Hollow Knight (PC)

Hollow Knight is a game with a lauded reputation that precedes it, including being brutally difficult but also extremely rewarding. What was striking to me is that it does live up to this reputation in every way.

A mysterious bug emerges from the wilderness to discover an ancient village, decrepit and with one sole inhabitant, who points out a mysterious ruined city far below. Compelled by this mystery the small insect descends to discover the secrets beneath.


  • Rich lore and setting
  • Gothic aesthetic that adds to the mood
  • Intuitive and flexible playstyles
  • Fair challenge that rewards increasing skill

  • Immense amounts of backtracking
  • Sometimes frustrating pathways back to the bosses if you need to retry the fight
  • Not always clear about what to do or where to go next

Rich in archetypal symbolism, from contrasting opposing forces, to vague references to dreams and a creeping infestation and plague that results in madness, Hollow Knight explores its themes of decay and decrepitude with you the player, the Knight gathering the last remnants of civilization even as you ultimately seal its own fate, in one of four possible endings. 

The motifs that Hollow Knight uses are sometimes subverted and sometimes remain the same, even as the world descends into further chaos due to your actions (which have a real and visible affect on a certain area of the game), for instance light and illumination are here in the role of the Jungian shadow just as the darkness or void and chaos are revealed to as the substance of the Knight. In a world of ruin, anarchy becomes paramount and the swathes of destruction that you leave in your wake partially reveal you as an anti-hero just as much as the prophsized saviour. It’s a beautifully complex tale and the lore is often revealed through poetic stanzas; phrased and contextualized in prophetic forms. It’s also subtle, barely revealing the hints to the player until you’ve actually encountered it and realise what was being referred to. At times this vagueness can be frustrating, but it does lead to further impetus to explore, to figure out the mysteries that surround the environs in which you are in.

It’s this notion of exploration and discovery that drive many elements of the game. As such various motivators are used, from various collectibles, whether its slaughtering enemies to add to the bestiary or pursuing charms to gain additional advantages or unfolding the next segment of the story, there is much to explore. This is impeded by aforementioned enemies and the area designs themselves. As interconnected as they might be with multiple entrances- and two transport options- the game itself will actively limit your exploration with a variety of hazards. Backtracking after gaining a new ability becomes essential as new parts of old areas will become accessible. At times this can be immensely frustrating as you slowly wend your way back across the map praying for a bench to save your progress.

The controls to accomplish all this are fluid and responsive. I played with the keyboard that used the arrow keys to control movement and z, x, c, & d that controlled various abilities such as dash and attack. From this basic system emerges one that is far more complex. Jumping and swinging your sword in a down attack can result in a pogo like movement, combining dash with an attack can result in a new move, and the game slowly reveals its complexities. It’s intuitive and flows easily which is a direct counterpart to the games other mechanics. 

Enemies come in a great variety, all with distinct move sets to be memorized and unique strategies to defeat. The environment itself becomes a tool, defeating a flying enemy may mean avoiding it by jumping up a wall then dashing off of it to slice your enemy from the air, or dodging incoming missiles by dashing behind part of the scenery so that it harmlessly hits the object instead. Enemies also at times explode, so even a triumph might inadvertently turn into a defeat. At times I found myself also luring enemies toward hazards such as water or acid, making them dash towards me, leaping overhead to watch them drown in the depths… although this did lessen my financial reward. Notably the game does reward a more cautious playstyle than an aggressive one and this may not sit well with some players.

The bosses are where the main struggle of the game also arises. Usually located fairly far from the benches you need to first get to them then attempt to defeat them. Soul, which is used to heal yourself may be used up just before you get to them, and so trying to harvest from the enemies on the way creating a balancing act between acquiring soul from hits and using it to heal damage becomes a delicate economical affair. The bosses themselves have the familiar stages of attack patterns to them as well as unique attacks to each one. Some bosses can be faced multiple times with the second iteration a far harder battle yet offering a greater reward.

