It takes a lot for a"Metroidvania" game to stand out these. Once an oddity and niche style of game design only utilized by a few masterpieces, the genre now overpopulates the indie scene with new releases, both enticing and uninspiring alike, seemingly every week. Such a barrage of games means only a few will ever get the attention they deserve and be remembered as pioneers of the booming genre for years to come.
Thankfully, Hollow Knight seems to have garnered that attention over the past summer.
Team Cherry's indie hit has been available on Steam since February and on the Nintendo Switch since June, and since those dates, I've rarely seen it leave the "Best Selling" lists of either platform. Hollow Knight's design capitalizes on the best aspects of multiple games and genres, Dark Souls and Metroid at the very least, and this well-deserved success shows that, in due time, the gaming community will sift through the crowded market to find the games that best demand their time.
Now, what exactly does Hollow Knight do to make it so special?
Unique presentation slapped on age-old mechanics…
Honestly, not all that much. Compared to the standards of the genre, Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Hollow Knight's Metroidvania exploration and character improvement elements aren't that original and do very little to separate it from the forebears of the genre.
Players control a nameless bug Knight lost in a hollowed out kingdom of insects. With no insights into his mind or motivation behind his actions, players dive into the depths of this lost kingdom, searching for a reason… something to fight for. Colorful characters provide a wealth of flavor to the aimless journey but nothing concrete to go by. Art direction hints at area changes but hardly enough to say if the player is sojourning in the right direction.
Eventually, a goal or a purpose finds its way into the game, tying up your hours of meandering into a nice little bow. Until that point though, Hollow Knight leaves players guessing as to which bugs can be trusted, which tribes are their true allies, and whether or not he's diving into the realm with good intentions.
No need for gimmicks
Perhaps the one thing that Hollow Knight does better than the rest of the genre is truly leaving the exploration and progression up to the player. The best Metroidvanias out there employ the use of an invisible string to guide players from area to area, and subtly inserting this string into a game without players noticing it stands as one reason these games stand the test of time. On the flip side, Hollow Knight uses no such string, resulting in a bit more aimless backtracking than necessary but a much more fulfilling sense of accomplishment when a new power-up or area is uncovered.
Beyond that, power-ups aren't that spectacular. Double-jumps, air-dashes, wall climbing, a few new combat techniques and their advanced, more powerful versions. Hollow Knight doesn't rely on gimmicky mechanics to set it apart, just good old-fashioned level design and combat set to pitch perfect controls.
Boss fights are the best, with Team Cherry creating a variety of encounters that harken back to the days of the NES action games and pattern memorization. No, players likely won't be able to force their way through a boss or beat it on the first try, but with practice, they'll begin to recognize animation cues and know exactly what the boss will be throwing next.
After several attempts, lots of practice, and finally landing that killing blow, there is no better feeling in gaming. We've been tackling boss fights since the days of Mega Man, and thirty years later, taking down an obstinate boss delivers the same rush in Hollow Knight.
Charms and Graphics
Not to say that Hollow Knight doesn't have a few tricks of its sleeves. Though hardly to the extent some Metroidvania gimmicks go to, Hollow Knight does provide an original element in the form of Charms. These permanent items provide a variety of ways to power-up the Knight for combat, ranging from basic improvements like extending the length of his melee weapon of choice, a Nail, and speeding up his ability to heal himself.
Likewise, a depth can be found here as well, equipping Charms that spawn bees to attack foes or allow him to emit gassy clouds that protect him from enemies while healing! With enough experimenting, players will uncover various builds for the Knight and can utilize this depth for the ideal build against each individual boss fight.
And, it goes without saying, that what Hollow Knight lacks in originality it more than makes up for in presentation. Dark Souls is the clear inspiration here. The art design, especially, gives Hollow Knight a boost with its attractive back drops and perfectly animated bosses and NPCs. Hollow Knight's ethereal music fits the somber mood of the game, providing a boost in atmosphere and isolation the game thrusts players into.
