Hollow Knight Review
Hollow Knight was released earlier this year by Team Cherry, a small indie team from Australia that is both a promising new entry into the Metroidvania cannon and also a, at times, frustrating game that doesn’t properly use all of its mechanics fully.
You play as a small beetle, who is never named but referred to sometimes as “Shade” or “Ghost” and you travel to this land to get into the fabled city of Hollownest. The problem is is that the city is locked and you have to find some way to get in, which takes your character across all sorts of neat levels underground and pits you against interesting enemies and characters.
In true Metroidvania fashion, you’re going to be doing a lot of exploring and backtracking. You’re going to have to a lot. Unlike many similar games, your map is not ready to use at the get go. You purchase them from a vendor hidden in each zone and while he gives you a good template of some immediate markers, it’ll be your job to draw the rest out. That doesn’t happen automatically, you have to find one of the checkpoints - some sort of bench or other chair - to plop down, fill in the gaps in the map and then get back to adventuring.
Once you do have your map sorted out, you get a lot of information onto it. Good luck getting to all those nooks and crannies without one.
These checkpoint benches serve a bunch of functions. They are your save points, they refill your health, and when you die you are returned to each one ala Dark Souls. They are absolutely vital to making progress in the world and every time you reach a new zone your first priority should be to hoof it to the closest bench. Sometimes you’ll see a sign post that points you in the right direction, other times you just have to find it yourself.
Combat is the bread and butter of this game. There’s a ton of enemy types and while a few share similar design themes, they all feel pretty distinct from one another. Some jump, some ram, some are equipped with their own weapons and use dodges and shields to force you to maneuver around them. At the beginning of the game, when your movement options are extremely limited, some of these encounters are really quite challenging.
The game really opens up once you start unlocking these movement options. You get the rudimentary stuff - wall clings, dashes, etc. and while they allow you to traverse the terrain more freely and access new parts of old zones, their use in combat are the most important. The dash, especially, is critical in being able to both read and avoid some late game enemy and boss attacks.
At first I was really put off by the art direction in the game. It’s consistent, sure, but there’s a shallowness to characters that make them feel flat. It’s a 2D game, sure, but there’s a lovely 3D depth that isn’t complemented by things like shadows and lighting effects. It feels like you’re watching a flat animation against a fully 3D realized world and it was jarring at first, but the more I played the game the more I realized just how important that design choice was. Things most fast, especially in the mid to late game, and with so many visual distractions in the environment the team kept NPC’s and enemies relatively flat to make them stand out more. It means that, while the game can be as gorgeous as anything from Ori and the Blind Forest, other times it looks like a very visually conservative.
Maybe I’ve just been playing too many of these types of games lately, but there’s nothing about sound design and music direction that hits me. It’s pleasant, yeah, and provides an appropriate atmosphere but if you asked me to differentiate this game versus another 2D platformer like Ori I would be hard pressed to mark off anything significant. You’re traversing a cave system and there’s light piano and string music. Boss battles ramp up, wind down, and revelations receive crescendos. For how alive the game feels in its zones, the music and sound design are strikingly bland.
As I’ve talked about already, there’s a huge shift in the mid to late game here. The variety of movement options, the ability to upgrade yourself and your weapon, some of the story revelations - it all feels really good and makes the game feel like you’re progressing. Like every other Metroidvania, though, there’s a ton of back tracking and the game starts to really drag. There is a central hub where some vendors meet, but you can quickly exhaust their resources close to the beginning of the game. Many of the more important vendors and services are spread far apart from each other, not marked on the map unless you are in that zone and you have met them before, and even then the fast travel system you can unlock drops you off sometimes 4 or 5 screens away and completely barred by enemies. You can bypass most of these small enemies, but it still means that you are traversing a lot of terrain to go to the bank, withdraw some stored currency, traveling to the special vendor to get a new badge, go to the bench to attach that badge, and then finally get back on the road to the main progression. It’s a chore and it never gets fun to do that. Thankfully doing these things feels rewarding - going the long way to augment my weapon significantly boosted my damage output and made earlier enemies feel trivial.
Healing is an issue too. I like the mechanic in theory. As you strike enemies, you fill a “soul meter” that gives you magic and healing options. You can either cast or perform special attacks or use it to heal yourself. The healing animation takes upwards of 4 seconds and when you are just encountering a boss or new enemy for the first time, that 4 seconds of waiting feels awfully unfair. Combine that with the fact that when you do die, you go through a Dark Souls like method of punishment. You lose all your currency, return to the last bench saved at (make sure to sit at the closest bench when you’re going into a new zone!) and your meter is impaired. Normally you can charge your health 3 full times but after dying you only have 2. You can remedy this: go to the place where you died, defeat the shadow form of yourself and your meter is restored.
I encountered a glaring issue with this concept early on. I was exploring a new zone and was trying to cross a wide ravine. I accomplished this by using the I-frames from hits to fake my way across. Once I was there, I died and was sent back to the checkpoint. No big deal, right? My shadow, complete with my soul meter impairment, was sitting back on the other side of that ravine in a pre-designed place as opposed to a more central area on that map. It meant that I had to continue forward with a broken meter, beat another area’s boss to unlock the real way to get across that earlier ravine.
This is the first major boss you fight and he's simple to figure out, but hits like a truck.
Some of the late game bosses are really tough too. Their animations are clear, but they happen so fast that that 4 second health delay means potentially eating another hit. You are better off going in once, learning the attack patterns, dying and then coming back and hoping to mitigate damage altogether. It’s a system that lends itself better to something like Salt and Sanctuary, Dark Souls, and something more similar to those series.
Here, though, you have what is a true Metroidvania whose combat is constantly at odds with the level design. There’s some great movement and terrain puzzles, but you are hounded at all times by the enemies here. It wants you to treat the game like Dark Souls, without understanding that the puzzles in Dark Souls WERE the combat and not the world itself.
This guy talks a lot. He's not the only one.
Even the story tries hard to be Dark Souls - some of the more interesting characters spend time wandering around the world just like you, clearly on their own quests, and you pick up with them in a variety of places. They give you some really obtuse dialogue, offer some advice, and then move on. The story is better served here when the game is as deliberate as possible. The cutscenes are gorgeously rendered and give a lot of information, followed then by another 2-3 hours of puzzling exchanges with other characters. I’d have rather they were just upfront. Dark Souls's story worked because it was strange from the outset. Hollow knight's back and forth between confusing and straight forward ends up making the whole thing really jarring. It’s a good story and I wanted to see the end, but the ancillary characters don’t mesh well with the overarching narrative here.
All in all I really like Hollow Knight. There’s a ton of good ideas here with gorgeous art direction and tight combat that is constantly at odds with itself. I almost think that there’s enough here for Team Cherry to really tighten up the whole experience and put an even better Hollow Knight 2 or use this as a blueprint for further IP’s. I would heartily recommend this game, but just be aware that if you choose to dive down into the well, you’re going to get frustrated much of the time.