Review — Hollow Knight

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed anything other than a movie. You may have noticed that I’ve been posting my weekly essays for my film class as the review posts the last several weeks, as they spoke more formally and about more specific topics than I usually address.

Well, that class is over, so let’s talk about a new game I’ve recently played through: Hollow Knight. It’s worth mentioning that I knew almost nothing about this game before I played it. All I had was: the art is cool and it was very well received by the community. I didn’t even know it was a metroidvania style game. (For those of you that don’t know, the metroidvania genre is basically characterized by a 2D platformer where you fight bosses and they give you new abilities, like dashing or wall climbing, that allow access to previously restricted areas.)

I don’t really play metroidvania games. They aren’t really my cup of tea for the most part, because the gameplay is often so linear. You explore one area, kill the boss, and you gain an item that allows you access to the next area and so on. Hollow Knight is very much a classic game in this genre. In fact it sits in a very strange part of my head for one very specific reason: it offers nothing new to the genre (outside the cool art and music), and yet gets too difficult for inexperienced players to enjoy to its full potential.

That’s the entire game in a nutshell, really. It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong. I played it for 30 hours and I’ll still probably go back to it to challenge extra bosses I couldn’t beat the first time. It feels fluid and it does everything right, with a few exceptions. But it doesn’t enthrall me with a compelling story, impactful player choices, or, well, any reason to play beyond the challenge of difficult foes.

Alright, here are my three main issues with this game, and they’re admittedly pretty small. The first is that the compass—your position on the map— is treated as something special. The only way you can use the compass is by devoting a precious charm slot for it, and these charm slots are precious because you only get a few and they are the core method of varying your playstyle.

My second gripe is the strange NPC interactions. There are tons of NPC’s in this game, and most of them offer nothing more than a few strings of dialogue. There is no way to tell if they are actually important or if they’re just randomly placed throughout the game, and it’s frustrating to meet somebody that sounds important and never find out whether they are. This is mainly a Kickstarter issue. I think a lot of this comes from people being inserted in the game arbitrarily because they funded money during production.

The last thing is that it is impossible to tell where to progress. You can explore endlessly, but there’s no way to know which areas are more locked than others based on abilities you do or don’t have, and this lack of direction is frustrating for me personally. You have no health bars outside of your own, so you can’t even tell whether the monsters in X area are more powerful than the monsters in Y area. This genre also obviously has a lot of secret areas, so by nature of its construction, parts of the map might be restricted because you’re supposed to come back to them when you gain a new ability, but you can’t know if that part of the map is just a simple secret pile of money or the path to a new boss. Also, I’m a completionist, so I hate leaving things like this for later because I know I’ll miss some when I go back to look for secrets.

Bad stuff out of the way, this game is great. The soundtrack is awesome, the art style is distinctive and unique, and the gameplay mechanics are intuitive, yet challenging. Bosses get tough, which makes the feeling of finally beating them very rewarding. Also, you can brag to your friends when you say “I beat the Path of Pain“, which is an insanely difficult platforming challenge. (Which, I’m proud to say I did beat, though it probably took me an hour or so.)

So, is the game worth buying? Well, I’ve been thinking about my brothers’ $1/hr rule of justifying games. I’m thinking I should start being more strict with that, because $15 for 15 hours of entertainment doesn’t seem great to me, especially when online games provide hundreds of hours of entertainment for free*. Hollow Knight is $15, but it also comes with a bunch of free DLC (which is downloaded and automatically integrated into the game), so with my 30 hours, I’d say $15 is more than reasonable. As I said, it’s nothing remarkable or revolutionary, but it’s a very solid game with some good music. If you’ve never played a metroidvania and you are interested in the genre, Hollow Knight is a good one to start with.

Review — Faster Than Light

Alright. I’m reviewing this game because, while it’s been some time since I’ve played it extensively, it deserves my articulated thoughts. In fact, I actually thought I had reviewed it. Dungeon of the Endless reminded me of the game in terms of music, and I brought it up in my review of that game. I intended to put a link to my FTL review on that post, only to find that I had no FTL review to link. So here it is. Plus, now’s a good time, because their newest game, Into the Breach just came out, and buying it gives you a free copy of this game, too.

What is Faster Than Light? Simply put, it’s a rogue-like strategy game where you’re piloting a spaceship escaping from the evil Rebel fleet. There are two core aspects to the game: Game dialogue and combat. Game dialogue consists of what is probably a majority of the game. You jump to a star, and a text box opens up telling you what’s going on at this star. It’ll say something like “A pirate ship is attacking a civilian cargo ship! What do you do?” (paraphrasing here), and you can choose to attack the pirates or ignore it. (There might also be a third option to attack the civilians, too, it’s hard to remember the specifics of each event.) If you choose to attack the ship, a combat will happen. They might surrender and give you items, and you can accept or refuse it. If you kill them, the civilians will thank you, and you can still choose to steal from them. Basically, this game is largely dictated by choice.

