342 Reviews liked by giIsborough
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has a sweet spot to its length that makes it the most played classic Sonic game for me, regardless of all the amount of times I decided to replay Sonic 3 & Knuckles as well. Huge emphasis on speed, yet retains Sonic 1's more trap-filled slow-paced platforming that was present in zones like Marble Zone and Labyrinth Zone with Metropolis Zone. Metropolis Zone literally being the only zone in the game with Sonic 1's three act structure. Piling on the pop culture references with Super Sonic's clear Dragon Ball inspiration, retconning the six Chaos Emeralds for seven and Dr. Eggman's very own Death Star. You get a glimpse of Sonic's aviator influence with the aviator badge inspired design of the first game's logo as well as this game's, so Sky Chase Zone actually having you fly on Sonic's Tornado is a cool thing to flesh out Sonic's world. In fleshing out Sonic's world, Tails "Miles" Prower is introduced, who's the iconic and cute friend for Sonic's character to bounce off of. While I was the player 2 when playing the game with my brother as a kid, Tails was never my go-to character in the classics, heck nowadays I barely play with Sonic & Tails together since he usually gets in the way during Special Stages, but occasionally I do allow the little guy to tag along and at this point Tails is just such a lovable and frequently recurring character that I couldn't imagine him not being in the franchise. The Spin Dash also makes its first appearance, being such a thrill, with the ability to maintain speed and keep the momentum going.
I think I'm fine with the game ending with the nearly impossible boss gauntlet in Death Egg Zone at this point, but with how little you hear that twisted Death Egg Zone theme if you run straight to the boss, I kind of get this weird feeling like it was meant to be a longer zone. The theme stands out to me in displaying Dr. Eggman's goofy, yet legitimately terrifying nature, but I do love that, you have to at least get caught off guard by it when you arrive. Considering all the cut content, the death pit of spikes in Mystic Cave Zone Act 2 being an infamous indicator of the Hidden Palace Zone, I wouldn't be surprised that they had more planned for Death Egg Zone. Even though the original game had a story to tell with the progression of the environments and the true ending's outcome, Sonic 2 has this emotional climax, that signalfies Tails' admiration and friendship with Sonic, Masato Nakamura's chiptune rendition of Dreams Come True's "Sweet Sweet Sweet" that plays during the ending gives the game an emotional weight, distinctive from the rest of the classic Sonics. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 does everything you'd want from a sequel, improving from the original, introducing new elements and soaring ever higher in scope.
Definitely a game for the kinds of dudes who listen to folk metal records with average 11 minute runtime tracks and disgustingly detailed cover art. Yes, I would listen to that album--the Spanish-guitar-incorporating moody post rock BGM of this game was stellar.
Other than that, idk it was Dark Souls III but 2D and edgier. Authors definitely went to Catholic school.
Star Fox Zero
Star Fox Zero's controls were so good, everyone begged their favorite devs to include gyro aiming. The 1 to 1 motion controls gives players a level of dexterity and precision that far surpasses regular analogue sticks.
Not wanting to let a great idea go to waste, Nintendo brought back a similar gyro control scheme for titles like Splatoon and Breath of the Wild, both of which feel phenomenal!
Probably one of the most important games I played in my later childhood, but find it incredibly difficult to get back into now with all the new additions and lack of motivation to do much in it personally. But I have incredibly fond memories of Minecraft through the years, and its something that I'll always attempt to play again every once in a while.
Super Mario 64 Plus
(played with the modern preset but movement settings changed to not include any additions from games past Galaxy, or Sunshine in this case)
Having stars not boot you out of a stage really changes how you go about clearing them, I was always thinking of what star I should get and in what order as I explored. It also makes the worlds feel even more like these bite-sized playgrounds as you go through
This is the ideal form of a QoL fork/mod/hack, every piece of constructive criticism you've ever heard towards Mario 64 is here and working just like you imagined them to, with some extras to add, all able to be ticked and customized into your most ideal version of the game, or something else if you're feeling funny
Super Mario 3D Land
In a way, Super Mario 3D Land (2011) exudes as a class act in why historical familiarity of what lineage a recent work is actually building off of is useful context for assessment. What I mean is that Super Mario 3D World (2013, or 2023 depending on port) is clearly a direct continuation on the approach in this one but when I wrote my post on it I ignored the information I hadn't interfaced with to instead draw the point of influences from Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988) which thereby stressed the excess of coins, gambling machines, weak boss engagements, etc.
