Friday, October 20, 2017

Hollow Knight

Release date: February 24th, 2017
Developed by: Team Cherry
Published by: Team Cherry
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, iOS

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 25 hours
Completion: "Dream No More" ending

A beautiful adventure through a somber world.

Nearly eight months ago as of the time of this review, Hollow Knight was released on Steam, and somehow it managed to fly almost completely under my radar. Recently I found the game as a recommendation on the Steam store, and although I didn't know anything about the game, I decided to give it a try. Shortly after leaving the tutorial area of the game, I found myself enchanted by the world, and pushed myself to go everywhere and see everything. From start to finish, it took me nearly 20 hours to complete my first playthrough, much longer than I anticipated. To my surprise, I found Hollow Knight to be one of the most captivating gaming experiences I have played this year.

Hollow Knight takes place in a kingdom called Hallownest: a strange land where its residents are talking, friendly, bug-people. Most of the kingdom lies underground, and consists of huge sprawling cities reminiscent of Victorian-era London. Or at least that's how it used to be, until a devastating affliction ravaged the land, killing most of its inhabitants and reducing the rest to mindless husks. The cities have crumbled over time, and some have been consumed by the earth that surrounds them. It's here among the ruins and ominous darkness that the player, an unnamed knight of small stature, wanders into the town of Dirtmouth.

There are no flashing signs or waypoints to direct you.

Hollow Knight is a 2D, action-adventure platformer with an emphasis on exploration and atmosphere. While playing the game, you'll find yourself primarily running around, jumping between platforms, and fighting hundreds of enemies with your sword (which is called a "nail"). In true Metroidvania fashion, you will also find a large variety of blocked paths, which you can return to after learning the right ability to progress. There's a light equipment mechanic in the form of "charms", and a currency called "geo" that can be collected from defeating enemies and exploring. Lastly, there are boss fights, ranging from duels against other knights, to battles against monsters of great strength and size.

Combat is simple at the start, with your character being capable of only jumping and simple attacks, but becomes much more interesting as you encounter more versatile foes and learn new abilities. You start with 5 health, typically lose 1 health for each hit you take, and die when your health reaches 0. You also start with a soul meter that fills up with energy gathered from attacking foes. Soul gathered can be used to restore lost health or cast magic spells, and tends to refill quickly in combat. If you die, you will start over from your last checkpoint, suffer a penalty to your maximum soul capacity, and lose all your geo unless you can return to where you died and defeat your Shade.

There's a large number of boss fights in Hollow Knight, all of which serve to challenge your reflexes. These encounters are often found through exploration, as there are no flashing signs or waypoints to direct you to them. More often than not, you will stumble into a boss fight unprepared, resulting in a frantic and desperate fight. Bosses are typically aggressive with a variety of attacks, and will require careful attention to learn their patterns. Some will summon minions or spray projectile attacks, testing your ability to dodge and attack simultaneously. Others will attack with lightning speed, offering little-to-no warning for first time opponents. Your reward for victory will vary, but is always worth the effort, and can even be a powerful new ability that allows access to new areas.

I found myself unintentionally making the game harder.

Exploration is critical in Hollow Knight, and how thoroughly you explore can determine how powerful (or underpowered) you are when you encounter more challenging enemies or boss fights. From the beginning, there are many branching paths to traverse, with no clear indication of which path is the ideal course. As you travel further and further from familiar territory and find even more branching paths, you may begin to ask yourself if you've taken a wrong turn along the way. I managed to completely miss two powerful upgrades, and I found myself unintentionally making the game harder until I found them hours later. Backtracking is inevitable, and I frequently discovered entire new areas tucked away in spaces I never would have expected.

As you explore, you will come across a variety of different points of interest to help with your journey. The most common one is the bench, which you can sit at to recover health, swap charms, and respawn at if you should die. Stag Stations can be found on the rare occasion, which allow you to fast travel to any other discovered stations. Vendors can be found periodically, and a cartographer can be found in most areas to sell you a map of the immediate surroundings. Of course there are many other characters to be found scattered around Hallownest, and some are less friendly than others.

