Victories in Hallow Knight are Anything but Empty

As you know, I am a big fan of the Nintendo Switch. I like to find games I can play on it and, as it happens, most of the highly rated games on the Switch are platformers. As I’ve said before, I love platformers and metroidvanias in particular, which means I’ve had my eye on Hallow Knight since before it came out. I’ve had it on my Steam wishlist for well over a year and, when it looked like the internet was going to be out for a while, I downloaded it during the brief periods when the internet was working. That was the best decision I’ve made this month.

Hallow Knight is basically just another metroidvania. You start out in a basic world with a jump, an attack, and the ability to heal yourself. After that, you slowly unlock abilities that let you progress through the game until you reach an end determined by a couple of factors. You move about in a two-dimensional plane, avoid stage hazards, and fight off enemies using a combination of your basic attacks and unlocked abilities to get around the special qualities of the enemies. When it comes to gameplay, its nothing super special. It’s fun, but there are better examples of gameplay innovation and quality. While it is fairly standard in those terms, it makes it’s mark because every other quality of the game is extraordinary.

The plot is fairly simple, you’re a knight who was called to complete some kind of quest. You don’t really know what, but you find yourself drawn to the ancient, ruined city of Hallownest. There, you find a cadre of characters, all of whom adhere to the “bug” theme your character starts, who make their lives supporting the numerous people who feel called to explore the dungeon or call it their home. One of the first I met was a map-maker who quickly set the tone for there being something a little off about the world and the people in it. As you defeat enemies and rescue these little worm guys, you start to notice blobs coming out of some of the enemies you defeated and then encounter enemies who had giant sacks of the stuff which they fire at you like little orange bombs. While exploring, you meet a few more characters who subtly work in references to a wonderful world lost and the eventual corruption of everyone who stays in the city for too long or who goes too deep. There’s more to the plot, of course, all of which is revealed through little hints or statements by the more peaceful denizens of the dungeon. I don’t want to spoil it, since I was more interested in digging up little nuggets of the plot, themes, and history as I played than I’ve felt while playing any game since Celeste.

While you’re working through the world, you’re making your way through a world of black, white, and grey tones that manage to brightly portray a world of gloom in a way I’d never thought possible. Occasionally, a splash of color shows up as some enemies explode into orange blobs or shoot little orange spheres at you. Occasionally other color shows up in the environment, like when you find a giant blue crystal that, when shattered, gives you temporary hit points. Other times, it’s something like a mine with light purple crystals scattered throughout or the worm creatures you rescue. Each time you see color, your eyes and attention are instantly drawn to it as it shatters the beautiful gloom of the greyscale environment you get used to between blooms of color. Setting color aside, every visual in Hallow Knight is absolutely incredible. The characters feel so alive and even the background stands out in its incredible variety as you try to find your way through the various rooms. Even though everything is notable enough that you never really feel lost or like you’ve just walked through the same room twice, it still all blends together incredibly so you know that the mine and the courtyard with the small palace in it are definitely a part of the same place. The game also makes incredible use of the foreground, having your character walk behind a whole range of things as you move from one place to another, but never in a way that you lose sight of your character.

Despite the fact they fit into the grey-scale, gloomy environment so well, none of the enemies are hard to spot or difficult to figure out. Occasionally a boss throws a new move into the mix as you chip their health down or their attacks start having secondary effects, but they mostly have pretty clear modes of attack and methods of movement that are nevertheless a challenge to work through without injury. Because of the way your character gets bounced back when it attacks an enemy, it can be difficult to avoid falling in the pit full of spikes and avoid running into the enemy as it is charging toward you. You have to push forward, toward the enemy, just enough that your bounce doesn’t send you off the ledge to your death but not so much that you run into them and get hurt. Throw in the variety of enemies and the way they mix them up, it gets to be a challenge to make sure you’re fighting each enemy the right way.

