The Tomb Raider I’d like

(Image source: Core Design Tribute Fan Site.)

This year, the Tomb Raider franchise turned 25, and it’s only by chance that I even found out about that. I’ve been a fan ever since I was a teen, but before this year, I hadn’t touched anything Tomb Raider in quite a while. About two months ago, I reluctantly decided to try out Legend for the third time, and I fully expected to put it down without completing it for the third time.

Little did I know that I would get so hooked up that, in addition to finishing the whole LAU trilogy, trying out (and hating the guts of) Optional Tomb Raider, and beginning a playthrough of all the classic games, I’d start following several related twitter accounts, YouTube channels, the /r/tombraider subreddit, and even join a forum. (That’s how I found out about the 25th anniversary.)

Attitude, young lady!

The first time I tried Legend was in 2012, when I bought LAU. I think I quit after a couple of levels at most. The second time was about five years later, when I pushed all the way to the first Kazakhstan level and then quit, not particularly pleased with the experience. There were very minor things irking me, but the real reason I quit both times was just one: Lara was too nonchalant about murdering people.

In Anniversary (a prequel), Lara did show remorse and shame for taking a life, but then I guess it kind of grew on her? (Credit: David Angle.)

If you take a look at things like this or this, you’ll see that I’m not a great fan of death in general, let alone of murder. Yes, I know—it’s just a game, and telling that to myself enough times was how I managed to overcome my aversion and enjoy LAU. Besides, Lara never made a big deal out of killing people in the classic games either, and I played almost all of them, so why was this a problem now?

Well, in Legend, it was different.

I distinctly remember my first encounter with enemies in the very first level of Legend. They were both armed and didn’t exactly come across as very friendly people, but they were talking about their own business and hadn’t even seen me yet. At that point, Lara didn’t even know for a fact who they were. I knew that, had I tried to just sneak past them, they’d probably open fire, so I did what Lara does and killed them. While I did that, she and her friends back in London were amiably talking over the phone about Lara’s new quest and even cracking jokes. I found that off-putting enough that I quit playing.

She literally said she didn’t have the foggiest clue who he was before killing him. Also, that he was unremarkable. Well, that’s kinda rude… (Screenshot from SourceSpy91’s video.)

As said, when I gave the game a second chance, I quit early in Kazakhstan, but I think what really hit me as bad taste was something Lara said in the Japan levels. The local Japanese mafia boss she was facing was understandably complaining about her killing his henchmen, to which Lara replied: “I’ve simplified your payroll.”

The video starts just before the payroll quote. It’s a very witty punchline, but it sort of makes her come across as so self-important that she gets to decide who lives and who dies.

She’s a badass, I get it. I like her that way. However, there’s a difference between being a badass and trivialising murder, even that of criminals. I still love LAU and all the preceding titles (most definitely not the reboots, and not just because they take the concept of mass-murder to a whole new level), but I think I would like them and Lara more if she wasn’t so casual about killing people.

If I could do it…

Before anyone plays the sexism card: this doesn’t have anything to do with her being a woman. I don’t play FPSs or war games for the same reason (also I find them boring as hell), regardless of the genitals that their main characters were born with. I like Lara Croft as a character, and I think she could be a more positive character if she dropped the cavalier attitude in regards to gunning other living creatures down. Yes—when she kills animals, that too bugs me.

Toby Gard. I think he’s a very interesting chap. Sooner or later, I need to reach out to him… (Credit: Jon Jordan, CC Attribution 2.0 Generic.)

I’m not alone in this: Lara’s father himself, Toby Gard, said in a Gamasutra interview that he’s “not keen on just mindlessly killing humans in games.” That was one of the reasons why the first Tomb Raider had so few human enemies. (Their number went significantly up in subsequent installments, but Gard had already left the team shortly after Tomb Raider was released.)

Not that I count the survivor timeline as Tomb Raider, but even if I did, it certainly didn’t solve that problem. If anything, the survivor games exacerbated it, and the jarring dissonance between reboot Lara’s careless brutality in the gameplay and her relentless whimpering during the cutscenes made it even worse. Classic Lara may be too casual about murder, but at least she is consistent.

Currently, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics seem to be a little too busy stuffing square pegs into round holes, so I don’t really hold my hopes up. However, on the off chance that any people from SE or CD looking for ideas might ever read this, here’s a couple about a nearly murder-free Tomb Raider game.

…I’d do it like this.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Tomb Raider was created with the exploration of ancient, lost tombs in mind, and typically, the people you might chance upon in such places are already dead. I also wouldn’t expect to find too many dangerous live animals in an ancient tomb where no one has set foot in ages—especially not in tiny, locked crypts with no food, water, or air. (Finding usable medikits or ammos for just the kind of guns you happen to have with you is also not very likely, but at least it’s not logically impossible. Maybe Lara is just lucky like that.)

The Obelisk of Khamoon level in Tomb Raider (1996). Those pumas (panthers? I don’t really know) just came out of a locked chamber with a floor area of maybe three or four square metres. I have so many questions my head is going to explode. (Screenshot from Kawaii Games’ video.)

Naturally, Lara Croft without her trademark dual pistols would be just as much of a heresy as Super Mario without his mustache would be (corollary: reboot Lara is not Lara), but no humans or animals to kill doesn’t mean nothing to kill.

This might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d be absolutely thrilled about a Tomb Raider game where I can lose myself in a mysterious, ancient temple or tomb to explore, knowing that supernatural creatures (like the thralls in Underworld, or the mummies in The Last Revelation) might be lurking behind every corner. Importantly, enemies like that are unrealistic enough that I would have no qualms about gunning them down, nor would I mind Lara’s witticisms about it (“This is a tomb: I’ll make them feel at home” just doesn’t sound that funny to me when it refers to people.)

Shoot them to your heart’s content, Lara. They’re unrealistic enough to be disposable. (Screenshot from Games 4k’s video.)

In contrast, human enemies that fire guns at you are trite and banal. If I wanted that, I’d play Call of Duty or some other FPS. They also don’t fit very well in the kind of game I’m describing, and detract from the very same feeling of isolation that contributed to making the first game so enjoyable.

However, ruthless human enemies who wouldn’t hesitate to fire on Lara may still make sense in a number of plots—for example, one where they’re trying to find a relic before she does. Even in those cases, there is a way for Lara to take the high ground while pursuing her objectives and keeping the game entertaining: Batman’s way.

She doesn’t need to go around wearing a cape or do the Christian Bale voice (entertaining as that would be), but instead of shooting human enemies dead, she could use the same stealth combat techniques of the Caped Crusader, for the very same reason: she doesn’t have it in her to take a life. Besides, personally I find that sneaking behind enemies to knock them out, performing silent takedowns, and engaging in some good ol’ melee fights, would make the games more stimulating. (Yes, I know the reboots did that. No, I still don’t like them, and they still don’t count as Tomb Raider in my books.)

Okay, maybe the costume, detective vision, and that kind of stuff aren’t very tomb-raidery, but I would love something along the lines of the Batman Arkham series’ predator encounters in a Tomb Raider game. (Screenshot from dalleval’s video.)

At the time of writing, I haven’t managed to play Angel of Darkness yet, but I understand that it featured stealth combat and that it sort of sucked. However, as far as I know the game was essentially a bunch of bugs strung together with a few lines of working code, and it’s hardly to be taken as proof that stealth combat can’t work in a Tomb Raider game.

Original concept art of Lara Croft. When she wasn’t yet an aristocrat, I take it. (Source: Core Design Tribute Fan Site.)

To be fair, a change like what I’m proposing might be a departure from how Toby Gard had envisioned Lara—she was supposed to be a dangerous, austere character of aristocratic descent, very attractive and yet unattainable and hard to approach. One of Gard’s sources of inspiration for Lara was Tank Girl (probably not for the aristocratic-austere thing), and I guess my idea would push Lara further away from her. At the same time, it could be a way to evolve her character into a more mature one who did away with murder for the sake of achieving her goals.

