Dead Cells (2018)

I’m the first to admit that finding a rogue-lite game that suits my tastes is difficult. As someone who enjoys steady progression systems and a consistent difficulty curve, the rogue-lites and rogue-likes of the world seem antithetical to my preferences. Even Enter the Gungeon, a game which I love, almost had me quitting after a handful of hours. Unfortunately, Dead Cells never hooked me and grew stale after a dozen hours. While the combat was entertaining enough, I had felt like I had seen the whole game after a handful of successful runs.  

The core concept of the rogue-lite genre is that every time you die, you must restart the game from the first level. Rogue-lites in particular have methods of progression that unlock weapons and upgrades throughout the course of the game that will make subsequent runs easier to complete. That combined with the knowledge and skill gained after multitudes of runs allow the player to make it deeper and deeper in the game, until the eventually conquer the final boss.

One of the primary aspects of Dead Cells that is given praise is its progression system. While playing the game, exploring hidden crevices, and killing enemies you will gain cells and blueprints. Blueprints serve as unlocks for weapons and tools that once earned can be found in subsequent runs. You must spend cells to complete the blueprints as well as unlocking generalist boosts like additional health flasks. 

The premise of Dead Cells is that you control an amorphous blob that takes control over a beheaded body that it finds. You must traverse a crumbling kingdom to defeat monsters and overthrow a corrupt ruler. There is not much explicit story and explanation given to the player. Instead, you will find hidden bits and pieces of lore scattered throughout your runs. It’s clear that there is a disease known as the malaise that is the source of the kingdom’s ruin, but learning the source of the disease and how the main characters are significant is something that the player will have to figure out after many, many hours. Truthfully, the reason you play Dead Cells is not for the story. 

My favorite aspect of Dead Cells is undeniably its combat. As side-scrolling hack n’ slash, you can expect some fast-paced and chaotic action when playing Dead Cells. There is tons of skill expression in how you choose to approach each encounter. You can rely on pure instincts to dodge incoming attacks, or you can play it slow and rely on ranged attacks and traps, or perhaps you prefer to utilize shields to block and parry blows. Every weapon behaves differently, and each one you find will have different augments to its base ability that can further warp its playstyle. It is fun to experiment with numerous builds and see how different each run can be.

Slashing through hordes of enemies just feels right. When a game gets combat correct, it’s hard to explain. There is a visceral feeling of satisfaction. Dead Cells undeniably gets it right. There is a rhythm, an ebb and flow, to good combat. Enemies react to your hits, but given the opportunity will retaliate with massive damage. There is a ton of variation in each enemy type, leaving the player to play cautiously with each new encounter. But once you master each stage you can strike down enemies with confidence and breeze through at breakneck pace.

The meat of Dead Cells is its combat and exploration. Dead Cells labels itself as a cross between a rogue-lite and a metroidvania. I’ve discussed its strengths as a rogue-like, but as a metroidvania it’s a tough sell. The nature of being a rogue-lite is the inherit randomization of the layout of each subsequent run, which is in direct conflict with the progression loops of traditional metroidvania. Exploration is a key aspect of any metroidvania, and remembering where locked doors and out-of-reach ledges were is absolutely core to the experience of a metroidvania. The exploration of Dead Cells is more dynamic, but it does not scratch the itch that a traditional metroidvania would.

Dead Cells is composed of many differing areas, and you can change your path during each run if you so choose. You must collect and unlock a handful of relics across numerous runs to access some of the more challenging areas. While this seems like a metroidvania initially, I quickly realized that collecting relics and accessing alternative routes was entirely unnecessary. Sure, it was more content to play through, and some new enemy types dropped new blueprints, but the intrinsic reward was not justified. These areas brought me no closer to defeating the final boss. Maybe I’m missing something, but I felt like due to the increased difficulty of the zones it was actually a hindrance to attempt them during a serious run.

To increase your power in a run to give yourself a chance to defeat the final boss you unlock weapons of varying power levels as well as scrolls that increase your health and damage. As far as I could tell, taking the path of least resistance was just as effective as tackling the most challenging routes. Unlocking new blueprints to craft new weapons is fine, but I found that many of the blueprint weapons were undeniably weak. Sure, some were stronger than the early game weapons but most were not worth the price of admission. It feels like much of the progression in Dead Cells justification was “just because”, which truthfully did not drive me to continue.