While I think that the reflection holds water just fine without playing this one, its become a situation where the most frustrating aspects of 3D World become less acceptable. For instance, the Bosses in 3D Land have hazard variations during the fights, flame pits etc. The 7th stage boss actually throws 2 separate boss encounters at the player at the same time. Once we get to 3D World this aspect is removed for seemingly no reason. On the other hand, most of the iterations I applauded 3D World for actually started here. For instance, the rather large post game as well as the 'pity help' Invincibility Leaf are both concepts that were externalized properly in 3D Land. Unfortunately the main takeaway here is it makes the ease of the flat plain boss encounters in 3D World downright unacceptable, you fight every boss in that game 3 separate times and there's nothing to make them more difficult than last time. It's even the same 2 Bowser Jr. kids! They could have literally just self plagiarized the layouts from Land point blank and it would have been more interesting so its frustrating and bizarre that they didn't to the point it makes me depreciate those games remarkably more.
I don't think I'm quite as guilty of malpractice as I make it sound because after pondering it for a while I think the 'bad' naming conventions may be a way for Nintendo to basically launder its own products and create the illusion of the improvement towards some sort of ubermench supergame when in reality they are recycling their old ideas with a new coat of paint. There's something to be said about how not tacking a number on the end actually does manifest them more as art than as disposable products. There's a mildly funny meme that goes 'If sex is so good where is sex 2' but becomes funnier when you recognize this is a format that is only popular in gaming. The sequel to the Iliad (8th Cent. BCE) is not 'Illiad 2' it's The Oddysey. Ditto for Shakespeare, etc. So in that way I think Nintendo and Sega walking away from numerological conventions is a good thing, but we can't pretend that the increase in title jank like New Super Luigi U (2013) operates as anything other than an artifice to confuse potential consumers into the historical lineage because it would unmask that the companies behind it are running out of quickly marketable ideas.
If I timed my word count properly, the Coin Companion should be about finished speaking now so its up to you if you want to loop it or keep it off assuming you didn't turn it off within the first 3 minutes. It's very annoying isn't it? Well, I choose it for the point of accuracy, because its what happens apparently in a Mario title like 3D Land if you take away a score counter and replace it with coins. The hyper inflation of coins is not only grating it also trivializes most of how you engage with the levels. For instance trying to get higher on the pole at the end or do the 5 red coin challenges only reward you with a 1 Up, thereby making them only intrinsically motivated goals because the inflation in play is such that by world 5 you will have raked up so many coins to have somewhere in the ball park of 40 - 60 lives regardless of your skill level. Lives were already perfunctory in Mario games past the point of the Game and Watch to NES era but here they become so inflated as to make almost nothing in the level aside from the exit meaningful. For the record this probably does explain why World reintroduced score but I still hold to the point that the real approach is to use star bits instead with the ability to feed those star lumas for levels. Along with the currently substantiated 3 coins that you pick up so that everything in a level moves towards new unlockable level (hell you even still have a touchpad in both games to point and feed them with). This may seem like a paltry reward, but as Land's own structure shows, unlocking new levels is supposed to be its own reward. Which is fair actually, it worked for Mario Galaxy (2010) so there's no reason in theory it wouldn't work elsewise as long as the player is enjoying the game and wants to see more.
If its not obvious by now, I did not enjoy the game and now that I've hit the post game content I don't want to see more. There's a few reasons for this I haven't mentioned yet. For one, the depth perception for landing jumps is far more awkward, not particularly helped by the fact the camera is pointed mostly down at the player so it makes it hard to see gaps forwards unless you walk. On top of this the main appeal of Land is supposed to be as a way to show off the 3D effects of the 3DS, which to be fair, its not nothing, its a pretty cool effect as long as you line your eyesight up with the device in a perfect perpedicular angle, but the Binoculars that you can stop and look through actively expose the weakness of the technology the moment you move around: if you aren't looking perpedicular the effect is garrishly disorienting. As if youre glasses fell off in the middle of a traffic stop with everything blurring up and looking hideous. More particularly, you can't play as Peach in this game, and shes made a sexist trope as per usual in this one. Worse than usual because in the picture letters between levels shes crossing her eyes a lot. She has so little autonomy in this one it borders on the expectations you'd get for those fetish porn mobile games. It's absurd, they have pink ribbons around the cage and in every cutscene all she yells is 'mario' and all Mario does is his strained wahoos and yipees that made me want to chop out his tongue and cook it as a delicatessen for Bowser.
Peach sexism would be heinous on its own, but it's even worse here because I realized in the course of play as Mario that trying to actually land jumps without a float mechanic to give control in the air is miserable. If you don't have the Tanuki suit on, you're going to fall off and die from an inability to assess how far your limited movement can take you. My guess is that if you aren't playing as Peach in 3D World its almost equally miserable, but at least in that one you can blow up the screen more to a whole TV to get a sense of your jump length and also there's enough camera variation and general spectacle to keep it at bay.