Currency takes the form of geo, which can be used to purchase additional charms or map markers. It also acts as a toll fee to open up transport options and at times even benches which serve as rejuvenation and save points. Early game I struggled immensely with geo, it was in short supply and even affording a map (which are essential!) was often a struggle. However my mid to late game it was in more plentiful supply. 

The charms become essential mid-game and finding unique interactions and boosts around them will aid in various play styles. You can boost soul intake for more healing or spell casting, or boost up your nail (sword) arts for more damaging attacks. Finding a set that suits your needs adds a slight rpg like feel to a game that doesn’t really have true rpg mechanics. In fact I began to find mid and late game to be far easier as I boosted myself with the charms and new earned abilities.

With it’s low system requirements Hollow Knight still manages to appear incredible. This largely lies in the creative art design and small attention to details. The colour palette is sombre and subdued, yet the ornate and intricate fore and backgrounds great a gothic aesthetic that is hard to compare to. It simultaneously creates the sense of decay, a mood of despair whilst still portraying the decadence of the once great kingdom. Here are all the same hallmarks of art style that games like ‘Castlevania’ and ‘Dark Souls’ also used to great effect. 

The animations are fluid and each enemy can be clearly seen to have unique aspects so essential to knowing which attack they’ll use and so how to avoid it. This combined with the creativity of the designs makes for a game that is constantly providing feedback to the player about how to react in order to survive. 

The soundtrack is gorgeous, and use of leitmotifs will occur at intervals to hint at new events as well as (obviously) each boss having their own unique track further increasing the intensity of the fight. The calmness and tranquility of a few of the ordinary environmental tracks help calm you even as the frustration and high intense concentration required from the gameplay increase stress. So this counterpoint was one I was rather grateful for!

Hollow Knight certainly lived up to the high acclaim it has received. I was immensely surprised by it, and despite the initial difficulty curve I found myself absorbed by its world, environments, gameplay and lore as they unfolded. The exploration struck a wonderful balance between the extrinsic motivation (I want that new charm) to the intrinisic (will I be skilled enough to overcome this gauntlet of traps?) It’s truly a wonderful experience and whilst it is hard, it is rewarding, immensely so!

Score: 9/10 ~Elegiac exploration~

Publisher: Team Cherry

Developer: Team Cherry

Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch


Available from: Steam, Humble Store, Microsoft Store, GoG.com

The banner image is copyright of Team Cherry and used under a Fair Usage Policy.

Oxenfree (PC)

Oxenfree defies genres at the same time as it weaves the American obsession with high school culture into a horrific tale that is more about the loss of freedom at a time of life when young people look towards expressing new found liberties.

A young group of teens decide to spend a night on a nearby island, however rebelliously innocent this may at first appear, all is not well beneath the surface as tensions arise from the various traumas that each character bears. Grief is very much poignant in their relations and sours a number of friendships. As they explore the island and are thrown into a supernatural occurrence these dramas unfold, as each character is exposed to the stress of the situation.

Oxenfree is not only a horror game but also fits into the genre of character drama. By isolating the characters and placing them in a situation where they face an existential crisis, is a staple of literature and film, and is used to good effect here as well. 

The tensions between the characters are revealed early on in the game, however the reasons for this are only slowly revealed through the course of the game. The narrative is thus forced to carry two stories, one for the present events on the island, and another that reveals a past tragedy that shapes the present. It’s a heavy burden to bear and the game suffers as it slows the pace down heavily, which may make some players bored as a consequence. The game demands investment of your time, and though it is rewarding you will need to slog through the game to get there.

This slowness is ameliorated somewhat by the brilliant characterization. From the superb voice acting to the dialogue trees that form in response, the game deftly shapes each person through their speech. Little idiosyncrasies in the diction come to the foreground to differentiate each character and the writers have mastered the delivery of emotions through the responses. The tension, relief and fear of each character is effectively realised.

