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This week, Yahtzee reviews Hollow Knight and Dead Cells.

Transcript Edit

I have a revelation to make that may blow your little minds apart, listeners. Ready? I quite like Dark Souls. Phew, glad to have gotten that off my chest, it starts to weigh on me if I don't make it clear sixty or seventy times per week. And the indie gaming sector also quite likes Dark Souls, because if there's one thing it quite likes above all else, it's retro gaming, and high difficulty is associated with retro because of the arcade era when gaming was less art than rigged carnie game with no prizes. So one of indie gaming's ongoing collective projects has been to translate Dark Souls gameplay to 2D, thus bringing Dark Souls and retro even closer, like a couple being hideously crushed into a pulp by a malfunctioning tunnel of love ride.

 Today I'd like to contrast two indie 2D platformers that are both taking this challenge from slightly different angles: Hollow Knight, a Metroidvania, and Dead Cells, a roguelike. Dead Cells is still on early access but Steam's a bit more stringent than it used to be about early access games being mostly done. You can no longer upload a bowl of rice pudding and promise to add the pixels later. So without further ado, let's run them both through the Dark Souls test.

1. Grossness of main character Edit

(section names are spoken with a mystic distorted echo effect)

 In terms of art style, Hollow Knight and Dead Cells embody the two dominant art styles of indie gaming - Hollow Knight has cutesy hand drawn art straight from the student portfolio of someone with unrealistic career ambitions, Dead Cells has good old pixel art. But what matters is that an important part of the Dark Souls formula is that the main character has to gross us out a little bit, whether it be because they're dried up undead hollows as in Dark Souls or dress like they joined their high school heavy metal poetry club as in Bloodborne.

 Hollow Knight's main character is a gross little insect, as are all of the enemies, all the friendly NPCs and about half the platforms you jump on, but the stark, cutesy art style makes it more endearing than gross, if in a Nightmare before Christmas sort of way.

 Not only is Dead Cells in pixel art, which is slightly gross already because it makes everyone look like they've been fed through a chipping machine and reassembled, but the main character is a lump of snot on a corpse. Which is what I call admirable commitment to the grossness doctrine. Well done, Dead Cells. Please don't touch me.

2. Unrelentingly bleak tone Edit

 Again, Hollow Knight's cartoony, slightly Ori and the Blind Forest-esque style undermines the prerequisite Dark Souls tortured atmosphere similar to that of a very slowly sinking battleship with nothing to eat on board but expired Lunchables. It's just about the only thing that does, mind. Like Dark Souls, Hollow Knight is a story not about the protagonist but about the world they're in. A story told largely through suggestion as we pick through the looming ruins and infested tunnels, piecing together the final moments of this doomed, once mighty civilization and putting its tortured inhabitants to rest at long last. It's a sort of 'cockroach scuttling about the ruins with the other bottom feeders' vibe so if anything, making everyone literally an insect is cutting out the metaphor middleman a tad.

 Dead Cells doesn't give the same impression of telling a story about a place because it's procedurally generated, it'd be a very rambling story with lots of weird tangents that don't go anywhere. As a roguelite it's very much emphasising gameplay and challenge over story and atmosphere, and you only get the sense of grim bleakness when you die after a particularly long run and realise you'll have to go through those fucking sewers again.

3. Minge creakingly high difficulty Edit

Dead Cells, which you'll note sounds a tiny bit like Dark Souls is you get very drunk and say it in an outrageously racist foreign accent, is as we said a Roguelite, and that means permadeath. It's not fucking about, either, you have to start all over again when you die, right from the septic tank where the snot dribbles out. Meanwhile, Hollow Knight does the traditional thing where you wake up at the last bonfire, I mean bench. Actually I don't think it's explained why we keep coming back to life; I guess Dead Cells doesn't need to because we're snot, and snot can only be truly destroyed by a Kleenex through the heart.