Now that I've bloated the length of this piece to the point only the regulars are going to read I'm going to unveil my true extremism: Peach supremacy. Mario has fallen off since 64, his long jump isn't nearly as good anymore, hes old and weak and unlikable. He should retire. Everything that makes the 3D games good is a sense of control which is why high level 64 play feels so satisfying. In Sunshine he 'crossdresses' via peach's float with the help of F.L.U.D.D. but then abandoned that once he realized the public wouldn't like him for it. Meanwhile he and Bowser maintain a sexist dowry over Peach which she openly flaunted against at the end of Odyssey. In every game where you play as Peach shes far more entertaining and satisfying on both a mechanical and story level. The sections in Paper Mario: Thousand Year Door were way more interesting for instance. Also, she's a go to character to play in Double Dash until you unlock Toadette, because the Heart power is sleeper good. If Nintendo is going to put off their announcements due to the death of the queen, they should just go full monarchist and respect their own queen and free her! I have retroactively decided every Mainline Mario title between Sunshine up to Bowser's Fury is bad if there is no Peach gaming and that every game where you play as Peach clears. I also will now agknowledge every Sunday as the Day of Peach. Now I must write another paragraph to hide this rampant monarchist support from the public in case they decide to just skip to the last paragraph to 'get the jist'.
All in all I think 3D Land exposed to me a latent point that is always worth keeping in mind: Game Companies are constantly borrowing their own ideas and pretending otherwise for the illusion of novelty. It's probably better to check the historicity of what has directly inspired a work before writing a large critique on one game over the others and, to that effect, is a tacit reason why going through a franchise in order of release might be a good idea. Therefore if I ever talk about Zelda or Metroid games you better believe I'm going to try and play them in chronological order so I have enough familiarity to say what has been added and what hasn't. Perhaps ditto with every franchise, we will see though.
Musical Accompaniment (just choose to listen to however much of this that you can before you dont feel like it, my Music accompaniment guy is on strike right now).
So they took the Super Mario 3D World physics, movement system, and powerups and threw them into an open sandbox level with the benefits of Odyssey's collectible design of not disrupting your play on picking up the collectible. I really disliked how Odyssey handled its moons, many of them just being haphazardly littered in the playspace, in deserts etc. By the standards of Odyssey then, Bowser's Fury is great in that every collectable is focused, with 5 hanging around each lighthouse and a few others on islands that you use Plessie to explore to.
Bowser's Fury actually answers 2 other issues in a couple Nintendo games to. Another recent one Breath of the Wild's Bloodmoon mechanic. In that piece, after a significant amount of time passed, a cutscene would interrupt you and all the enemies would respawn with several strong enough near you chasing you. The issue with this mechanic was that there was no threat to it, at least not in the mid to late game, since you would be stocked up on pausable quick heal items, and it would be easy to simply outrun the enemies. Here, Bowser occurs during the 'night portion' as a legitimate threat. He has blocks fall from the sky near mario and will breath a sizable flame attack near the player that they have to find cover to avoid. On top of this, you can also ward off the Reptile's bile by collecting a catshine (the primary collectible) early thereby giving the player legitimate control over the desperation state and allowing them to do something that isn't just run away for a few minutes. At no point was I irritated with Bowser coming up to attack me, sometimes he would disrupt me from the shine I was trying to get, however Bowser himself is also nessecary to collect shines as well by baiting him to break blocks and running to spawning islands that show up during the night. I hope that the Zelda development team takes note of how this game handled the day/night cycle tension because it was honestly a mess in BotW and comparing it to this shows a night and day difference.
Aside from this, Plessie is also acts as a reply to the sailing mechanic in windwaker. Compared to a small sailboat, here you ride a large sea mammal that emits a hefty rumble on a jump giving a weight to the journey. They also make the travel time from one island to another proportionally significantly shorter than whatever you are trying to do on said island whereas Windwaker was oversatisfied with being sailing simulator for most of its runtime. One other way it prevents a feeling of tedium is making Plessie vital on her own terms for collecting around 20% of the possible shines. These factors all work to keep the player constantly in a satisfied relationship with the collectathon element while still keeping them engaged with the environment. You are on a satisfied unbroken pursuit from one place to the next. The only thing I wish Plessie had here is a small boost operator. None of the timer functions would have needed to be remanaged, a small boost would just let me 'feel' the animal actually moving faster whereas tilting the stick forward doesn't convey a great sense of a change in speed.