Charms are equippable items that can be bought or found throughout the game, offering passive bonuses or altering the effects of some spells. You start with 3 charm notches, which are slots used to equip charms, and can find more throughout the game. Each charm will require between 1 and 5 notches to equip, with the higher cost charms typically providing a more powerful effect. Health and soul can also be expanded in a similar fashion by finding mask shards and soul vessel fragments. After finding 4 mask shards or 3 soul vessel fragments, your maximum capacity will increase for the corresponding stat. Although charm notches, mask shards, and soul vessel fragments can be bought, these valuable items will be found primarily with exploration.

The gorgeous hand-drawn scenery is front and center.

While playing Hollow Knight, the story is not explicitly revealed to you, but is subtly told in the environments you explore, and the enemies you fight. There are a few friendly bugs you will encounter throughout the game, and one early on tells you of a sickness that turns creatures mad and robs travellers of their memories, but most seem unaware of or unable to comprehend their surroundings. Statues and signs offer cryptic phrases that feel like nondescript pieces in a kingdom-sized puzzle. Even the end goal of the game isn't revealed until about midway through, which is when more observant players will begin to piece together the lore.

The gorgeous hand-drawn scenery is front and center in Hollow Knight, and is (in my opinion) the best part of the game. I can't count how many times I entered a new area, and had to take a moment to appreciate what I was seeing. The silently looming cities, the overgrown heroic statues, and the peaceful rest areas invoked a feeling of nostalgia for what these fictional places were in their prime. On the other end of the spectrum, there are many areas with an oppressive and borderline hostile atmosphere. Even at times where I knew it was safe, I still felt the urgency to leave and return to the familiar. It's an accomplishment how many different emotions the environments can produce, and many more games should aim for equal levels of quality.

When it comes to soundtrack, Hollow Knight expertly delivers with a high-quality but selectively used musical score. Early level exploration is paired with a calm ambient theme to match the slower pace, while deeper levels will have a more tense ambient theme or none at all. Boss battles are paired with powerful and exciting music, which helps you switch gears and adds weight to the encounter. Dirtmouth, a village that functions as the safe hub for the game, has a somber tone and produces an expression of a world fading away. It's clear that the soundtrack was lovingly composed, and does a great job elevating the already fantastic atmosphere of the game.

The high-quality content eclipses any criticism I can muster.

Although Hollow Knight is far better than it has any right to be, there are some rough edges that I feel are the result of a couple questionable design choices. I didn't encounter any bugs, crashing, or graphical issues throughout my entire 25 hours of playtime, which is impressive and very uncommon from smaller studios. It's difficult to even mention the one nitpick and one actual complaint I have, only because the outrageous amount of high-quality content completely eclipses any criticism I can muster. There is only one example of an actual issue hurting my enjoyment of the game, and it's from an optional area near the end. These objections are entirely based on my opinion, and when it comes to opinions, your mileage may vary.

The one nitpick I had is regarding the Wayward Compass charm, which is absolutely essential for navigating the world. If you don't purchase a map of an area, you are unable to see a high level view of your surroundings. Even if you have a map, you can't see where your position is on the map without buying the Wayward Compass charm and equipping it, which occupies a charm notch. Since this is almost always necessary, it always uses up a charm slot, unless you swap it temporarily at a bench before a boss battle. The other map upgrades you can buy don't need to be equipped, so I don't understand why this one is different and disagree with this design choice.

My only actual complaint, and perhaps the only thing I can claim to hate in Hollow Knight, is regarding an optional area near the end of the game called the White Palace. This area is basically a chain of platforming trials that consist of circular saw blades and carefully timed jumping segments, with a failed jump setting your progress back by a frustrating amount. The circular saw blades, aside from being frustrating to deal with, look ridiculous and don't make any sense in the context of the White Palace. There are almost no enemies to fight, no boss at the end, and the entire area feels to me like it belongs in another game.

Conclusion: Is Hollow Knight worth the price of admission?