While you’re fighting them, the somber music in the background doesn’t change, though it somewhat fades to silence. When it comes in, it starts slowly, changing from simple environmental sounds accompanied by the wind to a rather simple but sad music that does an amazing job of representing the area you’re currently in. As time goes on, the music adds more, interjecting small sections of brighter notes to contrast with the quieter, more morose ones. It never changes abruptly and, even when I went to listen specifically to the music for this section, it was so subtly and perfect that I almost didn’t notice the change.

If you like metroidvanias and you haven’t played Hallow Knight, you’re missing out on incredible artistic masterpiece of a game. I recommend you pick it up and let yourself experience it at a comfortable pace. This game begs for a slow, methodical play-through and I recommend you play it in a dim room with little other noise so you can fully immerse yourself in the experience.

Return to Celeste Mountain

One of my go-to unwinding games has been Celeste. I really enjoyed playing through it the first time and, while I can’t recapture the catharsis I felt as I watched Madeline work through her problems for the first time, I still spend some time reflecting on how they still apply to my life as I try to get the additional collectibles or set a personal speed record for a level. That’s why I always start from the beginning of the level and, unless I’m doing a speed run, explore the entirety of each level, including talking to everyone again.

This game has plenty of collectibles and even additional levels if you get certain collectibles. These tapes are called B-sides, and you can find one hidden in every level you play through. The rooms they’re in are usually hidden in some way, requiring you to make a split-second decision to alter your course, thoroughly explore all your options, or to notice that a wall isn’t really a wall but a hidden entrance. Each room has a puzzle involving timing your jumps from one set of blocks to another as they switch which set can be interacted with. They’re not terribly challenging once you figure out your path, but they’re not easy, either. That being said, I found it a lot easier to find the B-sides on almost every level than some of the other collectibles.

The hardest things for me to find where the Crystal Hearts. There’s one hidden in every level, though the ones in the B-sides aren’t really hidden so much as the goal of the level, and I found maybe two of them during my first play-through. When I went back and spent more time meticulously combing through the levels, I found three more. I’ve still got two more to find on the traditional levels and then a bunch of B-sides to complete. The Crystal Hearts are used to unlock the last level of the game, The Core, and I only just got enough of the hearts to start exploring The Core, so I’m looking forward to dedicating the time to getting through that level. I’ve already spent half an hour exploring it and finding almost nothing. I got through the first puzzling bit, but it feels like I haven’t gotten that far yet.

The last collectibles are the Strawberries scattered through all but one of the main levels. Like all of these collectibles, they have almost no impact on the main game since only the Crystal Hearts actually unlock anything, but they give you a reason to start exploring and a reason to keep exploring even after you’ve cleared the level. They’re often quick to get and encourage you to do more than just get through the level. Usually, you can find the Strawberries in hard-to-reach, out-of-the-way places that require you to change how you’re getting through the screen in order to collect them. Unlock the Crystal Hearts and B-sides that just require contact to collect, the trick to the Strawberries is that you have to stand on solid ground after collecting them in order for them to stay collected. If you die before then but after getting the Strawberry, it just pops back to its original place.

Thankfully, you don’t actually need to complete the level again in order to accumulate the collectibles you’ve gathered while re-doing a level. If you want to leave after getting that last Strawberry instead of making your way through the entire level, you still get the Strawberry (and your additional deaths), added to your record for that level. While the death total is interesting to see and compare to other parts of the climb, deaths are definitely not something you want to collect. I haven’t found any kind of negative impact resulting from having a bunch of deaths recorded and I’ve reached four figures in the deaths department, so I expect that I’d have encountered it by now if it existed.

I really enjoy replaying the levels. Sure, I’m only racing against my own timer at this point, but the game is really easy to pick up and put down as my time allows. The whole system is super portable and easy to use for short periods of time, but most of the games I have do not work that well in short periods. If I’m playing for only five minutes, I’ve only just finished loading into my Breath of the Wild file. Or I’ve gotten to the first checkpoint on one of the later levels in Celeste. I really can’t emphasize how great the portability of the Switch is and it feels like Celeste was specifically made for the accessibility and ease of use this platform provides. I can save and resume even in the middle of levels without needing to worry about getting sent back to the nearest checkpoint.