One interesting note here is that most of the movement is based around power up swapping. Your movement options like the long jump, triple jump, and backwards verticle jump are all still cramped or removes. While this wasnt particularly an issue in the linear level design of 3D World (Especially if you played as peach who had the raccoon suit power baked into her movekit), it does provide a small issue with the large sandbox playspace, instead you gain movement control through power up accumulation and management, being able to hold 5 of each power up and swap to them at will. For instance you climb the side of scaffolding with the Cat Powerup, swap to the Raccoon one, and then float over to the other piece of scaffolding. This mechanic works mostly well and its honestly way more appealing than trying to do the obnoxious hat combos jumps in Odyssey, and is more accessible in general, my only grievance here is that it renders the basic mushroom powerup redundant due to this accumulation, since all powerups make it a dead power up from random box hits and 100 coin level up drops. On that note, here I unveil once again my fundamental hatred with coins. I hate the constant bling sound on picking them up and they simply were not necessary to litter this playspace with. I might be one of the only people unironically annoyed and averse to the coins that isn't a no coins challenge runner but I must be honest in saying that if there is a way to avoid such redundancy its better off to do so.
Speaking of redundant, the 'theme' here is that everything is cat themed, cats sprawl all over non hostile spaces, cat power ups are used in the Giga Bowser fight, and cat ears appear from all the enemies you fight. The first two are fine, but the others push the experience too much into the realm of 'gimmick' or 'joke game' which doesn't really fit in with the pollution anxities and kaiju descalation neuroticism from Bowser Jr. While we are on the point of aesthetic presentation, the sludge effect looks great, especially with contemporary lighting and liquid physics effects, it drips and sputters out like an oil spill coming alive which is fantastic.
Spontaneous Critique on Cameras
What isn't great is the fact I have a sleepy camera for viewing it all. I believe that Mario 64 has actually the best camera in any 3D game I've played, which is a bold statement because most people dont really know how to use it and thus see it as a nuisance (which for me is part of the appeal to, I love having to fight with the camera sometimes in games its actually funny as hell to have Borne levels of confusing camera positions happen out of nowhere in the same way its funny when you long jump off a cliff when you meant to ground pound). To me, the Laikatu camera has so many functions in its favor that I could easily write a fluff piece about how it makes 64 a perfect game as its own, however to cut a long story short, there's a speed to which the camera will snap to the various fixed positions that isn't found in almost any 3D console game afterwards. Most 3D console platformers/action games have at least compensated the monopoly of this garbage 360 drone camera by making the speed for moving it reasonably fast (though not nearly fast enough imo). 3D world actually did bring back the fixed camera positions for the single player campaign, but made the positional change points slight and for the most part not tracking the player as they move forward. Most of the camerawork was semi isometric so I get why they couldn't port that over. However they could have at the very least made the camera more sensitive and move more quickly because stuff will attack you off screen and it will take a full 2 and a half seconds to reorient the visual space to figure out the confusion. This has been a problem in every Nintendo released 3D game since Mario Sunshine but at least Sunshine is kind of funny about it since Mario Sunshine has a wacky masocore energy to it in random bursts. The reason I'm highlighting it here then is that its the worst the camera has probably ever been for this. I was constantly getting annoyed in the Giga Bowser fights because the dude would roll off screen and I'd have to pan over forever to put him in view. This is simply an end point problem of what happens when you make games built around spectacle with contemporary graphics. For instance I would prefer that the sensitivity is increased, but this is a double bind, because with the graphical polish on display it would feel woozy and disorienting scrolling through that much information before settling the edge of the frame. I dont mind because I've played a lot of games, so I get why inexperienced players wouldn't enjoy that. With that said it's also a tacit point against staying in the realm of 3D graphical fidelity too long in general, because the issue ultimately becomes a problem of juggling visual business with the conveyance of context sensitive information.
