Hollow Knight Review
As They Say, Size Don't (Always) Matter .
Read Time 12 minutes
Hello, stranger! How mighty kind of you to join me today. As a reward for your cordiality, let me get you in on a dirty little secret I've been keeping for a while for no reason whatsoever: as a kid, I used to love insects. Seriously, my love for them was so much I couldn't help but want to touch and play with them every time I'd see one, crawling and... I don't know, screaming their lungs out at night. While a few of you will think that's sickly gross — which adult me would like to happily agree — I am sure there has to be at least one or two of you who can relate to that feeling. Insects are great, man–no wonder so many animation movies were made around the portrayal of those minuscule critters as sentient beings who can talk and interact with each other as if they were humans.
“ ...Wait, what do you mean they have mantises with stingers? Like, do th-... ”
While the simple thought of a society made up of bugs might terrify some people, to others, it could very well be a dream come true, and it isn't difficult to imagine why. To walk among such variety of colors, shapes, and sizes is enough to drive a grown man crazy, let alone little children. And how does all this information relate to today's story? So, at this point I'm guessing that you've likely heard about this nice game called Hollow Knight, a charismatic Metroidvania created by an indie developer that turned out to be a massive hit, and everyone loves, right? RIGHT?! Well, just in case you haven't already, here's a thing that nobody will tell you, and it would be that the game is, in reality, a huge buggy mess (my apologies in advance), and that's precisely where my expertise in the backyard department comes into play.
Anyhow, people, if by any chance you've really never heard even a mention of that name, then worry not because you're not alone in this, as neither had I until not too long ago. Enough said, if you're still on the fence just like I was, there might be a couple of interesting details that I, having completed the entire thing myself, optional content and whatnot, could share to help you be convinced that this one may indeed be a perfect match for you.
This is also going to be a great opportunity to reveal that Hollow Knight was sort of my "entryway" into the world of Metroidvanias, as in it was the first one I've actually managed to play from start to finish. But make no mistake, as even for someone with no excess of experience in the field, this game is such a fantastic beast I can guarantee you there is no actual need to know the ins and outs of the genre to be able to tell it is, in fact, the real deal.
From The Bottom Of The World We Rise: A Silent, Fateful Journey .
So, as you've just read, despite my enthusiasm, I am what you'd call a "newbie" when it comes to getting the full appeal of this genre that just so happens to be terribly special to a lot of people. With that in mind, you should probably be able to tell where this review is going, and for the few of you who answered, no, it's not straight into the trash! It is going to be a long and wacky trip, I mean. Why, you ask? Well, that's what happens when you have two differently sized wheels spinning side by side at the same time. Plus, it seems like almost every single stone has already been turned around here, so... yeah, it's going to be a very complicated ride, to say the least. In any case, I promise to give it my best shot at transmitting my feelings about the game in a clear and concise manner so that perhaps you too can get to appreciate it so much as I did.
Moving on–Hollow Knight, huh? How many awards did it even win, just s– hold on, nah, don't bother answering such a useless question. Awards, rewards, trophies none should mean no nothing to us, as all we care about is what lies on the inside. So, let us get right into the meat of it then! For starters, the game is a marvelous 2D side-scroller with plenty of platforming elements that takes a full dip into the progression system first seen in age-old classics. Its cores centered around the exploration of a vast interconnected world that opens up slowly as new abilities are obtained, the game almost feels like a fan tribute to those much older titles that came before it, that is when we're not taking the plethora of improvements it brings to the table into consideration, of course.
Taking place in a far away land, distant from everything else called Hallownest, the game starts cold (as in... giving off cold vibes), with a more than fitting introduction to that region which is described to us as "The Eternal Kingdom", a title that is, without revealing too much, quite contradictory given the current state of said kingdom. In there we control a small knight, a lone wanderer that carries on his body nothing besides a fragile blade and a quest no one but he, himself, can complete. Deliberately tight on the details, we are presented with a world of mystery and beauty, friends and foes, that goes on to unwrap itself little by little as more progression is made.
In our silent adventure, resting plays the important role of providing us with precious time to mend wounds and collect our thoughts, or perhaps even just to take in the atmosphere.