 Of the two, Dead Cells has the most Souls-like combat, by which I mean, you can dodge roll. Dodge Rolls is another thing that sounds a bit like Dark Souls if you put on a ball gag and beat yourself about the head a few times. You can dodge roll, shield, throw bombs, and a lot of other things you'll forget about when you panic because you got mobbed by six dudes at once and their vicious attack particle effects. It's also got some shallow RPG elements and a choice of weapons, while Hollow Knight's choice is between using the starting sword or turning off the game and going out for a pasty.

 The character progression is very Metroidvania - explore new places, find upgrades - so the difficulty curve tends to take sudden dips like a quadraplegic on an escalator. Especially after you get the dash. Slash enemy, dash away, it works as well for most combat encounters as it does in many real life social situations. It gets hard later on by requiring faster and faster reaction time, whereas Dead Cells has that Dark Souls quality that even the starting enemies can pulp you into phlegm if you zone out for a moment because you were distracted thinking about, I dunno, water heaters.

4. Exploration Edit

Hollow Knight is Metroidvania and Metroidvania is all about filling the map. But what's weird is that you can't map an area until you buy a map from the map guy somewhere in the area, but the map's still mostly incomplete and you have to fill in the rest yourself, so essentially what you've bought is a piece of paper. You couldn't have brought one? Drawn a map on the fucking wrapper that your breakfast burrito came in?

 Well I suppose making us explore blindly for a bit keeps us on our exploration toes - Dead Cells if anything seems to be trying to discourage meticulous exploration. There are doors to extra bonus areas that lock if you don't get to them fast enough. Fuck you, door. Of course I couldn't get here in under three minutes, I passed by six tunnels on the way here and had to be extra certain that they all contained flashing red-clawed death.

5. The Conclusion Edit

 I suppose asking which game is the most like Dark Souls isn't the same as asking which one's best. In truth they're both nice little timekillers, but on balance I prefer Hollow Knight as the more complete experience. Dead Cells does a better job at translating Soulsy combat to 2D but it's like the coin-op arcade machine version. Hollow Knight's got the atmospheric world, the exploration, and perhaps most importantly the sense that we're not pissing in the wind.

 Dark Souls might be a poor choice of things to give the Roguelike permadeath treatment because its monstrous difficulty is a means to an end, we come back and bang our heads on the wall because every chip that breaks off is another step of permanent progress to finally making a big enough hole in the wall that we can get to the candy shop, or perhaps more likely, the next wall.

 Maybe I've got Roguelite fatigue. Maybe sometimes when I assemble a Lego building I accept that a little brother might smash it up and make me start again, but maybe there are other times when I want to keep that Lego building, so I can tape it together and shove it up my little brother's arse.

