home one evening and realizes he’s too broke to order pizza for dinner. He brainstorms ideas to earn quick cash and settles on the biggest scam of them all: video games. Deciding to hold an esports competition, he enlists the help of his surprisingly large social circle to program games for the event. The result is a tournament featuring hundreds of simple micogrames, because Wario is definitely a quantity over quality kind of guy.
The story mode contains 18 chapters (called leagues to keep with the tournament theme) that each feature one of Wario’s friends. The chapter starts with a short video that tells a vignette about the character and then features a sequence of a few dozen microgames themed around the character’s particular interest and personality. Completing the sequence unlocks a second video that concludes the vignette. What’s surprising is how much thought and creativity is put into each of the game’s many characters. These characters have been featured in past WarioWare games where I assumed they were given more introduction, but even having no prior knowledge of this cast, I still found them pretty interesting and likeable.
The personality and goofball humor of this game is really what makes it stand out. The microgame concept is a lot of fun, but Nintendo manages to really elevate the formula by putting so much effort into the presentation. It would have been easy for them to treat the microgames as simple, throwaway experiences that don’t require much attention to detail. But each microgame has little touches to the art and overall presentation that are good at leaving a distinct impression on the player. There’s also a lot of playful humor baked into the games themselves, as a fair few of the games are rather absurd in nature and then other games have hidden jokes and goofs.
I completed the story mode in a little over an hour. It’s doesn’t really take long to beat the game. After the story mode is finished, a number of challenge modes open up. Most of these function kind of like an arcade trial where your goal is to keep going until you finally fail, each time trying to beat the high score you set before. On top of these challenge modes, there are “missions” that add objectives to playing the other modes (e.g., get a high score of X in mode Y), and the coins you earn from completing the missions and story mode can be used to unlock a variety of collectible knick knacks and virtual toys. There’s a ton of replay value here, and I will probably be returning to this game on and off for months to come to try to unlock everything. However, I wish the story mode had been a little bit longer, if for no other reason than I enjoyed the characters and their misadventures and would like to see more of them.
All-in-all, I really wish I hadn’t slept on the WarioWare series for so long. Hopefully, WarioWare Gold does well enough that a Switch entry won’t be a long ways away.
I’ve finally gotten into Bloodborne. To my deep embarrassment, I actually bought the game back when it came out a few years ago, but, try as I might, I could never beat the first boss, the Cleric Beast. I eventually gave up and didn’t touch the game again until a month or so ago. I’m a huge fan of Dark Souls, and I understand these games require a high level of persistence, but this game just broke me for some reason. For a while, I’ve been meaning to give it another shot, and the final catalyst was its appearance as one of the titles given out to Playstation Plus subscribers.
The first time I dug into Bloodborne, it wasn’t just the Cleric Beast that gave me trouble, I had a rough time just getting up to this boss. I think I put in ~4-5 hours just slowly crawling through the streets of Yharnam. This time around, I remembered quite a bit from my original excursion and was able to reach the Cleric Beast’s bridge with surprising ease. I honestly was really nervous that I was going to get stuck at this fight again, so when the boss first climbed into view, I felt a huge amount of dread welling up inside. I threw myself into the battle and gave it my all and………slaughtered the monster on my first try……..
After the boss battle had ended, I wasn’t entirely sure where to go. Past the area where we fought was a dead end. And then I discovered……. the Cleric Beast is actually an optional boss……
I’m not actually sure why I had such an easy time with this boss, while years ago I struggled to the point of quitting. I started a new character this time, so perhaps I just chose better specs for him. But it’s not just the Cleric Beast that I had an easier time with. All the enemies leading up to that point had given me trouble before, but this time I swam through them with ease. I think the real difference is that this time I understand the technique and rhythm of Bloodborne a little bit better. I’m the type of Dark Souls player who spends a lot of time hiding behind a shield, and Bloodborne simply isn’t a game that can be played so defensively. There’s only one shield to find in the game, and its item description explicitly states that it isn’t very effectual.
Instead of a shield, Bloodborne gives the player a gun to supplement their standard weapon. The sidearms do a nearly trivial amount of damage when compared to the melee weapons, but they have the advantage of being able to stun enemies if you can time your shots to coincide with the enemy winding back to do an attack. After an enemy is stunned, the player can run up and do a melee attack for a massive amount of damage. Being able to effectively execute these types of counterattacks goes a long way in Bloodborne. I feel like in my first go round I had a lot of trouble getting the timing down on these stun attacks, while now it’s finally clicked with me.
