This game even gave me a perfect, easy thumbnail. Can it get any more perfect?!
I’ve been working on this review for a while. Partly because this game is fucking hard! But mostly because I’ve had a strangely difficult time getting around to actually playing it! Which is odd, because this game is amazing!
There are a lot of Indie darlings out there these days. Back in the day, it was only Binding of Isaac, Bastion, and Super Meat Boy! Nowadays, if you were to ask someone what their favorite Indie game is, there is no way you’ll get the same answer! Stardew Valley, Rogue Legacy, FTL: Faster Than Light, Into the Breach, No Man’s Sky (people often forget that it was made by an Indie studio), the list goes on and on!
And then there’s the Metroidvania genre. This is where Indie games thrive! Cave Story, Axiom Verge, Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, the Ori games, there are dozens of these games! And a good number of them are phenomenal!
But in recent years, one game has risen up and taken the crown. One that is considered to be not only one of the best Metroidvania games, but one of the best Indie games ever made! And that game is the subject of today’s review: Hollow Knight!
This. Game. Fucking. ROCKS!! Holy fuck is it good! It looks good, it sounds amazing, and it plays phenomenally! This has quickly become one of my absolute favorite games of all time! It’s a damn near perfect game!
However, near doesn’t mean it is.
Story: A Tale Told Through the Environment
Remember how Dark Souls told its story through item descriptions, character dialogue, and the environment? Yeah, it’s that. Now crank it up to a thousand.
You play as the mysterious Knight, or Vessel. You enter the land of Hallownest, a dark and almost lifeless kingdom. The only thing you have are questions: what happened here? Who am I? And most importantly: why am I doing this? But as you explore, you’ll slowly piece that together.
This game has some phenomenal environmental storytelling! You can often find tons of mysterious stuff by exploring, such as massive bug carcasses and abandoned towns. All of them are fascinating; every time I found one, I gasped aloud and asked “What the hell is that?!” It’s amazing! It makes exploration rewarding, even if you don’t find any good items or abilities!
The various NPCs are also fantastic! Each one has their own little adventure going on! Sometimes, they interact with your own! But even if you don’t talk to them, they still do their own thing! It makes the world feel truly alive and lived in! Plus, some of them lead to extra gameplay rewards, like bonus items and even extra boss fights!
Bit of advice: keep an eye out for Zote. Trust me; you’ll want to see that one through to the end.
Unfortunately, not all of these stories are all that great. Personally, I hated the ending to the Grubfather questline; it takes a pointlessly dark turn at the very end for no reason, with no foreshadowing. Look, Team Cherry, your game is dark enough already! Why’d you have to ruin the best source of levity that you had?! What’s wrong with one happy ending?! Did you have to ruin the cutest sidequest in the game like that?!
Don’t collect all the grubs. And if you do, do not go back to the Grubfather after claiming your final reward. Trust me. Because Christ almighty, that ending sucks!
Which leads me to my next topic: the game’s ending. After the four major updates, there are now, count them, five endings to this game. The first one is pretty easy to get; the second requires a bit more work, but it’s doable. Endings three through five, however, require a stupid amount of work to get! You need to complete some of the hardest stuff in the game just to get them!
Question is: are they worth the effort? Well… kind of. They’re strangely confusing, but I guess they’re satisfying enough? I honestly don’t know. I haven’t looked into the lore enough to know what’s going on. These endings are more satisfying on a gameplay front than a writing one.
I will be mad about that Grubfather twist for years. Nothing can make me let it go.
Presentation: Deceptively Cute
If you showed someone a random screenshot of Hollow Knight without any explanation, they might say that it looks pretty cute! Some of the characters, especially the Grubs, are super cute! It has a cartoonish style, featuring some damn smooth animation that you’d see from a kid’s cartoon! Sure, it’s a bit dark! But this game must be a friendly, feel-good kind of experience!
But then you play it. The cute exterior falls away. Suddenly, you’re exposed to a world of darkness and horror.
And I. Fucking. LOVE IT!!
This game manages to create a brilliantly chilling atmosphere! Each area is completely unique, with their own color pallets, foliage, and structure (save for Greenpath and Queen’s Garden; those two should have just been one big area, given how similar they look). It’s simultaneously very colorful while being dark and oppressive. It doesn’t try to replicate the nostalgia eras of the NES or SNES; it carves its own identity and it does so wonderfully!
Then there’s the music! Oh my GOD this OST is phenomenal!! There is not a single weak track here! This has quickly become one of my absolute favorite video game soundtracks of all time!! From the epic orchestral pieces of the boss fights to the quiet piano tracks of the main menu, all of it is phenomenal!