I went into Hollow Knight expecting a short game with cute characters, and ended up losing a week of my life and left hungry for more. Every time I thought I was near the end, the world kept growing and offering more challenges and discoveries, and I still haven't seen everything the game has to offer. I had to suppress the urge to keep exploring, find every secret, and defeat every boss, or else this review would never be finished. At the end of my first playthrough, I begrudgingly settled for a 93% completion score, reminding myself that I still have a sizeable backlog of games that yearn for my attention.

Hollow Knight is $14.99 on the Steam store right now, which is an absolute steal for the sheer amount of content packaged in a single game. Team Cherry has already released one free content update, which added two more optional bosses, and another free content update is planned for release this Halloween. Even though platformers are not games I typically enjoy, I loved (almost) every minute of my time playing Hollow Knight. After playing for approximately 25 hours, I had to force myself to finally finish the game, and not for lack of enjoyment. If that is not one hell of an endorsement, then I don't know what is.

  • Fantastic and immersive scenery
  • Beautiful soundtrack
  • Sprawling areas with tons of exploration
  • Expert environmental storytelling
  • Excellent character progression
  • Smooth difficulty curve
  • No hand holding

  • Easy to miss crucial upgrades
  • Some charms all but mandatory
  • White Palace can burn in hell

Verdict: Buy

Thursday, October 5, 2017


Release date: September 29th, 2017
Developed by: Studio MDHR
Published by: Studio MDHR
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, Xbox One

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 7 hours
Completion: Completed on "Regular"

Cuphead and Mugman star in "Don't Deal with the Devil".

When Cuphead was announced during Microsoft's conference at E3 2014, it quickly became one of the most anticipated titles for the next few years. The game captivated audiences with its charming visual style, which was intended as a throwback to the classic MGM and Disney cartoons. Post announcement, Cuphead was stuck in development for quite some time, suffering from an uncertain release date and little press information to ease worried minds. Fans were concerned the game may never be released, or released half-cooked to an underwhelming reception. After years of waiting, Cuphead was launched just last week to the eager masses, but can the game deliver on the level of quality promised from the reveal over 3 years ago?

Cuphead begins with a brief introduction to our heroes, Cuphead (the character) and Mugman, playing a game of craps in a casino owned by the Devil himself. The young cups are on a winning streak, and draw the attention of the Devil. He then offers them a tempting bet: if they win the next roll, they will win the casino itself, but if they lose, the Devil will own their souls. Cuphead, blinded by his winning streak, takes the bet and loses, damning both their souls to the Devil. The Devil then offers them a deal: if the cups can collect the souls of everyone who owes the Devil, he will set them free. Cuphead and Mugman, fearing for their lives, set out to do the Devil's dirty work, while also searching for a way to escape his evil clutches.

Cuphead excels with tight and responsive controls.

Cuphead is perhaps best described as a 2D boss rush game with a handful of traditional platforming levels sprinkled in. After a brief tutorial teaching the basics of movement, shooting, and parrying, you are free to select a level from the map view. There are a total of 17 contracts, all of which are challenging boss fights with multiple stages. Inbetween the contracts are 6 run-and-gun levels, which are more traditional platforming segments with hundreds of enemies to shoot and coins to collect. Overall game length will vary greatly based on your skill and familiarity with the mechanics, with some encounters providing more challenge than others. The coins found in run-and-gun levels can be used at Porkrinder's Emporium, a familiar-looking pig shopkeeper who sells new attacks and passive abilities.

While Cuphead is visually unique from its peers, it plays functionally as a standard side-scrolling shooter, similar to classic titles like Contra and Metal Slug. Most of your time spent playing Cuphead will be running to the right, shooting your finger gun, jumping between platforms, and dashing through projectiles. You can also change the way your bullets behave, charge up a super meter for a powerful special ability, and parry some incoming attacks. Parries are done by performing a second jump in mid air right before you touch a pink-colored object, enemy, or projectile attack. Despite the fairly basic mechanics, Cuphead excels over its peers by just how air tight and responsive the controls feel. Although I played on PC, I used an Xbox One controller and would highly recommend playing with one or a PlayStation DS4 controller.

