Final verdict: S
Final playtime: 46 hours
So I’ve been on a big Metroidvania kick lately. I replayed Symphony of the Night, and did a full play through of Metroid Fusion (which I’d never completed before), Hollow Knight, and Samus Returns (having never played the original Gameboy Metroid II, which I am soon going to). I’m told I need to try Ori and the Blind Forest and Axiom Verge, too. I’ll get to ’em. But this shit here? This is about Hollow Knight, A.K.A. the only Metroidvania that matters anymore, because it’s the best one.
I think 2017 has been a pretty eventful year for gaming overall. We’ve had new Zelda, new Metroid, new Mario, new Splatoon, the Switch, Persona 5, Nioh, Sonic Mania, neat indie titles like Cuphead and Owlboy, unexpected things like Mario + Rabbids…. but out of all the big OG names and creative new IPs, there’s one game that truly stands out in my mind for being exceptionally good, and that’s Hollow Knight. And I mean truly, mind-fuckingly good on levels that would make even Cthulhu sport a full chub, unashamed and on display for all to see.
For the longest time, I’ve considered Super Metroid one of my all time favorite games. It’s in my top ten, but playing Hollow Knight forced me to redefine my entire fucking worldview. Up is black. East is anarcho-syndicalism. Cheese is still delicious, at least my brain held onto that objective fact. But other than the undeniably amazing taste of various kinds of cheese, it kinda felt like everything I’d loved for so long had been a lie this whole time. I mean I always knew that the likes of SotN and Super Metroid could be improved upon, don’t get it twisted. I could talk for days on SotN’s problems and how it’s still an excellent game regardless, but for somebody to have so expertly created the perfect Metroidvania and make it seem so natural, so effortless, so obvious… I guess I didn’t have faith that anybody was really good enough, but they did it. They really did it. Team Cherry, the props you get for this are numerous and well deserved.
Alright, time for the part where I explain myself.
Something I absolutely can’t overstate is how extraordinarily pleasant Hollow Knight is. Visually that should be obvious; it has a clear, consistent art style which blends beautiful simplicity of shapes with dark, muted colors and vast depth of detail in the environments. The narrative goes hand-in-hand with the appearance of the world, something that I think can be tricky to pull off well. The characters feel especially natural and organic in the world that Hollow Knight presents, down to the details in their physical forms, their backstories, and even their voice acting. The music is beautiful, often hauntingly sad, or soothingly calm. And the controls, holy shit. The movement is nothing short of stellar. Everything feels so precise, so sharp. Controlling jump arcs, height, distance, and so on, feels god damned perfect. Every time you hit the jump button, or make an adjustment mid jump, or perform some other action that impacts your trajectory or speed, you know exactly where and when you’re going to land, which is the way it should feel. Most dedicated platform games don’t have movement as precise as this. And every ability just adds to it, making movement in Hollow Knight an art in itself. The dashing, the wall jumping, etc, feel excellent. And on top of that is the combat. Jesus christ, this has better combat than games that pride themselves on being exclusively ABOUT combat! So yeah, Hollow Knight is the complete package. And like I said, it’s just straight up pleasant, in every possible way that a game can be.
I kinda covered everything there didn’t I? There ya go. Review complete. Alright fine I guess I’ll write longer paragraphs about things in a more categorical way. FINE. Fine.
Some people might be put off by the cutesie 2D art style that’s become pretty synonymous with indie games. 2D indie games are either retro 16 bit sprite style, or they’re the hand-drawn vectorized art style with matte paintings for backgrounds. And that’s basically what Hollow Knight uses, except it’s fucking gorgeous and is clearly made by extraordinarily talented people. So if you saw a screenshot and thought “ew it’s got a cartoony little guy” then I dunno, check out the screenshots I’ve included here and see for yourself. If you still don’t like the art style, I guess you just lack taste. Personally I love the dark, gloomy atmosphere and color scheme it uses, and it’s reinforced by the narrative throughout. It all gels really nicely, and nothing feels out of place.
And it isn’t just the look and the atmosphere that feels like a good fit. Every little bit of this game feels considered. All the way down to details in the menu, and the dialogue, the abilities you can unlock and the charms you can find to enhance those abilities. Everything has a purpose, and a reason for being in the game. In a narrative sense, every enemy feels like an evolutionary product of its environment. Mechanically speaking, every enemy serves a purpose and needs to be fought in a particular way. And there’s such a variety of enemies that they serve the purpose of always teaching you how to play better by getting used to different movement patterns and attacks. Bosses in particular can often be tricky enough that you’ll need to take a step back and rethink your approach, maybe equip different charms, and play differently. That’s what I mean when I say this game is “considered” – they thought a lot about how to have the game teach you its mechanics without needing overt tutorial messages, AND made sure the game felt natural while doing it.
But that isn’t all I mean by it being “considered.” The dialogue and lore is great – there’s an awful lot to be absorbed if you listen to the dialogue and thoroughly explore. In addition to that, there’s a wealth of detail in all the subtext and item descriptions and such. There’s a particular character who gives you a journal which describes all of the enemies in the game as and when you find and kill them, and you can learn a lot of little details about the world and its inhabitants by reading those.
I’m not done, though. The consideration runs deep. Even if you look at the world map you can tell that a great deal of effort has gone into making certain everything connects sensibly. The sad-but-safe little town of Dirtmouth is the first location you come to, and it’s located on top of the bulk of the game’s world map and serves as a sort of hub. It’s effectively Samus’s ship from Super Metroid – sat at the top of everything, as a little safe point to return to. Mechanically, that makes sense because it’s your little safe home, top center. But it makes sense from a narrative perspective, too, as the last little piece of civilization remaining that escaped the ruined underground you’ll soon be discovering and exploring.