Addenda Edit

  • Still dead inside: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
  • Dodge Rolls 2 was alright but I think I prefer Dodge Rolls 2: Scholar of the Bruised Shin
  • How dare you sir my wife is a lump of snot on a corpse
Episodes
2007 - 2010
2007
Q3 The Darkness Demo · Fable: The Lost Chapters · Zero Punctuation (Episode) · Heavenly Sword and Other Stuff · Psychonauts · Console Rundown · BioShock · Tomb Raider: Anniversary · Manhunt · Peggle
Q4 Halo 3 · Tabula Rasa · The Orange Box · Super Paper Mario · Medal of Honor: Airborne · The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass · Clive Barker's Jericho · F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate · Assassin's Creed · Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock · Mass Effect
2008
Q1 Super Mario Galaxy · Silent Hill: Origins · Crysis · The Witcher · Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles · Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare · SimCity Societies · Yahtzee Goes to GDC · Uncharted: Drake's Fortune · Devil May Cry 4 · Burnout: Paradise · Turok · Zack & Wiki: Quest for Barbaros' Treasure
Q2 Army of Two · No More Heroes · Condemned 2: Bloodshot · Super Smash Bros. Brawl · God of War: Chains of Olympus · Mailbag Showdown · Grand Theft Auto IV · Painkiller · The World Ends With You · The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion · Haze · Metal Gear Solid 4
Q3 Webcomics · Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures · Alone in the Dark · Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures · The E3 Trailer Park · Ninja Gaiden II · Prince of Persia Retrospective · Soulcalibur IV · Braid · EVE Online · Too Human · Spore · XBLA Double Bill
Q4 Mercenaries 2: World in Flames · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed · S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky · Silent Hill: Homecoming · Saints Row 2 · Dead Space · Fable II · Fallout 3 · Guitar Hero: World Tour · Mirror's Edge · Left 4 Dead · Sonic Unleashed · The Year in Review - 2008 · Prince of Persia
2009
Q1 Awards for 2008 · Tomb Raider: Underworld · Far Cry 2 · Gears of War 2 · LittleBigPlanet · Thief: The Dark Project · Skate 2 · F.E.A.R. 2 · Spider-Man: Web of Shadows · The House of the Dead: Overkill · 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand · Resident Evil 5
Q2 X-Blades/Halo Wars · Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars · MadWorld · Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X · Siren: Blood Curse · The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena · Valkyria Chronicles · Velvet Assassin · Duke Nukem Forever · Bionic Commando · InFamous · The Second Annual E3 Hype Massacre · Prototype
Q3 The Sims 3 · Ghostbusters: The Video Game · Overlord 2 · Red Faction Guerrilla · Wii Sports Resort · Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood · The Conduit · Silent Hill 2 · 2.5-D Hoedown · Tales of Monkey Island · Wolfenstein · Batman: Arkham Asylum · Beatles Rock Band & Guitar Hero 5 · Darkest of Days
Q4 Scribblenauts · Wet · Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story · Brutal Legend · Washington D.C. · Uncharted 2: Among Thieves · Dragon Age: Origins · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 · Assassin's Creed 2 · Left 4 Dead 2 & New Super Mario Bros. Wii · Demon's Souls · Holiday 2009 · The Saboteur
2010
Q1 Awards for 2009 · Torchlight · Darksiders · Bayonetta · Dark Void · Borderlands · Mass Effect 2 · Dante's Inferno · BioShock 2 · Aliens vs Predator · Heavy Rain · Battlefield: Bad Company 2 · Final Fantasy XIII
Q2 April Fools 2010 · God of War III · Red Steel 2 · Just Cause 2 · Silent Hill: Shattered Memories · Splinter Cell: Conviction · Nier · Dead to Rights: Retribution · Monster Hunter Tri · Alan Wake · Red Dead Redemption · Alpha Protocol · Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands · E3 2010
