“If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a minotaur.”
Heyo. Wakalapi, aka. Evergreen Sage Mage, here.
A bit about myself… I’m a metroidvaniac, as Well-Red calls it, going way back into the 80’s. I beat the original Metroid before I beat 3rd grade. My heart has also been burnt a deep searing charcoal black from playing and beating the entirety of the Soulsborne games. If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you will absolutely love Hollow Knight. If you’re nothing like me, you will still love it 😉 …because this game is insanely good.
It’s my pleasure to be here again at the Well-Red blog to bring you another review, this time on the absolutely gorgeous, hand-drawn, labyrinthine world called Hollow Knight. It’s been classified as a metroidvania, but really, it’s so much more than just an arbitrary category. It’s an experience chock-full of dark and mysterious lore, a painted world of subterranean exploration that will challenge any grizzled gaming veteran’s platforming skills. It picks up the torch of the games of yore and douses it with the fresh gasoline of new game mechanics, unique art, colorful characters and evocative storytelling. The incredible polish and love put into this game is apparent from the start screen and doesn’t let up. It won’t even let you leave either, as there are plenty of challenges and a lot of replayability left after your first run through. Ovid told that Daedalus, the mythological craftsman of the Labyrinth, could barely escape his own contraption due to it’s confounding design, …and I too am yet to escape this one myself. I must be a voluntary minotaur as I’m gearing up for a second bout, so I can get the special ending that I didn’t get my first time around.
How did I come to play this game? I’ve recently had an odd, first-world type of crisis of not knowing which game to buy. As I get higher in levels (currently level 36), I find that my tastes have gotten more specific and it has gotten harder and harder to find games that I can justify to myself to spend the time and money on. I have a small list of games on my Steam wishlist, but I just couldn’t choose which one to buy. Hollow Knight has been there for a while since I heard about it on the subreddit r/metroidvania. Anyhow, after getting a friendly pep-talk from our host Well-Red, I bit the bullet and grabbed Hollow Knight. (Note to young mages out there: leveling-up comes with greater spells, but also greater challenges)
After giving the game an honest play-through, I’m more than happy to say that it blew me away. What a fantastic gaming experience! I am now doing this review in hopes that you too, dear reader, will treat yourself (or someone else) to the opportunity of playing this game. Grabbing it will not only be fun for you, but by doing so you will also be supporting the devs (Team Cherry) on their colossal development effort. Seriously, at $14.99, the game is a steal and I can’t wait for whatever it is they decide to do next. That isn’t to say that the game doesn’t have any flaws, but they are almost endearing in their triviality compared to the overall joy of the whole experience.
Before I break down into the 8-bit review, I will to give you a little background on the game’s development and the dev team. Here we go!
Hollow Knight released in February 2017 and has been given a ton of praise, and deservedly so, but who are the people behind this phenomenon?
The development studio is called Team Cherry|Sweet Round Games and the core team consists of three super-talented Aussie fellows: Ari Gibson, William Pellen and David Kazi. According to their homepage, Ari comes from an animating background, and according to me, this has clearly lent itself stupendously in the art direction of the game. William has had tons of experience in game design and it shows in the complete fluency of level and world design. David is the technical director and comes from a project management background. Without this expertise, I can’t imagine a game even getting underway. Let’s also add Chris Larkin and Matthew Griffin to the list because they joined the team during development. Chris joined as the composer/sound designer/army of one and honestly, the first thing that stood out for me was the audio of this game. It’s poignant melody struck me dead-on straight after launching the game. And what great project doesn’t deserve a great PR man? Having done previous PR work for Stardew Valley and others, you know this guy knows his stuff. Magely hats off to these fellows.
Did I mention that this game was successfully Kickstarted? They launched a Kickstarter campaign in November 2014 that got fully funded in a month. Now, I’m not too familiar with how these work, but I know that the team had already made a ton of the game before launching the campaign and used this to buttress their funds as to be able to add more amazing content. Man, if only they had more money, we could have gotten all sorts of other crazy stuff. Looking into the updates section you can see just how much involvement of the community and special treatment to their funders that they gave out throughout their campaign. For example, you coulda gotten a game manual, a comic book, the OST, a digital map, statuettes and more! Some people even got their voices or themselves drawn as bug ghost characters in the game!
