Incomplete Metroidvania Survey, Jan 2018

I’ve been getting a lot of usage out of my Steam controller lately (is C in that controller capitalized? or a ™?) and I find one of its best uses is in playing so-called “Metroidvania” games–basically, games that rely almost entirely on one direction stick and a 4-button A-B-X-Y layout. And I’m having a lot of fun dipping into these games! This genre is having something of a resurgence right now, and luckily my interest in them has suddenly waxed in the previous few weeks. I enjoy the RPG elements mixed with platforming that’s not too crazily intense (I’m not a fan of, say, Super Meat Boy-level platforming–too intense & I’m not skilled enough for that shit). I’ve dabbled in a couple games in the Metroidvania genre and it gives me opportunity to compare and contrast–which I will now do!:

Steamworld Dig 2

I used to be something of an iPad gamer, back when I took lots of 10-hour flights to Beijing and needed to kill time badly. One of the Steamworld Heist games made its way to the iPad and I played it for an hour or so on one of these flights and my main takeaway at the time was, “this game’s too complex for a tablet, but I’d love to play it on my PC at home someday.” Lo and behold, Steamworld Dig 2 has risen out of the mist!

Sold to me by some internet bro as a refinement and expansion of past Steamworld games, I bought the game during the Christmas Steam sale and I gotta say I liked it quite a bit. The game is part jump-and-fighter but also has, like, Minecraftian elements–digging through the 2D dirt reminded me of playing Terraria and Starbound way back when.

Interestingly, this game also focuses more on platforming and puzzles, with combat as something of an afterthought. Many other Metroidvanias unfortunately tend to boil down to reflex tests, so the slower, less hectic pace of Steamworld Dig 2 was actually quite nice and unique. My understanding is that the Steamworld Dig series is more exploratory and puzzle-ridden while Steamworld Heists are more combat-focused. As a beaten-down old gamer with poor reflexes, I can very much appreciate an explorer game and Steamworld Dig 2 is perfect for that.

Dead Cells

Dead Cells is great. It took a minute for it to click with me–I actually bought it last summer and bounced from it pretty hard when I realized it was one of those games where you’re supposed to die repeatedly to make progress (i.e., a roguelike). However, the cells mechanic by which the player can upgrade their character as they progress and those upgrades persist past death makes the game much more interesting and replayable. Rather than being completely rote and dependent on increasing player skill, there’s also increasing power and variety in the character.

I’ll note this game is almost the polar opposite of Steamworld Dig 2: it’s entirely focused on fighting and speed, with few puzzles or platforming challenges. It’s also a much bigger time investment–I beat Steamworld Dig 2 in 10 hours (and I did a more-or-less completionist run, getting almost every collectible), whereas I can tell I’m not very far into Dead Cells after 7 hours. That’s the caveat to these roguelike games: the fact that replaying it is baked into the core gameplay loop can cause them to stretch on for hours and hours if you’re not good at the game. And sadly I am most definitely not good at the game.

Hollow Knight

Hollow Knight has style. Oh, man, it just oozes style. Definitely the prettiest of these three games and the one with the most unique art style. I like what I’ve uncovered of the story so far and the little world-building touches are great. I could gush about the style forever–not one misstep so far! Totally unique! Adds to the overall experience!

However… unfortunately… I’m hitting a wall with Hollow Knight. A very hard wall. As mentioned repeatedly, I am not good at these games. And Hollow Knight is a tough, exacting Metroidvania. People say it’s like Dark Souls, a famously difficult game I stayed away from because I’m not about that shit. So basically I fucking suck at this game, and I die a lot. And unlike Dead Cells, where dying starts you over a little stronger than last time and in a new zone, dying in Hollow Knight means I respawn one room over and get to try the boss again. And again and again–bosses are hard in this game. And there are a lot of them.

I think Hollow Knight is the game I want to like the most of these three (STYLE, YES!), but the difficulty is making me dread the idea of firing the game up again. It’s just so fucking hard, and that’s so fucking frustrating! Hollow Knight reminds me there’s a reason I prefer turn-based shit like Civilization–give me time to think! Give me time to plan!

Conclusion

Despite those complaints about Hollow Knight and Dead Cells’s difficulty, I’m having fun with these recent highlights from the genre. I think Hollow Knight is actually my favorite, if I had to choose one. But the frustration factor leads me to believe I’ll never beat the game. I bounce from difficulty like this pretty hard. Dead Cells is fun, but the roguelike mechanics aren’t always fun when I die so often. Steamworld Dig 2 was a great game to play first of these three–like dipping my toes in the water of success and fun in Metroidvanias. I’d probably recommend Steamworld Dig 2 first before any of the others, while recommending the other two games with caveats aplenty.