The Souls series is one I have been hearing about for a long time, and Bloodborne in particular seemed to be celebrated as a noteworthy example of Souls at its best. It is one of my brother’s favorite video games, and many people I interact with in the game blogging sphere love the game. When I started playing and covering it, there was clear enthusiasm for this game compared to a lot of the stuff I normally write about. And while I wouldn’t say my experience with Bloodborne has been bad per se, the deeper I get into the game the more a particular comparison has stood out in my mind. While I am new to the Souls series broadly, I have played games which take inspiration from Dark Souls. As I push through Bloodborne and find myself more disappointed the more I progress, there is a particular title from that realm of Souls-likes which repeatedly comes to mind as a superior option. That game is Hollow Knight.
Hollow Knight is an indie “metroidvania,” a silly label which just means that you explore an interconnected world where returning to previous areas with new upgrades unlocks shortcuts or ways forward that weren’t available to you the first time you explored a region. In addition to the metroidvania elements, Hollow Knight is also a Souls-like. The combat is challenging, currency rewards are dropped when you die, and if you die a second time the currency you’ve left behind is lost for good. The similarities with Bloodborne don’t stop there, though. From the dark story about a spreading corruption among the living to the hostile world only sparsely populated with friendly characters to the lore conveyed primarily through the things you find in the world, it’s clear that Hollow Knight learned a lot from From Software’s games. And having played it first, there’s a lot about Hollow Knight that I find significantly more enjoyable than the experiences I’ve had with Bloodborne.
Let’s start with the look of the game. One thing that was a turnoff for me with regards to the Souls series for a long time was the visual style. Bloodborne is dark. The colors are primarily muddy browns, blacks, and greys with few elements that pop or add anything visually distinct to the characters or locations. A lot of environmental locations are samey and use the same set pieces, which means that most locations aren’t that interesting to look around nor are they easy to navigate because everything blends together. Enemies are mostly just palette swaps of the same four or five gross dudes along with a couple of ogres and some wolf guys. Enemies with more unique designs tend to be locked to a single area of the map. Now I know a lot of these choices are intentional in the name of atmosphere, but if you’ve played Hollow Knight then you know that a foreboding and hostile environment does not have to be ugly.
Hollow Knight’s map is made up of a number of distinct regions which all have a lot more unique visual flavor. There’s a mine with old machines and glistening gemstones, a thick forest with grasping vines, a fungus garden with bouncy shrooms, a series of narrow underground caverns infested with spiders – you can always identify what region you are in by its visual style and the enemies within it. There’s plenty of color from the bright red and pink gemstones of the mines to the lush greens of the forest to the strange glowing yellows and blues around the laboratory – Hollow Knight is a gorgeous game to look at and each new screen is a treat to behold. But that doesn’t turn down the fear factor, either. The Deepnest is one of the creepiest environments I have ever explored in a game, with the infested bodies of dead bugs rising up to chase after you or spindly spider legs skittering across the screen in the foreground while you explore dark, narrow passages. Even when the lights are low, though, Hollow Knight is clearly legible, as opposed to the way in which Bloodborne’s environments make it easy to miss important details. Then add in how every region has at least a few enemy types that are unique within it, as well as how distinct those enemies are. Bloodborne takes most of its inspiration from typical fantasy or horror fare: werewolves, zombies, ogres, snakemen, and cthonic beings are all pretty standard to see. Hollow Knight’s critters take real-world inspiration from the vast and unknowable realm of bugs, creating a lot of unique designs that you won’t often see in other games. This goes not only for the bad guys but for the allies you’ll make along the way too.
Speaking of allies, let’s talk about the story of Bloodborne for a bit. I’ve been playing the game for a couple dozen hours at this point and have made my way relatively deep into the game. I have no idea what’s going on. Now that’s not inherently bad, as some of the most interesting story experiences I’ve had with games have resulted from titles giving me just enough in order to speculate without revealing their hand too much. Most of Bloodborne’s story comes from item descriptions rather than any kind of meaningful interaction with non-hostile entities in the game world. Because these descriptions are often shown on the loading screen prior to finding an item for yourself, discovering new items doesn’t often feel particularly rewarding in terms of story content. Each time I make my way deeper into the world of Bloodborne I hope to learn something – anything – that helps to make the time I’ve spent trying to slowly master this game feel worthwhile. But there’s not a single character or idea for me to attach to or get invested in.
