Review — Hollow Knight

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed anything other than a movie. You may have noticed that I’ve been posting my weekly essays for my film class as the review posts the last several weeks, as they spoke more formally and about more specific topics than I usually address.

Well, that class is over, so let’s talk about a new game I’ve recently played through: Hollow Knight. It’s worth mentioning that I knew almost nothing about this game before I played it. All I had was: the art is cool and it was very well received by the community. I didn’t even know it was a metroidvania style game. (For those of you that don’t know, the metroidvania genre is basically characterized by a 2D platformer where you fight bosses and they give you new abilities, like dashing or wall climbing, that allow access to previously restricted areas.)

I don’t really play metroidvania games. They aren’t really my cup of tea for the most part, because the gameplay is often so linear. You explore one area, kill the boss, and you gain an item that allows you access to the next area and so on. Hollow Knight is very much a classic game in this genre. In fact it sits in a very strange part of my head for one very specific reason: it offers nothing new to the genre (outside the cool art and music), and yet gets too difficult for inexperienced players to enjoy to its full potential.

That’s the entire game in a nutshell, really. It’s wonderful, don’t get me wrong. I played it for 30 hours and I’ll still probably go back to it to challenge extra bosses I couldn’t beat the first time. It feels fluid and it does everything right, with a few exceptions. But it doesn’t enthrall me with a compelling story, impactful player choices, or, well, any reason to play beyond the challenge of difficult foes.

Alright, here are my three main issues with this game, and they’re admittedly pretty small. The first is that the compass—your position on the map— is treated as something special. The only way you can use the compass is by devoting a precious charm slot for it, and these charm slots are precious because you only get a few and they are the core method of varying your playstyle.

My second gripe is the strange NPC interactions. There are tons of NPC’s in this game, and most of them offer nothing more than a few strings of dialogue. There is no way to tell if they are actually important or if they’re just randomly placed throughout the game, and it’s frustrating to meet somebody that sounds important and never find out whether they are. This is mainly a Kickstarter issue. I think a lot of this comes from people being inserted in the game arbitrarily because they funded money during production.

The last thing is that it is impossible to tell where to progress. You can explore endlessly, but there’s no way to know which areas are more locked than others based on abilities you do or don’t have, and this lack of direction is frustrating for me personally. You have no health bars outside of your own, so you can’t even tell whether the monsters in X area are more powerful than the monsters in Y area. This genre also obviously has a lot of secret areas, so by nature of its construction, parts of the map might be restricted because you’re supposed to come back to them when you gain a new ability, but you can’t know if that part of the map is just a simple secret pile of money or the path to a new boss. Also, I’m a completionist, so I hate leaving things like this for later because I know I’ll miss some when I go back to look for secrets.

Bad stuff out of the way, this game is great. The soundtrack is awesome, the art style is distinctive and unique, and the gameplay mechanics are intuitive, yet challenging. Bosses get tough, which makes the feeling of finally beating them very rewarding. Also, you can brag to your friends when you say “I beat the Path of Pain“, which is an insanely difficult platforming challenge. (Which, I’m proud to say I did beat, though it probably took me an hour or so.)

So, is the game worth buying? Well, I’ve been thinking about my brothers’ $1/hr rule of justifying games. I’m thinking I should start being more strict with that, because $15 for 15 hours of entertainment doesn’t seem great to me, especially when online games provide hundreds of hours of entertainment for free*. Hollow Knight is $15, but it also comes with a bunch of free DLC (which is downloaded and automatically integrated into the game), so with my 30 hours, I’d say $15 is more than reasonable. As I said, it’s nothing remarkable or revolutionary, but it’s a very solid game with some good music. If you’ve never played a metroidvania and you are interested in the genre, Hollow Knight is a good one to start with.

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