Not everything happens the same way every time. Choices you make can help or hinder you pretty much regardless, because the repercussions of them are also randomly generated. (It’s worth noting that it’s not all random. Playing over and over again will give you knowledge of what can happen and how likely events are to be good or bad). This basically allows the game to be infinitely replayable, because if each choice always yielded the same result, you could just look it up on a wiki and win every time (as long as you weren’t bad at combat). As a side note, the combat is the only thing in the game that is real-time, but you can pause as often as you like while issuing commands to your units and guns, so if you’re bad at doing things quick, don’t worry about it.

Is the game good? Well, let me start by saying it’s hard. I’m pretty sure I’ve only beaten the final boss once. I’m not positive because my computer blue-screened while I was playing it today and deleted all my stats. (My unlocked ships are still fine, strangely enough). But it also has three difficulties, and of the dozens of playthroughs I’ve tried, I’ve beaten it once. On easy. Maybe I’m just really bad, but it is certainly not a walk in the park.

I love rogue-like games, and the single most important thing about it is replayability. FTL has a bunch of different ways to play, because there are lots of different kinds of weapons, races, ships, etc. The idea is once you beat the game with one method, you should try a different method. I’ve found that the Halberd Beam is just easy-mode. 3 Damage per room it and you can hit five or six rooms per shot? That’s insane!

Another thing this game does right is the music. Not only does it have a different soundtrack for each alien-controlled sector you’re flying in, but it also has a combat layer that seamlessly adds onto the music currently playing once you enter a combat (usually this means drums or other more percussive tools). It’s beautifully done.

So, this game does require reading. Not a lot, but you can’t just make choices willy-nilly until you start seeing the same events repeat themselves, and even then going too fast can mess you up big time. Overall, anyone who likes small, casual strategy-related games will love Faster Than Light. And though I haven’t played it yet, you’ll probably also like their new game, Into the Breach, as well.

Review — Dungeon of the Endless

Dungeon of the Endless is weird. I played it for the first time yesterday (well, two days ago as of this publishing), and the only reason I did play it was because a friend bought it for me and wanted to play it with me. I actually had zero interest in it. We booted up the game, it’s pretty small, and then while I was looking at stuff he just started talking/explaining.

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t really listening. I was in a weird mood where I was sort of tired so the enjoyment I was getting was pretty much solely just spending time with a friend (and brother). The game isn’t really fast paced, so it worked. I could just follow orders as he told me to walk in that room, put on this item, etc. Somewhat through osmosis I slowly started picking up the controls and the objective, and I have to say…

This game is amazing. It just does so much right for an indie game. Let me explain how it works. Imagine you’re in a giant tower infested with monsters that want to murder you. The only way to get up is to power the elevator, but the elevator is in a different part of the building on every single floor, so you have to carry the power source to it on every single floor. Problem is, there’s monsters everywhere. Trying to kill you, naturally. So you have to build defenses and power generators while you explore the floor, looking for the next elevator and (hopefully) not running into too many monsters.

Sound boring? Well, obviously it’s a bit more complicated than that. Each room you enter is randomly generated. It could have food you need. It could have an adventurer you can recruit (randomly finding them is the only way to unlock them). It could maybe be encapsulated by a toxic cloud. The fun never stops! You could have an amazing layout on one floor, have it be a cake walk and saunter into the next floor, only to find that you have no way of powering any of the rooms and there’s just too many monsters. The power of random.

It’s just a blast for a variety of reasons. It’s multiplayer friendly (up to 4 player), and is pretty much the same experience regardless of how many people play. If you’re playing single player you control four guys, and if you have three friends playing with you each of you control one guy. The game isn’t fast paced, there’s a lot of strategy involved, so if one of you wants to take a bathroom break or needs to go do something real quick, they can give control of their hero to somebody else and the others can keep playing. (Also, it’s soundtrack is great. The whole aesthetic of the game, especially the music, reminds me of Faster Than Light. Which, I’m just now realizing, I never reviewed! Next week.)

