The Spirit of Dark Souls and Hollow Knight

Ever since Dark Souls became a critical darling and an all-time favorite of game developers around the world, people have been chasing after the magic of that game. It reached a point of absurdity where games were being called “The Dark Souls of *insert game type here*.” And then the term “Soulslike” entered the scene.  

The problem with this entire shift is that the industry as a whole has taken all the wrong lessons from Dark Souls. “People want difficult games,” says one part of the industry and starts spawning games built around challenging combat based on animation frames and deliberate attacks. But people actually wanted was a game that didn’t hold their hand or reduce the challenge, not difficulty for the sake of difficulty or that specific combat system.

Other developers take mechanics from Dark Souls such as limited heals, checkpoints that double as upgrade spots, and seamless, organic multiplayer. While many of these systems are great when used correctly, they too fail to learn from Dark Souls. Many of the mechanics in Dark Souls are not that great. It’s a clunky, obtuse game that has its share of janky systems. It’s also clearly constrained by a mid-tier budget. And yet somehow people interpret these systems as what made the game so great.

And then there’s the mysterious story. It’s here where people get the closest to realizing what made Dark Souls great. The small strands of lore or bits of story told through item descriptions, vague imagery and bits of dialogue with the few friendly NPCs in the world. But many have taken this to mean that stories in game should be mysterious and obtuse which isn’t necessarily what made Dark Souls great.

What makes Dark Souls great is that it nails atmosphere and sense of place. The world and the feeling the game gave me is this tangible sense of awe and dread. You explore the remnants of this once fascinating and rich world now fallen into decay and the whole experience is so foreign to many games because there’s a juxtaposition between how majestic the world is but also how empty and hostile it all feels. Hence the simultaneous feeling of awe and dread.

All of this setup is to say that Hollow Knight is the first game I’ve played post-Dark Souls that bottles up that same feeling for me. The game is gorgeously imagined by artist Ari Gibson as a kingdom of bugs left in decay, once mighty creatures now hollow husks of what once was. Once magnificent cities or thriving towns are now pale shadows of the past.

[Image Credit: Sinisa Niculovic]

Yet the game has its own flavor to it. The bug aesthetic is surprisingly appealing given how gross many of the bugs that inspire the creatures are. There’s also a clear Metroidvania design to the world and mechanics that differentiate it from Dark Souls. It plays completely different and has its own unique and interesting systems when it comes to health and combat.

If the game falters anywhere, it’s that the story hits too many of the familiar beats of Dark Souls. Becoming hollow in both games has basically the same connotations and leads to a similar final confrontation. However, along the way the game has its own set of memorable and often humorous characters that give it some distinct personality.

Most times when people compare a game to Dark Souls I ask why I wouldn’t replay Dark Souls instead of that game. I’ve already had the Dark Souls experience, I don’t want another one. Hollow Knight finds a way to capture and evoke those feelings while being enough of its own thing for me to find it simultaneously a familiar and fresh experience.

Developer Team Cherry has found that magical space where they are able to capture the feelings and emotions of Dark Souls, but make the experience and mechanics their own. It is certainly a game that owes much to Dark Souls, but it also owes just as much to Metroidvanias. It’s a tight, majestic experience that bottles the spirit of Dark Souls but wraps it in a game that plays completely different and will have both newcomers and fans of this style of game experience something magical.

© James Blake Ewing 2017