Q3 No More Heroes 2: Desperate Struggle · Super Mario Galaxy 2 · Singularity · Crackdown 2 · DeathSpank & Limbo · Shadow of the Colossus · Split Second: Velocity · Transformers: War for Cybertron · Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days · Mafia II · Metroid: Other M · Video Game Voters Network · Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Q4 Halo: Reach · Dead Rising 2 · Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow · Enslaved: Odyssey to the West · Fallout: New Vegas · Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II · Call of Duty: Black Ops · IPhone Games · Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood · Splatterhouse · Epic Mickey · Holiday 2010
2011 - 2014
2011
Q1 Top 5 of 2010 · World of Warcraft: Cataclysm · Fable III · Minecraft · A Shadow's Tale · Dead Space 2 · DC Universe Online · MindJack · Two Worlds II · Bulletstorm · Killzone 3 · Kirby's Epic Yarn · Dragon Age II
Q2 Pokémon White · Yakuza 4 · Crysis 2 · Nintendo 3DS · Portal 2 · Castlevania: Symphony of the Night · Mortal Kombat · Brink · L.A. Noire · The Witcher 2 · Hunted: The Demon's Forge · Duke Nukem Forever (for real this time) · InFamous 2
Q3 Alice: Madness Returns · Shadows of the Damned · F.E.A.R. 3 · The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D · Call of Juarez: The Cartel · Bastion and From Dust · Catherine · Red Faction: Armageddon · Deus Ex · Deus Ex: Human Revolution · Driver: San Francisco · Dead Island · Resistance 3
Q4 Gears of War 3 · Hard Reset · Rage · Kinect · Batman: Arkham City · Battlefield 3 · Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception · Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 · The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim · Saints Row: The Third · Assassin's Creed: Revelations · The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
2012
Q1 Serious Sam 3: BFE · Top 5 of 2011 · Super Mario 3D Land & Rayman Origins · Sonic Generations · Star Wars: The Old Republic · Amy · Resident Evil: Revelations · Darkness 2 · Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning · NeverDead · Syndicate · Mass Effect 3 · Twisted Metal
Q2 Yakuza: Dead Souls · Ninja Gaiden 3 · Silent Hill: Downpour · Kid Icarus: Uprising · Fez and I Am Alive · Prototype 2 · Risen 2: Dark Waters · Sniper Elite V2 · Diablo 3 · Max Payne 3 · Dragon's Dogma · E3 2012 · Lollipop Chainsaw
Q3 Quantum Conundrum · Spec Ops: The Line · Walking Dead · Inversion · The Amazing Spider-Man · Half-Life · Wreckateer and Deadlight · Steam Roundup · Sleeping Dogs · Darksiders 2 · DayZ · Guild Wars 2
Q4 Borderlands 2 · FIFA 13 · Resident Evil 6 · Dishonored · XCOM: Enemy Unknown · Medal of Honor: Warfighter & Doom 3: BFG Edition · Assassin's Creed 3 · Halo 4 · Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 · Hitman: Absolution · Far Cry 3 · ZombiU
2013
Q1 Top 5 of 2012 · Paper Mario: Sticker Star · Black Knight Sword & Hotline Miami · Anarchy Reigns · DMC: Devil May Cry · The Cave · Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch · Dead Space 3 · Aliens: Colonial Marines · Crysis 3 · Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance · Tomb Raider · SimCity
Q2 The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct · BioShock Infinite · Lego City Undercover · Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon · Injustice: Gods Among Us · Star Trek · Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon · System Shock 2 · Metro: Last Light · Next Gen Buyer's Guide · Fuse · Remember Me · E3 2013
Q3 The Last of Us · Deadpool · Animal Crossing: New Leaf · Ride to Hell: Retribution · Dark · Mario & Luigi: Dream Team · Rise of the Triad · Papers, Please & Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons · Pikmin 3 · The Bureau: XCOM Declassified · Saints Row 4 · Killer is Dead · Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs
Q4 Grand Theft Auto V · Lost Planet 3 · Beyond: Two Souls · The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD · Batman: Arkham Origins · Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag · Call of Duty: Ghosts · Exclusives Showdown · Ryse: Son of Rome · Dead Rising 3 · Super Mario 3D World
2014
Q1 Top 5 of 2013 · Knack · Killzone: Shadow Fall · Survival Special · Broken Age · Might & Magic X: Legacy · The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds · Dark Souls · Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII · Strider · Thief · Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 · Dark Souls II