Hollow Knight does a better job of drip-feeding information steadily throughout the game. Because friendly NPCs actually exist in this setting, you have people to learn about and therefore something in this world to care about saving or helping. Quite a few characters in Hollow Knight are recurring, from the lady knight who will be starring in Silksong to the roving mapmaker to the self-styled “hero” you frequently have to rescue. These relationships build over time and friendly faces in the hostile regions make great markers of progress so you feel like you are learning more about the world and the people in it. You’re not left only to item descriptions in order to understand what’s going on, which then serves as motivation to continue to play so you can learn more about the world of Hallownest.
Now in a game that’s all about mechanical execution, a worse art style and less compelling storytelling can be forgiven if the gameplay delivers. And while this is certainly the area where I would say Bloodborne is the most competitive, I still think it falls short in a few key ways. Bloodborne is exclusively about combat – all of your verbs in the game serve only that purpose. Any exploration happening is only meant to serve as a brief respite between fights, or an opportunity to ambush you with a fight you aren’t prepared for. Moving through the world is not particularly satisfying to accomplish; your character can walk or run, or slowly climb a ladder. There is no jump, and while controlled falling occasionally makes an appearance it’s not a particularly compelling movement technique to engage with. Everything about the world of Bloodborne is just a boring space to pass by so you can get to the next helping of real gameplay: combat.
Conversely, Hollow Knight is a platformer as much as it is a Souls-like. The joy of movement and the challenge of executing movement well is a core part of the experience of the game. Your knight begins the game with a jumping ability but can also use the momentum granted by a sword hit to bounce off of enemies. As you progress, new tech like dashing or wall-jumping gets unlocked and allows you to zip around environments in new and exciting ways. Mastering a region isn’t just about mastering the fights there – you also need to learn the most effective ways to move around dangerous obstacles in the environment. It adds another layer of challenge while also making it satisfying just to go from point A to point B. It also makes avoiding combat feel like a viable solution, another tool in your toolbox for solving a particular room’s puzzle.
I’m probably not going to finish Bloodborne. It’s a time-consuming game where it takes a lot of energy investment to make progress, but the progress has felt less and less rewarding the deeper I get into the game. My experience with Hollow Knight has shown me that for a game of this style to resonate with me, it has to have something more going on that just cool combat challenges to overcome. An engaging setting, memorable characters, joy to be found in moments outside of the combat – any one of these things could potentially motivate me to keep investing in Bloodborne. Instead, the experience I am ultimately having with this game is that it is giving me a greater appreciation for Hollow Knight and just how much it manages to build on the essential Souls formula. I’m glad so many folks I know are passionate about Bloodborne and found something they deeply love about this game. But as for me? I’ll happily go back to waiting for that elusive Silksong release date.
Well that’s unfortunate. I expected a spicy keychain, but not your resignation from playing Bloodborne. It’s the only From Soft title I can’t play (being locked to a PS4), and, while I’d be inclined to try recommending another of their games, I’m not entirely sure if any of From Soft’s other titles will actually address your complaints in a meaningful fashion.
Also, know I’ve said it before, but this is the whole reason I didn’t recommend Monster Train originally. I figured the lack of “lore” would drag you down, but the mechanics were compelling enough that it didn’t end up mattering. You’re a fickle bastard, you know that?
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Gotta keep you on your toes, haha. I think with Bloodborne it’s not that there is no story/lore – based on the in-depth analyses I’ve read from other people, there very clearly is. As best as I can tell I have either missed it all by blowing past side content (I know for a fact that I literally walked past a major character because I couldn’t see them, re: the legibility problem) or it is all back-loaded and you have to essentially beat the game to learn what is happening. I found Hollow Knight’s drip-feed a lot more satisfying. It is not nearly as story-driven as my usual fare but still struck a balance that worked for me.
As for Monster Train, that one might just be the exception that proves the rule. 😅
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That’s fair. I didn’t really start to pick up on some of the more…subtle…notes of Dark Souls’ story until my third playthrough. On one hand, that’s kinda cool. On the other, I would never ask someone to play through a game 3 times to grasp the basic gist of a story.
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Well, I guess that speaks volumes about how fantastic Hollow Knight is. Here’s hoping Silksong is coming soon.
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