In 2017, 'Hollow Knight' Became Successor to the 'Dark Souls' Throne
Small and clever, it stood out as a genuine heir to From Software’s design.
Header image courtesy of Team Cherry. Header design by Janine Hawkins
Welcome to Waypoint's Pantheon of Games, a celebration of our favorite games, a re-imagining of the year's best characters, and an exploration of the 2017's most significant trends.
And so, when the Dark Soul lay dead at last, many acolytes gathered around the pyre to see those who aspired to succeed their dead master.
“It is the combat that made Dark Souls what it was,” said Nioh , cracked kabuto resting by its feet. “Methodical, complex, weighty. That is Dark Souls .”
“No; it is repetition that made Dark Souls what it was,” said The Surge, encased in bloodied metal. “Doing it over and over again until you get it right; looping around and around on a map that turns in on itself. That is Dark Souls .”
But as they debated: Hollow Knight— tiny, easily forgotten— had already snatched the essence of Dark Souls from the fire, and scurried away between their feet…
2017 was the year of the soulslike. Now that Dark Souls is, if not completely over, then at least on a long hiatus, there is an opportunity for variants and descendants to bloom. More than that, it’s the year we really started talking about soulslike as a genre. If not the year of the soulslike, 2017 was the year of the soulslike take.
The Surge and Nioh are the big releases of the year that all but explicitly sought the mantle of Dark Souls. The Surge was made by Deck13, developer’s of 2014’s Lords of the Fallen, a game that in many ways began the soulslike genre by being our first major example of Dark-Souls-except-not, with mixed results. Nioh goes as far as having you start in a prison cell, faintly echoing the beginning moments of Dark Souls.
Hollow Knight does what Spelunky did for roguelikes.
Both of those games feel like “ Dark Souls, but with” something or other. They’re additive, bringing new things to the formula. Nioh has constant randomized loot drops and a complex combat system built around separate stances and numerous weapon-specific abilities. The Surge has its targeting mechanics which ask you to lop off enemies’ limbs so you can collect and then staple them to yourself.
But I don’t think either game really captures the mood, feeling, or design ethos of Dark Souls all that well. The unsung hero of the soulslike, in 2017, was Hollow Knight, which isn’t about bolting new things onto Dark Souls, but about about capturing what Dark Souls really is about and infusing that into a format other than the third-person action RPG.
Hollow Knight does what Spelunky did for roguelikes. Spelunky was grounded in a deep enough understanding of the roguelike to capture a feeling without reproducing every mechanic and system roguelikes were known for. It’s the game that transitioned “roguelike” from meaning a type of tile-based RPG, to being a label we apply to all kinds of different games now, because its meaning has been refined down into a specific design ethos (built around randomness and permadeath) and not the whole panoply of mechanics that Rogue or Nethack happened to employ.
Like Rogue, Dark Souls is defined by its relationship to death. In the roguelike, death is final, an abrupt end to the game; in the soulslike, death is a painful lesson. Death carries a cost, but still lets you press on. It sits between the weightless save-die-reload cycle of games that let you save arbitrarily, and the finality of permadeath.
Watch Waypoint's Patrick Klepek play Nioh right here. Article continues below.
Beyond this, Souls’ heart is the bonfire. It’s a game about pushing out through dangerous territory, finding islands of relative safety. The crucial thing is not that Nioh and The Surge are missing these elements, but that they don’t seem to realize those elements are what’s important; they’re just another part of the mix that gets added in, and they’re hardly the focus.
Hollow Knight is consistent in how it employs the ideas of Dark Souls in the same way that game did, to produce a particular mood and feeling. At the center of this distinction is the combat. Combat in Hollow Knight is nothing like Dark Souls; it plays much more like a platformer, not unlike Shovel Knight. It doesn’t have the profusion of different weapons with distinct movesets, nor is it slow and methodical like Dark Souls.
But, like Dark Souls, it’s a combat system which demands from the player a willingness to commit. It’s a combat system which is at its best when you’re small and nimble and enemies are big and lumbering. It’s a combat system that works hard to make you feel like you’ve won because you knew what to do, not because you hit the right buttons or because your stats were good enough. It’s a combat system where the items you equip have qualitative effects on how combat plays out. It captures the design intent of Dark Souls without copying its mechanics wholesale
Hollow Knight is using those ideas with a specific discernment around what it’s trying to achieve. Its aims are similar to Dark Souls. But Knight clearly doesn’t feel the need to use the same methods. It’s willing to pick and choose, using those mechanics as deftly as they were used in Dark Souls. It has bonfire-like benches, but doesn’t feel the need to give those more of a gameplay function than making them places to heal, rest, and respawn. It has similar weapon upgrading to Dark Souls, but as a much more constrained mechanic.
