The Difficulty Gateway

I usually say that I feel my reviews as Indie Gamer Chick represent the average gamer, but the truth is I’m probably above-average in skill-level for most genres. Some, like puzzlers, I chew through so easily that I usually hand games off to my family to make sure they’re not too easy for normies. But being a fairly hardcore gamer since the age of nine and being a game critic is a tough balancing act. One that doesn’t get discussed enough, because we’re all probably better at games than Fred and Ethel shopping for something on payday to kill a weekend with on their dusty Xbox One. When a game doesn’t have adjustable skill-levels, challenge is hard to quantify on your own. You’re playing the game based on decades of experience, and can only assume how others will take it. Even if you have friends or family to observe, it’s not like you’ve been studying them in a laboratory your entire life and can fully approximate the ceiling of their ability.

Of course, being a game critic, if I’m not being told that the only reason I didn’t like a game is because I wasn’t “objective enough”, the most common thing I’m told is that I just suck at games. I didn’t like Cuphead, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hollow Knight, ergo I suck at games. I didn’t like Hotline Miami, ergo I suck at games.

Ah yes, Battletoads. A game so fondly remembered that it could go completely dormant for twenty years because it was so prohibitively difficult that very, very few would ever remember it as an all-time great.

I don’t think I suck at games. Maybe some games. Like fighting games aren’t my thing, and an early running gag at Indie Gamer Chick was me noting that I couldn’t ever get the hang of throwing a Dragon Punch with Ken or Ryu (I’m proud to report I can now, suck it Kris & Jesse). It doesn’t mean I don’t like fighting games though. I got Mortal Kombat XL for Christmas and took delight in violence so awesome that it would make even the most dead-inside grizzled veteran become physically ill. But something like Cuphead? I actually don’t think I was that bad at it. I got all the contracts (IE I beat all the bosses on the standard insanely crazy hard difficulty) for the first world and beat all the bosses on the lowest difficulty for the first three worlds, something nearly 90% of all Cuphead owners either couldn’t do or couldn’t be bothered to do. As for Hollow Knight, I’ve heard fans of the game tell me how hard a boss was that I downed without breaking a sweat. I wasn’t dying all that much while playing it and only once did I die without retrieving the shit I dropped, thus losing it.

By the way, I sucked at Spelunky. I really sucked at Kingdom. They’re both IGC all-timers. Trust me, if talent was required for me to enjoy something, I wouldn’t have any hobbies at all.

I’m not a fan of the notion that games are supposed to be hard to prevent undesirables from playing them, or any game. That the measure of a true gamer is being able to finish these hard games. What an absurd notion this is. It’s snobbery of the lowest order. For games like Cuphead, I’ve come up with the phrase “prohibitively difficult” to describe them. I think Cuphead crosses the line where even above-average players will be gated-off from large sections of content without any hope of ever being good enough to reach them. And for those who say “practice harder”, this isn’t an activity where increasing your skill level will lead to greater things in life. It’s a video game. I’m not going to put in eight hours of practice a day just so I can fight a giant animated stack of poker chips.

By the way, Cuphead wiki, this is based on Amarillo Slim. Only the Babe Ruth of Poker. “Duhhhh, we think it’s based on poker. You can tell by the chips.” Good lord, you people need to get out of the house sometime.

Far be it from me to tell anyone how to make their games. If you feel your dream project should only be able to be finished by 2% of all gamers, so be it. But, maybe you should consider telling your fans to stop calling those who can’t beat it a bunch of pussies. I’ve seen players far above my skill level who enjoy quality run-and-spray games walk away broken and shaken from Cuphead, wondering if their skills are depleting as they grow increasingly decrepit or if it’s the game. It’s the game.

And what’s the point of gating, anyway? Contra is an all-time classic, and one of my personal favorite NES games. It’s kind of a travesty that it wasn’t part of the NES Classic. Instead, we got inferior sequel Super C instead. Contra is hard, but it has the most famous means of overcoming that difficulty in the history of gaming: the Konami Code. If that wasn’t in the game, nobody would talk about Contra today. The Heart of Contra wouldn’t be one of the most legendary bosses of all time. It’d just be one of those NES games people say “cool, I remember it. It was hard” and then talk like blowhards about how games were better back in the day while reminiscing about all the titles they never got around to beating.

Has it ever been confirmed this is actually supposed to be a heart and not, you know, the Gonads of Contra?

So how is someone like me, an above average player, supposed to quantify the value of a game that didn’t just destroy me, but destroyed even better players I know? Indies are dependent on word of mouth, and “this game left me blistered and defeated” isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement to your average gamer. A critic isn’t an asshole for telling people the game is too hard to recommend, nor are they a pussy. You’re who gated the game off. And for what? So a small percentage of players who will never help you move a single unit outside their clubhouse can have a secret handshake “we’re the only real gamers” crowing moment? If they tell you that you’re selling out for including adjustable difficulty, you tell them to pony up a few hundred thousand dollars so your kids can go to college. I’m sure they’ll get right on that.

Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition

During my Cuphead re-review, I noted that nobody wants to be the one person not having fun at a party.

Taking that a step further, you especially don’t want to be that person because some assholes will swear you’re only not having fun for the sake of being contrarian. But that happens a lot. If you’re a moderately popular and influential critic and you’re not enjoying an overwhelmingly popular indie darling, fans of the game will believe the only rational explanation is you’re intentionally not liking it for the sake of being different. Trust me when I say, it’s not worth it. And besides, I bought Hollow Knight three times: twice for me (first on Steam, then on Xbox One), and once for my friend William. This wasn’t Press X to Not Die, which cost a couple of bucks and I could send it to friends as a sadistic joke. I wanted to like it. I wanted to love it. I didn’t want to be that person at the party.

But I am yet again. I actually sort of hate Hollow Knight. And not just in a “not for me” type of way. I don’t think it’s a well made game.

I did laugh far more at making this than anyone in their right mind should have. What can I say? When you sit on the bench to save, it kept making me think of that Klay Thompson meme. I love that meme. When we eventually build a Klay Thompson statue outside the Chase Center, I want him to be posed like he is in that meme.

Let’s strip out all the (insanely gorgeous) art and (not really all that clever) writing and talk about the thing that should matter most in a game: the gameplay. The thing I take issue with for Hollow Knight is how it seems to be made specifically to be less fun than it can be.. nay.. SHOULD be. As if the developer was given an option for every aspect: the fun way and the not fun way. And then chose the not fun way because that would be bold and dark. See though, I’ve always felt the graphics and character design should be the primary thing that sets the mood. If you need to make the gameplay less fun to make things feel bleak, you’re doing it wrong.

I’m curious if they mistook “bleak” for “slow”. Upgrades take so long to unlock that by time you get them, it’s no longer an exciting development. It feels like it’s overdue. I didn’t get the ability to wall-jump until over ten hours into the game, and I didn’t get my first upgrade to my standard weapon until eleven hours in. In that time I also added only one single hit point to the initial five you start with, and one “notch” (giving me four total) to apply “badges” which provide things like showing where the fuck you are on the map. Oh, and you can only switch between the badges at the save points. Why? How is that in keeping true to the atmosphere? What about applying a badge to your armor requires the specific act of sitting on a park bench? Maybe I’m spoiled by games that thrive on making the player feel like they’re getting stronger as the adventure unfolds, but I just felt like Hollow Knight deliberately kept me in purgatory.

Fans built this up acquiring this to me so much. I was like “what is this super magical item they keep hyping that will completely change how I feel about this pretentious piece of shit?” A wall jump? A FUCKING WALL JUMP!? You mean that thing that’s been in games for thirty fucking years?

Every aspect of the design is focused on maintaining the slow pace. The map is sprawling, but you don’t get it all at once. You have to find a locate this person in each different section of the game who will sell it to you and then separately buy from his wife the ability to see the things on the map that you’ve already passed by. In theory that means the guy making the map is better at adventuring than the hero is, since he’s ahead of you and apparently making progress without a hitch. That stuff always breaks my immersion. It’d be like if Sean Bean was giving his “one doesn’t simply walk into Mordor” speech when suddenly a traveling salesman walks by and says “oh actually, you do. Here, I made a map of it. Let me offer you travel tips..”

Thankfully you only have to buy the map icons once for each type of thing, but like everything else in Hollow Knight, it grounds the proceedings into a monotonous slog that feels more like a series of busy-work for the sake of busy-work chores rather than some kind of epic quest. “Slog” really is the perfect word for Hollow Knight. Save-stations are kept to a minimum and spread really far apart, but you’re forced to constantly dash back and forth to them in order to change your badge loadout. Items are relatively expensive while enemies drop relatively few coins to shop with, forcing you to grind if you want to get the stuff that should be for free anyway. Most of the other items offer no descriptions as to what exactly they do and players were reporting to me they were actually finishing Hollow Knight without ever using them or figuring out what exactly they did. There’s really not a lot of games where you can play for an hour and feel like you’ve accomplished nothing in them. Hollow Knight is uniquely like that. It’s the anti-exhilaration Metroidvania.

On the positive side of things, combat was kind of nice. I’m big on swinging a sword feeling like there’s a weight behind it and combat being more than just an animation of a stick moving out and an enemy blinking to indicate damage or vanishing to indicate death. It’s really cool that the dead husks of your vanquished foes remain (until you walk far enough away at least). But there’s not a whole lot of variety to the action. There’s only one weapon, a “nail” that is functionally a sword. When you upgrade it, you don’t get new moves or anything, at least at the point where I was too bored to press-on. There’s no secondary weapons for you to equip, and all the upgrade does is add one extra point of damage. When you’re playing a long game that feels even longer and you only get one real weapon to use with the only moves being swing it horizontally or swing it vertically if you’re attacking upward, it gets redundant no matter how meaty the hits feel. I did get a Ryu and Ken style fireball, but that takes magic points to use and can’t be aimed upward, making it less useful in general than the starting weapon. Variety is the spice of life. For Hollow Knight, all I was left with was lots and lots of salt.