Is it without faults? Of course not. It’s biggest drawback is that in order to win a playthrough, you have to dedicate anywhere from 4-6 hours, because each of the 12 floors can take upwards of half an hour, assuming you don’t die. You can save it and play later, but you’ll probably forget what modules you’ve researched and what your characters were good at. Also, the interface isn’t the best. If you’re in a room with a dozen monsters and two friends, it can be really hard to tell how much health each of your characters have. And switching between characters you control can sometimes be a pain, too. The wording of items is suboptimal, too. You can see an item in a shop that says “Gives ‘Pack of Dogs’ Skill”, but without knowing off the top of your head what that skill does, the only way to find out is to buy it (or use the internet).

I’ve had the game for two days (one and a half, really), and I’ve already put 16 hours into it. It’s just a fantastic game, and if you have the time, it can be both mentally challenging and physically relaxing.

Parting warning. The game has two difficulties: “easy”, and “too easy”. I’ve never won on easy.

Review — Thief Town

Thief Town is a fun little party game that is sort of obscure, both because how simple it is and the fact that it doesn’t have much replayability. It’s got a retro style and some unique gameplay, though, so I think it’s worth a real mention!

This is a four player retro-style arcade game. It comes complete with two buttons (aside from four-directional movement), and is purely an arena where you fight your friends. The way that the game works is you and everybody else are a bunch of thieves trying to stab each other. The only trouble is, you, your friends, and a bunch of added non-players all look exactly the same. The only way you can figure out which one is you is by correlating movement on the screen with the input you put in the controller. (Keep in mind, though, walking around in circles will make everybody notice you.) Everybody, including the AI, walk around until one of the players decides to stab. If an AI is stabbed, they fall down dead and nothing happens (except everyone can see who the murderer was, if you’re paying attention). If a player is stabbed, they bleed out and die. Last one standing wins the round, and the first to a set number of points wins.

I did say two buttons, though. Depending on the sort of game mode you’re playing, players can have access to random one-time use abilities, like smoke screen, trap, or gun. They all have various uses, such as the gun killing everybody in a straight line and the trap revealing any player that steps on it.

The game also has a few modes. You can play with or without the abilities I mentioned, you can do showdown, where there are no AIs and you just have to rely on more skillful stabbing (sometimes while the players are literally invisible!), or you can do Sheriff vs. robbers, where the Sheriff player has to shoot the thieves while they try to remain hidden and act like AIs.

There’s more, but that’s the brunt of the game. All the music is 8-bit and the game itself is very pixelated. It allows the focus of this game to be the gameplay–hiding and stabbing. You can stab everyone near you or lie in wait for people to reveal themselves by stabbing.

My favorite thing about this game is that there is an element of luck involved. The last time I played, I won two rounds in a row only to come out with exactly zero points the third game, and not from lack of trying either. Sometimes your friends just stab the instant the game starts, and they kill you. Sometimes they try to stab somebody else and they kill you instead (or also). Sometimes a giant tumbleweed rolls onto the stage and flattens you before you can get out of the way. Is it fair? Not exactly, but games happen so quickly and it can happen to anyone, so what does it matter?

I believe the game is going for $8 right now. Even with three other people to play it with (and it does have couch co-op, as is kind of necessary), it’s still a lot to ask for. This is sort of the game where you play it for a few hours and you’ve had your fill. I certainly wouldn’t pay $8 for it because I don’t think I’ve gotten 8 hours worth of entertainment out of it, maybe even combined with the people I’ve played it with. There simply isn’t that much to experience in the game.

But if you don’t mind that, it’s certainly an interesting game to pick up, and it is a lot of fun for a short period of time!

Review — Stories: The Path of Destinies (350)

Stories: The Path of Destinies is a choose your own adventure, rogue-like rpg game where Reynardo, a rebel fox, tries to defeat the evil emperor. Now, I’ve seen pretty mixed reviews about this game, and it certainly does have very clear flaws, but I had a lot of fun with it, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone who likes rogue-like adventure games, especially if they have a free evening and don’t know how to spend it.

I’m going to go off track a little here and talk about it’s flaws first. None of them are big, but they do add up and leave a bad taste. The first is the name of this game. Indie games thrive on being memorable, and this is the least noticeable name in the universe. It’s like they got the three most used names in the entire gaming community and found a way to use all three in the title. Now, obviously I’m exaggerating here, and the name does suit the game once you understand what’s going on, but this game would be much more prevalent if it’s name was noticeable.

Second, while the combat is one of my favorite things about this game: it’s hard. Specifically, there is no ‘invincibility’ timer that makes you immune for a second after you get hit. This means that if multiple enemies attack you at once and you don’t dodge the attacks, you can instantly die even if you have full health. Also, since this game has very specific camera angles, there will be instances where you literally cannot see some enemies, and thus can’t know when to time a counterattack if they strike.