According to ‘The Team’ section of the kickstarter campaign tab, the team met at game jams, but really bonded over their mutual love of the game Zelda 2. Now, I tried quite hard to beat that darn game as a kid and it continually kicked my butt, and I didn’t have that hard of a time with the original Zelda either. It left a giant scar on my gaming experience, but it looks like William had some help from his dad on that one. I doubt this is the only classic game they have bonded over though because this game oozes Metroid, the original Metroid, …and that makes me more than overjoyed.
When I came to this early non-spoilery room on the right, I knew exactly where I was
And here, for another example, I knew I was going to die.
In literature, when a text draws on other texts, they call it ‘intertextuality’. For example, when a contemporary story has a character with the name of an ancient Greek god, like Persephone, it evokes in the learned reader of Greek mythology a deeper meaning. Persephone was taken by Hades, so perhaps the woman in the story might be captured by an unsavory villain. Perhaps that villain isn’t just a bad guy, but representative of a greater evil. You get the picture. Hollow Knight does this all over the place, but with other games, so that old mages like me can know exactly where we are going even though we’ve never even played the game. That’s what the two pairs of pictures above indicate.
As the library of games grow, I’m sure that we will see more and more of such gaming intertextuality, …inter-game-uality? Hmmm… that clearly does not roll off the tongue. Hollow Knight gives back to those who are true fans of the controversially named “Metroidvania” genre,… and beyond too. If I had to guess only three games that were the most influential on Hollow Knight’s design, just from playing this, and totally not looking up any interviews by the devs, I would guess that they are Metroid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and Dark Souls. Metroid for it’s level design, SOTN for it’s fighting and Dark Souls for its non-linear storytelling and punishing souls-retrieval system. Zelda 2 can take the back seat.
The 8-bit Review
Just a taste of some concept art
Just look at these screenshots. This game is beautiful. The art, theme and direction makes me use words like verisimilitude. It does not sway from its core themes, and consistently proved to me that quality was of top priority to this team. Traditional animation is something that I’m actually pretty big on. Being a kid who loved to draw and later considered doing animation, I have a keen appreciation of such style as this game has, that pretty much blows most indies out of the water. Many indie start-ups have to skimp on something and it sadly tends to be the art that suffers the axe. This game should be a testament to how to do indie right. Get someone who knows their stuff when it comes to art and animation.
There is a part of the game that, I’m not sure if it’s a nod to earlier animation work by Ari and the studio (Mechanical Apple) he co-leads, but that is strongly reminiscent of the animation in an earlier 2011 music video called “Sometimes the Stars” that they had done. The whole game seems to look in its direction, in fact, and I absolutely love this brooding, dark, loss of innocence tone, …as I said, I do have a charred black heart. Or perhaps it’s just the precariat in me talking. 😉
In case you were wondering how the game was done visually. Here’s a super cool gif of how they did the parallax in Unity 3D. This is definitely my favorite little gif from their press kit, where I’m taking most of these pictures and stuff from. BTW, parallax is a method they use to create the illusion of depth in 2D games by having layers in the back move slower and layers in the front move faster.
Chris Larkin has done an amazing job as far as sound design and composing. This kind of music is my jam for exploration. It is ambient, evocative, and reminiscent of Joe Hisaishi’s work, who we all know around here is famous for scoring some of the best animated films ever. I’m talking of course about Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and a zillion other things. It’s not too repetitive, nor is it in your face.
As I said earlier, I was having a hard time choosing the right game to put my money towards, but once I turned the game on and heard the first bars of the piano, I knew I had chosen correctly. If you want to hear more of what this composer has done outside of Hollow Knight, here’s his homepage. I suggest watching Peppercorn Babycorn Unicorn that he scored, as it’s also a cute animated short! You can’t go wrong with a title like that, right?