I noticed for instance, in Resident Evil 4 Remaster that due to the visual business of the space, yellow paint effect is adorned to all the movable objects to convey context sensitivity. Meanwhile, the wacky camera controls in Metroid Prime Remaster were also stripped back due to the fact its 'antiquated' design comes in sharp contrast to an increase in visual business. The clear appeal is the market dominance of spectacle as immersion. I'm deeply opposed to it. Environmental detail is not that vital if it ambiguates control. Immersion comes through a sense of control or lack thereof, and through impassioned dialogue and interaction with other characters. A lot of modern 'polished' games offer a pretty environment for the expense of less control and clarity, and generally game environments have problems with letting characters speak for themselves. For instance here Bowser Jr. attempts a dialogue with Mario, and instead of letting that dialogue function on its own, an awkward disembodied narrator interprets what Bowser is saying to the player rather than letting the man speak for himself either through pictures alone or voice acting. You might be thinking 'so what?' well, I think the reason people have become too skiddish to letting characterization happen through imagery, body language animation, or various other non dialogue interactions is because people who play games for whatever reason seem to have trouble properly interpreting non dialogue interaction on their own. For instance Transparency made a strong argument in favor of the idea that people ragging on Balan Wonderland for the 'nonsensical story' were simply not paying attention and I would have to say I agree with her assessment. This is an ultimately sad state of affairs, I think its because people are afraid of the ambiguity in images but it creates another paradox. In modern gaming you have complex facial rotoscoping and detailed environments, both of which 'enhance' a raw interpretive ambiguity. Yet, instead of taking advantage of it games like Death Stranding and The Last of Us are obsessed with talking to you. In cutscenes, in the walk and talk, in dialogue boxes, etc. You can't share a stare or look at a painting. It's chatter until the day goes by. Instead of 'talking' this point to death I'll instead just vaguely gesture at Journey as a clear example of how non-verbal storytelling and non graphically 'real' space can be effective for immersion. Whether maximally so or not I leave up to your discretion.
Aside from these admittedly exaggerated complaints, I feel like what makes Bowser's Fury work in its favor in this format is its short runtime and compact open sandbox design. If the game was 3 times larger as some people are wistful about, a lot of what makes it work would begin to strain if it went on too long without being rehauled properly, all the moments I mentioned annoyed me are functionally footnote complaints to an otherwise solid experience. I recognize that such a difference is probably found in the fact most people who played this actually liked Odyssey as well when I find that one bland and flat.
Super Mario 3D World
The weakest aspects of this one come from the fact it borrows, for the purposes of nostalgia sales, the design approach of Mario Bros. 3 (1988) and New Super Mario Bros. (2006). Specifically the egregious gambling nature of the casinos and box choice houses, insistence on timers in every level that prevent leisurely play, overabundance of coins despite having no meaningful extrinsic value, and inane boss reuse in spite of how simple they are, and worst of all needless score information. The score factor admittedly becomes more meaningful when playing with multiple people since there becomes a competitive crown stealing aspect, but I cant help but think that one of the main reasons Mario Galaxy plays so well is because they had the good graces to fade out the non relevant parts of the hud display during play. If you pick up a green mushroom in Galaxy you get treated with a life indicator for about 5 seconds and then it disappears, allowing you to focus on the beautiful aspects of play in front of you with no intrusive text in the way. Meanwhile in Super Mario 3D World you never escape from the fate of knowing all these needless stats at all times. I really hate the proximity score affects and abundance of coins and all this stupid pachinko shit that was in Super Mario Bros. 3 that people are too rose tinted to realize just suck then to and add nothing to the experience besides the stupid brain jingles you shouldnt want to be there anyway.
I wanted to lead with this caveching because I think in terms of spectacle this is otherwise a Mario title at its most dynamic and beautiful. Part of that praise comes from the fact I can play as Peach and not Mario which is huge because I'm a girl and love playing as girls in games. Beyond just that, all the levels are like 3 minutes long at most and literally every level in this damn game has a different camera angle, set of mechanics, and player interaction with the powerup. You'll bounce from 1 level where they expect you to climb like a cat between rafters to another level where you have to mow down pirannha plants with your jumps, to another level where you have to explore on the beach for a while to progress. There's a constant showmanship here in the oscillation of play, levels are short but sharp, like a violinist doing a solo. Does this make the levels come off more 'disposable' in a sense sure, but only really in the build up of the overall composition of the play experience. Each level is dynamic enough to exude its craft. There's one level I really loved where you were fighting everything in the shadows, this was used once and never again. Some may think that this approach is disappointing because it squanders a strong mechanic, however I think this helps keep the experience fresh and surprising. Sometimes the restraint is useful in building a larger moment.
Everything about the aesthetic of this is evocative of a circus performance, all the characters including Bowser are playing dress up. You surf on a large animal and save small people, its a Mario equivalent of Alice in Wonderland, which is a circus of dreams in its own right. Theres jazzy big band music and the lead up towards the end goes all out in flair and clourfulness. They are always changing the camera position to keep things disoriented 'towards' something, the center of the circus arena maybe? You're constantly going up and towards the center of the pit, even when you look on the map that's how it's laid out. Mustering your courage through green stars to progress to the top of the trapeze and perform your part of the show. The game had the good graces for instance in the final fight not to do an operatic showdown against Bowser in a 3 Stage Boss Fight ala Mario Galaxy or Mario Oddysey but instead switch it up by making it an autoscroller where you balance your position on the climb up dodging his invincible attacks. The stage itself becomes the boss which shows an incredible understanding of what is actually satisfying in these titles!