(Un)realism

As a side note, knocking people out for hours on end without causing them permanent injuries the way Batman does isn’t really a thing. If you beat someone unconscious, or do a blood choke on them, and they don’t wake up within seconds, they are brain-damaged at best and dead at worst. Nothing that a little suspension of disbelief can’t fix, though, and actually, making Lara drop her murdering habit might also add a little bit of realism in other ways.

I’m willing to believe that, if she had killed just one person in her entire life, she could be lucky enough not to get caught; but someone must well have stumbled upon at least some of the many bodies she’s left in her wake over the years, right? And none of those cases were ever traced back to her?

In Underworld, after her manor burned down, Lara said she would go search for Thor’s belt after dealing with the authorities about the arson. Yeah, right. I mean—hello, there are more notches on your gun than there are hairs on your head, and speaking of guns, you have an assault rifle on your back. I think the coppers might want to talk to you about more than just the fire.

After you deal with the authorities, Lara dear, I’m afraid you’ll spend the next twenty-five hundred years in prison. (Screenshot from Herbie Games’ video.)

And do we want to talk about Tomb Raider II? Just how did she get rid of the bodies of all the mobsters she killed in her own house without anyone ever noticing, for chrissake? And what about Angel of Darkness? In that game, she’s on the run, attempting to clear herself of being suspected of killing her former mentor. Given her impressive total body count and how she’s somehow always got away with it, I’m not sure why she should care if anyone mistakenly thinks she’s killed one more guy.

Why yes, I did see enough. Just pray the police won’t.

Dear Santa…

So, if I could ask Santa Croft for any present at all, what would I ask?

First and foremost, I would ask that Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics forget about unifying the timelines. Many fans like the survivor timeline, so by all means, continue it if you must, but keep it separate from the classic and LAU timelines. Make it a parallel universe or something, whatever you like, but please, consider picking up from Underworld and developing that timeline from there, without dragging all the survivor drama into it. You could make more fans happy that way, and you’d have more games to sell to fans who wouldn’t touch anything survivor with a ten-foot pole.

Huh? Oh, no. Back in the day, Core Design went a lot crazier than this when it came to promotional renders. (Source: Core Design Tribute Fan Site.)

Any new game in the style of LAU would be great, but if I could choose, I’d ask for a game heavily focused on tomb exploration with supernatural enemies, with only stealth combat available whenever Lara is dealing with human enemies. I’d ask for a game with today’s realistic graphics, but without any full-body plastic surgery done on Lara. She looked just fine in LAU. (In the classic games—eh, I’m not sure. I might or might not have something about that going on behind the scenes.) Oh, and yes, Santa—do check if Keeley Hawes is available to voice Lara once again. If I hear Camilla Luddington go “Aaa you thaaa?” once more, I swear I myself might become too casual about murder…

Optional Tomb Raider

After a fairly long break, I was recently bitten by the tomb-raiding bug again. Having completed and thoroughly loved the Legend trilogy over the past few weeks, I decided to give the 2013-rebooted trilogy a chance against my best judgement. The little I’d seen and heard about it told me I wouldn’t like it, but hey—all those overwhelmingly positive reviews on Steam must mean something, right?

Yes. They mean you should never decide what games to buy based on Steam reviews alone, and if you have the chance to get a free demo, do it. Don’t just buy the entire damn trilogy plus a ton of now-useless DLCs just because the whole bundle was on offer for the modest sum of 23.48 euros which you won’t be getting back because it’s too late for a refund. (*takes deep breath*)

Preamble: Rising from the grave tomb

Tomb Raider has a long history of reboots. Lara Croft died a first time at the end of The Last Revelation, killed off by Core Design developers who didn’t know what to do with her anymore. Their boss wasn’t too happy about a million-dollar franchise disappearing just like that, so he offered them the option to either find a way to bring Lara back from the grave (despite a metric fuckton’s worth of Egyptian temple ruins caving in on her) or follow her right into it. That’s how Angel of Darkness came to be, and it was a total trainwreck, rushed out the door incomplete and full of bugs. It was so bad that it killed the very trilogy it was supposed to inaugurate—and Lara with it, for a second time, although just figuratively.

Lara’s second resurrection was brought about by Crystal Dynamics, with the help of Lara’s creator Toby Gard. The new trilogy they created—comprising Tomb Raider: Legend, Tomb Raider: Anniversary, and Tomb Raider: Underworld—was a soft reboot of the series. It disregarded entirely what happened in previous Tomb Raider games, but it featured only minor changes to Lara’s backstory and appearance.

Lara didn’t die at the end of the Legend trilogy, but she kind of did when someone at Square Enix (the current owner of the Tomb Raider franchise) came up with the brilliant idea of rebooting Tomb Raider for the third time. That’s how the survivor timeline came to be—the name probably being a reference to the fact that what’s survived of Tomb Raider into this new timeline is practically nothing.

Because of bugs, I never managed to get past the first five minutes of gameplay, but I’ve heard the plot is really good. (Credit: Internet Archive)

Tomb—pfft—Raider—mhaha!—2013 in a nutshell

Sorry, I just can’t call it that with a straight face.

The survivor timeline too is a trilogy, comprising Tomb Raider (often referred to as Tomb Raider 2013 to tell it apart from the original 1996 game by the same name), Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. While the development side of things was still handled by Crystal Dynamics, reinventing Lara and her backstory was Rhianna Pratchett’s job—yes, the late Sir Terry Pratchett’s daughter.

You’re saying that this is Lara?! (Credit: Lara Croft Online)

The first instalment tells the story of a young and inexperienced Lara Croft on her first expedition together with a bunch of other people. Shit happens and they are stranded on a lost, cursed island, where tons of other trapped castaways from previous expeditions basically made a hobby of killing any newcomers. (Unless the newcomer is called Lara Croft, in which case they generally prefer to capture her for no good reason, so that she can break free, kill hordes of them, and repeat the whole exercise ad nauseam.) In the circumstances, Lara needs to adapt quickly and learn to kill to survive, until eventually somehow she saves the day\breaks the curse\something like that. I don’t know all the details, because about halfway through the game I decided I’d rather watch paint dry and uninstalled it, but I’ve still seen enough to have a rather strong opinion about the good and the bad of this series.

The good

The bad

I hated this game. But for fairness’ sake, I will say that one of the main reasons I hated it is that Tomb Raider 2013 isn’t the type of game I would normally play. It’s an extremely gruesome cover-shooter heavily focussed on long and tedious combat sequences; when it’s not that, it borders on walking simulator territory, holding players by the hand and telling them exactly which buttons they need to push to get from A to B. As such, it’s a combination of two game genres among those I dislike the most, so it starts off at a serious disadvantage. I certainly can’t blame the game for not matching my personal preferences, but that’s pretty much the only thing I can’t blame it for.

God, did I hate this battle. Then again, what did I not hate about this game? (Credit: Tsanko Hhh)

I didn’t find the story particularly intriguing. The game is very slow at telling it, and it does so either through mind-numbingly boring cutscenes about supposedly world-famous archaeologists who for some reason need B-roll about cooking fish, or stupidly long notes that everyone on the damn island has a habit of leaving scattered everywhere. I’m getting Penumbra vibes here, and not just for this: Tomb Raider 2013 features so much gratuitous gore and extreme violence to almost qualify as a survival horror game, except that everything is so over the top that it’s ridiculous rather than scary.

And don’t get me started on the torture porn. To be fair, being shot, hit with arrows, gassed, stabbed, impaled, mauled by wild animals, crushed by rocks, etc, have always been business as usual for Lara Croft, but this game gets a little carried away: impaled through the fucking throat, and we’re shown each and every moment of her agony? It’s almost as though the developers had a thing for hurting her in the most gruesome ways. For Christ’s sake, people, I get that you hate this Lara—I do too—but there’s a limit, right?