Most interesting was the primary mechanic of the speech process. You have usually 3 responses, and although it’s fairly obvious which ones would portray Alex as more sympathetic to others, or which would have her more individually focused the third also gives her a sense of humour. It’s tempting to think if you answer only a certain way you’d create a specific ending, but this isn’t entirely true as the consequences of choices (the player as) Alex makes also determine the outcomes. Add in various linguistic issues such as being able to interrupt others while speaking by making a quick dialogue choice, or just not replying at all and the speech system here is one of the most robust I’ve ever encountered in a game. It makes for excellent roleplaying of Alex, as you shape her character towards compassion for her current acquaintances or whether she is torn and guilt ridden over her past. 

The game itself will have you travelling around the island in an attempt to escape, and in order to make this more interesting the game offers small collectibles in the form of special radio frequencies and letters to discover. These illuminate more of the backstory of the island and the reason for the encounter with the supernatural and in addition to having specific information for in the game itself, they also include hidden messages such as morse code in some of the audio for the player to crack the code of. The game then slowly bleeds these messages out into the real world, referencing actual telephone numbers that make it more real for the player as well.

As mentioned most of the game will be responding to dialogue and this is fairly easy to do as it works off the mouse. The environments themselves are actually 2.5D and can be moved around using the keyboard. In addition Alex uses her radio to solve various puzzles by tuning into different frequencies when she pulls out her radio and dials it with the mouse. Finding out the correct frequency to progress, is the primary puzzle mechanic and with a stronger radio later in the game, Alex will even be able to open doors not just react to the supernatural.

A map is available to use to help you navigate around the island, and Alex will scrawl objective notes on it to help the player recall where they are meant to go. Despite how small the areas look trekking across them will take quite a bit of time, because walking and even jogging is quite slow. This is partially because dialogues will occur as you walk so the speed is artificially slowed to allow the dialogue to play out largely in full. Add in sections that will trap you in extra-dimensional spaces and memories of the past and you’ll be slowed even further. Whilst these “occurrences” or “happenings” do move the overall story forward they feel more like interruptions (which metaphysically they are). It can become frustrating but if they were not there the game would most certainly lose the element of suspense that these intrusions create.

The suspense and horror elements are subdued. Most of this is born out by the fact that the colour palette is largely composed of pastel tones, and only occasionally will move to the harsh reds and blacks that define the contrasts of worlds during a supernatural invasion. The scenes are also soft, almost appearing to be made of a velvet texture with blurred outlines, it’s actually incredibly beautiful, though somewhat stylistic.

The game often zooms out when moving drawing back to give you a larger sense of the location, however in times of stress or when moving indoors the camera zooms in to better show the characters, although when playing at high resolutions they can still seem quite small.

Audio is where the game excels, from the small ambient sounds to the orchestral pieces that build up slowly adding to the tension, and the arbitrary crackle of the radio’s white sound interspersed with old jazz and country rock. A large part of Oxenfree’s aesthetic relies on the sound. Additional elements such as the morse code mentioned before, that cries for release and a radio and tape deck puzzles all add to the games central element revolving around the radio device that Alex used to unveil the horrors of time and entrapment.

Oxenfree is a very special game. Despite it’s incredibly slow pacing it is a masterwork of character interaction and dialogue and cleverly espouses its themes of concealment, entrapment and the desire to be set free and escape, and return to friendship just as the old phrase “All ye, all ye oxen free” would amicably end a childhood game,

Score: 8/10 ~Slowly suspenseful~

Publisher: Night School Studio

Developer: Night School Studio

Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android

ESRB: T / PEGI: 12

Available from: Steam, Microsoft Store, Humble Bundle, EPIC Store, GoG.com, Google Play

The banner image is copyright of Night School Studio and used under a Fair Use Policy

Dark Souls (PC)

Dark Souls was originally released in 2012 to widespread critical acclaim. The spiritual successor to the lesser renowned Demon’s Souls, it carried through many motifs and ideas that Hidetaka Miyazaki and From Software had initially established. Now nearly 7 years after its original release it is one of the high points of gaming both as entertainment and art.

