By Jonathan Falu / April 5th, 2017
|Release Date||February 24, 2017|
Hollow Knight is a 2D-sidescroller made in the style of a metroidvania game. It was successfully funded on Kickstarter, earning over $43k, well over its goal of nearly $27k. Developed by Team Cherry, the game seeks to bring a metroidvania type of gameplay back. However, Dark Souls seems to be another inspiration, based on both how dark and depressing the atmosphere can be at times, and because of the brutal difficulty it carries, along with other gameplay elements I will get into. I’ll admit, that part made me extremely nervous getting into this game as I really do suck at hard games such as these. And yet I was also drawn to it the more I played. Let’s see if the journey was worth it!
The story doesn’t give you a whole lot of details, as you don’t even know what your main character is exactly, let alone what the world is. The overall setting is populated with sentient bugs that have their own civilization, with even some lore to it, hinting that this society lasted a while before things turned to hell. However, things have decayed over the years, with safe havens few in number, species dying out, and some bugs being corrupted by an orange substance known only as the infection. In addition to exploring this world, your goal is to find the source of the infection and stop it. Explaining more than this will give away a lot of spoilers, and honestly, you will not learn anything without talking to civilians or going further and further into the story. In fact, some story elements seem to rely on theories made by fans. I personally would have preferred a bit more meat to the story, and to know more about the characters.
That said, the environments and the enemies also help tell the story of some of these areas, like miners working the Crystal Peaks in search of riches, then turning insane after working for so long. Or citizens of the City of Tears growing insane from the greed, while the soldiers grow obsessed with defending the city from intruders, which include you. The Deepnest in particular is swarming with life, enemies that make you nervous with different noises. You can also see things moving in both the foreground and background, like spiders. Pretty much anyone with a bug phobia, aka me, will be nervous when traversing this nightmare. One minor thing I do like is the ability to destroy things such as rocks or poles that do not obstruct your pathway. It doesn’t really affect anything, but it’s satisfying doing a super dash from one area to another, and turning all of those objects into rubble.
The music is also fairly good as well, each track fitting a certain mood of the area. However, I found the lack of music in some cases to be the scariest parts of the game, as enemies can make certain noises, and hearing the familiar sounds of a particularly strong enemy so close by is pretty intense, especially when you don’t know where they are. The boss music is also fairly fast too, helpful in keeping up the intensity of the fight with the orchestrated music. The best news is that tracks are not repeated during certain battles, like with Hornet and the Mantis Lords. Here is one example from the latter bosses:
Depending on if you get the journal from a certain NPC, you can find out more about these enemies as well, though you also need to keep killing them. Fortunately, the NPCs do a good job of getting you invested in these areas, as some are on a journey of their own, while others change a bit over time. Examples include the Nailsmith and Grub Dad, who have surprising revelations should you complete their quests. You can even get one of three endings (four, but the other one is a gag ending) depending on what you do throughout your journey. Cutscenes are rare to see, though the animation for them is fairly good despite lacking much movement.
The art design is also surprisingly charming for a game that wants to try and keep the player tense. Some enemies don’t even look too threatening, or are downright cute, as some just pace back and forth or float around. There aren’t many that look too intimidating until certain moments of the game, when enemies will gain teeth, tendrils, and even become a bit warped thanks to the orange infection within the game. The innocent look of the game works well with its rather dark nature. Adding to this is how areas have some light colors at times, with the added backgrounds helping to give these levels more life to them. Taking the Grubs as an example, it’s a joy to see them bouncing up and down when you free them, although it is also heartbreaking to see them saddened when you leave the area, unable to save them with your current abilities.
One glaring flaw with the presentation would be the lighting in certain areas, especially when facing off against foes that can teleport. The colors blend together quite easily, harming my vision a bit and making the fight needlessly annoying. The game also includes a lot of backtracking, but some areas that need to be accessed cannot be reached through fast-travel until much later, when you unlock that ability. And even then, that fast-travel only works in certain sections that must be traversed. Another problem is when using the super dash or walking in certain areas like the Deepnest, where the images at certain points are not aligned properly. It’s not too distracting, but still a bit noticeable.
Your options, at first, are limited to only jumping and attacking what’s in front of you, along with the ability to heal yourself depending on how much soul you gather from striking foes. The game makes sure it’s not a broken ability though, as it does take a bit for it to trigger, and soul can be used up if you stop to dodge an attack. You are left wide open, so it is very important to dodge attacks. That said, the hit detection of this game is a strong point, as the sound and music cut out to help let you know just what is going on, which is handy when things get too chaotic. The damage frames however are fairly small, and when you can still get hit with contact damage, you can’t afford to get too sloppy.