The biggest offender of this mindset was how difficulty levels scaled. When you initially defeat the final boss, you are given a “boss cell”, an item which you can activate in future runs to up the difficulty. When you defeat the next higher difficulty, you unlock the next boss cell, and it continues like this until the 5th boss cell. At that point you will finally be able to challenge, the “actual” final boss of the game. 

The truth is that I felt absolutely zero desire to complete further levels of difficulty past the initial one. You are rewarded with more cells to unlock more blueprints, but as previously mentioned that felt worthless. Moreover, you do not unlock any real “additional” content until the 5th boss cell, which I’ve heard rumors will take 75+ hours to realistically complete. I felt no drive to unlock higher difficulties just for the sake of it. I like challenging games, but doing the same thing over and over with just harder enemies doesn’t appeal to me.

Overall, Dead Cells is just a confusing game to me. I enjoyed my first dozen hours with the game but I felt absolutely no desire to progress after that. Hardcore fans will tell me that the point is to complete each difficulty level, but there just doesn’t feel like there is a point. I’m willing to admit that maybe I’m just not the core audience of this type of game. All the unlockables and blueprints and difficulty levels just beg the question “but why?”. It is for these reasons that I give Dead Cells a 6/10. Despite having fun combat, I just don’t understand the cyclic and repetitive nature of Dead Cells.

Blasphemous (2019)

Religious imagery is perhaps the most popular theme in any form of media. Despite this, perhaps nothing has a more brutal take on the Christian mythos as Blasphemous. Rooted in Spanish Catholicism, Blasphemous constructs a world that takes the religious cornerstones of guilt and penance to extreme levels. The game is a classic metroidvania, and a well-designed one at that. While Blasphemous does not innovate on the genre, its masterful art, imagery, and atmosphere are plenty to make it stand out in a sea of similar games.

Blasphemous does not hesitate to make its gore apparent to the player. The opening moments of the game have the player awakening on a pile of corpses, all which are doppelgangers that resemble the player. You immediately encounter an unsightly beast; a warden who appears to be searching for survivors of the unseen massacre and slaughtering them. The main character, the Penitent One, slices the warden open to fill his helmet with blood and dons it before continuing on his quest.

After the player’s introduction to the game, you become aware of the parallels between this fictional world and historical events such as the operation of the Spanish Inquisition. The world of Blasphemous is centered on the ideas of guilt and penance. Everybody worships what is known as the Grievous Miracle, a magical force that arbitrarily doles punishments to the world’s inhabitants. People see these punishments as blessings, and happily endure extreme pain as a way to repent for their sins. Self-flagellation, bare-footed pilgrimages, carrying crosses, and whippings are all common forms of mortification of the flesh. Everyone carries the weight of guilt, and consequently seek penance through suffering to receive forgiveness.

The imagery of Blasphemous is particularly striking. Every character is suffering at the hands of the Grievous Miracle, everyone is on some journey to complete their punishment. Everything in the game mirrors the grandiose nature of religious text. The areas are named things like “The Mountains of the Endless Dusk” or “Where Olive Trees Wither”. There are sprawling cathedrals and towering statues that dwarf the Penitent One. The artwork is absolutely stunning. The immaculately designed backgrounds, the gothic architecture, the detailed character models, and the violent animations superbly represent the brutal yet magnificent vision of this religious world.

A key aspect of any metroidvania is the level design and the emphasis on natural exploration. Blasphemous has a fairly unique approach to the design staple of finding new items that unlock new areas of the map. Interestingly, Blasphemous can be completed with only the abilities and items that you begin the game with. All subsequent upgrades are found off the beaten path and are entirely optional. I find this to be remarkable as most games in the genre follow the same formula of beating a boss to acquire an upgrade that lets you progress to the next area. But Blasphemous encourages the player to make discoveries on their own.

I was engrossed in exploring the world of Blasphemous. Part of the reason was because of how the game framed its upgrade system. Many metroidvanias make the mistake of having upgrades be obvious in their functionality. For example, many games include a double-jump that allows the player to reach higher up areas. This is fine, but it takes a little mystery out of exploration and some excitement when you finally do unlock the double-jump. When you see a ledge that’s too high to reach, you know that you will eventually unlock a double-jump. And when you do gain access to that ability you already know where it can be used. But Blasphemous takes a different approach, as most of its upgrades are framed as a tool that the Penitent One uses to change their perception of the world around them.