(It's worth pointing out that the Nintendo Switch version of the game suffers from slowdown and lag in certain areas of the game with the release of the latest DLC patch. Team Cherry has acknowledged that this exists, and they are looking for a way to fix it. In the meantime, alternative ways of fixing the game, such as simply turning the game or the entire Switch off, will undo the slowdown for a few hours before it fires up again. Temporary problem, but it's there if you buy the Switch version.)
In terms of story, the wayward NPCs don't provide much context to the Knight's quest, but like all the best indie games, and not to forget Dark Souls, each character encounter will stick in your mind as a reward rather than an element. Team Cherry's interesting cast of bugs and maggots turn up in the oddest of places, provide awkward lines and insight into the lost kingdom of insects, and will go about their merry way until the next time you encounter them… if you ever do.
One-time NPCs populate the lower halls as well, and seeking them out might not provide much in the way of gameplay or hints, but listening to their words and savoring the flavor is half the fun of the game.
I'm done, you guys!
However, unlike some, I wouldn't call Hollow Knight a perfect Metroidvania. Players will eventually hit a wall, whether it's in the form of an unbeatable boss or simply no idea of where to go next, and they're really going to want that invisible string. Accomplishment has no meaning if it is done by accident, and at times like these, the heavy feeling of slough starts to settle in, and immersion is lost to frustration and boredom.
And this is a personal taste, but I also feel like Hollow Knight overstays its welcome a bit. At 25 hours in, I can feel the end of the game is within reach, but I'm also at the point where I feel like I've dedicated far more time to it that I was expecting and that it should have wrapped up ten hours before. Progression for the Knight loses pace throughout the game and can't keep up with the extended periods of time where he remains stagnant, and backtracking through the different areas, which never become easier now matter how strong the character gets, pushes the repetition of Metroidvania level design a little too far.
Super Metroid is a classic not just because it's a perfectly designed game. It's also a classic because it can be wrapped up in under eight hours, never giving that repetition the chance to settle in. Hollow Knight comes across as a little bloated, unnecessarily long, and maybe a few areas too big. Twenty-five hours is a long time to spend in the hollowed kingdom, and while the final boss is within my reach, I'm not even close to finding all the Charms or uncovering all the secrets and NPCs.
I haven't bought the DLC yet!
I like a solid Metroidvania, but all the best know when it's time to close shop. Hollow Knight doesn't. Small gripe for an otherwise spot-on game.
One to be remembered
Hollow Knight is a testament to the everlasting enjoyment of the Metroidvania genre. Its spot on controls, exciting boss fights, and sense of progression pull those willing into a surreal, dark world loaded with secrets. Addiction and obsession start to settle in until every last one is found, a sign of the best that the genre has to offer.
However, Hollow Knight goes a step further in its statements, boldly showing that Metroidvania games don't need a gimmick to stand out in an overpopulated market or to be memorable for years to come. They don't need Guacamelee!'s world swapping mechanic or Rogue Legacy's randomized dungeons or LA-MULANA's obtuse puzzles. Proper presentation and perfect controls alone can elevate the basic core of the genre to new heights and set new standards.
This isn't a statement all games should try to make, though. Hollow Knight gets by on the basics, but it also captures the world around it, one where Dark Souls is no longer around to provide haunting worlds and aimless meandering, one where cartoony art direction is in fashion, and one where indie titles and classic design are more important than ever. If more games try to get by on the basics like Hollow Knight does, that repetition really starts to settle in and the meaning is lost.
Only one game a generation gets to pull an achievement like this off, and Hollow Knight got there first this time.
On its own, the game is a steal at $15, providing far more gameplay hours than most $60 games I purchase these days. If you've got a window before the fall rush of big hits, be sure to slip this game in there.
Just make sure it's a big window. Hollow Knight isn't a simple indie game that wraps itself up in a timely manner.
Disclaimer: We bought Hollow Knight for the Nintendo Switch with personal funds and played 25 hours of the single player campaign before writing this review.
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