Until recently I’d never heard of the Metroidvania genre. In my defence, I’m only a casual ‘silver’ gamer. On average I game for about five or six hours a week. These aren’t enthusiast numbers, not even close.
Down the years I’ve played games which combine labyrinth maps, a diversity of vast terrains that expand and alter as a reward for the player acquiring upgrades and abilities, a score which befits with the game’s aesthetic and story, optional side content, where engrossing gameplay is prioritised and cutting edge graphics are often treated as an afterthought. Indeed, many of the games on Steam defined as Metroidvania are two dimensional platformers and indie offerings, as Hollow Knight is.
Given the obstacles in its inception, Hollow Knight is an amazing feat. It’s everything Metroidvania fanatics demand, plus it sports a lush gothic aesthetic, and a beautiful score. The music deserves specific praise, perfectly matching ephemeral habitats, a sombreness when visiting desolate locations which depict folklore, mirroring the claustrophobia of menacing mazes in creepy places, to bombastic frenetic compositions which tend to signify an impending boss fight. Throughout a mythology that retains a sense of mystery is cultivated. While it’s a fable of valour, honour and sacrifice transposed to an insect kingdom with cartoonish avatars, trust me, you’ll enjoy this stuff.
If you’re a fan of the genre, or just gaming full stop, I urge you to play it, but I’m here to warn you there’s a but. Think of anything in life that annoys you; getting cut off by some moronic driver, your neighbour doing DIY too fucking loudly on a Sunday fucking morning, pop ups on every single fucking website asking if they can use your data to comply with EU laws, or if you want to register (answer – no I fucking don’t) and multiply it several times over. Hollow Knight will boil your piss. You thought FIFA was bad with its scripted sequences? Don’t be rope-a-doped, as I was, by the cute and diminutive stature of the Hollow Knight, or that this would be an engrossing aside that I could take or leave. Nope. Hollow Knight makes Dark Souls feel as benign as Sesame Street. Get ready to grip your controller too tight and thrash at the buttons in frustration. You’ll wince fiercely, with teeth and jaw locked in anguish that you’re down to your last life and there’s not a fucking bench (save point) in sight. You’ll swear excessively, but not as creatively, as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman does at Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket when trying to navigate the White Palace’s endless sets of spinning blades and spikes.
That’s because Hollow Knight’s best facet is also its worst, it’s extremely difficult. Its difficulty only feels paradoxical relative to other games. Practically all single player games allow you to set the difficulty to suit your skill level. There is no difficulty setting in Hollow Knight, a device that insidiously goads your vanity in failure. And you will fail, often at the first attempt, no matter how many lives you have left or confidence you have at the time that ‘you can do this’. Every aspect of the gameplay is unforgiving. Can you time your jumps correctly boyo, avoid the spikes and enemies and liberate this grub, or are you gonna rage quit as a loser would? Oh you died, after clearing the third spinning blade in a sequence, let’s put you back right before the first one just to aggrieve you and make you less composed before the next attempt. Move the wrong way, just a fraction, and a thorn or spike ruins you. There are countless manic fights in enclosed areas, where enemies swarm you in waves. Certain boss fights take several attempts just to get your bearings, and when you do you find they’re armed with multiple lives. Virtually all the rooms in all areas are filled with multiple threats; a series of obstacles that require perfectly timed set of manoeuvres, and enemies that randomly lurk, waiting just for you.
Now, I’ve completed the game’s central story. So I didn’t need subject myself to any more of Hollow Knight’s peculiar form of addictive torment. I’d succeeded and I enjoyed it for the most part, so I could just move on with my life, or in this case, to the next game. But having purchased all current and future DLC at inception, I felt compelled to give the Grimm Troupe DLC a try. The main game tested my patience, the Grim Troupe DLC decimated it.
Or more specifically, The Nightmare King Grimm broke me. He’s the biggest bastard boss I’ve ever faced in any game. It took me well over sixty attempts (and several hours) to emerge victorious. Initially I felt relief, akin to baking one for hours, but ultimately I was left hollow, pun intended, and wondered if it was all worth it. It made me ponder that disquieting existential question – what am I doing with my life?
Let’s use my dismay constructively and add another definition to properly distinguish true Metroidvania games from the pretenders – the real deal are so challenging that they encourage masochistic obsessiveness. There are many reasons why people become heroin addicts, but the cyclical process of addiction is always the same, any anguish is momentarily forgotten when gratification displaces it, no matter how fleeting the latter is. After my Grimm Troupe experience, I’ll elect to show restraint and give the Godhome DLC a miss. To clarify, it offers you the opportunity to replay all the game’s bosses but with optional impediments. If you manage it, somehow, your reward for succeeding, is, well, that you can say you’ve done it. I’ve never injected heroin, but I reckon that nobody will mind if I conclude that it isn’t beneficial without trying it first.
Nonetheless, it’ll be a while before I play another Metroidvania game, because it’ll be going some to be as good as Hollow Knight was bad for my psychological equilibrium.