Rating : 8/10
When you start digging a hole in the garden, you don’t really expect much to come of it. Maybe a few beetles here and there, maybe you hit a stone and have to call it quits; but you keep going, and eventually you start discovering things you weren’t expecting, like that long-lost ring or a guinea pig corpse… Not really sure where I was going with that, I’ve been doing some gardening.
Hollow Knight is so much deeper than I was anticipating from such a small team, and although I haven’t quite finished it yet, I feel that waiting until I hit the final credits will push the review much further back than it already is. The immediate and most obvious comparison I could make is to Salt and Sanctuary – although there are most certainly some Souls elements here, the game manages to look and feel like a very unique, very adeptly executed metroidvania title. The player takes control of… a kind of ghost-looking thing in an insectile and relatively abstract world. I’m not sure it’s ever indicated that you are anything more than a husk of a bug, and I’ve thrown the idea around in my head that I may not actually be playing as a protagonist here. I have no clue what’s going on a lot of the time, but the more I progress, the more I learn (through inference, mind you) and the deeper I want to delve into this labyrinth of rock and oh so squishy adversaries.
Gameplay is relatively standard as metroidvania-types go; the 2D platforming is invitingly basic initially, with each defeated boss unlocking a new move or mechanic that makes further exploration possible and backtracking laughable. Difficulty here is pulled both from combat and platforming obstacles that can make progression ridiculously difficult without proper thought. One mechanic I particularly enjoyed was the implementation of the soul meter. Every attack landed on an enemy drains a portion of soul from them; this resource is used to heal in the main, but can also be used to power spells and special abilities. I’m pleased to say that, although it might sound a little overpowered, Hollow Knight manages to make the healing process a little more complicated. Sure, it’s great for exploration, but during bosses, when the rooms are small and attacks arena wide, winding up that heal can cost more than it earns if timed improperly. Likewise, if you’re struggling to make it through a maze of needles and acid and there are no enemies around to drain, you’d better start those deep breathing exercises and execute that gauntlet like your face is made of glass.
You died? Well that’s alright – it just means you’ll have to undergo the same procedure as in every game nowadays and make it back to your ghost. Defeat it, and you’ll earn back the top layer of your soul meter and your money. Aye, money, and currency in this world isn’t quite as ubiquitous as souls or salt. If you’ve been saving up for the quest item you desperately need and you fail to reach your grave before it claims you again, you’ll lose it all. It’s fairly standard stuff, but losing everything in this game is so much more crippling than it is in others of its ilk. This is definitely, I feel, a flaw in balancing that can make hitting a wall feel even more like a good place to call it the end and request a refund.
Visually, the game is pretty stunning. The 2D artwork is bursting with character and energy, and NPCs are fantastically characterised through their visual and audio design. I was especially impressed by the animation quality; although there is no dodge to begin with, pressing in a direction causes the protagonist to initiate what looks to be a little dash that highlights his vulnerability in this world, but also his skill as a fighter and explorer. Animations for attacks and other powers developed over the course of a playthrough are similarly fluid and effectively demonstrate the finesse required not only for the character to survive the journey within the caverns, but for the player to navigate through them.
Hollow Knight’s soundtrack is admittedly forgettable, though it manages to pull of a certain tranquility that perfectly matches the atmosphere that the minimalistic narrative requires. The game was also delightfully good at indicating when a boss monster was right around the corner in the main – the times when it wasn’t were similarly skilfully executed in the way they defied expectation, and usually ended up with me wandering into fights I was nowhere near mentally prepared for.
I only ever found two issues in the game – one boss, for instance, I found I could easily cheese by hiding underneath the arena every time I needed to heal. The second problem, was pretty pervasive, however; for whatever reason, my laptop refused to recognise that I was busy while in game, and so every now and then (usually when I needed it the least) my screensaver would minimise the window and kill me. Of course, this is nothing game breaking, but I struggled to properly become immersed in the world when every five minutes I was swiping the trackpad for fear of dying unfairly yet again.
Hollow Knight is a well oiled machine with great attention to detail, solid mechanics and a quality of design that wouldn’t be lacking in a higher-profile title of this genre. The world is fleshed out and intriguing, sparking imagination and inspiring new wonder at the existence of tiny and usually horrible minibeasts. The game efficiently claims elements from better known titles with one hand while warping and adapting them into something new and unique with the other. Sure, it will never be as impactful on the medium as those games, but for what it is, Hollow Knight really is special.
A unique, technically impressive and mechanically sound addition to the metroidvania subgenre. Hollow Knight is a great challenge, not lacking in any of the quality expected of similar, yet higher profile titles.
Owner of strange Dr Moreau-esque pets, writer of videogames.