This kind of over the top. (Credit: The Bottom Feeder)

I’m no professional reviewer and I’m not really interested in commenting on the graphics (which are generally rather drab and dull, by the way), the sound, or the controls, but I do have something to say about the level of realism (or lack thereof) in the game. The devs put a lot of care into crafting very realistic-looking environments and characters, but this clashes horribly with the utterly unrealistic situations Lara finds herself in.

Okay, I get it. Lara is in the kind of life-and-death, high-adrenaline situation that makes people able to do things they didn’t know they were capable of doing. Still, I have an extremely hard time believing that a twenty-something girl who had never found herself in a situation like that before would so quickly and easily turn into a relentless killing machine.

This isn’t even about whether she is able to cope with murder or not; it’s about whether any of it is even humanly possible. She kills dozens and dozens of grown-arse men, all attacking her at the same time with guns, arrows, knives, etc; and while she did pretty much the same thing in previous games too, in those games she was a seasoned adventurer who’d seen and done the same shit many, many times before. In Tomb Raider 2013, we’re supposed to believe she’s a scared newbie out of her depth, so how the hell is she able to use all sorts of weapons and guns so well right off the bat? She even upgrades them using scrap parts she finds lying around, for fuck’s sake—which, if she actually was a newbie, would be a sure-fire way of having her rifle blow in her face.

Me? Nope. Never held a gun before. (Credit: The Average Gamer)

Tons of adrenaline pumping through your veins don’t miraculously make you able to fire guns, use parachutes, or do all manner of crazy acrobatics without prior, extensive training. I could buy into her surviving one of all the ordeals she went through out of sheer luck, but her odds of making it out alive of an island where nearly everyone wants to kill her are, for all intents and purposes, zero.

This means that, as an origin story supposed to tell how Lara Croft grew to be the badass we all know and love, Tomb Raider 2013 failed abysmally. To be that kind of story, they should have toned down the combat and all the assorted catastrophes Lara goes through by a lot. As it is, it’s an end story about a girl who got impaled by a rebar straight through her abdomen literally in the first ten minutes of gameplay and bled to death. That’s what should actually have happened when she removed the rebar; instead, off she went merrily running and jumping around, just holding her side while walking to remind players she got a little boo-boo there. I am sceptical you’d be physically able to take a single step with a hole in both your abs and lumbar muscles (not to mention your intestine), but even if you were, the excruciating pain would probably make you keep your arse firmly on the ground.

Sure, go right ahead and remove it. What could possibly go wrong? (Credit: Esmeralda Portillo)

There are other relatively minor things that annoyed me, most of which you can find in this video and in this one. What really made me hate this game is that it’s passed for a Tomb Raider game when it’s not—not by a really long shot.

Tombs? What tombs?

Game creators can give their games any title they damn please, there’s no doubt about that. However, if they’re going to name a game after a well-established brand, they’d better make sure their choice makes sense. You wouldn’t call Super Mario a tower defence game that has nothing to do with Italian plumbers or mushrooms that make you taller, would you?

Now, traditionally, a game in the Tomb Raider series has two main distinguishing features: a gameplay based primarily on exploration, puzzle-solving, and to a minor extent, third-person shooting; and its main character is, you know, Lara fucking Croft. Not some girl who just so happens to be called Lara Croft; the one and only Lara Croft. The real deal.

Tomb Raider 2013 has neither of these features. (And by what I’ve read\heard, its two sequels don’t either.)

For starters, exploring tombs in Tomb Raider 2013 is entirely optional. They’re actually called “optional tombs”, they’re short levels with one or two rooms tops, they have ridiculously easy puzzles, and they reward you with stuff that you could easily do without. I repeat: tomb raiding in Tomb Raider 2013 is entirely optional. That should explain the picture at the top of this post, and why I’ll be referring to the main character of the game as “Optional Lara” from here on—I literally, honestly don’t have it in me to call her Lara Croft. It’d be like referring to Smurfette as Rambo. (Which, given what I’ve just said about her, sounds weird, but one step at a time.)

This proves beyond all reasonable doubts that even the devs didn’t think this was a legit Tomb Raider game.  Sorry guys, that doesn’t solve anything—it’s just pathetic.

If you’re a fan of this game (and haven’t rage-quit reading yet), right now you’re probably complaining that it’s supposed to be an origin story, a tale from a time when Lara didn’t raid tombs just yet. Overlooking the fact that, as said, this game just doesn’t work as an origin story (maybe that of a very lucky mass-murderer; of the tomb raider, not so much), if that was the intent then at least they should have called it Tomb Raider Origins or something like that. They gave the exact same name as the 1996 tomb-raiding-centric game to a game that has virtually nothing to do with tombs or raiding.

Granted, from Tomb Raider II on, tomb exploration was often no longer the focus, either. However, the focus was still the exploration of the game environment, and you’d always wind up looking for some ancient artefact somewhere on the globe, be it in an old, ruined temple or not. Besides, Tomb Raider II and the rest were all sequels to Tomb Raider, the game where Lara actually raided tombs and earned the name. So it made sense that they were named like they were.

The dramatic gameplay difference between anything worth the name Tomb Raider and Optional Tomb Raider should be clear enough already, so let’s move on to my pet peeve: Optional Lara.

It’s not all in a name

The basic idea behind the rewrite of Lara’s character was that she’s not yet the Lara Croft we know. She’s a lot less self-confident, less snarky, and to an extent, less athletic. (The devs managed to hit that sweet spot where she’s not sufficiently athletic to make the game as enjoyable to play as its predecessors, but too athletic for players to believe she’s the noob she’s supposed to be. Bravo.)

In principle, that would be okay. Unfortunately, what Rhianna Pratchett did was take Lara Croft’s character as we knew it, trash it pretty much altogether, and rewrite it from scratch. (The most specific features of the original Lara that survived into Optional Lara are “woman” and “brunette with a ponytail”.) Not at one point did I feel like my gaming companion was Lara Croft. Optional Lara doesn’t look like Lara, doesn’t sound like Lara, and doesn’t behave like Lara. At all. She’s anything but someone who will eventually evolve into the Lara Croft we know.

Spot the intruder. Who looks nothing like Lara Croft? (Hint: it’s not one of the first seven.)

In an interview with Gamasutra, Pratchett said: “There have been grumbles in certain quarters that we’ve broken her down and taken a strong character and made her weak. That’s really not the case.”  Oh, no. It’s actually way worse than that.

Optional Lara is just as bipolar as the gameplay. The game can’t decide if it wants to be a walking sim or a shooter; Optional Lara can’t decide whether she wants to be an irksome crybaby who repeats to herself “You can do this, Lara” well beyond the point of annoyance, or a world-class murderer who cracks open any skulls around with a climbing axe. (I’m hardly the first to complain about the blatant ludonarrative dissonance of this game; even people who liked the game complain about it—see for example here, here, and here.)

In the same Gamasutra interview, Pratchett further stated that “The rich, untouchable, Teflon-coated, British ice-queen isn’t exactly relatable for players, especially in this climate.” Sorry to break it to you, but personally, I could relate so little to Optional Lara as a character that I pretty much sided with the bad guys instead. Not to mention that the entire experience she goes through is so unrealistic that hardly anyone on Earth could possibly relate.

The very traits Pratchett deems to be so unrelatable are so quintessentially Croft that, by throwing them out the window, she didn’t give Lara Croft a reboot—just the boot. What was actually rebooted was her name and the Tomb Raider brand. Square Enix took the fancy sticker and slapped it on an entirely different product hoping to get away with it—which, sadly, they largely did.

This leads to what I think is the most important point. Again in the Gamasutra interview, global brand director Karl Stewart said: “For us as a studio, we’ve looked at where we’ve been, and we felt, well, now is a chance as a studio to put out a definition of our character [Lara, ed] and help evolve it, make it culturally relevant for today.”

