This week, Yahtzee reviews Hollow Knight and Dead Cells.
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 
(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
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
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 quadriplegic 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.
Hollow Knight is Metroidvania and Metroidvania is all about filling the map. 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
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 time killers, 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.
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- How dare you sir my wife is a lump of snot on a corpse