Lastly, this game is a bit glitchy and doesn’t have the amount of polish I’d like. There are instances where I got my character stuck and had to start the mission over again, or found a way to walk off the map. The narrator in the story can also be redundant, repeating something he just said in the previous sentence. This doesn’t happen a whole lot, though. And that’s it. That’s everything bad about this game.

Everything else is awesome. You choose your own adventure, selecting different objectives to pursue and, as the story progresses, trying to piece together a way to win. Once you play for about an hour and complete an ‘ending’, which will be bad, you start over. The narrator gives you the same choices, but the voice acting changes because now you know how one side of the story ends. You can choose to go down that same path and make it end differently, or you can take an entirely different approach.

Going back to the beginning of the game never feels like starting over. You keep all your weapons, power ups, and levels, and because the narration changes depending on what your character knows, the story is always different, even if you do the same thing twice. You can make new swords, and this gives you access to different areas of the map. This game is so dynamic that even if you make the same exact actions over and over again, you can always experience new things.

The combat is simple, and one of the most controversial things about the game. I personally loved it. It runs the same way as Batman, Assassin’s Creed, or Shadow of Mordor, where you have a circle of people that you have to counter while attacking. In this game, though, you can grab people and throw them off ledges or into other enemies, stunning both. You can pull people towards you with a hook, and dash to get away or get up close. It isn’t easy. I like to consider myself good at this sort of thing, and I died a lot. Luckily, you can spend points in the skill tree to compensate for what you’re bad at (making your attacks do more damage, giving yourself more time to react, or giving your character more health to name a few).

I will give a minor spoiler here, but I feel like everybody should know this going into the game: The true, correct ending to this game is unattainable at first. There are twenty five different endings, and while twenty-four are bad, you need to ‘beat the game’ four times and unlock four truths before the ‘true ending’ is revealed. It’s a good ending, and it makes use of all the previous times you played it, so I wasn’t disappointed. This game has a ton of replay-ability, and even though I’ve unlocked everything and found the ‘true ending’, I wouldn’t mind jumping back in and playing through some paths I haven’t tried, which is most of them. If this game sounds interesting at all, I recommend you check it out. Maybe watch some gameplay of it on YouTube.

 

Me — Video Games (270)

With a past-time as diverse as video games, it’s easy to see why so many people play them. Are mobile apps “video games”? Is Farmville a “video game”? If you widen those gaps, is playing Tic Tac Toe over Windows Paint a “video game”? It’s certainly debatable, but rather than do research on what would technically be defined as a video game (who has the authority to say one way or another, anyway?), I’ll just define what it means to me, and talk about the sorts of games I like and why I like them. (Be warned, this post is twice as long as most). Also the pictures below are all screenshots to help convey what these games really are.

To me, a “video game” is a uniquely digital experience made for the purpose of entertainment. This means that basically everything aforementioned is a video game except Tic Tac Toe. Now, when I define myself as a “gamer”, that means something else entirely. Not having a large enough sample size to know what people do in their spare time, I’d define that simply as “somebody who frequently plays video games in their spare time”. Now that I think about it, I almost can’t conceive what people would do with all their free time if they don’t play video games. I suppose “most” non-gamers would be watching TV or Netflix these days.

But there are so many types of games out there, it’s hard to even define many of their genres. When I pick a game up on Steam, or simply decide which game to play, it is heavily dependent on my mood, how much time I have, how much I want to focus, and whether or not I want to play with people (friends or online).

Even six years ago, I rarely played anything with other people. I played a lot of RPGs at the time, and even the online things I played I never played with friends. I simply never had many school friends and for the longest time we only ever had one console or computer between the three or four of us that wanted to use it.

If I had to pick, I would say my favorite genre is the RPG (role-playing game), but even that is incredibly vague these days. What most genres boil down to though is game mechanics: what can you do in the game and what are the things you do to do it. In an RPG, most often this means to level up, upgrade your weapons and armor, and experience a story. These are games like FalloutSkyrimDragon Quest VIII (no surprise there), and a great many MMO (massively multiplayer online) games like World of WarcraftGuild Wars, or Rift. For single player games, I typically like to have a lot of free time ahead of me before I crack it open. You don’t simply boot up Skyrim and only play for an hour or so; the experience is much better when you can play for three or four.

First person shooters, or FPS games, are probably what many non-gamers think of when they think of our stereotype: a ten year old with a headset screaming obscenities at his TV because he just got shot and killed. There certainly is a lot of that, but when I play those types of games, it probably means I’m playing with friends and trying to waste time having fun. Call of Duty is certainly on this list, sure, but these days for me, FPS games mean Titanfall 2 (if you’re looking for what you would describe as a ‘prototype’ of the genre), Bioshock, and especially Overwatch. People think of FPS games as a guy with a gun shooting somebody else with a gun, but really all FPS defines is the camera angle and weapon.

