Playing Time: 38 hours
Well, I’ve been mentioning playing this off and on for a while now, so it’s high time that I finally finished it, right? Hollow Knight was one of the hot indie titles from this year, sporting a combination of Metroid and Dark Souls gameplay with a distinctive art style and a story about a kingdom of bugs. It all came together quite nicely, all told, though it wasn’t without some poor design decisions and a major case of overstaying its welcome.
Let’s start with the gameplay. People like to classify this game as a Metroidvania. I would put forth that those people are liars. At its core, Hollow Knight is a reskin of Metroid and Metroid alone, because the additions that Castlevania made to the Metroid formula (gaining XP/levels, being able to equip various weapons/armors/etc. with effects beyond being straight upgrades of the previous versions, and other such RPG elements) are absent here. The closest that Hollow Knight comes to any of that would be being able to equip various charms, which feels more like an extension of Super Metroid’s option to toggle upgrades on or off than an equipment system comparable to what Castlevania had. This isn’t inherently bad by any means, just a point of clarification to set expectations.
That said, Hollow Knight’s basic gameplay is pretty much what that implies. Swing your sword, jump around, use a rechargeable resource to shoot some special projectiles or concentrate for healing, and over the course of the game, find upgrades to unlock additional stuff like dashing, wall-/double-jumps, charged attacks, sword upgrades, shine spark, and so forth. All the while, explore a mysterious land full of various bugs/blobs, search for hidden items, and use the various mobility upgrades to open up new routes between areas to find even more bugs/blobs and hidden items until you beat the final boss. Along the way, there are random benches which you can rest on to serve as checkpoints, stag stations that offer fast travel between areas, and you can also eventually get an upgrade to set a beacon that you can teleport back to for a nominal cost. In general, the controls are spot on in terms of mobility, and it’s usually not an issue to get around however you want (as long as you’ve got the abilities to go through whatever obstacles you’re facing).
It’s not all sunshine and lollipops, though. There are two big areas where the gameplay deviated from Metroid, both of which hurt my enjoyment of the game.
First, the map. Given how large and labyrinthine the game world is, having a good map system is pretty critical to a good experience. Hollow Knight does some things well with this, in terms of having plenty of automatic markers (which update retroactively as you unlock further types of markers) and also showing some simple representations of major landmarks to help with coordinating between the map display and the actual game world. Unfortunately, it also makes two awful design decisions. First, for each area that you go to, you have to find an NPC to sell you a map (for a nominal fee) so that you can actually see it. There are some indicators when you’re near him (in the form of little paper scraps and a distinctive tune that he hums), and he’s usually on a fairly direct route from the main beginning point for the zone, but it’s also very possible to miss him until you’ve pretty much explored certain areas fully, especially as you go further along and have increasing chances of accessing an area from more than one starting point or of taking multiple paths through an area. In particular, I went through most of Fog Canyon, Royal Waterways, and Kingdom’s Edge without a map because I just didn’t happen to go along the route that the developers expected.
Making this even worse is that the map doesn’t update in real time, either. Instead, it just gets updated when you’re at a bench (either from resting, reloading, or respawning after death), so even when you have a map, you’ll still be more or less going blind through the area for your first pass anyway. I really can’t see any justification for this, aside from just annoying the player.
The second issue is with the addition of knockback to your character whenever you contact something with your sword, be it an enemy, spikes (but not thorns, which is basically a miniature Kaizo Trap the first time that you try it), assorted background chaff like light bulbs or signs, or even just walls. Now, this does have some fun applications, namely the ability to bounce off of enemies/spikes by attacking downward while jumping, which gives you some nice extra mobility (particular since it refreshes your airdash and double-jump counters) and opens up options for getting at areas before you “should” by either riding on invincible enemies or manipulating flying enemies into locations where you can bounce off of them to reach otherwise inaccessible spots. There are also plenty of tougher enemies, including a fair number of bosses, where the best method I found to fight them was to keep dancing on their head as much as possible (this is especially useful in some fights in the colosseum when the ground is covered in spikes).
The problem with this is that it also applies when you’re attacking horizontally, whether on the ground or in midair. Early on, this isn’t a big deal, but as you get to tougher areas and/or harder fights, precision positioning becomes very important to avoid taking damage, and the fact that you need to account for pushing yourself around every time you attack is a major annoyance. Now, yes, you can counteract it to some degree by taking a little step forward after every attack or negate it entirely by equipping a certain charm, but it really serves no purpose beyond being a nuisance, and that’s never a good design element. The game would’ve been much better off if it just didn’t have that knockback, because it doesn’t add difficulty or fun, just irritation.
There’s one more point that irked me about the gameplay, though it’s a minor thing. If you kill a boss and then die during its death animation (from a lingering attack, falling into spikes, etc.), you’ll have to fight that boss again after you respawn. It’s not something that’d even be a risk in most boss fights, and it only happened to me once, but I was pretty fucking pissed off that I had to beat Lost Kin again just because I couldn’t see that an add had spawned in right before his death animation spewed orange shit all over the screen. However, it’s a fair point that I shouldn’t have let my health get low enough to die in one more hit, so I don’t hold this against the game as much as I do the previous points.