There are some ways in which I agree that the game feels mediocre, the build up takes time so the early worlds are admittedly snoozeworthy, though that can be counterbalanced by playing with friends or focusing on getting all the green stars early on. More crucially, the long jump in this game is painfully garbage which makes running into a boost just the operable mode. Stringing long jumps is a classic movement tech in these titles so stripping it away to force players not to have fun leap frog moments is a huge whiff. However, for me at least I think the statements of mediocrity are overstated.
This is way better than any of the 2D Mario titles its borrowing from, and significantly better than the 3D ones that came after it. It's even better than Mario Galaxy 2 as blasphemous as that may seem. Playing as Peach is just a breath of fresh air honestly, the amount of control on her float tech is incredible. I think most the people who weren't keen on this one overemphasized the humdrum of the early sections, played in isolation, or didn't play as peach. Try and separate yourself from these factors and you have a fantastic adventure. You don't see the circus aesthetic in earnest aside from this and maybe like Dropsy done without some of the exploitative elements of Barnum freakshow entertainment weighing it down, so have a heart when its done well I say. Stay Peachy!
I just finished the normal ending of hollow knight with 88% completion marked. I have some boss rush content and a few small sidequests to finish up but otherwise I think I'm perfectly comfortable with where I'm at with the game.
This game is amazing honestly! I don't play a lot of metriodvanias so coming back to this was refreshing. But you're mileage on this one may vary, so let's dig into why that may be the case.
Firstly, I say coming back, because at one point a couple years ago I put a solid 20 hours into this game and hated it, but I've almost certainly warmed up to it because in a sense I think my priorities and sense of appreciation for ambient story telling has changed.
I'll return to the ambient exellence in a moment, allow a short tangent on my past perceptions. You see, back then I think I was annoyed, in part because I found the game far too simple and easy, none of the music or art stuck out, and I think I quickly had picked up on the lack of diagonal platforms or general lack of collision platform complexity.
It's also a very slow experience. When you start playing, there's no functional way to put it, the game is boring you can only jump, you walk absurdly slow, and your not bound to pick up a dash for around the first couple hours or so. When you start, you're coming out of a cave, reading some esoteric plaques about the Pale King, etc. And every area to the west of the starting place is fairly unexceptional until you get to the Lost City (which is absolutely breathtaking).
So what kept me hooked this time? Certainly it wasnt my attention span, if anything its gotten worse. The main thing, aside from some company to keep me comfortable during downtime, is actually something that would be a bit invisible to a lot of people. For one, opening up the map and finding secret areas is extremely satisfying in itself. Almost every room has a cove that connects and a lot of the time that sense of exploration actually gives you something better than just the material benefit of saving the Grubs or a Pendant, but instead shortcuts back through and around areas your in. Connecting the map is an incredible gameplay loop, because they seemed to have gone out of their way to make the game as compact and interconnected as possible for this type of game. By comparison a lot of other Metriodvanias, like say axiom verge try to tire you by giving you a giant planetary world, Hollow Knight feels appropriately scaled down, the tram stations, stag stations, and elevators eventually make you realize getting to almost anywhere on the map takes about at most 2 minutes, which is not something you can say about most of these games.
The other reason is far more invisible. The developers were incredibly mindful about the rumble effects in this game. I play a lot of my games on an xbox controller because the rumble effects can be tactile and satisfying, and would usually rather exchange it over better aim or higher button variety in most games, especially since I play a lot of my games lazy from my bed. In this case, whenever you dash a faint small rumble is emitted. Whenever you get hit a very large rumble input is let out, and whenever you are attacking an object a slightly medium sized rumble is released on impact. What this means is, combined with a soothing orchestral ambience, with notably no percussive or juttering beats in the tracks, a lot of being outside combat is not necessarily to avoid dying, since it's fairly easy to get your currency back but instead keeping the percussion as quiet as the music and tone of the game, whenever you get hit its loud and disruptive. In the meantime the very small non attention seeking rumble set off by a dash is so incredibly enjoyable you could simply dash around for hours exploring and have that carry the quiet moments on its own. You're playing as a small bug, so of course your job should be to keep a low profile and not cause too much disruption all at once and your own presence would be bold but quiet. Meanwhile, when you get hit back to back it feels like a small earthquake is happening. In this way the core mechanics of the game build in with the environment and character you are actually playing.
