I had picked this up on PC on a sale a while ago, put in a few hours and something or other came up to distract me. The recent play through Blasphemous reminded me of that fact, and I decided to pick it up on Switch.
First, let me just say that the Switch itself is a near perfect platform for this genre of game. It’s quite ridiculous how the form factor lends itself to pick up and play, controller-based inputs. If the Steam Deck ever launched (or copied) and delivers anything close to this experience… there wouldn’t be much reason to use a Switch again. My Steam library (or PC library in general) has way more on it that is reasonable. I’m not seeing this as the whole Wii/Kinect/Move junk we saw before, this can actually work! And with Nintendo having netcode designed by a monkey intern, there’s another reason to move on. Price is likely the sticking point…
Back on track. Hollow Knight. A metroidvania game developed by a small studio, sound familiar?
The cell-shaded art is a standout, with extremely smooth and fluid movement throughout the adventure. It’s oddly important how much art cohesion is important in a game, more so that you can identify the protagonist, enemies, an environment with minimal eye effort. These games often rely on reactive movement in the exploration portions, or tells and memorization when it comes to bosses. The less work your brain needs to do on identifying queues, the better your reaction time.
The story is explored as you go through the game, with a purposeful lack of context in the initial set up. With multiple endings available, it’s entirely possible to miss the larger picture at hand. This is all standard for the genre (and something entirely lacking in Metroid Dread). Given the scope of this game (over 30hrs on the playthrough), there’s an interesting amount of lore here to discover.
The mechanics follow the genre as well, with nearly all gates blocked behind movement abilities that must be unlocked. Dash, wall jumps, double jump, and a move that simply launches you sideways. Movement skills/platforming elements are generally restricted to finding extra health or magic points, with the exception of the final optional dungeon. That’s a good thing, because it’s the only weak part of the game, with hit boxes and controls feeling a bit “loose”. I’ve been spoiled with Celeste I suppose.
You can access to a set of charms/spells throughout, which change the way you can approach combat. Maybe you want better spells, more healing, more health, or minions to help with damage. You’re limited in the total amount you can equip, which effectively gives you purpose-builds. I had one for exploration that increased the amount of money I made, while my final boss build was focused entirely on maximizing hit points. One particular spell upgrade boosts your dash so that you are immune for it’s duration… which still seems odd that it isn’t a default setting. You can’t clear the ultimate boss without it.
Exploration is interesting. Rather than having your map auto-update as you move along, it instead will only update if you have a base map (purchased) and then sit at a save point. You’re effectively a cartographer, which gives an interesting sense of adventure. It bears note that the map here is absolutely massive, with zero load times (again, Dread doesn’t do this). The path to the area boss is marked on the purchased map, but each zone has a ton of hidden content/shortcuts/connections to other maps to discover. You’re going to do a lot of backtracking across with new movement skills to move forward. It’s an interesting approach that isn’t for everyone.
Combat is the meat here, and combat is quite challenging. No question, the game is hard. You’ll die often enough while exploring, with the majority of the walls coming from bosses. Only 1 has any true form of randomness, the rest are all about memorizing patterns and taking advantage. I’d die 5-10 times per boss, figuring out the dance steps. The Grimm Troupe final boss was without question the hardest, much harder than the optional last boss (who is also incredibly hard). There’s a coliseum event, where you fight 16 waves of enemies, and it acts as a great training ground on how optimal combat can work. Video below is an optimal strategy for an optional boss.
The thing about this genre is that it needs to hit all the topics above, and find a way to integrate them. Clear art, great movement, twisted exploration, character development, multiple endings, and tight combat. That’s not a small order, but somehow it’s the small developers that are able to deliver. I keep picking on Metroid Dread, but it’s an outlier on a genre that has surpassed it.
Hollow Knight and Bloodstained are the high watermarks in the genre. Absolutely should be in a gamer’s library.