With widespread discussion of its lore (including an excellent series by VaatiVidya) and with a plethora of games that have followed in its footsteps in terms of mechanics and design, it has become one of the games that many others are held to in terms of standards.
To approach a game that has established so widespread a legacy in so short a time is somewhat daunting but not quite as daunting as approaching the unassuming white mist that bars the way to a boss fight.

  • Integrated area design
  • Satisfying progression system
  • Complex yet intuitive combat
  • Frequent camera clipping
  • Still quite a few glitches (suggested to use dsfix)

Dark Souls has a Promethean premise. From its mythical opening moments, that clearly draw inspiration from the Greek myth to a more expansive view that incorporates the Arthurian romances and Christian motifs of the holy grail and sacrifice; the setting, ambience and ambiguous lore is deftly established. The root material and philosophical premise that looks at an understanding of existence and the torment it inflicts on those who are alive expand upon the western literary tradition it draws inspiration from, but juxtaposes this with a more postmodern nihilistic worldview, that challenges and subverts notions of redemption, sacrifice, chivalry and restitution.

Anor Londo and Lordran as places are equivalent to a mythical Camelot or Olympus. Set high upon a mountaintop, inaccessible by ordinary means, the passageway is only opened by the tolling of bells (that ring for birth and death). Once one reaches the heavenly city (heavenly since it exists in the sky) one finds that the gods have already fallen, and existence is tenuously preserved by the rekindling of a flame that symbolizes the age of fire. It’s only by sacrificing the Lords to a lordvessel (similar to the Holy Grail, or Black Cauldron of Cernunnos from which the dead arise) that the age might be preserved. The entirety of civilization and order is dependent on this sacrifice. As the ‘Chosen Undead’ it is your duty to either fulfil the sacred duty of preservation or allow the world to fall into a ‘dark age’.

The ramifications of this are further explored in the concept of Souls. Souls are not only individuals, but also function as currency, by defeating and acquiring the essences of people who have been divested of their own will (those who have fallen into despair). Humanity is considered separately, and it’s in humanity that one is able to realise both the best and worst of what makes the concept of human (to invade or to assist). These metaphysical elements underscore the overall narrative and create a comparison to the darkly physical yet still alluringly beautiful world.

As an RPG with action mechanics Dark Souls is viscerally satisfying. Combat is slow and heavy, even with dexterity builds you will find yourself delaying attacks to seek for the perfect opening. Played out in a 3rd person perspective, navigating and using the environment to the best advantage whilst cautiously enticing enemies into overplaying their hand before you parry, riposte or outmaneuver them for a backstab. Playing strategically is of the utmost benefit in Dark Souls, and will demand your attention; carelessness will quickly result in death.

Characters advance by collecting souls and using those to pay for attribute points. As your ‘soul level’ increases the cost to increase the attributes does so as well in a carefully scaled system. The max attribute benefit is around 45, after which the scaling levels off. As such its best to focus on the starting attributes of your class which are the standard RPG fare, with warriors, clerics, sorcerers and pyromancers (fire of course holding especial significance). Each class is viable (I usually play casters so I have both a pyro and a sorcerer, and a low level warrior) and will require different approaches to areas and enemies. I quickly found my sorcerer excelled at picking off enemies from afar, which meant I could find a good spot and launch volleys of soul arrows, the pyromancer was better at mid-range, with a combined strategy of running in and out and leading the enemy around, whereas the warrior was close range, and much more reliant on dodging and parrying.

In addition to your stats, your equipment is of vital importance. Weapons (and the right choice of weapon) are serious decisions. Various weapons scale with different attributes, e.g. the estoc will scale with intelligence whereas the great axe scales with strength, that mean you will likely choose a weapon that best fits your class. In addition weapons have different move sets, a halberd has a jabbing attack as well as a sweeping attack and great reach whereas a long sword has slashing attacks in different directions and good ability to stagger an opponent. Knowing your weapons attributes and move sets is equally vital to survival. A well leveled weapon can easily determine the difficulty or ease of an encounter.