For example, a blessed cloth allows the player to hear the last thoughts of some of the deceased scattered around the world. These spectral thoughts are often hints to puzzles that the player would have no way of solving otherwise. Another upgrade reveals floating, bloody platforms to the Penitent One. These platforms can be used to reach secret ledges that couldn’t be accessed otherwise. Whenever you do finally obtain one of these exploration upgrades, it immediately makes you wonder what effect it has on the world around you. It makes me want to actually explore, rather than being prompted to by the game. This natural desire to unearth the secrets of the world is a property that is key to any metroidvania, and Blasphemous nails this.

I’d argue that the weakest aspect of Blasphemous is its combat and movement. There’s something about this game that makes its gameplay feel a little off compared to its contemporaries like Hollow Knight and Ori and The Blind Forest. The animations and hitboxes of Blasphemous can feel a little desynced at times. It’s not offensively bad but I definitely felt like it wasn’t as clean or polished as some of the masterful metroidvanias that have been released recently. The combat itself is incredibly simplistic, which can be a great direction if utilized properly. Not every game needs to have crazy combos or require split second reaction time. Blasphemous relies more on learning enemy patterns and reacting to them appropriately.

This approach shines during the numerous boss fights scattered throughout the game. The bosses have a variety of attacks and abilities that will test the player’s ability to learn and read their movements and tells. Unfortunately, the basic enemies in the game are not as entertaining as the bosses. The issue is that the vast majority of enemies only have a single attack, and once you learn how to react to that attack, the encounter becomes trivial. You always know what they are going to do, so you barely need to even pay attention anymore. Moreover, because the combat is so simplistic, you cannot make it more entertaining for yourself by coming up with new combos or trying different techniques.

While Blasphemous does have a progression system that unlocks new attacks, you can rarely string these techniques together in any meaningful way. Most enemies will succumb to a few simple swings of the sword, so you will never get to even try more complex inputs. The lack of build customization is also an issue. Many games with simplistic combat can get away with it by offering the player diversity in how they build their character. Blasphemous does offer three different categories of items to equip, but they do a poor job at truly distinguishing different playstyles.

The first category of items that can be equipped are called prayers. Prayers are essentially magic spells that use a resource called Fervour which is gained by attacking and executing enemies. You can only equip one prayer at a time, and they are fairly weak in general. They cost a hefty amount of Fervour so you cannot cast them often, they rarely do more damage than just slashing at enemies, and they take a long time to cast which leaves the player vulnerable. They are just underwhelming and I often forgot that I had a prayer equipped because their use cases are so few and far between. The only way that I see prayers being valuable is if the player makes a hyper-specialized build using rosary beads.

Rosary beads are items found throughout the world, and a few can be equipped at any time. Individually, most of them are fairly mediocre. A few are exceptionally powerful but they are difficult to uncover. The problem is that the best rosary beads are pretty generalist bonuses. Things like doing more damage and being invincible while healing are too good to pass up. Other rosary beads provide protection against certain elements, but these are only useful against particular bosses. There’s not really a great way to make an interesting build using rosary beads outside of a prayer-focused approach. You could increase prayer damage, decrease prayer cast time, increase maximum Fervour, and increase Fervour generation to give yourself a prayer casting focus rather than a sword slashing one. But I doubt most players will even contemplate going this route considering how weak prayers are in the first place.

The last customizable option is possibly the worst: Mea Culpa hearts. The Mea Culpa is the name of the sword that the Penitent One carries, and you can equip specialized hearts into the sword to give it different effects. The interesting thing is that all bonuses are tied to some drawback. For example, you can do more damage at the cost of taking more damage. The problem is that the drawbacks often outweigh the bonuses. It almost feels like a detriment to equip many of these hearts.

While the lack of build diversity does hurt the game’s combat, it also dissuades the player from spending too much time hunting for secrets. With two fairly unimportant collectibles and three unimpactful build item categories, most things that you uncover in the world of Blasphemous are disappointing. The act of exploration was entertaining, but I can see players getting dissuaded from continuing after the majority of their rewards are useless trinkets and baubles.