Now I could sit here and gush about how amazing all of the areas of the game are, but this wouldn't provide much utility as a review or memoir of the experience to my later self, not only because it would be far harder to actually read back and reminisce on, but also because I could simply look up a video or open the game in 3 minutes and simply see this to be the case, so instead I'll bring attention to one of my favourite encounters in the game. Underneath the City of Tears, the main City region of the game, is the sewers area referred to as the 'Royal Waterways'. The area is shrouded in darkness and dew, most of the time you hear creatures far before you come into contact with them, and a lot of stuff is toppled over, with your bench in the area being tilted sideways. It's supposed to be messy. Ominous, and foreboding. This all comes to a head when you meet the little bugger asshole called in game a 'Flugenon', a small worm that lets out this nasty frenzied gutteral sound like nothing else in the game, and on sight with you chases right after you as a turret. Once you realize what is happening of course you smack it down, only to then moments later have 2 smaller pieces chase after you, one in the sky and the other on ground. Both making smaller and slightly distinct sounds from the larger version. These zombie worms cover a lot of the darker regions of the sewers, they impress me both because of their enemy movement and attack pattern design feeling so disorienting in how smooth it is, but it also filled me with dread, despite the fact I didn't die to them even once! It just added so much to my experience that these little guys were there.
The reason I thought to highlight these incredibly small pleasantries is that I quite honestly think it's this, and not how difficult or complex a game is, that matters to me more these days. If I were to assess this game on its difficulty I would of course feel disappointed, as even though I did die a lot, I only felt 'challenged' by the Prince Zote level 4+ fight, and some of the Dreamer fights. This is absolutely because the Souls series has warped my perception of how long I should be spending on a boss. I'm generally of the impression if I didn't spend over 20 minutes on a boss, it wasn't a very good boss, this is definitely a sentiment I'd do best to get away from, as by that metric almost all games are going to disappoint. But I hope you can understand its a sentiment that was not consciously cultivated by any means. I should note however this was quite the game to do it, as I felt my encounter with none of the bosses this time around were wasted, I particularly want to give notice to the Lost Kin and Prince Zote fights. Along with a wonderful final boss. These fights were absolutely brilliant with the zoning and focus it requires to take on Prince Zote, and the story that goes along with him, making him likely one of my favorite boss encounters in a videogame in recent memory.
Zote's story and his 62 precepts alone were worth the experience, but a lot of the small cast in this game are great in terms of offering both functional and storytelling purpose. I love the fact that when you hit up many of them with the mind reading device, you find out most of their thoughts are actually as equally mundane as what they express aloud a lot of the time. It's a nice touch, because you could have easily made for example the map makers wife Iselda have a mind completely panicing about her surroundings, but I think it makes a lot more sense that shes actually still just brooding about her husband and giving a small insight into her past life through that, rather than something contradictory. It's very easy to write a lot of thinking dialogue as contradictory or histrionic, and occasionally that is the case, but in reality I think a lot of peoples thoughts tend to reflect their outward presence. There's a charming realism about it. Plus its not exactly like there would be much point to putting on social masks for most of these characters at this point anyway. And the relationship between Bretta and Zote, the 2 most primary in their attention seeking behaviours reflect how futile doing so actually is.
Unfortunately, what stops the game from really being stellar, is when the small pleasantries clash with equally small frustrations. To its effect there's not as many, but they still stick out in a way that takes from the experience rather than adding to it.
For one, the economy of the game is understandably stagnant, so after you get to around the distant village or so, you'll stop having money to actively spend on. Perhaps earlier or later, depending on how mercurial you are, but I cant really see people getting more than halfway through the game without having most of the charms and upgrades bought out or at least the money to do so when they get around to it. This on its own is completely fine, you dont want to ramp the difficulty of the game too hard on grinding and, pairing that in with an economic depression from there being no population and therefore almost no shops left is great storytelling. But there is one exception: Divine. Divine takes your strongest charms (basically the build modifiers) and asks for huge sums of money to make them unbreakable. The issue is she asks for 10,000+ Geo per charm, and you cant get the breakable version back once you gave it to her. But, there's functionally no place to get that much geo that doesnt require large amounts of grinding. I understand shes a greedy prying mantis insect, but it would take me probably about an hour and a half of straight grinding one area to do this effectively, and farming has a lot of narrative issues because I start to treat the game as a calculator rather than as an experience, I know this enemy spawns here therefore I can farm it.
On top of this, the only real purpose of doing this is to exchange one tedium for another, since the character who can repair them is just in a slightly annoying spot on the map you have to go back to every time you die. It doesn't help that the charms in question also are just objectively better than most of the other charms in the game making it no question that unless you're not in the mood you make the run back anyway. I personally almost think this breakable charm mechanic would have been better off not being in the game despite its obvious narrative flourishes around it. Not to mention it makes choosing which charms to equip rather juvenile, you always equip Fragile Strength because it makes you do 50% more damage, making the possibility and build choice space that much smaller ultimately.