Really, I’m left deeply embarrassed by the whole situation. I spent $60 on Bloodborne when it came out, didn’t get very far into it, quit, and then I only came back to it after it was made free to me through the PS Plus subscription. To further add insult to injury, I now know that the boss fight that stopped me from playing it was entirely optional. Sincerely, I kind of feel like a wasteful idiot.
On the plus side, I’m enjoying Bloodborne a ton. Right now, I’ve made it through the Forbidden Woods, and I’m currently working on the boss at Byrgenwerth College. The Forbidden Woods has probably been my favorite area so far. Up until that point, the game had mostly been focused on werewolf-themed enemies (with the exception of some oddities in the Cathedral Ward), and I was starting to get a little tired of them. The enemies in the second half of the Forbidden Woods break away from the werewolf stuff and go in a really creepy direction. And now at Byrgenwerth, the enemies are even more disturbing and bizarre. So much so, that I’m actually starting to consider that Bloodborne may have the best monster designs of any of the dark fantasy games by FROM Software.
The recent reveal of Serious Sam 4 got me thinking about its predecessor. I picked up Serious Sam 3 fairly close to when it came out, but I only got a few hours in before life events distracted me. After everything had settled down, it sort of fell by the wayside, as I was ready to move on to other games. But it was somewhat fortuitous that SS4 got me thinking about the game again. I really need a game that just serves as a distraction right now, one that just lets me zone out and relax, and I’ve always found the Serious Sam games to be fairly good at that. I’ve never beat the game, so I decided it was time to rectify that.
Despite the fact that I consider myself a major Serious Sam fan, I honestly couldn’t tell you what the story is to any of these games. They are obviously about an extraterrestrial invasion of Earth and have something to do with time travelling aliens messing around in Ancient Egypt, but other than that, the details of the plot completely elude me. Like I don’t know who these alien hordes are, and why they’re so dead set on coming to Earth and wrecking up the place. The invaders are led by an entity called Mental, but what/who he/she actually is and his/her motivations are utterly beyond my comprehension.
Serious Sam 3 is a prequel to the first game of the series, Serious Sam: The First Encounter. Obviously, you might expect, like I did, that a prequel would fill in some of the elusive backstory. There is a brief cutscene at the beginning of the game that lays out Mental’s assault on the Earth, but this quick introduction only raises more questions than it answers. We then cut away to Sam Stone helicoptering into Egypt with his squad mates on a mission to find a secret weapon that can stop the invaders. Everyone is wearing tactical gear and camo, prepared for the mission ahead of them….except for Sam, who inexplicably wears a t-shirt, jeans, and sunglasses with colored lenses (true to his wardrobe in the original game). I feel like right away, I’ve stumbled into some sort of joke that’s meant to imply that I really shouldn’t think too hard about the events to follow.
And of course, story is really only set dressing in Serious Sam. These games are deeply true to themselves. They set out to be the most intense die-hard action games out there, and they don’t pretend to be anything otherwise. When Serious Sam: The First Encounter was released, I feel like the word was that it was a game that set out to recapture the pure no-frills adrenaline of games like Doom and Rise of the Triad. That and that the game was just really good looking for its time. With the advent of games likes Half-Life and Unreal, action games had started to focus more on story and atmosphere than on pure action. Serious Sam was deeply retrograde in this respect. But while the start of the game did sort of harken back to Doom, Serious Sam eventually develops its own identity, one that couldn’t have existed on the technology that existed at the time of Doom.
What really differentiates Serious Sam is scale and scope. Classic Doom is essentially a maze game, born out of first-person dungeon crawlers. Within that game, players explore labyrinthine corridors and structures, with most of the action being close quarters. While Serious Sam games tend to have a few levels like this, most of the game instead opts for wider open spaces that serve as huge arenas for extensive hordes of enemies to besiege the player all at once. At a given moment, dozens upon dozens, if not hundreds upon hundreds, can flood out of the woodwork to descend upon Sam. The sheer number of enemies Sam can face at any instant is what really sets the Serious Sam series a part from other action games.
While it’s easy to see how such a game could quickly become an overwhelming experience, these games tend to be balanced well enough that, for the most part, they don’t descend into relentless frustration. The trick is to keep moving. Enemies don’t really track Sam all that well, which means as long as you don’t stay in the same spot (or better yet, move in serpentine patterns) you can slip through their incoming projectiles. Another important strategy is to retreat backwards toward the direction you came. The faster moving enemies will manage to keep up with Sam, but the slower moving (and more dangerous enemies) won’t be able to catch up. This divide and conquer tactic allows you to take out the faster and weaker enemies first, and then proceed toward the bigger and more threatening enemies.