As a bit of a side note, I played Blasphemous after the first expansion was released, and before the second expansion was announced. I usually don’t mention this sort of thing, but Blasphemous infamously was janky immediately following its release. It’s a shame that people who bought the game early were burnt by it not being fully-baked, but if that was the case for you than I encourage you to give it another chance with the recent patches.

Overall, Blasphemous is more than just a competent metroidvania. It has an identity of its own, with strong theming and powerful imagery. The sheer brutality of its art and world alone is enough to make it an experience worth your time. Its unique take on how exploration is framed makes Blasphemous a worthwhile metroidvania among its peers. Even thought combat was overly simplistic and repetitive, the rest of the game made up for that. It is for these reasons that I give Blasphemous an 8/10. In a genre brimming with similar games, the style and atmosphere of Blasphemous set it apart.

Feudal Alloy (2019)

I’ve discussed a decent amount of indie metroidvanias since starting this website. It’s not surprising considering how many of these kinds of games are made. It stands to reason that new games in this niche must do something special to stand out, or risk being forgotten in an oversaturated market. Feudal Alloy looked promising to me, it had an interesting concept and setting, and I had hoped that it would do enough to at least be a decent metroidvania. Unfortunately, this game feels unfinished in every regard. Every aspect of the game could use polishing, and some components are missing entirely.

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The idea behind Feudal Alloy is undoubtedly intriguing: you play as Attu, a fish-controlled robot in a medieval world. Attu was a resident of a farming town that produces oil for all of the robots, but a dastardly group of bandit robots ransacked the village and stole all of the resources. With sword in hand, Attu sets off on a quest to reclaim what was stolen. As a metroidvania you must progress through a sprawling world, collecting upgrades that allow you to progress further and further. Without a doubt, the best aspect of Feudal Alloy is its art style. The hand drawn characters and environments are appropriately detailed and are imaginative. It pains me to say that the positive aspects of Feudal Alloy end there.

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Like most metroidvanias, as you roam the tunnels and rooms of the expansive map, you will run into enemies. The combat is pretty standard, you can swing your sword to damage foes, and you must avoid damage by jumping or moving out of the way. You eventually unlock some additional techniques such as dashing, the ability to throw bombs, blocking, and unleashing electrical discharges to stun enemies. The game at least has a thematic stamina system, as you use Attu’s various abilities he will begin to overheat. If Attu reaches his heat limit, he will no longer be able to attack or dash, and will need to cool off before continuing. It functions as most stamina systems, but it was a nice touch that it thematically fit the game.

The combat is all pretty typical, there is not much here that stands out from any other game. If anything, it can fill a bit stiff and unreliable at times. The hitboxes of Attu and enemies feel a little inconsistent. While it’s not frustratingly bad, the game is definitely lacking the buttery-smoothness of one if its peers: Hollow Knight. The aerial combat in particular is pretty clunky. Jumping above enemies and slashing them from above does not bounce Attu high enough, so you end up just falling straight into the enemy and taking damage. The biggest disappointment in the combat department is its lack of bosses. There are only two bosses in the entire game. Instead, there are an abundance of challenge rooms which bombard the player with wave after wave of normal enemies. These kinds of rooms are fine once in a while, but they felt like filler for where a unique boss should have been. It definitely seems like there were supposed to be more bosses, but the developers just put these challenge rooms in their place to save time.

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As a metroidvania, exploration is a key aspect of Feudal Alloy. The player must figure out where to go, and what new paths can be traversed when an upgrade is found. Similar to the combat, Feudal Alloy follows a pretty standard exploration formula but with some flaws. The environments are pretty similar looking, and landmarks are essentially non-existent. It can be difficult to remember any important locations and how to get there since everything just blends together visually. Moreover, some parts of the map just don’t make geometric sense. It’s hard to explain, but when looking at the map, rooms just don’t line up with where the doors physically are. For example, the map will show a door on the left side of the room, but in reality, the door is on the floor. These inconsistencies can make navigation difficult.

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The other big problem that I had with the exploration was the lack of proper secrets. Sure, there are a ton of hidden paths and secrets to find, but not a single one of them is rewarding in the slightest. Most of them contain a stash of money, but money is virtually worthless. The only other prize you could find is a new piece of gear to equip, but that rarely felt helpful. You can buy health potions and coolant to restore stamina with the money you find, but these are extremely cheap and I never worried about running out of money. You could also buy new equipment, but the realistically there was little reason to ever do so.