After completing a level, your performance is tallied up and graded to provide a letter grade score. The score is ranked based on time taken, HP remaining, parries performed, your super meter charge, and difficulty selected. Players can select to play on either "Simple" or "Regular" difficulty, and can unlock the "Expert" difficulty after completing the game. HP can be increased above the starting amount of 3, but taking more than 3 hits will cause the game to treat you with 0 HP remaining score-wise. The letter grade scores range from a low "D" to a high "S" based on all of the above, but there is a secret score that can be earned under the right circumstances as well.

Contracts are thankfully the best parts of the game.

When playing or watching someone play Cuphead, one of the first things you will notice is how often you will die. As mentioned before, you start with only 3 HP, and your HP goes down by 1 for each hit you take. Once you reach 0 HP, you will die and need to restart the entire level since there are no checkpoints in the game. When playing co-op, you have a brief opportunity to resurrect your deceased ally by performing a parry on their ascending ghost. Although you can increase your max HP, the trade-off is you will deal less damage from your attacks, thereby extending fights and nullifying the benefit of the extra HP. Fortunately, each level can be completed in around 1-2 minutes, so restarting never feels like a major loss.

The contracts are what fills the majority of Cuphead's gameplay, and thankfully they are the best parts of the game. In general, a contract places you against a single boss-sized opponent with a complex move set and a huge health pool. Each boss has multiple phases, and as the phases progress, the boss becomes more dangerous. This isn't always the case, as some bosses will have their most difficult phase in the middle of the fight, but the majority follow this pattern. Once the boss is drained of health, the game announces a satisfying "Knock out!" with a ringing bell.

One of the better features of Cuphead is the way the difficulty changes the contracts. On "Regular" difficulty, the boss will typically have anywhere between 3-5 phases, and in each phase, the boss will alternate between a set of attacks. For example, one boss will shoot projectiles at you for a few moments, offer a brief pause, and then summon minions to attack you. On "Expert" difficulty, that same phase is changed where the boss will now shoot projectiles and summon minions at the same time, testing your ability to dodge and attack simultaneously. On "Simple" difficulty, the boss will have more manageable attacks and may skip the final phase entirely, offering a shorter and easier fight.

Run-and-gun levels are heavily outnumbered by the contracts, but offer a nice change of pace from the stressful boss fights. The goal in a run-and-gun level is to keep moving to the right until you reach the end of the line, defeating or avoiding every enemy in the way. There are always platforming segments that require precise timing and landing difficult jumps, often while dodging enemies or projectiles. There is also a large density of infinitely-spawning enemies and projectile attacks throughout most of the level, and can overwhelm even experienced players. Run-and-gun levels also are the primary source of coins, as there are always 5 scattered along the way.

I loved the boss fights and hesistate to criticize them, but...

As a game critic, I would be remiss if I didn't point out where I felt Cuphead's gameplay was lacking or fell flat. Thankfully, Cuphead as a whole is a solid game with little room for improvement, and the few flaws I could find are more qualified as nitpicks than actual issues with the game. Also worth mentioning is that these nitpicks are strictly based on my personal opinion, so you may not feel the same way during your time playing Cuphead. None of these nitpicks made my overall experience any less enjoyable, but I am still obligated to mention where I feel there is room for improvement, and how these areas of the game could go from good to great.

To start, the run-and-gun levels never really worked for me, mostly because they felt very similar to each other and I found them generally uninteresting to play. Although one level in particular tries something different with having you alternate between walking on the floor and ceiling, the rest felt pretty much identical. What I would have liked added were branching paths the player could take, holes you could drop down for a verticle layer, and maybe backtracking to earn more coins. On researching these run-and-gun levels for my review, I discovered these were added late into Cuphead's development, and were not originally intended as part of the game. These levels are short in length and few in number, and certainly not bad by any means, but are heavily outshined by the much more interesting boss fights.