Turns out Lara and I have the same favourite games.

Why would they want to do that? If Tomb Raider and Lara Croft really belong to a time long gone (which is highly debatable), let them be and move on. Make the game you feel is relevant for today, featuring the character you think is more relatable for today’s players, and put it out there as its own thing. Putting a character named Lara Croft in a borderline survival horror game with the occasional optional tomb and calling the end result “Tomb Raider” doesn’t make it a Tomb Raider game. Not any more than a character named Samuel Vimes shoehorned into a psychological thriller with the occasional optional carrot makes it a Discworld novel—even if you title it Guards! Guards! (Something that Rhianna Pratchett surely understands.)

The impression I get is that Square Enix wanted to capitalise on their older brand’s fame and milk a bit more money out of the existing Tomb Raider fanbase and the younger players who would be nonetheless attracted by the longstanding popularity of the brand. Maybe they thought this might not happen had they made the new Tomb Raider into its own, separate series that had nothing to do with Lara Croft. (All that would have taken was to literally just come up with a new title and a new name for the main character. No one in their right mind would ever have thought this was a rip-off, because it obviously doesn’t even try to be one.)

I can’t speak to that: in my opinion, the game sucked through and through, and it would have whether they’d passed it for a Tomb Raider game or not. But that’s because I don’t like this kind of game: had it not had that “Tomb Raider” sticker on it, I never would have considered buying it. It doesn’t even qualify as a Tomb Raider game, but it may well be that, as a game of its own genre, it is outstanding and fans of that genre would have bought it regardless of the name it was marketed with. That—and here I’m just taking a wild guess—might have been a gamble that Square Enix wasn’t willing to take, which led to this game usurping a name it simply does not deserve.

Six pages?!

Looks like I got a little carried away. Time to wrap this all up.

There are rumours that Square Enix plans to unify the three Tomb Raider timelines. That’s a bloody awful idea if I’ve ever heard one (not least for the many inconsistencies across the three), and you can rest assured I won’t be touching any future Optional Tomb Raider game with a ten-foot pole.

I’d love to see the real Lara Croft make a comeback in a modern, realistic-looking Tomb Raider game that’s actually worth the name, but I have a hunch that’s not going to happen. (Rather, I fear they might be planning pseudo knock-offs of the classic games featuring Optional Lara in gore bath after gore bath. God forbid.) Thankfully, when I want to spend time with my good old friend Lara, I still can. I can join her as she looks for the Scion, battles the Black Flame in Venice, sneaks into secret bases in Nevada, or tries to save the world from the wrath of Seth. Recently, she and I just made our way into Tihocan’s tomb—with a little help from DOSBox.

If you’re a fan of the survivor timeline and are mighty pissed at me for crucifying your favourite game, sorry—it’s nothing personal. There’s plenty of people in the Tomb Raider community who like telling the whole world why they loved the reboot—and by all means, they should. In the same vein, I wanted to share with the world why I hate this game.

If that can cheer you up, I kinda liked the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot that pretty much the entire fanbase rose against…

The fall of the Buxhaven family: A spoiler-free review

The fall of the Buxhaven family (FOBF) is an intriguing, well-crafted psychological horror adventure, and the latest entry in my on-going series of (pixel graphics) game reviews. I won’t be spoiling anything for you in this post, so feel free to read on; at the bottom of this post, there’s a video commentary I posted on my YouTube channel, but if you hate spoilers, make sure you play the game before you watch that. (By the way, if you want to subscribe to my YouTube channel, you can do so here.)

FOBF was made in Construct by Buxtejor—I guess that’s a nickname, but I’m not sure—and you can find it on Itch.io. You can play it in your browser, or you can download it and play it on your computer, though at the time of writing the download is only available for Windows.

Plot overview

The game’s story is fairly straightforward. James Buxhaven, a world-famous, workaholic psychiatrist lives with his wife Mary, their little daughter Sally, and a dog named Coco in a huge manor that James inherited from his grandfather. Mary hates the place, but James doesn’t seem to take notice of that, busy as he is with his patients. One night, things go horribly wrong at Buxhaven Manor: when the game starts, we don’t quite know what happened, but two police are talking about how this is the worst case they’ve seen in years—and by the way, the game’s title is quite telling.

Dude. Chill.

After the short introductory dialogue between the two police, the real game begins and the player takes control. We see James come back home after yet another long and exhausting workday. After greeting Coco and Mary, James goes to Sally’s room to kiss her goodnight, but she refuses to go to bed without her favourite toy, Mr Teddy. James goes looking for it, and that’s when he finds out he and his family are not alone in the manor…

Gameplay

The gameplay is just as simple as the story, but none of that means that the game is not engaging or engrossing. FOBF is reminiscent of point-and-click adventures in that its puzzles involve looking for objects needed to progress and finding ways to unlock doors or overcome obstacles; it has an inventory, and you can examine (some) things around you, but it is not itself point-and-click: James is controlled via customisable keyboard controls and there’s no mouse involved as far as I could tell.

Also, unlike typical point-and-click games, James can die if his heart rate gets too high—which it will whenever something too unsettling happens. Hitting 300 bpm will kill James, but resting and keeping away from scary stuff will restore it back to its baseline 60 bpm without lasting consequences. However, to add a little bit of a challenge, James’ vision blurs (an effect rendered with pixelated noise) as his heart rate climbs up, and goes back to normal as his bpm go back down.

James’ blurred vision as a result of high HR.

There aren’t an awful lot of puzzles to solve; in fact, there’s probably more wandering around the humongous manor trying to figure out what to do next. In my case, that was especially true when I went looking for Mr Teddy, because I had no idea where the place where Sally said she’d left it was (and it wasn’t at all where I was expecting it to be). However, while all the wandering around can get a little annoying, it’s a good way to explore the environment and become immersed in it; it also adds to the feeling of loneliness and dread. In fact, most locations in the house aren’t really that important to the game, and only few rooms have objects that you can collect or items that reveal details of the story.

Besides point-and-click style puzzles, there are few other instances where you need to avoid ominous presences or get rid of them. According to Buxtejor, on average FOBF takes forty minutes to play through, but since I suck it took me over two hours. You can’t save your progress manually, but the game saves automatically at certain points and it will let you know when it does. Personally, I feel that the developer could have been a little more generous with the checkpoints, in order to avoid the annoying phenomenon of walks of shame that plagued Hollow Knight.

There are really only two situations where the lack of checkpoints might force you to redo the same bits over and over (because you keep dying over and over), and you’ll hear me complain about it at length in my video commentary of FOBF, but  I think this game is well worth putting up with that. (Also, you might simply be better at it than I was.)

Graphics, music, and sound

FOBF is a pixel graphics game. Character sprites consist of maybe two dozens of large pixels and are animated with two or three frames at most, which is great. I love pixel graphic games, they lend themselves very well to the psychological horror genre, and are in general very imaginative. FOBF’s palette has something like ten colours (I’m too lazy to actually count them), and yet it manages to create a perfectly unsettling atmosphere, also thanks to the intentionally dark environment and the constant, subtle pixelated noise reminiscent of old films. The low light can get in the way (especially in certain sequences where your field of vision shrinks down to that of a late-stage glaucoma patient), but it’s adjustable, so you can make the game brighter if you want.

Finding my way around here was a a nightmare, and the worst was yet to come…

The music may not be something that will stick with you forever, but it’s very appropriate to each situation and contributes in no small part to the game’s overall feel. It doesn’t get too narrative and it blends nicely in the background, allowing you to fully focus on what’s going on, so overall I think it was well chosen. (It wasn’t composed by the game author themselves, but by Itch.io user RedAvery, and you can find it here.)

Sounds effects are what you would expect from a retro game like this one; there aren’t many of them, but again are very appropriate. They give the game’s jump scares the necessary power to fling you right off your chair.