New gear in Feudal Alloy feels relatively useless. There are five stats: damage, armor, cooling speed, overheat temperature, and health. Armor and health are essentially the same as they both increase how much damage you can take. Similarly, cooling speed and overheat temperature also are functionally comparable. You can’t even tell what your stats are really doing. There’s no way to tell how much damage your dealing or taking, so it’s hard to judge how much a stat increase is doing for you. Moreover, finding or buying new gear rarely feels rewarding. All it does is slightly swap around which stats it gives you. One chest piece may give you one less damage tick, but one more health tick. I didn’t feel like there was meaningful equipment parity or choice since everything was so similar.

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My final gripe about the game was how it underutilized its story and setting. The couple sentences that I wrote to describe the basis of the story is all that there is in the game. I’m not exaggerating when I say there is a short blurb at the beginning of the game explaining the story, and that’s the extent of the narrative in the game. There are no additional characters, lore, side quests, or even a narrative arc that progresses through the game. Bandits stole the oil and Attu is trying to get it back. That’s it. It’s really disappointing because the setting is actually fairly interesting. I want to know more about the fish-controlled robots, but there is just no worldbuilding of any sort.

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Overall, Feudal Alloy isn’t a particularly bad game, it’s just not finished. The combat needs fine tuning and there needs to be more bosses. Exploration needs to feel more rewarding, and one way to accomplish that would be to make gear more unique. The environments need to be more distinct so that navigation is more natural. And there needs to be some sort of story, worldbuilding, and lore to utilize the unique setting of the game. It is for these reasons that I give Feudal Alloy a 4/10. This is a game that feels like it is still in the alpha stages of development, as nearly every aspect feels unfinished and unpolished.

 

Yoku’s Island Express (2018)

Indie metroidvanias are extremely common, so I am always on the lookout for one that sets itself apart. Yoku’s Island Express is a phenomenal example of a game that exudes creativity. It is a relaxing and charming adventure which is chock full of personality. While being a short adventure, Yoku’s Island Express is a sincerely enjoyable one.

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While 2D, indie, platforming metroidvanias are abundant today, Yoku’s Island Express stands out from the crowd by merging platforming and pinball. You play as Yoku, a dung beetle who is tasked with being the mailman on the diverse island of Mokumana. Luckily, instead of rolling around dung, Yoku rolls a ball which come in handy on the island full of conveniently placed pinball paddles. You can only control Yoku by moving left and right, but you can trigger different color pinball paddles to launch Yoku through platforming gauntlets. This is quite a unique take on platforming, and I loved just how different it is to conventional platforming.

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Upon arriving to the island of Mokumana, you make your way up to the central hub village where you learn that the protective deity of the island has been injured. It is your job as the postmaster to gather the three chiefs of the island to heal the guardian god and to track down whoever attacked him. First and foremost, Yoku’s Island Express is a wholesome journey. As you traverse the various terrains of the island you encounter numerous species of animals which you cooperate with to achieve your goal. It’s a cute, uplifting story accented by vibrant art and upbeat music.

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I was surprised with just how good the metroidvania aspects of the game were. The game points you in a vague direction to where the three chiefs are located. It is for the player to explore and discover how to reach the goal. Despite this, I never felt lost or confused when searching for the path forward. There is not an overwhelming amount of directions to choose from, so as long as you head in the correct general direction you will eventually find the right path. Moreover, backtracking is made quick and easy. Even though there is no fast-travel which teleports the player between major areas, there is a clever alternative. The “Beeline” serves as an unlockable express route which lets the player quickly travel between important locations once unlocked. Furthermore, Yoku’s Island Express has plenty of shortcuts so you rarely have to repeat platforming sections, making backtracking a breeze.

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Despite being a fairly short game, Yoku’s Island Express makes up for that by encouraging exploring for collectibles. The main collectible in the game are wickerlings. These little guys have no immediate tangible reward, but the game does a great job at instilling a desire to hunt them down. As you collect them, the game will show that the wickerlings are a progression towards hatching a mysterious egg. The overwhelming desire to know what would happen when all the wickerlings were found, and what was inside the egg drove me to 100% this game.