Fortunately, as the game goes on, you will get more abilities that make traversing areas easier and help to make combat a bit easier as well. I say a bit as it is very easy to get too cocky, and find half of your health gone. There are a ton of things you must take advantage of as they become available, such as using your money to buy new charms and charm notches. These help in buffing your character or giving them new abilities, such as gaining soul when damaged, extending the range of your physical attack, healing faster, etc. Then there is upgrading the nail itself to make sure your enemies die faster. Finally, there are pieces of a mask or orb that help extend your health and soul meter respectively,. However, one annoying thing to buy are maps, along with icons to help identify where certain areas are. Maps are especially annoying because sometimes the bug NPC making the maps may not appear within the stage, leaving behind a calling card telling you to buy the map from the shop, and making you go all the way back to the first town to buy it if you don’t want to end up lost. You even need a certain charm just to find out where you are on the map.
Should you manage to die, you will lose all of your money, along with having your soul gauge damaged, meaning you cannot get as much soul for pulling off magic. Thus you have to find the dark soul, which floats around like a ghost, waiting for you to arrive before slowly moving in to try and kill you. The ghost is also sometimes placed outside of boss rooms if you died in there. Other times the game can be a bit unfair and put it right next to the boss, leaving another enemy to fight. This poltergeist at first is hardly threatening, but as you gain new moves and build up your health, it too will grow stronger. Should you die before defeating the specter, it follows the same rules as Dark Souls, as all the money previously gathered is gone for good. Depending on which stage you are on, this is very possible. For example, the Crystal Peaks has nearly indestructible enemies that crawl around and fire lasers. With not many chances to gain soul to heal, I died pretty quickly. That said, there is another way to gain back your soul by giving rancid eggs to a bug on the outskirts of the town after using a key to unlock his home, but you’ll still have to fight the specter afterwards.
A ton of the boss fights require good timing to not only dodge, but heal, if possible. Sometimes going on the offense is a good idea, if only to help build up your soul so you can use the extra time away from a foe to heal, or pull off more spells. Or maybe you just want to play it safe due to the chaos on screen. There are a few ways to approach each boss, but the game makes it clear that if you just rely on charms, you will not last long and die very easily. This is especially true against the optional Nightmare/upgraded versions of previous bosses that can be found later in the game with a certain item, and you need to kill at least one to get the good ending. Some bosses and enemies will even do twice as much damage, making dodging all the more important. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and find another boss to tackle while you try and find the right abilities that could help, like the shadow dash to go through enemies or a double-jump.
And even if you aren’t in a boss fight, the environment and other enemies hate you a lot as well. They also require some good timing to combat, as some have shields or a stance that can help counter attacks. Others can explode even after death. The variety of these enemies is greatly appreciated, and most were pretty effective in making me dread going through levels and being more cautious. There are also multiple ways to approach these foes as well, depending on your abilities. The only ones that did get on my nerves were the teleporting ones, which were thankfully not frequent.
Environments are filled with just as many hazards. Some can be too dark, requiring a certain item to traverse, while others can be filled with spikes and trap floors that can lead to even more spikes. Should you hit the spikes though, you will not instantly lose all of your health like in Mega Man. Rather, you’ll just be placed at a certain spot of land to try and jump again. Without those extra abilities, you are not going to make it very far. Though even with the abilities, you still need to think of new ideas. Some areas in particular required me to not only kick off a wall and do a dash over a platform of spikes, but also try and progress through the area by hitting armored bugs below to bounce off of them, which is very tricky due to the timing. One area in particular drove me insane due to that timing, and how hitting a spiked wall reset my progress all over again.
But there are still plenty of collectibles, such as more charms, health and soul upgrades, and these cute green grubs that are trapped in a bottle. Saving those can earn extra rewards once you make it back to their dad. There are also more sidequests too, like helping a grieving woman set down a flower onto a grave without getting damaged at all, which was about as painful as you expect it to be.
This game came close to being perfect for me, but because of problems such as annoying backtracking, along with how the story is told, I sadly can’t give it the highest score. But it did come pretty damn close, and I am looking forward to what Team Cherry can pull off in the future. You can pick up Hollow Knight on Steam for $14.99, and it is worth every single penny! I got about 28 hours worth of time, though a lot of it was thanks to deaths and traveling, with some players finding the average being around 20 hours of playtime. Since the developers met some stretch goals, there should be another playable character on the way with their own quests and abilities. Hollow Knight is anything but hollow, filled with a ton of content, and should be on your wishlist, if not on your Steam Library!
Review code provided by the developer.
Action Adventurehollow knightIndieKickstarterMetroidvaniateam cherry