Q2 Titanfall · InFamous: Second Son · Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes · The Elder Scrolls Online · South Park: The Stick of Truth · FTL: Faster Than Light · Child of Day-Light · The Amazing Spider-Man 2 · Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure · Wolfenstein: The New Order · WATCH DOGS · E3 2014 · Murdered: Soul Suspect
Q3 Tomodachi Life · Enemy Front & Valiant Hearts: The Great War · Shovel Knight · EarthBound · Transistor · E.T. · Firefall · Sacred 3 · Risen 3: Titan Lords · Daikatana · Lichdom: Battlemage · The Sims 4 · Destiny
Q4 D4: Dark Dreams Don't Die · Hyrule Warriors · Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor · Alien Isolation · The Evil Within · Bayonetta 2 · Sunset Overdrive · Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare · Assassin's Creed: Unity · Far Cry 4 · Dragon Age: Inquisition · Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric · Top 5 Games of 2014
2015 - 2017
2015
Q1 The Talos Principle · Elite: Dangerous · Five Nights at Freddy's and This War of Mine · Lords of the Fallen · Saints Row: Gat out of Hell · Dying Light · Grim Fandango · Evolve · The Order: 1886 · The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D · Resident Evil Revelations 2 · Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number & Ori and the Blind Forest
Q2 Battlefield: Hardline · Bloodborne · Half-Life 2 Update · Axiom Verge & Stealth Inc 2 · Mortal Kombat X · Grand Theft Auto Online · Broken Age: Act 2 · Wolfenstein: The Old Blood · Cyberpunk Double · The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt · Splatoon · Hatred · E3 2015
Q3 Alone in the Dark: Illumination · Batman: Arkham Knight · Yoshi's Woolly World · Cave Story · Godzilla · Rocket League & Tembo the Badass Elephant · King's Quest: A Knight to Remember · Nom Nom Galaxy & Freedom Planet · Everybody's Gone To The Rapture · Volume · Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain · Mad Max · Gears of War Ultimate Edition · Until Dawn
Q4 Super Mario Maker · SOMA · Rock Band 4 · Assassin's Creed Syndicate · Halo 5: Guardians · Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 · Rise of the Tomb Raider · Fallout 4 · Star Wars: Battlefront · Just Cause 3 · Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water
2016
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2015 · Devil's Third · Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam · Assassin's Creed Chronicles · Xenoblade Chronicles X · The Witness & Bombshell · Gravity Rush · XCOM 2 · Firewatch & Layers of Fear · Far Cry Primal · Stardew Valley & SUPERHOT · The Division · Salt and Sanctuary
Q2 Republique · Shadow Warrior · Quantum Break · Dark Souls III · Ratchet & Clank · Star Fox Zero · Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door · Uncharted 4: A Thief's End · Doom · Homefront: The Revolution · Overwatch & Battleborn · Mirror's Edge: Catalyst · E3 2016
Q3 Mighty No. 9 · Inside & Shadow of the Beast · The Technomancer · Furi & Song of the Deep · I Am Setsuna · Headlander & Quadrilateral Cowboy · Quake · No Man's Sky · Grow Up · Deus Ex: Mankind Divided · Metroid Prime: Federation Force · The Curious Expedition & Mother Russia Bleeds · ReCore
Q4 Capcom Five · Clustertruck & Lichtspeer · Paper Mario: Color Splash · Mafia III · Gears of War 4 · PlayStation VR · Battlefield 1 · Titanfall 2 vs Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare · Dishonored 2 · WATCH DOGS 2 · Final Fantasy XV · The Last Guardian
2017
Q1 Top 5 Games of 2016 · Let It Die · Dead Rising 4 · Hitman · Gravity Rush 2 · Resident Evil 7 · Yakuza 0 · Nioh · For Honor · Nintendo Switch & Breath of the Wild · Horizon Zero Dawn · Nier Automata · Ghost Recon Wildlands
Q2 Mass Effect Andromeda · Yooka-Laylee · Persona 5 · Remastered Editions · Outlast 2 · Sniper: Ghost Warrior 3 · Prey · Wilson's Heart · The Surge · Injustice 2 · Vanquish · E3 2017 · Strafe
Q3 Get Even · Hollow Knight / Dead Cells · Fifth Console Generation · The End is Nigh, and Yonder: Cloud Catcher Chronicles · Pyre · Splatoon 2 · Hellblade · Agents of Mayhem · Sonic Mania · Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle · Destiny 2 · Metroid: Samus Returns
Q4 Knack 2 and SteamWorld Dig 2 · Cuphead · Hob and A Hat in Time

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