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I rarely 100% games these days as scrounging for collectibles can get excessively tedious, but I never ran into that problem in Yoku’s Island Express. The vast majority of hidden treasures are easily discovered, and the few that I missed were a breeze to find once I beat the game. This is because you can unlock “trackers” that will pinpoint the location of any missing collectibles on the world map, making it a cakewalk to find whatever I missed. I loved this, and I firmly believe that any game which has collectibles should have a similar idea implemented.

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The gameplay of Yoku’s Island Express revolves around pinball-platforming. As you roll around the island, you will frequently enter these pinball chambers which you must progress through to move forward. These pinball challenges usually have the player hit specific spots to unlock the way forward. You could be hitting switches, barreling through tunnels, or trying to make precise shots. Of course, as a metroidvania you unlock new upgrades which will make these challenges more and more complex. The developers absolutely nailed the sense of satisfaction of just playing around in these pinball chambers. Flying around at high speed, hitting targets, and being constantly rewarded with this game’s form of currency: fruit. In Yoku’s Island Express there is no combat, there are no enemies, and you cannot die. It’s a comfy game, it’s not meant to be stressful or frustrating.

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There is something to be said for the fact that the game managed to be occasionally challenging despite there being no enemies or way to die. Just like real pinball, if you miss the bumpers, you can fall through a crack and have to launch yourself back into the level. Like real pinball, which eats your quarters, you will lose a couple of fruit for failing. Luckily, as you bounce around a pinball chamber like a madman, fruit is constantly flowing. So even if you aren’t hitting your intended target, you end up collecting a swathe of fruit completely unintentionally. This is a great way to keep the game feeling rewarding, and to keep the players from feeling discouraged when they can’t quite make precise shots.

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One of my few critiques of the game is how annoying it can be when you are struggling to make a very particular shot. You need to launch off of the correct bumper, at the correct angle, with the correct momentum. A couple of millimeters to the left or right will result in a missed shot. To be clear: this wasn’t a problem in itself, I welcomed the idea of making difficult shots. What grew tiresome was trying to get in position to make these shots in the first place. In some scenarios, transferring from the left bumper to right bumper (or vice versa) is not trivial. Simply getting into a position to make a shot could take a minute or two. Then missing that shot repeats the whole process. This did not happen too often, and it isn’t a big deal, but it highlights why the pinball concept can’t be taken much farther while maintaining the relaxing nature of Yoku’s Island Express.

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Pinball can be a little frustrating, like in the scenarios I just described. For the most part, Yoku’s Island Express does a phenomenal job keeping its platforming simple enough that it doesn’t get to be tedious or exasperating. But what that means is that the game has severely limited itself with how far it can take its main concept. The developers couldn’t make anything difficult or anything that required a gauntlet of challenging shots. They couldn’t push the game’s core concept to its limit because the core concept is pinball, and pinball can quickly grow maddening. This is the antithesis of the cute, quirky, and calming game of Yoku’s Island Express. Ultimately, the pinball-platforming was kept simple, and I felt like it was missing some more complex challenges.

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Despite my gripes, Yoku’s Island Express is still a triumphant success of upbeat positivity. Even in an oversaturated market, it manages to be a fresh and enjoyable experience. The creativity and unique concept really are what made this game stand out to me. It is for these reasons that I give Yoku’s Island Express an 8.5/10. This is a perfect game to just kickback, relax, and explore the wonderful world lovingly crafted by the game’s creators.

Axiom Verge (2015)

With the surging popularity of indie games, the genre of metroidvanias also is rapidly being filled with dozens of new games every year. As such, it can be difficult for a metroidvania to stand out amongst its peers. That being said, there are a few games that do manage to accomplish this. Games like Hollow Knight as well as Ori and the Blind Forest achieve this through strong level design, beautiful visuals, gratifying combat, and tight platforming. When I picked up Axiom Verge, I was hoping for a modernization of the game that birthed the genre: Metroid. While Axiom Verge did capture a lot of what Metroid was about, it does not manage to stand out amongst its peers.