Another nitpick I had was what I felt was an over-reliance on trial and error in a few of the contracts. The boss fights are very diverse and the bosses have creative movesets, but many attacks are impossible to avoid until you've already been hit by it once. This is not a big deal due to the short length of the fights and how quickly you can restart after dying, but a couple of deaths had me flat out frustrated with my inability to defend myself. Overall, I loved all the boss fights and hesistate to criticize them even a little, but would appreciate a small change of better telegraphing the effects of the more unusual attacks.

My last nitpick is that many of the different shots you can buy are either inferior or extremely circumstantial compared to the starting peashooter. There's the short-range shotgun, the boomerang, the lobber, the guided, and the charge shot, all of which change your shot's behavior. While they are all unique in function and offer variances in damage, range, and spread, they also come with a trade-off that makes the weapon difficult to commit to. Meanwhile the peashooter is capable of handling every situation and deals enough damage to overcome any boss, and ended up being the only weapon I used until the end of my first playthrough. The guided shot does have a brief advantage as a secondary weapon in situations where aiming is hazardous, such as dodging a flurry of attacks. I'm conflicted because I like that you can beat the entire game using the starting weapon, but the other shots seem less appealing as a result.

Cuphead will be considered an artistic landmark in videogames.

Let's face it, the biggest reason to play Cuphead is for its absolutely gorgeous and unique art style (and by unique I mean to videogames specifically). The art team at Studio MDHR spent a ridiculous amount of time and effort to replicate the rounded shapes and water color appearance of the classic cartoons. In fact, it's strongly suggested this commitment to quality was largely responsible for the delay of the game's release. Jake Clark, one of the artistic talents at Studio MDHR, goes into detail about their time-consuming design process in a GDC video found here, which is worth watching if you want to learn more. For me, the appeal of playing Cuphead was to see what the next boss will look like, and how his phases will progress and change him into a wacky new form. I was charmed by the visuals and animation for the entirety of the game, and fully suspect Cuphead will be considered an artistic landmark in videogames for years to come.

Finally we get to the music and sound effects, both of which have been stylized to be appropriate for the era. The music in Cuphead was live recorded by a large jazz band, and contains all the fantastic energy and emotion found in the 1930's music. Although I found myself stuck on some of the harder contracts for a long while, I never found the music repetitive or grating, which is quite the accomplishment. The sound effects all seem like they're household objects being rattled and banged, much like how the classic sounds were made. These effects can sometimes be quiet and understated, which in turn is drowned out by the powerful music. As a whole, the sound and music package is nearly perfect, and reaches the same levels of quality that the visuals do.

Conclusion: Is Cuphead worth the price of admission?

Cuphead is a short game, and although everyone will commit a different amount of time on it, I would say your average gamer would take no longer than 10 hours for the first playthrough. That is assuming those same players don't give up after being faced with challenging boss fights, and constantly dying and starting over. Even with a "Simple" mode, the game offers a level of challenge that currently only appeals to a small number of players. But the whole presentation and quality of Cuphead offers an experience where you don't have to win to enjoy, and will charm and entertain players of all skill levels. Also there is couch co-op that I unfortunately didn't get a chance to experience, but getting destroyed with a friend is always better than getting destroyed alone.

I said before that Cuphead was best described as a boss rush game, but an even better description would be calling it an experience foremost with an excellent game attached. You aren't going to find another game like Cuphead (at least not until it's success spawns copycats) and that is worth the full price alone. Presentation aside, there is a satisfying thrill to defeating a boss after much effort, and pushing on to see what ridiculous encounter is next. With the different letter grade scores, difficulty modes, and cooperative gameplay, there's a ton of replayability to be had for casuals and hardcore gamers alike. I would recommend Cuphead to anyone who thinks it looks interesting, especially for a low price tag of $19.99, and am eagerly awaiting to see what Studio MDHR will do next.

  • Unique and fantastic art style
  • Excellent music and sound effects
  • Air tight controls and gameplay
  • Thrilling and challenging boss encounters
  • Simple but charming story and characters
  • Couch co-op gameplay

  • Run-and-gun levels are lacking
  • Circumstantial weapons
  • Over-reliance on trial and error in some boss fights

Verdict: Buy