Overall impressions

FOBF has a good story, if a little predictable. There are hints that suggest rather strongly what’s going on, so if you pay close attention, you may well solve the mystery well before you get to the moment of the revelations. To be fair, though, the game does try to throw you off on more than one occasion.

I found some of the puzzles to be especially clever, but as said there aren’t many, and maybe there could have been more. (Then again, the game is supposed to last 40 minutes.) The large size of Buxhaven Manor offered potential for a more complex story and more puzzles which I feel was untapped, but this leaves room for future episodes. (Something that Buxtejor themselves said to be a possibility.)

This one took me pen, paper, and half an hour. My girlfriend solved it in thirty seconds. Either I suck, or she’s very smart. I like to think the latter.

With the exception of two (maybe three) rather infuriating bits, I found this game thoroughly enjoyable. It’s immersive, it makes you want to keep playing, and everything adds up at the end. Frankly, if checkpoints had been used less sparingly, I don’t think I’d have any real complaint; allowing you to save at any point would be stupid, but just an extra checkpoint or two would have solved all my issues.

The game dev said FOBH was well received, and I’m not remotely surprised by that. As far as I know, this game was essentially a one-person operation that took less than a year despite the fact it was done during spare lockdown time (thanks, 2020); it’s very good in general and extremely good in the circumstances. I certainly look forward to future chapters of the Buxhaven family story, and any other game Buxtejor may make in the future. (Please just don’t take a year, I hate waiting…)

Here be spoilers

Alright, now if you haven’t played FOBF yet, I recommend you do; if you played it already, you’re all set to watch my video commentary about it here below.

The House of the Living: A spoiler-free review

Like I said in a previous post, I am very much a fan of pixel graphics games, especially if they are of the psychological horror genre. Every now and again, when I’m not overwhelmed by the too many things which this blog is named after, I like to visit Itch.io to look for indie games of this kind. If I have to be honest, I don’t often come across games I really like (on Itch.io or in general), but if you look hard enough, there are some truly rare gems just waiting to be discovered and that deserve more attention. The following is a spoiler-free review of one such gem, The House of the Living; if you’re interested, at the bottom of this post there is a spoiler-with video commentary on the same game, the latest addition to my brand-new YouTube channel

The House of the Living (HoL) is a short Bitsy game made by Fred Bednarski for the Gothic Novel Jam and the Sublime Bitsy Jam hosted on Itch.io a few years back. (Note to self: if you like a game in a game jam, it should dawn on you to check out the other entries of the jam right away, not when you’re reviewing the game years later. No, I didn’t accidentally leave this bit in—I’m intentionally publicly shaming myself. That’ll teach me to pay attention.)

Where was I? Ah, yes. Depending on your definition of game, HoL might be more of an interactive novel, like most Bitsy games. (Bitsy is a simple, web-based pixel-graphics engine that allows you to create interactive stories even if you can’t write a line of code to save your life.) Regardless, it’s a neat, creepy adventure that won’t take more than five or ten minutes of your time; like many games on Itch.io, it’s free and you can play it in your browser.

There’s nothing like a warm welcome.

Aside from my personal bias in favour of pixel graphics, I find that Bednarski made excellent use of the medium to create a truly creepy atmosphere. The manor itself is impressively well-drawn and imaginative; you could tell right away something is not right simply by looking at it, even without the ominous music (composed by the very aptly named Haunted Corpse).

The choice of the colour palette (which in Bitsy is limited to three different colours) is perfect and it definitely plays a big part in setting the general tone of the game.

Why, I have.

The dialogs, which drive the entire game, are convincing and well-written (except for a few typos), if a little cryptic; I’m not entirely sure of this, but I think there are a few covert references in the game, such as the fact that the House used to be owned by the Radcliffe family. (Nope, the reference, if it was intended, isn’t to Daniel Radcliffe, but to Ann Radcliffe, a pioneer of gothic fiction.)  There are at least two endings to the game that I’m aware of, though I doubt there are more as there isn’t a whole lot you can do in the game.

Howdy! A fine day to bang your head against the wall, eh?

According to Bednarski, the game touches the themes of religion, murder, death, and suicide (cheery stuff, but given the theme of the jam…) which is definitely true, but the meaning of the game is up for debate. I gave my own interpretation in the video below; feel free to watch it and tell me all about how I got it all wrong.

In any case, if you have five minutes to spare, make yourself a hot cuppa and enjoy this bitesize horror game. You won’t be terrified, as that was obviously not the author’s intention, but I do think you will enjoy it.

Hollow Knight: a love-hate relationship

This review wasn’t born a review. When I first thought I should write it, what I had in mind was more like a retaliation against a game that often feels (and sometimes actually is) unfair and punishing; a way I could vent all the anger and frustration I accumulated while playing said game and tell its developers that [REDACTED]. As the big picture above reading “Hollow Knight” might suggest, the game I’m talking about is indeed Hollow Knight.

My opinion of this game has since changed, and my anger has been tempered by the beauty of the game’s art; the sense of wonder evoked by its superb soundtrack; the aura of mystery in which its lore is shrouded. (And the fact I finally beat the damn thing. Mostly that.)

Hollow Knight was released in 2017 and its final expansion was published in 2018, so I’m a bit late for the review party. Nonetheless, I would still like to share my views on it with my readership—which, at the time of writing, I estimate to be more or less the size of the set of Hollow Knight players who never lost their shit once while playing.

I was introduced to Hollow Knight by my girlfriend, who said more or less verbatim: “You’re going to hate it, but I think you’re going to like it.” Boy, was she ever right. (She usually is.)

Spoiler-free introduction to Entomophobia Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight takes place in the fallen kingdom of Hallownest, a world full of bugs because, well, it’s a bug world. You play as a nameless knight who embarks on a quest, which at the beginning of the game you have no clue about and probably still won’t by the end of it. The knight—a tiny, humanoid, genderless figure—is armed only with a nail which he (I’m going to use this pronoun anyway because I find it less confusing) brandishes like a sword, though throughout the game he will acquire more powers, learn special techniques, and his nail will get tougher. (I swear this is not an innuendo, though I did spot some in the game, and I’m not sure they weren’t intentional.)

Er…

The game narrates its story in a rather cryptic fashion, mostly through the lines spoken by the various NPCs and more occasionally through cut scenes. If you pay close attention, you will at least learn what caused the kingdom’s demise (I didn’t, because I was too busy getting mad at the developers) and you might be able to piece together parts of the backstory from the hints you’re given, but do not expect the game to take your hand and guide you through it, because it won’t. Not by a long shot.

Hollow Knight is an action-adventure 2D platformer of the Metroidvania subgenre. If videogames parlance isn’t quite your thing, it basically means it’s a game with a vast world of interconnected areas to explore. You develop your character’s skills and abilities as the game progresses, which in turn allows you to discover new areas and secrets, face tougher enemies, etc. The gameplay consists almost entirely of melée fights with tons of unfriendly bugs populating the various, imaginative subareas of Hallownest, and a lot of dying. Lots and lots of dying—during the boss battles, on your way there, or while solving subquests, but more on that later. The game features no real puzzle-solving, not according to my definition anyway, but there are bits where the game hints at what you need to do to acquire a new ability and you have to figure it out, as well as secret areas to discover behind locked doors or cracked walls. Being a platformer, Hollow Knight also has platforming sections where you need to jump from a suspended platform to the next to get to your destination, all while avoiding or battling enemies and trying not to fall into acid pits or on thorny vines and spikes.

That’s zoomed out. And it’s not even the whole map.

The gameplay is very much non-linear, so you might end up facing an enemy too tough for your current skills or finding yourself in areas that you won’t be able to cross through for a while yet. It also means you don’t need to beat most bosses to beat the game, and in the same way, you don’t need to get every single upgrade, find all secret areas, or all items to get to the end (though in some cases this will prevent you from unlocking different endings).