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To me, the key of a successful metroidvania is first and foremost level design. The genre is ripe with backtracking and revisiting previous areas. Developers should work to minimize just straight backtracking, and should try to implement it in a more intriguing way. Looping paths that lead back to the beginning of an area, creative shortcuts to cut down on wasted time, or even implementing fast travel can cut down on unnecessary tedium. Axiom Verge does essentially none of this. Areas rarely loop into each other and are mostly linear paths from start to end, and there is no form of fast travel. There is one shortcut to take the player from one end of the map to the other, but it is not available until fairly late into the game. Traveling from area to area in Axiom Verge can be a giant waste of time. And this is compounded by the fact that there is also a heap of aimless wandering.

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As Axiom Verge is obviously inspired by the original Metroid from over 30 years ago, it carried over some archaic design concepts, but it also does not fall into the pitfalls of many modern-day games. Many modern games unfortunately do not trust their player’s abilities and often resort to handholding. This is patronizing and takes control away from the player. Axiom Verge has absolutely no handholding as essentially no direction is given. I usually like being given complete control of where I go, but this combined with the difficulty of traversing the map frequently frustrated me. Figuring out where to go next can be a daunting task, and when you have to tediously wander back and forth to find a passageway that you missed you can easily grow irritated. With better level design, or even fast travel, this issue could have been alleviated. Luckily, Axiom Verge does implement clever ways to prevent the player from going too far backward. Still, I was often wandering through large areas repeatedly to find what I had missed.

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Combat is another core component of any metroidvania, and most games for that matter. Axiom Verge is a shooter similar to Metroid. You can aim in a few different directions and use a variety of different weapons to blast through aliens. You can amass a collection of weapons, each with vastly different damage, firing-rates, and the like. Some weapons shoot a close-range burst of electricity, others spray a lot of low-damage projectiles in a wide pattern. While some weapons are strictly better than others, the player is given a lot of freedom to test and find a weapon that suits them. Unfortunately, it is hard to justify using a bunch of different guns when one or two heavily outclass the others.

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Battling the enemies in Axiom Verge is fairly static. Most of the time you can sit in one spot and shoot until the enemy is dead. It is not incredibly engaging or interesting, and the enemies respawn often enough that trudging back and forth through areas can be tedious. This issue is made worse because most of the environments look similar to one another. The one most interesting aspect of combat is the dashing ability, which is not unlocked until fairly late in the game. Worse still, the controls for executing the dash are ridiculously bad. Double tapping the control stick leads to plenty of accidental dashes, and it is difficult to execute in the moment when you actually want to dash. As far as I can tell, you cannot even rebind the dash to a button or key to make it more consistent.

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The singular aspect that I enjoyed most of Axiom Verge was the setting and theme of the game. You play as a scientist who gets transported into some sort of “glitch world”. A catastrophe happened here, and you must restore the inhabitants and escape. The story is filled with mystery as you uncover who unleashed a plague upon this world. The idea is also implemented into gameplay pretty well. One of the tools that is unlocked is a decoder that can clear glitches that are blocking your path. This decoder can also be used on enemies to scramble them and turn them into weaker variants of themselves.

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Overall, I feel like I enjoy the idea of Axiom Verge, but it just felt dated to me. It took almost too much inspiration from Metroid, and did not update or modernize many of the features. It is a decent metroidvania, but its hard to justify recommending it when there are dozens of more unique and tightly crafted games in the same genre. The dated combat, antiquated exploration, and low-bit graphics left me feeling like I was playing a game made in the early 1990s. If you want a retro metroidvania, Axiom Verge may be perfect for you. But if you want a fresh and unique take on the genre, then you would be better served to search elsewhere.

Hollow Knight (2017)

This year has been great for video game lovers. There have been many large releases that saw massive success and critical acclaim. Only 5 months in and we already have: Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, Horizon Zero Dawn, Nioh, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, NieR: Automata, Prey, and Persona 5. Alongside all these huge titles it may seem strange, but the biggest surprise of this year was the indie game Hollow Knight. This is the first game by the Australian independent studio Team Cherry, but it feels like these guys have been making games for years. Hollow Knight is a metroidvania style game that takes place in the ruined bug kingdom of Hallownest.

