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

No comments:

Post a Comment