A review of the Hollow Knight

2022-02-25

Let’s go, a new blog post on a blog that nobody reads since who cares about a single post per year! Anyways, this time I have decided to write a review on the highly regarded Hollow Knight game. Why? Let’s just say I was convinced to play this, got some opinions about this game that others disagreed with, and now I wanted to collect my thoughts about this game in a coherent manner.

Hollow Knight is a pretty standard metroidvania game - you explore various locations, you unlock abilities that let you go into more locations, you get some combat-oriented upgrades… It is a formula that the developers did not innovate upon - and honestly, why would they? It is a well tested formula, the “only” thing you need is to execute it well. Did Team Cherry manage to do so? Well… it’s complicated, and to explain why, let me start from the beginning.

You start in a simple, tutorial-like area, which is pretty much linear - which is to be expected at such early moments of the game. And you will almost immediately see that a lot of effort was put into this game from how good the movement feels. Even though you only have basic walk, jump, and melee attack, you can feel how well the player character controls, how much work and effort was put into making the controls feel good and precise - a must have for any platformer game.

But then this is counterbalanced in a negative way by some weird artistic decisions. Don’t get me wrong - the game looks beautiful, but when a nearly indistinguishable stalactite falls on you, it isn’t a good feeling. It is a plain cheap shot, and no, having barely visible particle effects as the caution won’t make it fair. And it isn’t just a single trap like that - there are several places designed to make such cheap shots at you.

Continuing onwards, you will definitely take that point of damage. This leads the game to introduce the healing mechanic to you. You gather soul by hitting the enemies, then you can exchange it for health - and the way you do so is pretty much genius. You have to hold still on the ground, then commit to the heal by holding the spell button. If you decide to abort the heal you lose the soul you’ve spent up to this point. This leads to heals in combat being risky, but possible - while out of combat healing is easy unless you take too many hits.

As you progress through the area, you will finally reach the point where you will need to make a leap of faith - a jump into a large pit where you have no way to know what’s on the bottom. It is only signified by the fact that there is no other way to progress - and the sole reason for that is to lock you out from that tutorial area until further notice. I firmly believe that this is completely unnecessary, even for narrative reasons - especially that I can’t think of any that would apply here.

After you make the jump, you reach the almost empty town of Dirtmouth, with only one NPC. You are introduced to benches - the savepoints of this game. Having nothing else to do, you continue onward into the first actual area of the game - Forgotten Crossroads. Here you finally have a chance to actually explore. If you have played any other metroidvania in your life you may check the map… Then you realize you don’t have a map. The devs decided to be extremely annoying with the map system of this game - to have access to the map you have to find an NPC named Cornifer in the area, following the cryptic hints on where he is - namely the trail of papers and the sound of his humming. You can buy from him an incomplete map of the area. To be able to fill the map yourself, you need to also get an item from the newly opened shop in Dirtmouth, and buy a quill. Additionally, if you want to see your location on the map, you have to wear a charm for this, also bought from the same shop, which is a problem since you have limited amount of slots for your charms - and you would rather use something that has an actual use. And well, to make things even more painful, you only update the map after you rest at the bench. I really wonder why the devs decided on such maddening implementation of the map system. I personally can’t think of any legitimate reason for doing so.

Coming back to the topic of charms, there are quite a lot of them, and you can equip only a few. The idea is to force you to decide what you want to actually use, but the execution of this idea isn’t exactly the best. The effectiveness of various charms is far from equal, with power levels scaling from doing almost nothing to being absurdly strong. After a certain point of the game you will have most of your charm slots constantly filled with the same three charms that overshadow everything else. It feels like a bit of a wasted potential here - it would be more fun if more charm combos were viable or if you were encouraged to actually adjust your build for certain challenges.

Now, where the game shines the brightest is during the bossfights. Every boss in this game is designed to force you to understand their patterns, to force you to improve - and almost every single one of them is extremely fun and interesting, with me finding only one exception during the course of my play. You will usually have to die a few times before actually understanding how to beat the boss, but for most of them you can easily feel the progress you make. Each victory attained this way is extremely satisfying. It would be nice though if the save points were closer to some of the bosses - a long trek from the nearest bench to the bossfight quickly gets frustrating as hell.

The plot of the game is presented sparsely, and honestly by itself is really simple and can be explained in a few sentences - it is just presented in an intentionally confusing manner. I have mixed feelings about this approach. I love small tidbits giving me extra info, but here I felt like these optional tidbits are required for understanding the plotline of the game. I am not even sure whether or not I could have understood the plot properly through just a casual playthrough, since I’ve used the wiki to spoil some or the more cryptic stuff for me. After you piece together all the lore though, you will see that a lot of effort was put into creating a story that makes sense. You are presented with many, many worldbuilding elements, and the actual plotline of the game reaches chronologically way before the moment at which you start the game.

The progression in this game consists mostly of typical metroidvania upgrades, but the ordering of those is pretty unusual in one regard - the double jump ability is one of the last abilities you get, unlike one of the first like in many others - including the classics like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. You also get some numerical upgrades, like higher damage, or extra health or soul. Most of these progression abilities are expected to be required, but sequence breaks are very much possible and are handled well by the game.

So you progress through the game, ultimately getting all the necessary upgrades and macguffins and defeating the final boss. Your completion percentage will likely be below 100%, and you can definitely guess that there is more than just a single ending. It’s time for the postgame content. And well, it has some good elements, but it also has some absolute pain and tedium. Let’s start with the good parts - there are some definite challenges hidden within the game, like extra superbosses or a hidden difficult platforming challenge - both of which are extremely satisfying to defeat, though are difficult enough to be out of reach for some people. There is also a decent boss rush mode hidden within the game, that even houses some additional bossfights. The issue is that accessing most of these exciting stuff force you to play like a total completionist. If you like collectathons you will probably be fine with this, but I personally suffer when I have to seek multiple almost meaningless things just to unlock the rest of the game. Some of this stuff is hidden so well that you essentially won’t find it without using the wiki or methodically hitting every pixel of a wall. Combine this with the extremely flawed map system, and the result is that something that would normally take just a few hours to unlock requires tens if not hundreds of hours, provided one wants to avoid any spoilers. You have to work instead of enjoy the game to reach the good parts of postgame.

I have so many mixed feelings about this game. I enjoyed the game through a good part of the playthrough, but it also frustrated me at many points with unnecessary annoyances or lack of clarity. It is visibly a product created with passion and love, but it also has many elements that are antithesis to good game design. The atmosphere and lore of the game are great, and yet it will only make you more confused on what is happening unless you take your time to piece together what you see. All of these make it difficult for me to rate the game with a single number - there are parts of the game that I would rate 9/10, and there are parts that I would rate 2/10 at best. I feel like this game has more good than bad in it, though - and I have actually beaten the game instead of ditching it halfway through as I have already done with many.

Rating: 7/10