Following this, theres also the fact that one of the main powerups you get allow you to go through black laser doors but never mention this to you. It mentions you can shadow dash, but not through the door. I spent quite a few hours not doing much of anything because I assumed I had to do something else first. It seems primarily like a playtesting oversight; they didn't mention this in the blurb on pickup. After recognizing this I played the rest of it with a walkthrough armed. There are also giant coin pouches you have to hit over and over again for Geo, and seperate from the other considerations on geo drops, you usually only get about 30 Geo from each, as an external reward, the benefits of this are so incredibly low its almost not worth doing, I think for some of the later sections of the game they could have increased the coin drop rate from this to about 300, but they remain this same drop rate throughout the whole game.
One last complaint I have is that while the game is great in terms of boss designs, only knowing to top off moves at around 5 or 6 and knowing when to challenge the player with appropriate gap closers on most fights, the game really falls short in terms of its platforming. There's one section of the game in particular that attempts to test your platforming skills called the White Palace. Here, the game tests you by offering several difficult to navigate platforming sections, but the issue is that your vertical fall is not quite floaty or precise enough to support this. I think that your character accelerates vertical speed in the air, which is fine, but it also hits maximum velocity incredibly quickly. This maximum speed is frankly far to difficult to comfortable control. On top of this, most of the platforming involves buzzsaws. My girlfriend joked this was the 'super meat boy section' just because of how many buzzsaws there are. It makes sense in meat boy, a game hostile and arcadelike enough to get away with moving buzzsaws, but it doesnt make sense in a giant palace, even if it is a dream! I think they just ran out of ideas for what an appropriate obstacle to overcome would be.
And to be frank this is an issue I have with metriodvanias in general, but especially this one with the way the art direction is in particular: there is absolutely no way I'm going to passively explore the world for more secrets. The secrets are often hidden behind invisible walls in this game, making the assumed function of doing a full clear for the grubs or random missed goodies and charms, absurd. They make it slightly easier with the limited markers, which I admit are also quite fun to use to chart the map and note difficult/interesting areas to return to. However when it comes to finding grubs and charms, you would be doing quite a bit more wall hugging than you would probably like. I cant imagine pushing up to 97% and then trying to till the whole world for the last 2 relics or Grubs or whatever. They easily could have added a post game charm that makes the process of a clean sweep easier, as it is, this game could never convince me to 100% it, especially not without a guide. Now to be fair, a guide and simply not choosing to elect myself into stupid platforming sections in a game that doesnt support it that well solves both these problems. I also personally don't need the best charms anyway by the end of the game, and they are 'unbreakable' in the dream sections by default anyway, so the lack of external rewards make the difference for divine is not a big deal, but I cant really see myself doing a replay of the game anytime soon.
One last thing before I let you go, there's a justifiable amount of comparisons to be made between the story thematics and general gameplay of this game in relationship to Dark Souls. I don't want to overstate it, but the base ending of Hollow Knight read quite literally as a 'linking of the fire' rehash of Dark Souls. The story being esoteric and told mostly through descriptions and random hidden notes. The general gothic quality and themes of infection and decay. The futility of resurrecting kingdoms, etc. Also, the fact that it uses a checkpoint mechanic similar to the Souls series.
Personally, I think the only part where it drops the ball a bit is on the main ending Hollow Knight fight, I'm not really sure the game gives a proper send off of him as an antagonist despite it being the name of the game, a couple characters in town timid about the guy might have helped, since a lot of the commentary was about the Pale King! It just left me scratching my head. On every other front, I think it's okay to ape the influences of Dark Souls. It shouldn't really disrupt your experience all that much, and personally I just think calling antagonists and areas things like 'Lost Kin' or 'Royal Waterways' just has a certain gothic allure to it you don't see elsewhere. I wish well to more games taking advantage of what Dark Souls brought forward, especially on the point of environmental storytelling, which is monumentally well done in this case as well.
High props to the devs for also making all the DLC free as well! I'm comfortable considering all this DLC content along in my perception of the main game. Despite the game not being mechanically or emotionally challenging, this experience will stick with me for a long time and it ticks off a lot of the boxes for what I tend to be drawn to in terms of game design and atmosphere building in games as an artistic medium. Thumbs up all around!
High props to the devs for also making all the DLC free as well! I'm comfortable considering all this DLC content along in my perception of the main game. Despite the game not being mechanically or emotionally challenging, this experience will stick with me for a long time and it ticks off a lot of the boxes for what I tend to be drawn to in terms of game design and atmosphere building in games as an artistic medium. Thumbs up all around!
Sonic the Hedgehog 3
16 Lists liked by giIsborough