Non-linearity makes for a lot of exploring, which can be a lot of fun but also frustrating—especially at the beginning, when you have no special abilities, your nail is about as sharp as a gummy bear, and most enemies can massacre the knight in a handful of hits (which holds mostly true throughout the entire game). It really depends on how far the bench (read: checkpoint) where you last sat is from the point where you died, and in most cases, benches aren’t close.

Resting on a bench doesn’t only save your progress; it also fully replenishes your health, though that’s not the only way you can do it. You can recover your health also by focusing, an ability that you get pretty early on in the game. This action restores your health but depletes your soul, a sort of multipurpose energy used to cast different spells (focus is only one of them). The simple and most immediate way to replenish soul is to use your nail to hit enemies (which there’s no shortage of. The fact the developers are from a country where everything wants to kill you might possibly explain what inspired them to make this game the way they did).

The Charms subscreen

Aside from your nail and soul-powered abilities, you also have charms. Charms are basically ornaments that you can find or buy and equip to boost your health, power up your nail, boost your defence, and so on. Charms require notches to be equipped, and not all of them take the same amount of notches; additionally, some of them come with trade-offs that might be unfavourable in the specific situation you’re in.

Together with the fact that you start off with three notches and it takes money and/or effort to get more (up to eleven), this means that you will often have to figure out what’s the best charm combination for what you’re dealing with (and then generally die and try out another one. Rinse and repeat). There are yet other skills which you can gain and use without equipping anything, such as the double jump or the dash, but I don’t want to turn this introduction into an encyclopedia.

A detailed, enchanting world

Hollow Knight’s art was drawn and animated entirely by hand—more specifically, the hand of Ari Gibson, the game’s co-designer. (This is probably a good point to mention that this game was created by a team of three, Team Cherry.) I was honestly amazed by the amount of detail in the backgrounds and every foreground element. From the heights of the Hauling Cliffs to the dark depths of the Abyss, each and every area you’ll explore has its unique visual appeal, charm, and personality: the lonely and crumbling Forgotten Crossroads; the funny Fungal Wastes; the melancholically elegant chambers of the City of Tears; the colourful, stunningly beautiful Greenpath. The visuals and overall atmosphere of every single place are so imaginative and expressive that you wish you could actually visit them—if you don’t mind having to fear for your life with every step you take, that is.

I’m not sure how the art was drawn, though at least some of it makes me think of aquarelle (such as the tint of some buildings, for example by the Lake of Unn). Regardless, the translucencies, the contrast between light and shadow, the way colours blend into one another are absolutely gorgeous; and speaking of blending, I love the visual transitions between different areas. As you walk from, say, the Forgotten Crossroads to the Fungal Wastes, or from these to the Deepnest, the former will gradually turn into the latter, giving a nice feeling of continuity. By the way, I was absolutely amazed at how you could see the animated Fungal Wastes on the background of the Junk Pit—yet another testament to the kind of attention Gibson pays to detail.

For some perverted reason, I like reading negative reviews more than positive ones. One of those I read about Hollow Knight pretty much tore it apart from every conceivable angle except for the music (and frankly, its author came across as an insufferable videogame snob); I could see some of its points, at least to some extent, but one I really disagreed with was that the art was dull because each area of the game had a main colour defining its theme. The author of that review put it even more bluntly: he said Greenpath was all green, the Crystal Peak was all pink, et cetera. That’s simply untrue. One may or may not like the style of Hollow Knight, but this game is far from having monochromatic art. Each area has a combination of colours that are certainly based on a single colour that fits the mood, plus few others that work well with the rest. This is not a flaw, but a stylistic choice that goes a long way towards establishing the appropriate look and feel of each part of Hallownest; in my opinion, doing it differently would have yielded an inferior result.

I liked the colours.

The character sprites are a touch cartoonish, but it’s neither excessive, nor a bad thing per se, as it helps giving the game a hint of cuteness without compromising its aura of mystery and slight creepiness.

Aren’t they adorable?

They’re also less detailed than the other visual elements, sometimes also in terms of shading, but I think this was intentional and it works, as it makes them really stand out from the rest. I have no complaints in terms of character sprite and animations, except that some of the enemies look (and sound) so cute that you feel bad killing them—like the Shrumal “Warriors” and their Shrumelings.

Do you like goosebumps? ‘Cause you’re gonna get them

Not just the visuals in Hollow Knight are top notch; the same is true of the sound. 10/10 would rage quit again. (I didn’t, really, but I’ll admit I was on the verge of doing it more than once.) In particular, without its outstanding soundtrack, this game would lose half its charms. (See what I did there? Okay, I’ll see myself out.) The score was not composed in-house at Team Cherry’s; it was the work of Christopher Larkin, and he certainly knew what he was doing. With the exception of very few areas where all you can hear is ambient sound, Hollow Knight features a fantastic orchestral soundtrack, which manages to convey the specific feel of the individual districts of Hallownest as brilliantly as it succeeds at telling the story of this once majestic, long-fallen kingdom. (If I’m allowed a little cynical foreshadowing of my own review, the music is more telling than the game itself.)

As you travel from area to area, Larkin’s music will make you feel the resigned melancholy of the fading town of Dirtmouth; it’ll make you experience the thrill of the battle against the Soul Tyrant, and as you make your way through Greenpath, it will fill you with the same childlike sense of wonder and curiosity you’d have if you discovered a secret meadow in the intricate depths of an enchanted forest. (Yes, I can be that cheesy if needed.) The White Palace theme is a big favourite of mine (can’t quite say the same of the place itself), and frankly, I need to go and buy myself the whole soundtrack—which by the way is available on Spotify, though I’m not sure if it’s the whole thing. I think the game had more pieces.

The sound effects are nice too, and the ‘fake voices’, for lack of a better term, bear special mention. Strictly speaking, characters aren’t voice-overed, but that doesn’t mean there is no voice acting; there is. However, the voice actors don’t read out lines of dialogue, but short sentences in an incomprehensible lingo, sometimes accompanied by laughter, sighs, or other non-verbal sounds. The aforementioned negative review of Hollow Knight bashed this aspect too, saying that an actual voice-over would have been better. I beg to differ: the lingo adds an alien touch to the game, just as I would expect a bug world to feel like. Dialogue is written in English (and other languages are available too), and that’s of course necessary for you to understand what’s going on; but far from making the game better, English voice acting would just have detracted from the experience.

No game is perfect. Hollow Knight included

I have read more balanced negative reviews of Hollow Knight than I have positive ones. As far as I have seen, negative reviews of this game will at least concede that the art and the music are great, and the concept is intriguing; in contrast, a lot of positive reviews tend to disregard things that could have been done better and could have made for a less maddening and frustrating experience.

Hollow Knight is fucking hard. Probably the hardest game I’ve ever played, but intrinsic difficulty (as in, how high your odds to get your arse severely beaten are at any given time) is not the main problem of this game. It will never get easy, but it will get easier—because of the upgrades you’ll find as well as the fact you will get the hang of the boss battles. The problem is that the developers made a number of debatable choices that can make the game very frustrating, and they also make it hard to learn from your mistakes, explicitly inviting the player to forget about the game and do something easier instead—like skydiving.

Goddamnit, William! Why do you hate players so much?!

Of shades, walks, and benches

The fundamental reason at the core of Hollow Knight’s outstanding difficulty is that enemies are tough, plentiful, and relentless; contrariwise, the knight is a fragile little thing that starts off weak and remains relatively weak throughout the entire game, in spite of whatever upgrade you may have. This is the main risk factor for rage-quitting early in the game: it’s easy to get surrounded by tons of enemies that will kill you before you can kill them. I think this heavily discourages exploration, because while in Hollow Knight you don’t run out of lives and can retry the same area until your thumbs fall off, there’s often more than one price to pay for failure.