Without making an absurdly long post of all the specific kinds of games I love (Heroes of Might and Magic won’t make it on this list, unfortunately), it would perhaps be best to condense nearly everything else that is relevant for me as a top-down or platformer game. The only thing these terms define is camera angle here: for top-down, you’re looking at the landscape from a bird’s eye view, or at a slight angle if you’re playing an isometric, and platformers means you’re looking at your character with your eye sight parallel to the ground. Typically that means your character is jumping up on platforms (hence the name). Awesome recent games like this include Transistor (isometric), Stardew Valley (top-down), and Owlboy (a platformer I have not played yet). All of these examples are single player games that offer vastly different experiences from one another, so it’s a little unfair to lump them all together. Oh, well.

The single biggest thing to define here, though is the time sink. When playing a game, you should ask yourself whether or not you can “beat” it. With a game like Final Fantasy, a super popular series of RPG games, you can defeat the final boss, put it down, and never play the game having experienced virtually all there is to experience. These are most often story driven games. You play for the story then walk away when you’re through with it. But with games that involve a lot of people, i.e. MMOs like World of Warcraft or popular FPS games like Call of Duty, there is no experience that “completes” the game for you. There is no end goal. It may sound weird, especially for somebody that doesn’t play games, but in the end its the experience you jump into a game for, so its not inherently bad that online games have infinite replay-ability. It’s like watching a football game: You’re not done with football forever when the Super Bowl ends, because there’s a new season and every individual game you watch will be different. It’s the same thing with online games like Overwatch or League of Legends or Starcraft: every game you play will be distinctly different from the last. That’s why these games are the best games to play with friends: there are no requirements. You don’t have to wait for them to be at the same chapter of a story or anything like that. You simply jump on and play a match, and then another, and another until you don’t want to play anymore. To me, these games are almost exclusively for when I play with friends, because the enjoyment I get out of them when I play alone is minimal.

As a side note, here is a link to an enormous (albeit outdated) picture of a flowchart on picking the “perfect” video game for you (I didn’t simply add it because it’s quite a large picture). Sort of a weird thing to say when I just explained how I play different games based on a ton of different factors, but I also like flowcharts, so here you go.

 

Review — Limbo (260)

I sort of accidentally played through all of Limbo the other day. It wasn’t an accident that I played it, but that I spent all of multiple hours actually going through the whole game in one sitting. I had never seen any part of the game to a substantial degree, and had only screen screenshots like the one provided.

All that being said, I played it in an unusual setting (especially regarding the fact that I usually play things for the first time alone at my computer in the morning): That is to say I played it before dinner with a lot of family watching and, Limbo being a puzzle game, playing vicariously with me. So I didn’t get to immerse myself as much as I would have liked, but it was still a lot of fun.

I expected this game to be dark and a little too creepy for some audiences, but it really wasn’t. There’s a giant spider early on, and sort of midway through you see people that are hanged, but that’s about it. You only ever see silhouettes, so nothing is ever that graphic. Since it’s also a story driven, indie puzzle game, it’s also very simple. It’s a side scroller and the only buttons you have (apart from movement) are jump and ‘interact’, meaning grab this or press that button.

There’s a reason this game got so big. It’s very well done. Obviously it makes very good use of lighting (since everything is all silhouettes), but it also uses the environment effectively to tell you where you are, what you should be doing, and what’s going on. There’s no dialogue, and the soundtrack is very minimalist: all open tones and sort of creepy sounds that I would hesitate to even refer to as ‘music’. It’s mostly just great ambiance.

So, the environment I played the game in didn’t allow me to pick up on any story. I openly admit I have virtually no idea what was going on, and the few things I did catch I won’t mention because spoilers. It’s a very short game. Go play or watch it yourself! It’s certainly an experience. It’s surprisingly not scary. There are some parts that get you a little anxious (like when you’re running away from the giant spider) but death has no consequence. It just takes you back to where you died and you gotta do it again, but better.

I watched a playthrough of the game ‘Inside’ a few months ago. It’s very similar, atmospherically if not visually. It’s a side scroller puzzle game, and it’s the same thing, really, only it looks different and the ending ‘goes to the other end of the spectrum’, so to speak than the one in Limbo. Because of that, I’d recommend Limbo more. It has a very neutral ending that is sort of up to your interpretation, and even if you didn’t understand what was going on in the story, you can be satisfied with how the game finishes.

It’s a great game with simple puzzles that can stump you for a good few minutes in some parts, but it’s never too complicated.