Oh, and have I neglected to mention that the character/monster designs are perfect? Cause god fucking damn, dude! Every single character, from the Elder Bug in Dirtmouth to the horrifying spiders of Deepnest, all of these guys are incredibly memorable! I couldn’t forget them even if I tried!
And believe me. I have tried. Cause some of these monsters are actual nightmare fuel.
Gameplay: Oh cool I died again and I’ve thrown my controller across the room I guess that’s okay
Yeah, this game’s hard. Like, really hard. Especially the DLC (which is free, by the way, because we as a species don’t deserve Team Cherry), which is just dick-smashingly hard. Seriously, this shit makes old-school NES games look like fucking Kirby’s Epic Yarn!
At its core, this game is a very simple Metroidvania. You start out with very little health and mana, or Spirit in this case (we’ll get to that), and only a sword, or nail in this case, at your side. With your limited resources and abilities, you must explore the vast world set before you to collect stuff, get stronger, and fight bosses. Explore and repeat until you kill the final boss and the credits roll.
Or you rage quit. I cannot emphasize enough that this game is very hard and will make you cry.
The primary mechanic that sets this game apart from others is the Soul meter. This is essentially your mana pool. With it, you can cast damaging spells or heal yourself. Be warned, though: you do have to sit still to heal. Which may be difficult, considering how fast certain enemies and later boss fights can be.
You also have Charms. These various collectible upgrades give you extra abilities or boost your stats, such as movement speed or attack power. Some of these synergize for extra boosts, which makes experimenting a ton of fun! Be warned, though: you only have so many Charm Notches, meaning you can only equip so many at a time. You can earn new Notches, but even then, you’ll need to pick your favorites.
Combat itself is pretty intense! You’ll need to do a lot of jumping around and dashing to avoid damage, pogoing off of enemies with your nail with precise timing to survive and dish out attack simultaneously, and do all manner of crazy tactics to win the day. All of this combines to make each encounter incredibly hectic, challenging, and fun as hell!
Even if it fucking sucks when you lose and have to do the whole damn thing again!!
But as good as combat is, it doesn’t have shit on the exploration! See, normally in a Metroidvania, you’re on a pretty set path. You can explore a small amount of the map until you get an upgrade, then you’re allowed to explore a bit more, rinse and repeat until you’ve opened up the whole map. While Hollow Knight certainly does still do this, it offers up many more routes to explore early on, making it possible to reach areas before gaining certain power ups or even fighting bosses! Because of this structure, the game has a huge sense of replayability, as well as a great many opportunities for speedrunning!
Unfortunately, there’s one big mechanic that actually discourages exploration: the Shade. See, every time you day, you leave behind a shadow of yourself in/near the room in which you were killed. In order to get your cash and Soul, which is cut in half, back, you need to go kill it. This means you’ll be going back to the same room over and over to get your stuff back. And worse yet: sometimes, in boss rooms, you’ll need to activate the boss fight in order to reach it. Compare this now to, say, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where you can die and go explore another area to get stronger and come back later. It’s a hugely annoying mechanic that I genuinely hated more and more as the game went on.
The boss fights are also about as balanced as a one-sided see-saw. Some of them are so easy that you’ll wonder why they’re considered bosses. Others are so teeth-smashingly difficult that it makes you wonder why you even bother trying! Which ones fall on which side of the spectrum is (mostly) subjective, depending on what upgrades you have when you fight it. But some of them, especially the late-game ones, are completely absurd!
Seriously, don’t even try fighting Absolute Radiance. Getting there is painful enough as it is. Don’t make my mistake. Just watch it online and save yourself the therapy fees.
Still, despite its flaws, this is an incredibly fun and addictive game! It’s one of the most brutal and rewarding experiences I’ve ever played! It is a phenomenal experience and, in my bold opinion, the perfect Metroidvania!
And did I mention that it only costs $15?
This game is not for everyone. Like I’ve said roughly twelve times now, this game is hard as hell! If you aren’t up for a challenge, steer clear of this one! Cause it is not for the faint of heart!
But if you are up for a challenge? I can think of no game better! And better yet: you’ll get plenty of bang for your buck! This game could cost $60 and it would still be worth your cash! No recommendation I’ve ever made has ever been easier!
I cannot wait for Hollow Knight: Silksong! Among all the dozens of games (hopefully) coming out this year, that one is near the top of the list! If it’s even half as good as Hollow Knight, it’s set to be a masterpiece!
And if it’s even half as hard, I’m set to not finish it until 2022! Hooray!