All of this would evince a great understanding of the mechanics, but where Hollow Knight gets into homage territory is in its choice of themes. Hollow Knight has you exploring a dead world, walking through the ruins of a civilization brought low by pride and the inevitable rottenness at the heart of its universe. It gives the player a small, fragile home where others lost in this world will gather; an echo of Dark Souls’ Firelink Shrine or Dark Souls II’s Majula. It tells its stories through characters that are met in the world, in a series of encounters that are lightly sprinkled through the game’s many paths.
Hollow Knight includes an interconnected world that the player has to traverse in many directions, something that even Dark Souls II and III moved away from. It demonstrates a love and understanding of Souls that isn’t grounded in simple fandom. It is ultimately more like Dark Souls, in its effect, even though it has more superficial differences in mechanics and style.
This is the paradox of genre formation; a genre doesn’t emerge from one leading game through pure repetition, but by a process of whittling down to what truly matters.
Because if you don’t understand what truly matters, you don’t have the confidence to cut things away. I don’t know why The Surge’s levels contort themselves to keep you looping back to the same place. Opening shortcuts is iconically Dark Souls, and something you do a lot of in Hollow Knight, but in Surge it just feels clumsy, especially when a lot of the doors in that game are unlocked by reaching a certain level with your character.
And if you don’t understand what truly matters, you might miss things you didn’t even realize were there. Those level-gated doors in The Surge are a pretty bad break with Souls design, which is built entirely around “soft gating.” In Souls, doors open once you can overcome some challenge, spend some resource, or make some difficult choice. If you can beat the Dancer of the Boreal Valley, or drop 20,000 souls on the Crest of Artorias, the game will let you move forward. It doesn’t care how you accomplish that, or how inherently powerful your character is.
You could ditch that in a soulslike; Hollow Knight puts a different twist on it with its metroidvania world where new paths are opened up by unlocking new abilities, but those abilities are still unlocked by beating boss fights. But The Surge uses inelegant constraints to stop players from stumbling into content their characters weren’t prepared for, instead of letting the difficulty of that content guide players away from those areas.
Of course, in Dark Souls itself, that didn’t always deter players; plenty of people didn’t notice the difference between the hollows guarding the path to Undead Burg (the critical path of the game), and the skeletons guarding the path to the Catacombs (a late-game area that can be accessed earlier, as an optional challenge for experienced players). But critical parts of The Surge feel so pointlessly, punishingly difficult that it’s hard to imagine a world where that kind of structure, which requires a strong challenge next to a normal one, even works.
This is what I hope to see in 2018: The first-person exploration game as a soulslike, the isometric RPG as a soulslike, the dating sim as a soulslike.
This difficulty problem illustrates another point: If you don’t understand what truly matters, you might latch onto something that is beside the point. Hollow Knight is a challenging game, and I had to retry some boss fights a few times to get through them. But both The Surge and Nioh feel like they’re trying to one-up each other in terms of difficulty. And while the combat in Nioh is good, and in The Surge it’s passable, they don’t quite rise up to the delight that is Dark Souls.
Those games don’t feel like they’re making it worth your time to replay the same section again and again until you get it right. If I’m going to play through a small section of a level over and over again, it better be a damn good level. Instead of calibrating their difficulty to what is reasonable for their game, and what will achieve the tone they want to achieve, those games are just really hard because Dark Souls was “really hard.”
Hollow Knight is much smarter about how it deploys difficulty, including hard sections as optional side paths or at momentous points in the story. But it’s using challenge as a tool, while too many games treat it as a fetish or as a requirement to meet marketing expectations.
I hope Hollow Knight really does what Spelunky did, and we see the soulslike grow into a flexible, vibrant genre. This is what I hope to see in 2018: The first-person exploration game as a soulslike, the isometric RPG as a soulslike, the dating sim as a soulslike. I don’t want new iterations on Undead Burg or Anor Londo; I don’t want new variants on the claymore or the dark knight halberd. I want new colors and textures to put on that feeling of melancholy and small hope that Souls is, and Hollow Knight points the way.