Each area flows into the next – connected, but unique and distinct. From simple caves, to pink crystal mines, wintery wastelands, beautiful architecture in a city of endless rain, horribly oppressive darkness, lush green underground forests… I could go on, because the game does. Fuck, the game has NO RIGHT to be as long as it is. Every time you think you MUST be done, that this MUST be the last boss around the corner, that this MUST be the last area, you discover another. And then three more connected to that one. It just keeps going, and going. And they just put out DLC with MORE stuff! I don’t know how the FUCK they made this game and CONTINUE to add to it! These people are MADMEN and they have earned my loyalty FOREVER.
On the subject of these different areas though, hand-in-hand with their visual design goes the music and ambience. That’s fucking beautiful, too. How the fuck can they do this? Surely they have to fuck SOMETHING up. They can’t keep getting every little thing right ALL the fucking time, can they? Turns out they can, it’s all flawless. I defy you to find something really wrong with this game. Anyway, the sound design works wonders. Whether it’s music or just subtle sound effects, there’s always something reinforcing the atmosphere. The City of Tears in particular was somewhere I loved spending time in Hollow Knight. I was happy every time I found myself there. The aesthetic was stunning – gothic architecture, constant rain. The backdrop, and the sound of the rain reminds you that you’re not just in some open air city, but in a city inside a cave. The dim lights, the mournful music, the constant rain, the high-up rooms with tall windows you can stand in and just watch the rain fall outside. Fuck. It’s like this game came out of my best and most peaceful dreams. And the oppressively dark area I mentioned earlier? It also has some ominous, constant, terrible grinding sounds in the background that fill you with dread and remind you that all kinds of shit is going down around you and you can’t see it.
And there’s all these neat little touches of polish in the foreground and background, too. While the game is limited to being 2D, that didn’t stop them from really messing with your perspective and reminding you there’s more to the world than just that one horizontal plane.
As with any Metroidvania type game, there’s probably a ton of ways to play this in different orders, so I’m sure everybody has different experiences when it comes to finding certain areas before others. I’m interested to play again just to see how I do it next time, or if there’s anything I can skip completely or get to some late-game areas really early or something. I’m sure there are ways. I’ma have to look at the speedruns for this game and see what shortcuts they take. Even from a casual perspective though, this game can be played in a bunch of ways, and that’s really neat. Though I think you’d have to work fairly hard to break from the intended general flow of things, that doesn’t mean the game is linear. There are always several areas available to you even from the very beginning, and the order in which you tackle them can affect where you end up going next.
The combat, though, is where this game really knocks it out of the park. I already mentioned that the combat is better than a lot of games that pride themselves on having good combat – most Metroidvania style games are really simplistic in their combat – you shoot or you slash. But this incorporates a lot of movement mechanics into its combat – dashing, air dashing, wall jumping, down-slashing to bounce, and a few magical abilities that essentially amount to a hadoken, an invincible dash, etc. Then there are your charms which you can use to speed up attacks, or extend sword length, yadda yadda. But it never feels like too much, because it stays in a simple structure that feels normal. You slash your sword in four directions. Everything else just kinda augments that core concept. And because you’ll become so familiar with all of the movement options from simply traversing the game’s environments, you begin melding the movement and combat together naturally without even thinking or planning it.
I found it really effective to get in the air and downstrike the enemies, which bounces you back up in the air, but in so doing resets your mobility options, like dashes and double jumps. So you can get in the air and stay there if your timing and accuracy are on point. It was so satisfying that I even did it against enemies that specifically attack upwards to prevent you from doing it. I didn’t give a FUCK. It felt GOOD. There’s a colosseum in the game where you can partake in varying degrees of enemy gauntlets, and some will really test your familiarity with the combat and movement. The later ones are practically “the floor is lava” and you have to stay airborne the whole time using only enemies and walls, which makes you feel like a certified card-carrying badass.
The sheer number of bosses blew my fuckin’ mind, too. And they’re almost all entirely unique, with their own designs and patterns requiring you to adapt and learn each one. And the very last boss in the game, if you want to beat it without taking damage, REQUIRES you to make use of every single one of your movement options/abilities. I thought that was pretty cool, and I only wished there were even more bosses that would push you to the absolute limit and make you use your entire arsenal. But they’re challenging enough. Hopefully even more will get added in future DLC. We’ll see.
Anyway, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have ANY criticisms of this game. But the criticisms I do have are minor and aren’t really apparent when you’re just casually playing the game. My main point of criticism is simply that it takes too long to unlock all of the movement abilities, which by the end of the game become so familiar and essential that starting a whole new game without them feels awful, and they feel so far away because of how spread out they are. Obviously the first time you play this isn’t an issue, because you don’t know what you’re missing and once you’ve found it, it doesn’t matter. And I invested more than 40 hours in a single play through, so… I can’t really say this is even a small issue. It’s hardly an issue at all in the grand scheme of things.
I’ve heard some people criticize the game’s lack of diagonal surfaces. i.e., everything is horizontal or vertical. There are no slopes. But I don’t see why this would impact anything at all. I didn’t even notice during my play through, and now that it’s been pointed out, I don’t care.
So yeah. There is nothing wrong with this game, and it has an enormous amount of content, is thoroughly fun, and will provide nothing but sheer pleasure and joy, and on top of it all, it’s unfathomably cheap. I would have paid full retail price for this and still loved it, but it’s a fraction of that. Hell, you can even buy the game with the soundtrack included on Steam right now for less than a third of the price of a standard retail game. That’s fucking batshit crazy. If you don’t buy this game, you’re an idiot and an asshole. Team Cherry is absolutely a developer that deserves SO MUCH support and praise.
Final play time: 46 hours
Final verdict: S