This is an action platforming game where your two main verbs are jumping and attacking, with your nail (sword). This is where I have to deduct three points because I’m super picky with my controls. I think that they could use a bit more SOTN in this area. The controls in SOTN, in my opinion, are pretty much a smooth buttery flawlessness. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but the issue with Hollow Knight’s controls seems to be for me that there isn’t any drag when you are moving or jumping. By drag I mean, if I jump in the air to the right and let go of the control stick, I should still be moving right with some momentum. In Hollow Knight, it’s just a bit off somehow and it bothers me. Without that drag it makes it a bit harder to control my swipes and platforming. But that is really my only complaint about the gameplay and is not game-breaking. But, it takes a bit of getting used to.
There is a mechanic in the game that is quite new and it’s actually quite well implemented. It’s called “Soul”. In the top left-hand corner of the screen is a circular jar with two eyes on it. As you hit foes it fills up. With soul you can do two different things: you can heal by pushing and holding the focus button, or you can use magic. It proves to be a tough choice when you are in a pinch and makes the game all the more challenging (and fun) to master.
The in-game currency is what looks like little grey bundles of eggs(?). You can spend them at various merchants for cool stuff, like charms that have all sorts of cool effects, map markers, upgrades and more. If you die, like in Dark Souls, you leave something behind that you can return to after you respawn at the save point (benches) and get your currency back. Unlike Dark Souls though, you have to beat up your own shadow instead of just touching where you died. It adds a bunch of stress to the game basically.
As for charms, I just tailored my charms to my play-style and didn’t really experiment much. There is some depth to this all and I love that, I also love that there isn’t any leveling up and giant stats sheets.
What makes metroidvanias so special is that they are known for their elaborate and sprawling level design in the form of a large maze that is filled with gates and locked doors. The micro of the game is being able to get to the right platforms, and handling baddies in each room, while the macro is being able to navigate a world that is designed purposely to confuse and disorient. Just wait till you get to Deepnest. It is one of my absolute favorite places in a metroidvania game now, because it challenged me to the top of my abilities at just the right time in the game to have developed them. I’m proud to say I didn’t die once in the entire area even though I was brought to one health countless times. When I got through it, I was tingling with triumph.
The secrets, the puzzles, the placement of baddies, the kinds of gates, and the connection between areas are superb. One of my few complaints of Bloodborne was that the areas stopped being as connected once you leave Yharnam. This seemed more like developer fatigue than anything else, but Team Cherry kept full quality level/area design till the absolute end. This is probably one of the most shocking parts of the game for me, aside from the gosh-darned electro-butterflies. Har har…
I admittedly prefer the clawing…
As for narrative, it is non-linear in many ways, and is mostly doled out in the form of “environmental storytelling”. The game doesn’t railroad you from cut-scenes to cut-scene; it makes the player puzzle together the story in bits and pieces. Through picking up objects, talking with NPCs and visiting different places, the player gathers pieces of lore that encourages them to fit it all together into a kind of semi-coherent story. As you create a model of the story, new items and dialogues may make you restructure it again. Often times there are enormous gaps in your knowledge and those you will have to fill in with conjecture. Depending on if you talk with certain people at certain times throughout the development of the game, you might have a different variety of plot-lines that may or may not be accessible. And then there are multiple endings and Easter eggs to discover as well. The plot is extremely vague and mysterious, and this is definitely taking after Dark Souls.
Now, I’m no stranger to the Souls series as I said, and perhaps that’s why the story didn’t really grab me that much. I feel at this time that I’m a bit over-saturated with, not really environmental storytelling, but with the vagueness of it all. A lot of games are getting “Soulsy”, but I’m gonna have to say it, I’m getting a bit tired of Souls-likes. Full transparency, I was not the biggest fan of the Dark Souls lore either. As opposed to getting my tin foil hat on and trying to plumb the depths of, and puzzle together, a rather unstable and nebulous story-world, I’d rather stay active and keep playing the game through to the end. If a game is more action-oriented I’d rather just keep that going. So, for those who love a good puzzle-mystery, you’re gonna love this aspect, but for me, I’m not about to go Hollow trying to figure it all out… again.