I enjoy a lot of different types of games. I like games like Final Fantasy which have a heavy focus on storytelling. I like games like Dark Souls that have rich and complex mechanics to master. And I like games like Fallout that present a vast and immersive world to explore. But sometimes a Big Dumb Action Game that just focuses on getting directly to the excitement can be really cathartic for me. I feel that I’m the kind of person that has difficulty relaxing, and I think the problem stems from the fact that I have trouble silencing and shutting down my thoughts. My head has too much noise in it. I like games like Serious Sam because the action is unfiltered. The experience doesn’t have a lot of story or setpieces or other interruptions that stop my brain from being in a very focused state on the action, and this focused state burns off brain cycles from being used on thinking about work or other sources of stress.
By the time I had beaten it, I felt Serious Sam 3 was a thoroughly worthy entry in the greater Serious Sam series, but I would still recommend Serious Sam: The First and Second Encounter over this entry. For various reasons, I just think those two games are a little more fun. The only solid issue I had with SS3 was the final level. It was a massive slog. The level is set in a long, fairly linear canyon that seemingly goes on forever and terminates in the final boss fight of the game. And they take the game’s signature element, the massive hordes of enemies, a little too far. There were way way to many enemies in this level. It took me forever to get to the end, and I was completely ready for the game to be over and done with by the time I made it.
The final boss fight is also a little odd. Another signature of the Serious Sam series is that the games end in bosses that are ridiculously giant. I remember how people freaked out over the first game’s ending, and how big the last boss was. At the time, I don’t know if anything that big had ever been seen in a game. Certainly not anything that moved. Serious Sam 3 doesn’t disappoint when it comes to the sheer volume of the screen that the final enemy takes up. However, my issue is that you don’t actual fight him in a typical way. Rather, he’s like a puzzle that needs to be solved, and the solution requires an item that is just haphazardly hidden in the level, and there’s no indication given that you need to look for this item. I had to pull up a guide on Steam to actually figure out what I was supposed to do. Once I found this item, the rest was ridiculously easy. I would have been let down by the anticlimax had I not been so ready for the game to end.
All those issues aside, Serious Sam 3 is a great modernization of the series, but it doesn’t do a whole lot to meaningful advance the formula that it is built upon. I’m liking what I’ve been reading about Serious Sam 4, however. SS4 is a prequel to SS3 (which is in turn a prequel to SS1), and it deals with the onset of the alien invasion of the Earth, rather than its aftermath. Action seems to take place all across the planet, as opposed to being contained to just Egypt. And they seem like they are adding a lot of interesting new enemy types. SS3 introduced a few cool new enemies, but it was mostly reliant on the staples of the series that were introduced in SS1. I’m actually really excited for SS4 now, and I hope it can really be a turning point for the series to gain the popularity it’s deserved for a while. And maybe….just maybe… it will finally give a satisfactory explanation as to what is actually happening in these games.
Each year when the Steam Summer Sale rolls around, I like to put together a quick list of recommendations for lesser known games that are going for really cheap prices. One of the reasons for doing this is that I think sales like these are good opportunities for trying out underrated or rough around the edges games that you wouldn’t always take a chance on at higher prices. A way to explore your tastes in games, if you will. I have two criteria to maintain the spirit of the list: 1) These are games that I (arbitrarily) feel are underrated or have been forgotten about, and 2) They have a price point no greater than $5 (USD).
This year, the list is coming in hot, since the summer sale started just as I was packing up to take off for a week long vacation (probably the longest vacation I’ve taken in forever). The sale ends Thursday (7/5) at 1:00 PM EST, so I realize there’s not a lot of time left to consider these recommendations. I thought about not doing it this year, but I decided I wanted to keep up the tradition, since I’ve been doing these lists since 2014.
I had a little more trouble writing the list this year because of the time constraint I found myself in, but also because the deals just don’t seem as good as they’ve been in past. When searching for games to put on the list, several titles I thought would be going for under five bucks by now weren’t. In fact, I’m not entirely sure previous years’ lists are still valid, since I noticed that Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed from the 2015 list wasn’t even on sale at all this year! Nonetheless, I still think you can grab most of the titles form the old lists fairly cheap, so I recommend looking over those too if you are interested.
Jazzpunk was actually one of the first games I wrote about when I started this blog way back in 2014, and I think this is the first year that it’s finally hit a price point to qualify for this list. Jazzpunk is more of an interactive comedy than a game. The game chronicles the missions of a secret agent codenamed Polyblank, who lives in a bizarre alternate Earth version of the Cold War. There’s not much challenge to it, rather you spend your time exploring the environment and discovering bizarre situations and odd mini-games to play. The comedy relies heavily on non-sequitur and absurdism, so it can be hit or miss, and of course it will depend on your own sense of humor if you find it funny or not. I found it to be an amusing experience, at least.
