The video game may look like it has familiar trappings: Ssde-scrolling combat; deadly, hand-animated insects; a massive, explore-and-return world. Another Metroidvania, right?
I made a similar assumption before diving into the 2017 game, which has since spread its insect wings after a PC Early Access debut and flittered all the way to the Nintendo Switch.
But I quickly found myself bewildered, humbled, and, quite frankly, eager to learn more. This insect-obsessed game is a full hive of meaningful, show-don’t-tell encounters.
Maybe it’s a scuttling sound. Maybe it’s a rare friendly face that doesn’t attack you on sight. More often than not, though, it’s some horrible, shrieking thing waiting to ambush you in the dark—its mind rotted by the throbbing infection that felled a supposedly once great kingdom.
Lessons learned, lessons taught
The first few minutes of set a remarkably turbulent tone. The part-Metroidvania, part- platformer drops you into dirt and darkness with nothing but your basic weapon: your masked avatar’s trusty nail. Everything else you’ll need to beat the 40+ hour game—even your map, that most basic of gaming conventions—must be scavenged, bought, stolen, or learned the hard way.
That tumultuous opening smooths out quickly, however, when you’ve explored enough of the game’s first main zone to meet someone (er, something) named Cornifer. He’s a talking insect, like every other NPC in , but a friendly one. He’s also a cartographer by trade. For just a few Geo (the game’s currency), Cornifer will sell you the skeleton of a map for the dangerous land you’ve found yourself in. You’ll still have to chart most of the zone yourself, but the bespectacled bug gives you a place to start. It’s a single, solid foothold on the enormous, dying world of Hallownest—and your first lesson on how to conquer it.
takes a great many lessons from From Software’s games, but not always the most obvious ones. Its bosses tend to ambush you in tight arenas. An ivy veined cage might close down around your playable knight, trapping it with well-meaning soldiers and wizards, or a malignant monster. Then it’s do or die (and drop your hard-won Geo in the process).
Whatever else these creatures are, or once were, the beings became my de facto tutors. Unlike , , and those games’ other offspring, there’s very little granularity in what you can and can’t do in . You can’t level up, for instance. So you need to learn what you do with what you’re given.
Another kind of progression
You have a double-jump, a dash that can also be performed mid-air, and the ability to cling to walls. The knight can also channel its inner Scrooge McDuck and pogo off enemies with a well-timed downward strike. You acquire most of these skills through exploration, of course. It’s still a Metroidvania. But the beauty of is how nearly every inch of the game teaches you how to use them.
Burrowing worms burst from the Earth of one stage. I learned to anticipate the bushwhackers and leap over them with ease, or else take a shot to my preciously limited life bar. Later, though, when a boss-sized version of these same enemies appeared, jumping wasn’t enough. Boss-worm came and went too quickly for me to reasonably damage it with normal strikes. But the larger form made it perfect for chaining together those pogo stick pounces—whittling away its HP while extending my own air time.
The lesson didn’t leave me with a new upgrade, or experience points to muscle past future such encounters. Instead, it added knowledge to my inventory: a new way to think about one of my limited existing moves.
Another Metroidvania might have made the boss immune to anything but a special kind of laser. Another -like might have let me grind my way to a high enough level, so I could grit my teeth through the worm’s charging attacks. Instead, developer Team Cherry chose not to gate my progress behind manual exploration, mathematical supremacy, or rote memorization of one-time-only boss patterns. It just assumed I would… figure it out. So I did.
The major benefit to this kind of progression is that it’s both repeatable and adjustable. And ’s massive map has plenty of room for both. Not long after beating the charging worm, I stumbled onto a painfully long hallway gilded with spikes. The only way across was to bounce over docile, floating foes without touching the hazards.
The corridor took the worm’s lesson and raised the stakes. Here, failing to chain bounces caused damage and undid progress by checkpointing me back to safe ground. I was also dealing with multiple targets—not just the predictable charger—but the concept was mostly the same. It just required a different layer of mastery of ’s tools and controls.
’s most difficult areas take those teaching methods to the logical extreme. The daunting and dreamlike White Palace is my personal favorite example. The zone forgoes combat entirely. Instead, its grueling platforming challenges force you to combine wall clinging, double jumps, dashes, bouncing, and pinpoint timing. You’ve learned a lot up to this point, and this level is a masterclass all of those organic lessons.
The reward is access to ’s secret, final boss. As you might guess, that foe is no cakewalk. This fight demands everything you learn in the White Palace and more—then this baddie raises the stakes by doing double the amount of damage most enemies deal.
That’s where the game’s lack of traditional -y upgrades factors in again. You can increase the knight’s hit points and damage dealt throughout the game, but only by a few pips. You can try to metagame every encounter, using magical charms that provide special bonuses, but the game strictly limits the kinds you can mix and match. Ultimately, there’s no way to mathematically fudge your way past encounters. You’re going to have to learn.
That’s a harsh lesson unto itself. Thankfully, is one of the most adept teachers I’ve ever known a game to be. It’s a turbulent learning process, to be sure, but all the tools for your education are there. You just need to find then take them.