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The setting and atmosphere of Hollow Knight is the dark and dingy underground kingdom of Hallownest. The game is very cryptic and it is pretty much left up to the player to interpret the plot through subtle clues scattered through the environment. There are plenty of different environments for the player to discover and explore, each with a completely unique setting. These gloomy areas are accompanied by a matching moody soundtrack. While the game definitely has a drab vibe to it, there are plenty of charming moments. For example, there are these cute little Grubs scattered throughout the world that have been trapped in jars. As you find them and set them free you can visit them back in their home and the Grubfather will give you a present for each one that you have rescued. Accompany moments like that with the beautifully hand-drawn art style of Hollow Knight and you have a game that is simultaneously dreary and endearing.

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Do not let the cutesy bits of Hollow Knight fool you, this game can be brutally difficult at times. It starts off slow, as most metroidvanias do, but quickly ramps up as you acquire new abilities. There are many difficult boss fights and platforming sections that took me numerous tries to master. Despite this, I never felt like the game was unfair, it achieved a perfect balance of difficulty. It was challenging enough to be entertaining and engaging, but it was never frustrating. While another recent metroidvania in Ori and the Blind Forrest focused mostly on platforming, Hollow Knight is much more combat focused with platforming sections scattered throughout. There are dozens of unique boss fights to perfect and complete. When you are fighting bosses, you are exploring the masterfully crafted world of Hollow Knight.

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As a metroidvania, Hollow Knight has a big, interconnected, sprawling world. As you acquire new abilities and items you can access new places that were previously unavailable to you. This world was particularly well thought out. It is incredibly easy to get from area to area, as they are connected in such a way that makes them simple to navigate. There is so much to be found in the world of Hollow Knight. Grubs, health upgrades, magic upgrades, new abilities, upgrades to abilities, and new items are all around the player. There is so much to discover and be found that I was constantly enthralled with the exploration aspect of this game. One pretty unique thing about Hollow Knight is that it really never tells you where to go. It is up to the player to explore and stumble upon the correct path. Many of the paths that you will take will lead to boss fights, new abilities, and secrets, but a lot of these things are completely optional to complete the game. I really loved the fact that the game does not tell you where to go. There is less pressure to move forward, and it opens up a much bigger window for exploration. This game lets you play and discover at your own pace. Instead of saying “Well let me go here and move forward in the game”, I was saying “Let me explore and I will see what I stumble unto”. The latter is much more compelling, especially in an exploration based genre like metroidvanias.

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One of the most common complaints that I have heard about Hollow Knight was its map system. When you discover a new area, you have to first find the cartographer to sell you the base map. From there you have to explore on your own to record the full map. Some people do not like this because they claim it makes navigating new areas a chore and a hassle. I do not agree with the sentiment in the slightest. I quite enjoyed that feeling of mapping out areas for myself. When you can see the whole map from the start, a lot of the excitement of finding different paths is lost. The only criticisms for Hollow Knight that I have is that I would have liked to see the base town of Dirtmouth to be built up throughout the course of the game. Maybe some new vendors to sell the player some items that would help locate secrets at the end of the game. In games like this, I can reach about 90% full completion pretty easily, but finding those last few secrets and items can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. So, towards the end of the game I would have liked to see some way to find those secrets that I missed. Other than that, the only real issue with Hollow Knight is that is really nothing “new”. It does not introduce any spectacularly new mechanics or revolutionize the genre. That being said, it does a fantastic job of taking all the greatest aspects from other games and combining them into the best metroidvania that I have ever played. While I value innovation pretty highly, I also greatly value the ability for a developer to perfect a genre and Hollow Knight does exactly that.

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I rarely talk about prices of video games, but I think something has to be said in the case of Hollow Knight. This game is only $15 for a ton of entertainment, just to complete the game it will take about 20 hours. To get the true ending or 100% the game it takes more in the realm of 30-40 hours. Compare this to other fantastic indie games like Owlboy, Ori and the Blind Forrest, and Shovel Knight. Those games are about $20-$25 and will last the player maybe 10-15 hours. Not only is Hollow Knight a phenomenal game, but it gives you a pretty big bang for your buck.

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All in all, Hollow Knight is one of the best games that came out this year, and that says a lot. I cannot sing enough praises for this game. If you like metroidvanias, 2D platformers, or 2D action games, definitely check this one out. It is expertly crafted and is quite possibly the best metroidvania ever made. For these reasons, I give Hollow Knight a 10/10. It may not introduce anything entirely new, but it does a damn good job of perfecting the formula.