Sunday, April 15, 2018

Hollow Knight Review

Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania developed by Team Cherry. It came out on PC, Mac, and Linux in 2017 and is coming out on Switch sometime in 2018. Aside from the Igavanias, this is the Metroidvaniaest Metroidvania I’ve ever played. It really felt like a mix of both Metroid and Castlevania in terms of environments, controls, and abilities.

I can't really say much about Hollow Knight’s story, because what is there is very vague. The game opens with a short cutscene showing our hero waking up, breaking free from some chains, and setting off on his adventure. We're not told what he's waking up from, why he was chained down, or what he's setting off to do. You just kind of start piecing the story together as you play the game. Maybe you can glean something from the way the NPCs talk or the state the environments are in. Nothing in the game really spells things out for you, though.

Have you ever picked up a rock and found a bunch of bugs underneath? That's kind of what the world of Hollow Knight is like, but with gothic architecture. Houses look like they were made from giant insect husks, cave walls are lined with fossilized snail shells, and city streets have ornate street lamps and wrought iron fences sitting on top of brick paved streets. Of course, everything has some kind of bug motif. The street lamps curl like snail shells, there’s bug gargoyles, and fences have scarab designs on them. That doesn't mean this world is all scary and gross, though. There's beautiful gardens, castles, and weird bubble covered areas. And even though all the characters are bugs, ghosts, and ghosts of bugs, they're drawn in a cute cartoon style.

Hollow Knight has a haunting soundtrack full of melancholy violin and piano music. It’s a bit depressing, and it fits the game perfectly. I think a lot of the sound effects are also on point. Every surface makes a different sound when you walk on it or hit it with your sword. You can hear ambient sounds, like wind, running water, and falling rain. It’s all very well done. I like the music and sound effects in Hollow Knight, but I found most of the voices incredibly annoying. A lot enemies sound like a guy making slurping and farting noises into a bucket, and NPCs sound like a guy trying to sound like an animal or some anthropomorphic bug. Some of these voices also loop over and over, even when you're not talking to these NPCs. I made sure not to leave the game idle close to these NPCs because of this.

The controls remind me a lot of Symphony of the Night and Aria of Sorrow. It has a very similar floaty feel to the jumps, your sword attacks are similar to Alucard’s and Soma Cruz’s, and your walk also has a sort of ghostly glide to it. The abilities you gain along the way are mostly the usual Metroidvania abilities. There's a double jump, a dash, a wall jump, and a Metroid Shinespark-like ability. You also learn some magic spells, which are mostly used for attacking, but can also be used to open paths. For a game this big, I felt like the abilities were too few and far between. A lot of times I was rewarded with a magic spell with very limited use, or some useless token after exploring the farthest areas of a zone or beating a boss. It’s like they made this gigantic map and didn't have anything to put in it.

Hollow Knight doesn't have XP or levels, and like with the abilities, health and attack power upgrades are also few and far between. I started the game with 5 masks (AKA hearts) and finished it with 7. Each mask is split up into 4 shards, like heart containers in Zelda, and there aren't a lot of them in the game. You can upgrade your sword attacks in a few ways, but the main one that actually improves the damage of your sword can only be done a few times. I only upgraded it twice. All this amounts to is a game that doesn’t feel very rewarding, but stays challenging throughout. You can't just outpower everything. The difference in power between your character at the start and the end of the game is not very big. The game gets easier as you learn how to fight each enemy, and not so much as you gain power.

Another way Hollow Knight allows you to upgrade and customize your character is through the Charm system. Charms are little emblems you find around the world and buy from NPCs, which give you different bonuses when you equip them. You only have a limited amount of notches to equip the Charms in, though, so you can't have all the powerful stuff on at once. There’s charms that makes your nail (sword) longer, poison enemies that hit you, and give you different ways to gain Soul, the MP of the game. Those are some of the better ones. There's also a bunch that give you very small bonuses, like more frames of invincibility when you get hit or less knockback when you attack with your sword. Stuff that they should probably just give you by default. Another Charm bonus they should have probably given you by default is the compass, which marks your position on the map. Yeah, you have to choose between things like less knockback or being able to tell where you are on the map. It's these weird little things this game does to increase the difficulty that really rub me the wrong way.

This is a hard game, and that’s fine, but I feel like half of that difficulty is because of bad design decisions. On one hand, the platforming, bosses, and enemies are challenging, and that gives you a feeling of accomplishment when you beat them. When you die, you have to return to where you died and kill your ghost to get your money back. That adds tension. Nobody tells you where to go next, forcing you to explore. That's the good kind of difficulty. Then, on the other hand, the game does a bunch of little annoying things to make your life miserable, like the dumb Charms I mentioned earlier. For example, this game doesn't automatically give you a map for each area. First you have to find the cartographer in each area, then you have to buy the map from him, then you have to buy a quill to fill in the maps (In town, not from him. That would be too easy.), and then the map doesn't even fill in where you’ve been until you sit at a bench again, which are the healing and checkpoint spots. You also have to pay to set up some benches, and you have to pay to open up fast travel points, too. The game is full of this kind of stuff. It feels like unimaginative padding. Like they couldn't come up with anything cool for you to buy, so they made you buy all this little stuff you get for free in other Metroidvanias.

I want to love this game, but I feel like it wants to fight me every step of the way. Hollow Knight is a good looking game with great controls and challenging bosses and platforming, but it has too much fluff. The map is too big for the amount of useful stuff in it. The balance of things you buy and things you find is completely out of whack. Exploration doesn't feel rewarding when all you find is a Wanderer's Journal that you can't even read. Everything is a struggle. It makes little things that are default in other games double edged swords or things you have to buy or min max. I feel like less would have been more here.