Other equipment is more situational. Rings provide various benefits such as increased item find as well as increasing your weight limit or making sure you don’t lose your souls and humanity if you do die. I found myself switching armour dependant on needs. Armour also has weight and mobility is dependent on this. Heavy armour will make you dodge more slowly however gives you more poise making you less prone to staggering, whereas lightweight armours will keep you mobile and able to dodge swiftly.

Most enemy encounters take place in a variety of areas, from precarious cliffside paths that will send you plummeting to your doom or expansive hallways and forests. There are a range of locations to explore with unique enemies in each area. As hostile as the environments can be, from poison water to trees and branches impeding your escape, the enemies themselves are the most lethal.
Each enemy has a specific move set and will provide you with tells for their attacks. Working out ways to approach encounters, as well as having a strategy to effectively take down each enemy type is integral to the game. Some enemies may require you to stay at range dashing in for quick attacks whereas other enemies it’s best to stay nearly underfoot, causing them to twist around to attempt to hit you. The enemies are often placed in strategic locations so using the environment to your best advantage is necessary, otherwise you may just find yourself impaled.

As much as the exploration is a driving force behind the game, the other major aspect is the boss fights. Each boss is distinct, from the calm encounter with the moonlight butterfly to the intensity of the final boss, each one will offer a new challenge and new move set to learn. Observing the bosses’ tells is key to avoiding their attacks, allowing you seconds in order to counter or escape. Combat becomes a dialogue, listening to the boss before responding.
In addition you can use summons (NPC or PC) to assist with the bosses however in some instances additional party members can increase the difficulty of the boss, so whether you want a greater challenge or are looking to make it easier, is situational.

Multiplayer aspects are still available, however the player population is fairly low averaging out at 500-1000 players daily with slightly higher numbers in the remastered edition (source:Steamdb). My own observations hovered around the 400 concurrent player mark. It’s possible to find matches and duels but is not always consistent. On the plus side if you’re a PvE player you’ll have less worries about invasions and being ganked. PvP enthusiasts however will be disappointed.

The graphics are beginning to show their age even when using the dsfix mod. There was some camera clipping and I did see a frame rate drop in Sen’s Fortress (the game also crashed a few times there), but for the most part the game is holding up well. Textures are all still viable and the game worked well in HD widescreen, with no tearing or stretching.
The ambience evoked by the design is superb. Each area is distinct, and whilst they all add thematically to the tone of the game, they also contribute to the mythical elements. From forests and woods, to the soaring parapets and gothic cathedrals the elements combine to clearly showcase the inspirations.
Enemies such as Hollows or beasts are deftly animated, and whilst some are generic others are truly fantastical in their design. In particular the later game enemies that have much of the grotesque about them, that show the decay and corruption that has befallen the world.

The soundtrack is beautifully executed with an orchestral soundtrack that accompanies various moments in the game as well as faster tempo and grander tones during boss battles, with each boss having their own motif.
The environmental sounds are where the game is at it’s greatest, from the chink of armour as your move about to the clash of weapons increasing during a crescendo of attacks, the audio makes the battles and struggle to survive come to life. In addition audio can assists with hinting at enemies locations. Pausing for moments at a blind corner, you might hear the tap of armoured feet, or scuffling of a beasts claws. Running from enemies you can trace the sound of their approach. I played with stereo headphones rather than a surround system and it really was a phenomenal experience.

As much as Dark Souls is a game of skill, there is some leeway within the RPG elements to surpass areas by grinding yourself to a higher level. With some luck and above all persistence Dark Souls will slowly reveal its world. Observation and attention to detail is integral and will allow for greater interpretation of its obscure and ambiguous lore. At its heart Dark Souls doesn’t just explore how the decline of a civilization occurs, it also looks to human intrepidity and exploration as means of salvation.

Score 9/10

Dark Souls is no longer available in the standard edition

Publisher: Bandai Namco, From Software Inc.

Developer: QLOC

Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch

ESRB: M+ / PEGI: 16+

Available from:

Steam, Microsoft Store, Humble Bundle

The banner image is copyright of From Software Inc. and used under a Fair Use Policy.