A month and a half after I first finished the game, I’ve gotta recommend it again. The levels are fun, there’s so many reasons to keep playing after you’ve beaten the game, the themes are mature, and the plot actually has something difficult to say. If you read, play or watch nothing else I’ve reviewed, you need to play this.

Platformers Never Fall Flat

As you might have guessed from yesterday’s review, I’m a fan of platformers. When they’re well-made, they can be some of the most rewarding single-player games out there, in my opinion. They provide the opportunity to tell wonderful stories through the visuals and the interactions between characters in the game without getting bogged down by complex levels or difficult controls. For some platformers, the whole point of the game is the controls, telling a passive story as you move through levels expanding your ability to explore as you go. There’s so much variety out there that I can’t cover them all.

While most of my favorite games are not platformers, it is easy to say that it is my favorite genre of game. Ever since I played Math Blaster as a kid, I have enjoyed working my way through levels by solving simple puzzles and jumping from one bit of safe ground to another. The various Super Mario Bros games, most of the Game Boy games I enjoyed that aren’t Pokemon, tons of great indie games now, and so many easter eggs in bigger-budget games.

Platformers have been in the news a bit more than usual lately. With the advent of Super Mario Maker and games like Cuphead, platformers are getting a lot of attention as a result of their often higher-than-average difficulty. In a lot of games the difficulty is adjustable, making the enemies tougher or weaker, or by giving you more or less information for solving the puzzles. Platformers, though, don’t always have adjustable difficulty. Celeste, for example, did not. There are levels you can unlock, though, that are basically more difficult versions of each level.

For a lot of platformers, the difficulty is set by the precision with which you must control your character. There are Mario Maker levels that require you to pretty much get your timing and movement down to the pixel in order to succeed.  Cuphead is notorious for difficult fights due to the shifting nature of the boss battles, which require you to constantly stay on your toes. Celeste requires you to repeat the puzzles until you succeed, trying to navigate around barriers and use the various game rules and moves to figure out how to move through the stage. This includes adding in a few false-leads that require you to fully consider your actions before you take them. Even replaying levels doesn’t necessarily make them easier because knowing what you need to do doesn’t mean you’ll actually be able to do it. I ran into that a lot. I’d get 90% of the way through a screen, die, and then struggle to get past the 50% mark all over again.

I really enjoy platformers because of this. I get frustrated, sure, but it feels super rewarding to be able to zip through a screen by nailing every move perfectly. I’m not terribly discouraged by failure, so it is easy for me to sit there and attempt to pull of the same sequence of moves for five or more minutes if I encounter a particularly difficult puzzle. My main problem with most platformers is that they’re often on the computer and I don’t really enjoy playing them on the computer. Getting Celeste for the Switch instead of my PC was the best decision I made in the last month. Being able to pick it up for only five minutes and then being able to put it down without worrying about accidentally closing the game is invaluable. I own a bunch of PC platformers that I’d probably re-buy in an instant if they made a version for the Switch.

I’m no platformer god. I’m persistent and I learn by doing, which means I tend to think better by making split-second decisions without too much time to analyze. This gives me an advantage because that’s what platformers, especially ones based on momentum, need most of the time. Only a few times has Celeste given me the opportunity to look ahead so I can determine what I need to do and it is the only platformer I’ve ever played that lets me do that. I enjoy the challenge of momentum-based games, even if I often flub the ending of individual challenges because I continuously forget to watch where I land instead of the difficult bit I’ve just navigated. I’m pretty sure this habit of mine accounts for at least half of my deaths in Celeste.

Climbing the Mountain of my Heart

First and foremost, I want to thank one of my readers who contacted me, Ryan, for recommending Celeste. I would not have played it without your suggestion because it wasn’t even on my radar before that. I enjoy platformers, but I’m not very good at staying up-to-date on video game news. Trying to follow everything that’s happening is super stressful. Normally, I rely on my friends for that kind of information, but none of them are really into platformers, so thank you so much for recommending a game I have immensely enjoyed.