When the knight dies, he leaves behind a black shade that stores all of the knight’s geos (the currency of the game). The game will resume from the nearest bench, which is not the same as ‘a bench near you’: Team Cherry has placed them rather sparingly and awkwardly. If you want to retrieve your geos, you’ll need to walk all the way back to the shade, quite possibly going again through the same long stretch full of enemies whom you had barely managed to escape up until your untimely death. This might easily result in you dying a second time before you get to the shade, at which point you’ll lose whatever money it stored. If you make it to the shade in one piece, beware of the shade itself, because it too will attack you. You’ll need to kill the shade to get it and the money back.  The shade gets more aggressive and resilient as the knight becomes more powerful, which I guess sort of makes sense, but… it’s far more annoying than it is sensible.

The knight’s shade and the broken soul vessel. I understand there are plot-related reasons why the shade attacks you, but in a game where everything wants to kill you, at least your shade could do you the courtesy of leaving you alone…

This isn’t all; remember the soul? The sort of energy that you can use to heal, among other things? You store that in a glass orb (called a ‘vessel’) that gets broken each time you die. You can still use it, but since the top is missing, you can’t fill it all with soul, and won’t be able to until you retrieve your shade. Especially early on in the game this can make things harder, and I honestly fail to see what is the point of it beyond administering a harsher punishment for failure.

As I mentioned, benches are few and far apart, and this is especially true of boss arenas with very few exceptions. When you lose a boss fight—which you will, again and again—and want to retry it, you’ll have to walk all the bloody way back to the boss, battle through hordes of enemies, and/or speed through them before you can resume the fight. I can’t possibly overstate how annoying that is, and how detrimental it is for the sake of your learning process. Whenever I lose a boss fight, I want to retry it right away, so that I can immediately apply what I just learned from the defeat and improve. Forcing me to countless walks of shame before I can challenge bosses again isn’t just in the way of my learning; it’s punishing, and for no good reason. They could simply have placed a bench before (or very close to) each boss arena; that alone would make for a much less frustrating game experience.

(Im)balancing act

Boss battles are especially tough, and while facing enemies scattered throughout Hallownest does get easier as you build your skills, boss battles don’t. If anything, later battles get harder, which of course makes sense, but I get a feeling that good ol’ William just didn’t know when to quit. Boss battles in Hollow Knight can be exhausting, and quite many of them are a constant bloodbath where learning the specific boss’ pattern is very hard. It took me God knows how many attempts before I could figure out the pattern of the Failed Champion; before that moment, it seemed as though there wasn’t any. Just a constant rain of death falling on me, promptly followed by the walk of shame. This was a dream boss, so the walk of shame wasn’t to get back to the battlefield; it was to replenish my soul vessel and try different charm combinations, because you can’t equip or unequip charms unless you’re sitting on a bench. I understand how allowing the player to change charms at any point would easily make the knight overpowered, and I’m not suggesting that; just add a few more benches to the game, goddammit, and make sure players don’t need to travel half the world to get from a bench to a boss arena and vice-versa!

Some of the battles are very long, and not just because the bosses have far, far more health than the knight ever will even in his wildest dreams. Take the Soul Tyrant battle: while it’s long, there’s a very discernible pattern that’s easy to pick up and yet following it requires all your skill and attention. The problem is, the battle drags on until after you thought the Soul Tyrant was dead, and the second phase of the battle is much harder.

In the second phase of the battle, this guy is a seriously annoying motherfucker.

I lost count of how many times I died during that second phase before I finally managed to beat him for good—which, of course, took going through the first phase of the battle over and over again, as well figuring out the right charm combination, which in turn required enough walks of shame to wear out the floor of the Soul Sanctum to the point of crumbling. Hollow Knight is a great game, really, but I wish it took into account that players tire. They tire of the battle itself, but most importantly of all the annoying repetition that it’s often required to get to the battle or to its later phases. This particular issue made several battles feel like a chore, and when I finally won them, more than a dopamine boost I felt relieved that they were over.

But that’s not all! The knight is not just tiny, fragile, and weak. He’s pretty much duct-taped to the ground whenever the focus button is pressed and for a good half a second after you release it, as well as after executing special attacks. It might not seem like a lot, but it is. Boss battles being what they are, it’s a large enough window to get slaughtered before you even realise what’s going on.

Normally, the knight is nailed to the ground when focusing. Thanks to the Shape of Unn charm, when he’s focusing he’s… snailed to the ground.

To top it all, the focusing mechanic can be a real drag during battles. Focusing heals one mask (i.e., a hit point) at a time, and it takes about a second to do it; as long as you hold down the focus button and you have enough soul, healing will continue. However, while soul depletion is a continuous process, healing is not. In other words, while the focus button is down, you will use up soul, but only after enough soul has been used up will you heal one mask. If the process is interrupted before that point, you will lose soul and won’t be healed. In particular, if the knight is hit while focusing, he will take damage, he will not be healed, and will lose whatever soul was used up to that point, ending up far worse off than he was before trying to heal. Frankly, I think this was an unfair choice, just like it was unfair to have soul automatically depleted instead of replenished or at least preserved when losing a dream battle. Dream battles can be so hard that even if your soul vessel is completely tanked up you don’t get much of an edge; forcing the player to go and brawl random enemies just to get enough soul before reattempting the battle was a bit of dick move that adds to the repetitiveness I was talking about.

Also, to make for a well-balanced game, your reward for beating a boss needs to be proportionate to the difficulty of the fight. I often didn’t feel this was the case; even when the reward was a very useful skill or power-up, I felt it wasn’t enough for the amount of effort I had to put into getting it. Example: the Traitor Lord battle. It took me two hours of constant trying before finally succeeding; and what did I get out of it? Half a charm, which of course could not be used before I found the other half. I had to get through the ill-famed White Palace to get the other half, and even when I did, the resulting Kingsoul charm wasn’t nearly as useful as I was hoping it would be. (Damn you, Trial of the Fool! I’ll get you, one day!) Granted, the Kingsoul charm is important for plot-related reasons, but even what you get out of that is underwhelming and not worth getting your cortisol levels through the roof.

Thank heavens I already had the Dream Gate upgrade, because there’s no way I would put up with the especially infuriating walk of shame that it would take to get back here.

Charma is a bitch

Yes, I know you don’t spell “karma” that way. Don’t ruin my puns. They’re already awful as they are.

Hollow Knight is tough enough that even when you equip several strong charms you don’t magically become super strong and kick all the arse you come across with ease. That’s fine, because for Hollow Knight, being too easy would be worse than being too difficult. If it were too easy, it would be a bland game. Still, there are a few annoying things about charms which could easily have been avoided.

Some charms give you rather basic abilities that should either have been ‘built-in’ in the knight or at least made automatically usable after gaining them without having to equip a separate charm. The most glaringly obvious example is the compass charm: if you don’t equip it, you can’t see your position on the map. It only takes up one notch, but it’s a notch that could be better used for other charms. Rather than a charm, the compass could easily have been an item you bought from the map shop, for example.

Some charms enhance your physical abilities: they make you walk or hit faster, or allow you to dash more often. It’s a waste of notches for things that should be acquired skills that need no charms to use, just like the dash, the double-jump, or special nail techniques.

Speaking of the nail, I would go as far as to suggest that the Long Nail charm and the Mark of Pride charm shouldn’t be a thing either. There’s a nailsmith in town whom you can pay to make your nail stronger; while you’re at it, you could pay him to make it longer, too, rather than waste your precious notches on magical trinkets to lengthen your nail—which kinda makes me think of a Hallownest late-night commercial, if you know what I mean.

Charms and notches are linked in a sort of catch-22. Half of your extra notches need to be bought in a shop run by Salubra—a creepy, oversized lady who is just a… notch away from sexually harassing the knight. Each notch you buy is more expensive than the previous one, but that’s alright. What’s not alright is the fact that before she will even sell you a notch, you need to have found a certain amount of charms.

She’s a fucking creep.