As a reflection of its rapid climb to the top, Hollow Knight conquered for itself an enormous following, and with it, a myriad of questions have also been brought to light, sparking curious debates to accurately pinpoint the reasons for its tremendous success. And while I, the least capacitated person in the world definitely won't hold a satisfactory answer to this particular query, I still feel like it's my responsibility as a major fan of the game to put out my two cents regardless of how little it will help to settle the argument. With that said, in my humble opinion the game is simply put the result of a series of spot-on decisions that were ultimately directed towards delivering the best possible experience to us as its players.
Those could be attributed to a business model that puts the customer above the line of profit, in a move deemed ingenious by people who have lost sense of what it means to not live at the mercy of agencies that see them purely as walking wallets. Moreover, polished to absolute perfection, it's beyond impressive what Team Cherry, a team of no more than three people has managed to achieve on a limited budget, not to forget the lack of experience, considering this was their first time sailing together under the same banner. A passion project with a clear intent in mind that has thankfully paid out immensely, having got a boost to reputation that can be easily carried into potential sequels, as well as expansions in the future.
Whether done on purpose or not, it's commendable the bravery of taking the risk of releasing such a stigmatized idea that conveys a message of commitment, which would be selling a usable, quality product right from the start. They have absolutely outdone themselves, these guys, in an effort that is palpable, visible in every surface, every tiny asset, and it's beautiful to see. From the unique, painstakingly gorgeous art, to the fantastic musical scores; the game has it all, you just name it.
A Distraction From The Ensuing Pain: When Reality Stings Badly .
You know, as crazy as it sounds, Hollow Knight doesn't just impress for the quality of its stuff, but also because of the sheer volume, the quantity of what is there to be seen, and its terrific ability in keeping the bar high above the ceiling. With an astounding amount of bosses, areas, and enemies, this is the kind of game you pick up thinking you'll be done with in just a minute, only to later find yourself glued to it for weeks when not months. In being crafted by hand, level design is yet another thing that is to be considered top-notch, elevating that lengthy play to levels that are unattainable by games that try to artificially look bigger by using and abusing proven flawed techniques the likes of cheap procedurally generated terrain features.
Separated into zones, the world in the game is as diverse as it gets, being just as huge in scale as it is in variety, with a select number of themed biomes to count, ranging from examples with clear real-world counterparts to, more often than not, completely fictional ones. Going from a peculiar spores wasteland to the giant open caves at the very top of the map, the game never disappoints whenever introducing a new section of its endearing wilderness, always having players grow in excitement every time they get to cross to the next big stage. What I found to be really amusing about them is the fact that each region make absolute sense from a geological standpoint, once again demonstrating a partial compromise with realism, despite its roots being set firmly into fantastical elements.
One thing I think everyone can benefit from knowing before they make the move to pick up the game is that, although bright-colored, somewhat simplistic, and innocent-looking by design, a common misconception you can hear quite frequently is that of people assuming the game to be just as inoffensive as it looks. Now, not only is it completely naive to judge something by its appearance, it can also prove to be a terrible mistake to indulge upon, especially when considering just how hard-hitting the game can be in certain occasions.
So deadly as they are pretty, there's no denying that some of these locations make for some wonderful, charming vistas... when they are not incessantly trying to slaughter you, that is.
With an environment as hazardous as a pool of acid, navigating the multiple narrow corridors of the map can be a challenge in on itself, requiring you to be focused at every turn in order to avoid danger and survive clearing off a single branch from our colossal tree. Needless to say, getting lost in a place like this can take a fatal turn rather quickly, and if you're just a tiny bit similar to me, someone who is urged to dart inside every random hole they come across without thinking twice, then do be aware that the road we trail isn't meant to be an easy one. In light of its numerous dangers, unearthing the secrets of this rich soil can be real daunting at first, even more so if you aren't comfortable with moving into a fog of unknown proportion, sometimes with a lot to lose.
When not stuck in between one of the multiple sections of walking straight from checkpoint to death on a repeat until you have either: a) given up or b) proven the talkers wrong, chances are that you'll likely be wanting to secure your progress, by going back to spawn to make use of the spoils you were just rewarded from killing the same enemies over and over again. So, as a direct response to anyone's concerns, a couple of fairly immersive fast travel systems, paired with numerous movement-related abilities were set in place for the exact purpose of helping us make the most of our time, cutting short the issues that come with getting around a large map such as this by a great margin.