All credit to Hollow Knight: it’s pretty. But it’s 2018. These days it’s more notable if a game is ugly.

Honestly, that was my whole problem with Hollow Knight: it’s boring. There’s just not enough stuff to do in it. It feels like it has all the ingredients to not bore, but then those were spread so thin for the sake of padding the length that all the fun was pushed out. It doesn’t help that the level design is overly basic, like something out of a first-generation Metroidvania. “Wait a second, didn’t you just like Chasm?” Yes I did. What’s the difference? In the time it took me to upgrade my weapon for the first time, add a single point of health, and a single notch for my badges, I had beaten Chasm. Plus, you know, it had a variety of weapons and items and stuff. It wasn’t just the same shit over and over again. It’s not just what a game is, but how that game plays out. Hollow Knight forces a ton of backtracking and grinding, but doesn’t make those things fun or easier. You mostly have the same stuff you started the game with. It gets old. And sorry if I keep harping on this, but it genuinely feels like the developers were more concerned with being emo or dark than they were with making a fun game. Would it really have ruined the bleakness if they gave the protagonist a slingshot or boomerang or something to make it so you’re not just doing the same sword strikes against the same enemies for 30 to 60 fucking hours? Or given more special moves that required less magic. Or let you get more magic. In 12 hours I got one piece of the “vase” or whatever that gives you more magic. That meant I still had to find two more before I got more magic. I got one-third of that upgrade in twelve hours. And the one I did get I bought in the shop. Part of the fun in Metroidvanias is finding stuff. The world of Hollow Knight feels like I did after 12 hours with it: empty inside.

I didn’t finish Hollow Knight. I probably didn’t come close. I did put twenty-hours combined into it with the best hopes and intentions. The first time was back in 2017 on Steam. I bought a copy for Will too, and with my best friend playing alongside me, we set out to see what the hype was all about. We were both excited to get on the Hollow Knight bandwagon. After a few hours, I felt weird. Because I wasn’t having fun at all. When I found out Will wasn’t either, I just found something else to play. I occasionally booted it up again thinking “maybe I was just having an off-day”, before finding myself quickly bored again by the same sword and same enemies and the same dull levels, eventually putting eight hours into the thing. Clearly it wasn’t an off-day thing. I figured maybe it was because a computer isn’t a good home for a Metroidvania, so when I saw Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition discounted on Xbox One, I thought “okay, maybe I’ll finally see what all the fans see in it.”

Maybe the oh-so-subtle symbolism is why this game has so many people blown away who can’t exactly articulate what it is that has them sucked in to the experience. I’m just saying, there’s a LOT of it in Swallow Knight.. I mean Hollow Knight.

Nope, I didn’t. I still don’t. I tweeted basically the entire time, showing my progress. For the first hour or two, it was fine. It was almost fun in a tutorial type of way. But then I started to wonder out loud when the game would start to, you know, wow me. The entire time, fans of Hollow Knight were assuring me “you’re about to get to the good stuff” or “you’re about to open up the game.” And then it didn’t happen. They kept promising, I’d get to the spot they were talking about or get the upgrade that they swore would change how I felt about the game, and then it didn’t, and then they promised me the really good stuff was “still coming.” Finally I caught on that I’d never get to the “good stuff” because there is no good stuff. Hollow Knight is a very basic Metroidvania with its only remarkable hook being that if you die you lose all your money, but if you go back to where you died you can get the money back. You know, that thing other games have been doing all decade.

Otherwise, Hollow Knight is stuck in early 90s 2D adventure mentality, but people will give it a pass because it’s “deep”. And you know it’s “deep” because it has a pretty art-house decor. Who cares? The first time a stage made me sit up in my chair, I was ten hours in. And even that didn’t last. Maybe I quit right before I got to “the good stuff.” I don’t know. I don’t really care. It shouldn’t take that long to get to the part that’s entertaining in the entertainment product. And if someone still thinks I sought out to find things to dislike about Hollow Knight for the sake of being different, do you really think I needed over $30 and twenty-combined hours to do that? Because I didn’t.

I wanted to have fun at the party. It turns out the party kind of sucked. Like one of those ones where you find out it’s not really a party and they’re going to try to get you to buy a timeshare. They already fed you, so it seems rude to get up and walk out right away. You start checking your watch to make like you have something better to do later. But really, you’re trying to figure out if you should leave before he hands out the brochures or wait until afterwards so you can show it to your family and laugh with them. That’s what the Hollow Knight experience was for me: being trapped at a timeshare party. Hell, come to think of it, I think I’d like that party more anyway. At least I’d get fed.

Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition was developed by Team Cherry
Point of Sale: Steam, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4

$9.89 (Steam) and $11.99 (Xbox One) (Normally $14.99) thinks Voidheart sounds like a Care Bears villain in the making of this review.

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