This means that you might be unable to equip a charm combination that would make your life easier, because even if you do have the charms, you don’t have enough notches. And why can’t you have enough notches? Because you don’t have enough charms. (The other half of your extra notches aren’t easy to find or get, and you’re unlikely to do it early in the game.)

General annoyances

The knight can be slow and cumbersome as fuck. Aside from being nailed to the ground whenever soul is involved, the knight is infuriatingly slow to get a move on after using the Dream Gate or after being kicked out of a dream battle. I hate with a passion the fact that, when you lose to a dream boss and get back to the real world, the knight is lying on the ground next to the sleeping boss, and you actually need to press a button before the knight will finally get his arse up. Even then, he will get only halfway up, and he’ll still take another second to be fully up and ready to move. Dream-nailing bosses takes additional time, and yet more time is taken by the theatrical animation of the knight entering their dreams—which, granted, is superb, but it gets on your nerves after you’ve been forced to sit through it a few dozen times straight. Boss intros take yet more time and can’t be skipped. All this stuff slows the gameplay down, exacerbating the frustration of having to repeat the same fight over and over again before you win it.

You can be attacked while checking the game menu. There are two menus you can access while playing. The pause menu effectively freezes the game and offers you the option to quit, resume playing, or change the settings. The game menu is a barely transparent, full-screen menu that blacks everything out. From here, you can check the map, see your charms, read the Traveller’s Journal, and more. There’s also a quick-map option to see the map without entering the game menu, but either way, the game is not frozen when you open the game menu or the quick map. If there are enemies around, they can and will attack you, and the game doesn’t bother warning you; I had to find out the hard way. This is literally the only game I know of where entering a menu doesn’t automatically freeze the game, and I can’t think of a single good reason why you shouldn’t be able to check your goddamn inventory without worrying about any enemies around.

You can focus even if you’re fully healthy. The point of focusing is to recover your health, so if you focus when you’re fully healthy, you’re effectively wasting soul, and the game doesn’t bother preventing that. Soul is easy to come by, so it’s not a big deal, but if a choice had to be made between using a little kindness towards players and not doing it, why not?

More duct-taping. If you fall on thorns or spikes and don’t die, the game will immediately resume from a thorn-free spot (not necessarily the closest one). The knight will be invulnerable for a short time, but during that same time, he’ll also be unable to move. If that area happens to be full of enemies (for example, the Colosseum of Fools), enemies can quickly surround the knight while he’s duct-taped to the ground; this makes that short time of invulnerability pretty pointless, because enemies only need to cluster on you and wait until you’re vulnerable again. A similar thing happens if you use the Dream Gate to get to a place where your shade is: the shade will be on you as soon as you appear, and since you can’t move right away, you’re likely to get hit. Either have the enemies/shade wait half a second, or go easier on the superglue on the knight’s soles.

Infuriating platforming sections. If you’ve ever tried to reach the Traitor Lord in the Queen’s Gardens or attempted to clear the White Palace, you’ll know what I’m talking about. These sections overuse spikes and/or thorny vines, as well as bloody buzz saws (White Palace only) that are absolutely out of place. They’re well beyond simply being challenging, and some specific parts seem designed to maximise the player’s annoyance. I hated the guts of the Queen’s Gardens, but I have to say that I did enjoy the White Palace to some extent. The first time around I failed miserably and gave up; the second time, I somehow managed to get through it in maybe an hour or two. This does not apply to the Path of Pain, which I gave up on almost immediately. In that place, it’s hard to see where you’re even going, and as this video reveals, all you get out of it is literally a two-second cut scene without a single word of dialog and a short, vague journal entry. In my opinion, it’s simply far more trouble than it is worth.

The Hiveblood charm was obviously designed with the White Palace in mind… Is it even possible to get through this place without it?

I have criticised the difficulty of Hollow Knight enough, but I’m not the only one who thinks the game went too far in this regard. There are enough butthurt scorching comments and reviews on the Internet and on Steam that can attest to that, but beyond opinions there are facts. For example, according to Steam achievement statistics, only 30.8% of the players killed the Teacher. You can’t beat the game unless you do that, so less than 31% of Hollow Knight players on Steam got to the end. For that matter, only 57.9% beat Hornet in Greenpath; that too is essential to beat the game, and it happens pretty early on in the game. Over forty percent of players on Steam didn’t even get past one of the early bosses. I think that’s quite telling of how difficult this game is. Hard to say if players gave up because the game was hard or because it was frustrating.

Great story, not-so-great storytelling

It’s very easy to write a spoiler-free synopsis of Hollow Knight. That’s because the game itself is virtually spoiler-free. I got to the end of the game with only a vague idea of what the plot was, and I’m not alone in this either. I’m all for cryptic storytelling so long as things are eventually clarified. Just like you need to watch some movies more than once to get them, Hollow Knight is probably a game that takes a second playthrough before you can have those “Aha!” moments when the pieces of the puzzle fall into place; the problem with that is that, storytelling-wise, the game doesn’t reward you enough to put up with its annoyances a first time, let alone twice. Admittedly, I only got the Sealed Siblings ending; it was utterly underwhelming and it cleared up nothing. I had to check on Wikipedia to get a gist of the story, and after watching a video by The Game Theorists, I finally got to appreciate it in full, and you know what? It’s a very good story—it just isn’t told very well. It’s not told pretty much at all, goddammit! From what I’ve read, other endings aren’t much more revealing, and they take yet more frustrating battles and walks of shame to achieve. I’m not sure I’m willing to put up with all that if all I stand to gain are more lacklustre endings that I can watch on YouTube anyway.

Regardless, I still like Hollow Knight. I like it enough that, despite all my points of criticism, I will keep trying to get through the Godhome expansion or get some of my missing achievements. I like it enough to recommend it with the caveat that it will make you lose your shit more than once. I like it enough that I will get Silksong, the upcoming, Hornet-centred sequel.

I’m glad the second instalment will focus on her, because while her character is obviously meant to follow the typical apparent-adversary-turned-ally trope, it was not developed enough for that role. Silksong will hopefully fix that.

Hollow Knight may be unfair and infuriating at times, but it still has a great atmosphere and a great story, and already now that I’m technically not fully done playing, I miss that crazy bug world, and I feel a little empty. I still freak out while I play it, but now I do so with a smile on my face.

Here be spoilers

Maybe you’re a more patient player than I am, and you will not let your frustration prevent you from piecing together the story as you play. If that sounds like you, I suggest you drop this endlessly logorrheic rant by a butthurt mediocre player and go and play Hollow Knight without spoiling the story for yourself with the videos below. If the game doesn’t give up its secrets easily, this stuff will, believe me. Then again, if you did play Hollow Knight and need help to make sense of it, these links are for you.

Hollow Knight Lore and Plot Explained (Outdated). An outdated, but still very good and clear explanation of Hollow Knight by mossbag.

The (Mostly) Complete Lore of Hollow Knight. I didn’t watch this one yet, but it’s the updated version of the above. And it’s around half an hour longer. (The previous one is nearly 45 minutes.)

mossbag’s channel. This guy is the author of the videos linked above, and is pretty much obsessed with Hollow Knight. He clearly knows what he’s talking about, so if you are interested in delving into every twist and turn of the game, you might want to check this out.

Game Theory: The Secret Identity of Hollow Knight’s Hero (Hollow Knight). This is the video by The Game Theorists that I was talking about before. It focuses on a specific theory on the origins of the knight (which I believed at first, but now I think mossbag has pretty much debunked it), but it’s also very good if you want a quicker explanation of the game’s backstory (this video is only about 20 minutes long).

One last thing: the game itself makes it rather clear that the knight you are playing as is not the Hollow Knight. Then I wonder why the game’s website says that “As the enigmatic Hollow Knight, you’ll traverse the depths [of Hallownest], unravel its mysteries and conquer its evils.” Maybe it’s just a mistake, or maybe the plot is even more convoluted than it seems.