Like most indie platformers, the game is fairly simple in concept. The game follows a young woman, Madeline, as she attempts to climb Celeste mountain. The controls are basic, based around jumping, an air-dash, and climbing. The levels are often only as big as your screen and the simple move set means it is fairly easy to figure out how to move through them, but the game is still very challenging because the maneuvers require precise timing and execution. Timing your jumps, dashes, and climbs so you wind up being able to combine them all in a quick string that lets you finish by dashing to the final platform at the right moment, to avoid the floating spikes that are moving back and forth, becomes a real challenge. Dying only set you back to the start of the screen or the last mini checkpoint, but it can become the right kind of frustrating when you’ve died a couple dozen times on the one screen.

In addition to the air-dash, there are a number of level-unique gimmicks and a few game-wide ones that get introduced to add variety and further complication to your play. Platforms that fall or crumble a second after you land on them, bouncy clouds, little bubbles that throw you a certain distance in whatever direction you’re pushing, and even little feathers that turn you into a little orb of light dashing through the sky. Moving spikes, weird black round shapes with eyes, and moving platforms that catapult you in the direction they’re moving if you time your jumps well. All of it comes together to create a wonderful and challenging platformer that offers you a ton of variety.

To up the ante, there are various collectibles spread throughout the levels. Strawberries scattered throughout the level, little mini-game screens with “B-side” tapes on them, and crystal hearts in hidden rooms that will encourage you to leave no room or direction unexplored. The strawberries are just collectibles to incentivize exploration, but the B-sides and the crystal hearts add things to your game. Each level has a second, harder version you can unlock by finding the tapes while the last level, Level 8, is stuck behind a wall you can only unlock with four crystal hearts. Like most good collectibles in these kinds of games, you can enjoy the game without needing to gather them, but they add to the game if you take the time to find them all.

Thematically, this game is far more complex. Madeline is climbing the mountain because she feels like she needs to make a change in her life. As you learn throughout the game, Madeline suffers from some pretty bad depression and anxiety, resulting from something bad that happened to her (it is never specified, but the game hints that it may have to do with a past relationship). She has to learn how to deal with the problems that come up as a result of her mental health issues all while trying to cope with the mountain itself, which seems to be doing everything it can to make her journey more difficult. You can even see her slow growth throughout the game in the ways she interacts with and talks about the other people she encounters.

My favorite part, which hit super close to home, is an exchange between Madeline and Theo, a hiker she encounters throughout her climb who she just rescued from the materialization of her inner demons. They’re sitting around a campfire, talking about what happened and why it is happening. Eventually, Theo asks her a question (I’ve trimmed out non-relevant or spoiler-y bits of dialogue):

T: Why not take a vacation instead?
M: I guess I feel like I need to accomplish something.
T: It sounds like you have enough on your plate already.
M: I guess it is kind of extreme. But that’s how I am. I need something to challenge me. And I can’t just do something a little bit. It’s all of me, or nothing.

As someone whose main coping mechanism is “find projects to do” and who has often said that I find it much easier to commit 100% that hold back, I felt a little called-out by the game. Madeline even uses similar language to describe her depression.

I’m currently climbing my own mountain. Trying to update this blog every day for what’ll wind up being at least thirteen months, trying to work enough to pay of my loans quickly, trying to work out regularly, trying to work on my novel five days a week, and trying to maintain my relationships (romantic and platonic) by staying socially active. So far, I rarely ever accomplish all of those things, but I try every day and don’t give myself a hard time if I can only do one or two of those on any given day. I remember learning the lessons that Madeline learns in this game and this was an excellent reminder that I need to be careful or I’m only going to wind up making my life more difficult for myself.

I have to say, this game came at exactly the right time for me. I suggest you pick it up for its super fun platforming and then appreciate it for the wonderful story it tells in a form that doesn’t typically lend itself well to storytelling.