So, I’ve talked a lot about the Metroid elements of this game, but I did mention that it borrowed stuff from Dark Souls as well.
For one thing, the game is autosaving constantly over a single save slot, so you don’t need to worry (much) about losing progress if your power goes out or if you need to quit out at a moment’s notice. Needless to say, this is a good thing.
Secondly, when you die, you respawn with no money and a slight penalty to your maximum magic gauge, and you have to go back to somewhere near where you’d died and win a simple fight a dark spirit version of yourself (the embodiment of your regrets, in the game’s presentation) in order to regain your money and magic meter capacity. For the most part, this isn't really a big deal, and in the rare event of leaving your regrets in a truly awful location, you can pay an NPC in the town to recover it for you at the cost of an item that serves no purpose aside from paying that NPC.
Thirdly and most noticeably, the game does the thing where it expects the player to piece together the story from little snippets of NPC conversations or descriptions of stuff (mostly the bestiary, in this case, rather than item descriptions). This falls into the same downfall that most Souls games do, where the story is so hidden that it just doesn’t feel like it’s worth the effort to piece it together. That’s not a huge issue (I mean, Super Metroid and Metroid Zero Mission didn’t really have stories, and they were still very good games), though it does seem like a waste to undermine the story like that when it seems like the developers did put some actual effort into it.
Since the story is unimportant, I’ll also spoil that there’s a fourth commonality with Dark Souls, which is that the whole plot is basically a recurring cycle. I’m just so sick of that theme, especially when it feels so unnecessary.
Lastly, like with the Souls games, there are lots of NPCs who have their own little stories going on as you make progress. I couldn’t care less about any of them aside from Zote the Mighty, and that’s just because he’s a comic relief character who manages to be legitimately funny.
The art direction in this game is pretty great. Similar to Darkest Dungeon, it’s got a wonderful sense of style that it sticks within and makes work. At first, it seems like everything’s going to be in a blue-filtered grey scale, but as the game goes on, it starts showing lush greens, vibrant oranges, deep purples, ominous greys, shimmering pinks, and just an overall well-rounded and well-developed array of colors that makes it a feast for the eyes.
The music isn't quite as strong, but it's still pretty solid overall. It's generally subdued enough to do little more than adding some ambient feel, though a few of the boss themes are marginally more catchy. Still, even at its best, nothing about it stuck in my head for any length of time, so it's not exactly good. It's just good enough, but given that music is a very difficult thing to do well, that's about the most that I'd expect from any indie game (unless it was something designed around music, like Crypt of the Necrodancer).
One thing that has to be mentioned is that Hollow Knight is actually a long game for its genre. I'd expected to finish it in about 20 hours, judging from the various "speed run" achievements needing times of 5-10 hours, but it just kept going on, and on, and on. It was a pleasant surprise to be getting so much more content than I'd expected at first, but after about 25-30 hours, I started getting sick of it, which might coincide somewhat with my mounting irritation about the knockback on horizontal attacks. By about the 35 hour mark, I decided to stop trying to do any more optional stuff and to just try to do what I needed to finish it. I want to be open that I didn't take the time to do every last thing, so my experience was objectively incomplete, but I still ended up with 81% completion, including getting the achievment for finding all of the magic gauge capacity upgrades, so I feel like I did enough to have an informed opinion on the game (also, I think I usually got about 80-85% completion in Metroid/Metroidvania games anyway, so this is par for the course with my playing of the genre; only very special ones like Symphony of the Night compelled me to go for 100% completion).
At some point while I was playing it, the developers released a free content expansion called The Grimm Troupe. I don't know if I never found that content or if it was just integrated so seamlessly with the base game that I didn't notice the difference, but whatever the case may be, I don't have anything specific to say about it. I suppose that makes this a rather pointless paragraph. Too bad.
Speaking of optional content, I should also comment on the difficulty. For the main game, it's about in line with what would be expected from classic Metroid games, though it might actually be a bit easier than that since I played through so much of the game without having found the shop that sells a lot of expansion slots for equipping more charms nor having found the NPC who can upgrade your sword. Regardless of that, though, you can get through most of it by getting the hang of dancing on fools' heads and healing up between fights. However, between the colosseum and the optional dream world bonus boss fights, there is a good amount of legitimately challenging stuff, too, and unless I missed some really useful hidden upgrades, there are also a handful of secrets that require some creative thinking and/or very tight platforming to reach even after you're figured out that there's something there. Thus, even though you're never required to do anything harder than cranium can-can, there are some hard things to be done if you choose to, so I'll offer it my mark of approval on giving the player a meaningful sense of accomplishment.
Ultimately, Hollow Knight was a very good game. It fell short of being great because of some seriously flawed design choices and too much length for the amount of enjoyable content that it had, but considering the general decline of single-player games as the video game industry aims towards increasing its market, you'd be pressed to find a better value for something released in 2017 (aside from Persona 5), especially if you're a fan of the Metroid genre. Recommended.
Playing Time: 38 hours