On the same note, you should also do yourself a favor and not let that discourage you, as nothing I say here should ever come close to invalidating the fun there certainly is to be had with the game. Also, in the hopes that this makes you feel more at ease, provided the smart positioning of shortcuts, after you have proven yourself capable of dealing with each segment once, the next time you return to that area, you will find it to be a lot more ‘invitative’, so to speak. And there you go! Now, I bet you can finally rest a little bit better at night!
The Downfall Of A Proud Civilization: Our One And True Enemy .
So, basically what you're telling me is that you have been around this long into the age of man marrying electronic devices without hearing a single word from the name our lord and savior Hollow Knight, nor its blessed lore? That is... uhh, it's alright, I guess, no judgment from me--I mean, it's not like I ain't guilty of having committed this same crime myself anyways. And since you have gotten this far into this review, I have to assume you're interested in knowing a bit more than what you currently do, yes? Oh my, you should've told me earlier! I will gladly do my best to help you out, if it is for such a good cause.
To understand the story of the game, first we need to go back to that supposedly everlasting kingdom I mentioned earlier. Once a thriving capital, lair to all kinds of insects, the Hallownest we see today is a mere shadow of its old glory, bearing little resemblance to when life would continually flow through it, nourishing a now almost completely faded nation. That's because an ancient affliction and its source, which used to be locked somewhere safe began 'leaking' out due to the weakening of the binds that held it back from spreading. After ages spent in slumber, its awakening signaled a breaking of balance, as a process of corruption, affecting exclusively the mind of bugs was just set free, able to transform them into mindless husks, doomed to wander about aimlessly forever.
Now, if you know me, then you should also know how much I dread bad storytelling. To me, there is nothing worse than spending time in a game with a lukewarm narrative that is cryptic just for the sake of it. Just kidding, there is one (and there may be more)! That would be when you can't make up a single thing what is supposed to be happening around you because the game can't decide what it is a big riddle for you to decipher, or a well-constructed narrative that you are able to understand and appreciate on the spot.
With the world basically falling apart, sacrifices were due in order to contain this terrible infection from spreading. Could our arrival to the kingdom have something to do with it?
In parallel to that, we have Hollow Knight, which, as I said previously, is kind of more reserved when it comes to pouring out details, therefore it too, should, in theory, also be a part of that group of poor excuses for a shallow, flat experience. But contrary to my own expectations, I actually found its withholding of information to be way more enthralling than it would have been under normal circumstances (i.e the rest of the game being more on the 'meh' side). It might sound super counterintuitive, but this secrecy can sometimes be really sexy, as not revealing all at once can turn to be the best option on the long run. By letting the mind run wild, doing the work of filling up the empty spaces, my guess is that everything suddenly becomes a lot spicier, almost as if... it could be so spicy as one's mind allowed it to be.
Besides, it's borderline impossible to hate on something if the one guilty of not working hard to piece together a good enough story is none other than whoever is playing the game, and I presume nobody wants to admit to being the dumbest kid in class. Maybe it was the constant stream of all-around good feelings that kept me from seeing stuff to complain that even when everything I said about the game in regards to story is completely in line with the criteria for bad swimmers as listed above, I simply can't bring myself to call this game's story bad. The main reason for that is that the differences in structuring between a real bad storytelling and whatever is going on in the background of this marvel of video games engineering are far too great to be ignored.
And despite us being fed close to scraps in terms of lore, which is not really what I'd consider ideal, we are still given enough context, mostly in the form of visual clues and interactions with NPCs, that is, in my opinion, more than enough to get by on our own. Truthfully, even if you didn't have in hand, uh... what is that, an overarching story with a deeper, more meaningful development, when you already have in hand the support of a more than passable foundation such as this, I suspect hardly anything could go ever end up going wrong your way.
To The Top We Go, One Step At A Time: With Style, As Always .
As we've already established, Hollow Knight isn't a game fit for everyone, much less those wanting to have a good, peaceful time as they enjoy strolling around with nothing to worry about, because if their deal is to just play casually, the game won't stop and adapt itself to fit onto that one person's needs. That holds true for many aspects particularly those requiring a certain amount of skill and familiarity which are pretty uncommon in someone just looking to have fun with whatever they can find to play in their free time. This is exacerbated by a trust mechanism that sees in its players the ability to learn how to get around any issues they find along their journey, by providing them with a 'key' to ensure the correct door is unlocked at the right time without creating any disturbance in player maturing.