The game is pretty simple in its verbs, but I’ve heard that one of the biggest issues for other reviewers is that the map system is a bit too difficult for people who are newer to metroidvanias. Myself, I come from an era when there we no maps and you had to practically memorize the entire game-world in order to beat it. Still though, this game challenged my navigation abilities and I did get lost a few times with thousands of, I’ll just call them dollars, on the line. Unlike SOTN or Super Metroid, if you haven’t purchased a map, you aren’t actually making a map of an area as you explore. You have to find the map beetle before you can make any dent into the area’s prestine umbra. It’s an interesting twist that takes a little time to get used to, but overall I’m good with it.
The one thing I learned from getting lost is to look for pieces of paper lying around as they will lead you to our friendly cartographic beetle buddy. Once you get the hang of that, things become a cinch.
These days, controls can be a bit tough with a lot of buttons doing a lot of different things. By the time you near the end of the game you have most likely collected quite a lot of new abilities and powers, but I will say that the designer(s) did a great job of introducing a new ability or power so that you are not overwhelmed in any way. They are spread out enough so that you can master a certain ability before you acquire a new one, so by the time you are nearing the end you didn’t really notice that you had soooo many things you can do. But you do!
At the moment, my soul’s consistency is more like Swiss cheese than steel
I found this game to be challenging enough to make me worry a bit about whether or not I could get out of certain situations (particularly Deepnest) and I’m pretty okay at these kinds of games, mind you. And when I beat it, I was told that I only had a measly 75% of the content! This gets me riled up because I was the kind of person to over 200% SOTN, where I was doing all sorts of wacky thing to get the upside-down world map filled out. But, if that wasn’t enough, there’s Steel Soul mode. In this mode, when you die ONCE the entire game is over and you have to start again. This is pretty much insanity mode for me and I will not be going there for a long while. I’ve got a great deal more exploring to do in my next playthrough, thank you very much!
There are also a lot of bosses and they too are well-designed. They have their strengths and weakness and as soon as I began to think a boss (or just a bigger baddie) was unfair, I realized that there is always a kind of trick to them. The bosses are challenging, but are always fair in the end. If you can’t beat them now, too, you can come back after beefing up a little bit, or getting your charms in the right order for another go. I think because this game has SO much going for it, it is easy to forget about exactly how many aspects they did absolutely right. Bosses and baddies, check.
In the common case of Casul: I recommend taking a full dose of Hollow Knight
Still though, its not too hard for someone who likes action games, I would say. It really is designed in a way to be accessible and trains you at being an exemplary player of its mechanics. By the end you are pretty darn twitchy, and you should be proud of it!
With its new mechanics, absolutely stunning art and animation, its oddball theme (frickin’ beetles, yo!) its obscure plotline, original tunes AND its enormous cast of NPCs and baddies, this game stands on its own and gushes precious idiosyncrasy by the bucketful.
Some people evaluate uniqueness purely on the level of mechanics, but I don’t. It is really impossible to make a game that has completely new mechanics. So while I say that it draws heavily from other games, and even feel that it draws a bit too heavily on Dark Souls, it brings enough uniqueness to it that makes it feel like a completely new and original game. The mechanics that stand out as additions to great practices are its mapping system, the charms and their synergy, and the Soul system that I mentioned before. They even add onto level design with some new conventions of their own. That’s actually a pretty big feat for a genre that has been done so many times and for team who is doing their first big game.
This funky guy is easily my favorite NPC and I just had to put him somewhere!
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Hollow Knight has already made my year in gaming and it’s only May. It would be silly to give it a full ten because they have pushed the bar so far that now all I can see are greater horizons for this genre, and for this team. It did have that controls flaw, which might only be an old gamer’s gripe, I don’t know. Still, for the money, this has probably been one of the most solid game purchases I have made in some time. I will continue to play this game, and it even gets me a teensy bit curious about speedrunning. That’s how much I’d be willing to keep play going into it. I’m surely getting ahead of myself on that, but I could give this game at least 40 more hours and not feel the least bit bad. I’m now a fan of Team Cherry and absolutely cannot wait to see what they do next. Pick this game up if you want a game that is worth every penny!
Aggregate Score: 8.8