Pirate Pop Plus
Pirate Pop Plus is a simple arcade-style game that is based on an old Japanese game called Pang. I don’t imagine many people are familiar with Pang. I certainly wasn’t until I played Pirate Pop. In Pirate Pop, you play as a little pirate guy who needs to clear the screen of these bubbles that bounce along the ground and deal damage to the player upon contact. You do this by shooting upwards (and only upwards) at the bubbles. Each time you hit a bubble, it breaks up into smaller bubbles which are harder to hit, but also bounce lower to the ground which means they are also harder to dodge. As the game progresses, the formula gets varied up with gimmicks like alternating directions of gravity. Pirate Pop is basically an arcade game, meaning you start at the first level each time you play and your goal is to beat your previous high score. It definitely can be fun to play for short bursts when you don’t have a lot of time to play something more serious.
Haunted: Halloween ’85
Haunted was originally released as a homebrew NES cartridge and eventually a PC port was made available on Steam. You play as a kid who wakes up from a nap to realize that he’s late for the Halloween dance at school. As he rushes to school, he discovers that his town has been taken over by monsters. Part beat’em up, part platformer, Haunted plays like a real NES, while most games that claim to be modern NES games play more like idealized versions of games from that era. While it can definitely be fun, it is also crude and frustrating at times. There are 6 levels, and no way to save. This means that each time you start the game, you start at level 1, just like most NES games. If you enjoy playing actual NES games, I definitely recommend it, but to others I would be a little more cautious. Two important tips: The first is that there is a secret uppercut move that is activated by pressing Down+B and does much more damage than the standard attack. The other is to play the game in windowed mode, because I believe there is no way to exit out of the game in fullscreen other than Alt+F4.
Quantum Conundrum is a first-person puzzle game that has a lot of similarities to Portal, but with the veneer of a Saturday morning cartoon. You play as a kid exploring the mansion of his mad scientist uncle. The puzzles are based around the gimmick that you have a device that allows you to shift “dimensions”, which really means that you can alter the laws of physics in the surrounding environment. Namely, you can make objects lighter or heavier, slow down time, or reverse gravity. You are guided through the game by the disembodied voice of your uncle in the same way the GladOS guides you through the test chambers of Portal. In general, neither the puzzles or comedy of the game are quite as good as Portal, but I think it’s still a fun game to play, nonetheless.
Strider is a modern take on the classic Capcom action series. This new version of the franchise is a bit more like the old NES game than its arcade counterparts. Rather than a linear action game, this is a fast-paced hack-and-slash set in a massive Metroid-style open world. Those that like Metroid-style games will probably find a lot to like about Strider.
Serious Sam HD
The First Encounter: $2.24
The Second Encounter: $2.99
Serious Sam is sort of a B-tier first-person shooter from around the turn of the millenium. In a time when many action game were going for cinematic-like adventures, Serious Sam had significantly less fluff and focused instead on a more pure action experience that was closer to games like Doom and Rise of the Triad than contemporaries likes Half-Life 2 or Halo. Serious Sam is about the war waged by time traveller and one-man army Sam Stone against an alien horde that is invading ancient Earth. Serious Sam’s signature style of gameplay is to basically inundate the player with a massive number of enemies at once. This might sound like it could get stressful, but I find that the games are balanced enough that they are challenging without being frustrating more often than not. Serious Sam was released as two chapters, the First and Second Encounters, and both are well worth playing, although I would try the first one first to see if you like this formula of gameplay before picking up the second.
Orcs Must Die
A handful or so years ago, there was a huge craze over tower defense games, and while I’m not much of a fan of tower defense, I really dug Orcs Must Die. In Orcs Must Die, you play as a wizard tasked with defending a castle that holds the portal to the human realm from an onslaught of invading orcs. Your magic allows you to manifest a variety of traps in each level that are strategically placed to thin out the encroaching horde. Unlike a lot of tower defense games, the wizard is an actual character that moves around the level, instead of being a disembodied entity that views the action from above. The wizard possesses his own weapons and spells that he can use to attack the orcs directly, which ultimately makes the game a fusion of tower defense and third-person shooter.
Tower of Guns
Tower of Guns is a roguelike first-person shooter from a few years back. The player is tasked with ascending a procedurally generated tower that is filled with relentlessly attacking robotic enemies. The coolest wrinkle to the gameplay is that the projectiles the enemies fire move in relatively slow patterns, which makes weaving in and out of these oncoming attacks as important as dealing damage to the enemies. This always on your toes gameplay is probably my favorite aspect of the game, and it’s one of the better games I’ve played that tries to marry first-person shooters with the roguelike formula.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.