Such clever invention isn't notorious for holding hands though, as in order to overcome the next batch of challenges, you need to continuously be able to improve as a requirement to move on. Those improvements can come in many forms, but its more basic, and also the most prominent variable is through unlockables such as abilities, spells, items, upgrades, etc. With an unique approach to this method, the developers even took a step further and added their own twist in the form of charms, that you can then combo to create a build that is made for deflecting a specific problem you may be having.
When owning up to the spirit of guiding and instructing, Hollow Knight excels in providing us with clarity of directions, so that we rarely find ourselves stuck, or trying to figure out where to go next. In making it painfully obvious we are somewhere we aren't supposed to be, we waste less time revisiting places we have already cleared, which in turn creates a tangible barrier that separates it from other games of similar nature that use scummy tactics to make you sink in more time to create the illusion of the experience lasting longer.
Though unrealistic expectations will often hold games from showing their full potential, in the case of Hollow Knight, those loud, shouting voices only served to make it stronger.
Those are invaluable in a game where progression is so highly dependant on you going back to previously explored areas to access treasures or other loot that used to be out of reach, in a process commonly referred to as backtracking (duh). And when we stop to consider that we'll be doing most things by foot (the fast travel methods from before won't always be available, even after unlocking them), this sentiment is amplified even further. Not only that, but being able to tell in a glance that you're on the right track is of vital importance for quickly evaluating what your options are, making it so that you can always be the judge of your own destiny, basically allowing you to proceed at your own terms.
Other than that, one thing more I can admire is that although pretty straightforward, Hollow Knight isn't as linear as you'd expect it to be, getting more surprising when you know it would have made total sense, from a design perspective, to go for that route. There is a wealth of alternatives to paths you can take, and it feels amazing to know you aren't forced to take down enemies in a predetermined pattern, even if there will always come a point you have to double back your steps. Still, being able to come back stronger to face and best what once seemed like an obstacle you couldn't surpass is part of the reason why, even when in suffering, getting beaten into a better player feels so sweet in this game.
An exchange of great values, combined with the hopelessness that comes with putting players in a position where they enjoy being treated poorly is partly what makes the game such an intriguing piece, to me, anyways. To think every small victory we have is earned, and not just handed to us, as basic as it is, feels really good, even more so when that’s coming from a genre where battles are either too intense to keep up, or so repetitive that you end up dying a slow and utterly tedious death.
A Dream For Some, A Nightmare For Others: It Comes For All Of Us .
With maps built so that you can't breeze through them, and relying heavily on players' ability to endure, Hollow Knight sits in a weird spot where it's not everyone's cup of tea, yet, for those who are into that jam, it's like a match made in heaven for them. Going the opposite way of the rising demand for harder games being dumbed down as to please a wider audience, it sought instead to build upon a sturdier foundation, by sticking to the loyal pain-seekers, while still not giving away completely those who may enjoy some mild burns in the process. Thriving in the existence of a community of players dedicated to finding more, better-suited ways to torture themselves, the developers seem to have found an efficient way to reciprocate those feelings, with the same class it did with everything else.
Taking advantage of its players with masochistic tendencies, areas where you'd normally be left with nothing to do after having beaten, or finished most of their content, are made useful again in an unusual new way to make you want to revisit them. If you thought you were having too much with an enemy before, why not take the opportunity to fight them again, and while you're at it, maybe consider cranking up their speed, health, and maybe even sprinkle in some new tricks up their sleeve, to really catch people by surprise.
That's what I suppose was the thought process behind the idea for dream bosses, and a boss rush where your biggest reward is a feeling of self-accomplishment (with no additional taps on the back), as well as alternate endings that are only unlocked by defeating the most fierce enemies atop the ladder. If we take this optional task the way it is intended to be, as something you may opt out without much distress, then there really is no problem to be had for most, not at all. However, if for some reason your objective comes close to getting the maximum amount of endings you possibly can in a single playthrough and you're not in that demographic from before, then in your case, sadly luck is non-existent.
After digging your favorite nuisances straight from their graves, you're certain to find the doors to your dreams open up before you, if they don't immediately turn into a nightmare.
Another topic I've been wanting to touch upon for a while now is combat, and how it mostly plays out for us, as its golden subjects. Firstly, and I have to comment on this, even though it is already a bit late, is that the game plays fantastic; from a technical point of view all the way to the practical movement of it, there's no denying the fact that it is an utter masterpiece in what refers to its proficiency in communicating the universally-known language of blood leading to glory. Aside from that, another thing I really liked about the game is that it doesn't invalidate, nor tries to frustrate any of our attempts to come out on top in battles, with every tactic being just so viable to execute as any other, save for those that lean heavily upon glitches and the likes in order to be pulled off.
Furthermore, pacing is another example of full-on masterclass event which sadly you don't see it getting anywhere near as much attention as it truly deserves. Engaging to the bone, fighting enemies in the game feels like hitting the perfect notes in a guitar hero game, a most fascinating quality I simply can't get behind. It is truly so good that even in its current form, with no fancy twists, turns and whatever shiny move you can think of, there remains to be seen anything coming close touching it.
At any rate, before we begin to lose focus, if your wish is to keep challenging yourself, do know that there will be many ways for you to do just that, with an ever-growing intensity with which fights develop as to always be able to pull down your pants when you least expect it to. It might come off as ridiculous from my part, or an exaggeration even, but do believe me when I say it, you wouldn't get the thrill of being exposed that way until it's you put on the spot.
Final Thoughts: A Feast For The Soul, A Banquet For The Mind.
Unrivaled in regards to its awful distaste for anything that is below average, Hollow Knight remains, to this point in time, a staple of the industry that makes full use of the knowledge put together by generations of both failed and successful attempts at reinventing the formula, coming out on top with little to no major setbacks. If I had to point out a single regret of mine from playing it, that would have to be how it is so incredibly good everything else now pales when put in comparison to it. Other than that, not being there for the Kickstarter campaign is another regrettable decision that will haunt my sleep forever, or if I'm not being so dramatic, at least until the day that I can finally pay up the price of my sins by buying a copy of Silksong for everyone in the house, pets included.
Overflowing with charisma, this is a genuine, exhilarating time you cannot afford to miss, not even if you never came in contact with a similar deal before, as it hits the nail on the head in every respect, without ever drawing close to a shortage of heads to hit with said nail. Suffice to say, expectations are over the roof for people waiting to see how such an outstanding piece can still be improved in the future, as for them to even attempt to outvalue their own work, with how far it went in its first go, truly does boggles not only my mind, but everyone else's.
Admittedly hard to pick up for someone just getting started, this is the kind of deal that you either love or hate, with no in-between that we can talk about. Being such a hit or miss game, in the sense that it is a hit no matter what you think of it, and a missed opportunity to play one of the best video games of all time if you decide to look the other way, Hollow Knight draws strength from an energy source that never tires, never sleeps, and one that will always come back looking for more, so when to jump on board, if you haven't already, is fully up to you, but you should do so soon if you intend to partake on this bountiful harvest while it's still fresh.
As for the rest of us, the faithful bunch, we shall wait, distant, singing our hopes and prayers in unison, so that the blessed group known as Team Cherry does not forget their lowly subjects here on earth.
A steady progression system that is constantly introducing new mechanics for you to explore and learn how to better use them.
A combo of art and music that makes a quick work of both your eyes and ears, setting up the mood for an exceptional adventure.
Huge in size and in variety, with a visible differentiation between each area, which makes the game feel fresh at every turn.
Intense, crazy epic fights to keep you on your toes whenever you think you have already mastered the difficulty of the game.
An unforgiving difficulty setting that may be a bit too harsh for someone just getting started with the jam of Metroidvanias.
The artstyle may not be to everyone's taste, and the simplistic 2D elements may also fail to deliver the desired level of detail.
Storytelling that can be quite confusing to some people until late into the game, where story starts to make a lot more sense.
It being so unbelievably good that you may never be able to enjoy any other game in the Metroidvania genre the way you once did.
A pinnacle of video game development that unites some of the most talented individuals of the industry to create a once-in-a-lifetime experience that goes beyond being a simple achievement for those who created it. A near-perfect game where perseverance is your best friend.
06/20/2020 - Caius, The Soulless Ghost