Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Hollow Knight (NSW, PS4, XB1, PC) Review

Let's continue with our themed month of game reviews with some "Holloween" fun. It's for an older game, but one that's worth reviewing all the same. It's Team Cherry's remarkable Hollow Knight.

A truly "buggy"--and amazing--Metroidvania

I originally started Hollow Knight last October with my intention of playing through the game's mysterious and sometimes downright disturbing world in time for Halloween. That obviously didn't happen in 2019, but this year, as evident by this review, it finally has come to fruition. The last time I tried to play through Hollow Knight, I remember getting my butt handed to me so many times while getting so incredibly lost that I dropped the game after about an hour-and-a-half of play time. 

However, this time around the game clicked for me. Yes, the game still handed my butt to me on many occasions, but I persisted. With every death was a new lesson and a new motivation to get better--to better learn a boss's attacks, to better dodge and evade when necessary, and to better learn to attack when an opening finally presented itself instead of haphazardly thrusting my weapon around like it was a maraca. 

Hollow Knight throws you into the underground world of Hollownest, home to mysteries and dangers alike. The gigantic, interconnected expanses of Hollownest features an abundance of locations with an even greater abundance of secrets within them. Big, bad bugs of all types seek nothing but to stop our hero from his quest, and starting off, you have nothing but your nail and little else. As you explore the expanses of Hollownest, you'll come across a wealth of helpful items, abilities, and goodies that will not only expand your progression capabilities in Hollownest, but also increase your chances of survival. 

The latter is especially important because Hollow Knight is one seriously challenging game. Many deaths were had simply exploring the dark and dank corridors and paths within Hollownest, much more battling the bosses that can certainly take you out in short order. When death does occur and the life gets taken from your character's body (which it most definitely will), your current supply of currency and a portion of your Focus meter disappear with it. If you manage to reach the area of Hollownest where you perished, you'll find a dark specter that you must defeat to get your dropped goods back. Die before that process happens, and your goods are gone for... well, good!

Each boss presents players with devious patterns to learn, but never is the game ever really unfair.

Fortunately, while you do start out in Hollownest with but a nail and a sense for adventure, there's plenty of helpful goods to find throughout the underground world. There are Masks that serve as means to increase your health, as well as vessels that increase your Focus gauge. Speaking of Focus, this ability is paramount for your survival. With enough energy inside the Focus gauge, increased by attacking foes, you can hold down a button to restore health. When venturing through Hollownest normally, this is easy enough to do without too much of a problem. Simply retreat to a safe space, and heal thyself. However, in boss battles, using Focus to heal our hero is hardly a simple task. You can't exactly retreat that far, and bosses are always in the midst of offense. Thus, it pays to learn a boss's attack pattern, and also learn when it's best to heal our hero without being overly vulnerable.

Really, Focus is an incredibly useful and clever mechanic in Hollow Knight that serves as a terrific "risk vs. reward" proposition. Do you risk staying vulnerable for a couple of seconds to get the reward of some invaluable health back, knowing that staying still could result in taking even more damage? Or, do you do your best to soldier on in battle while contending with the risk of death from not having enough health to survive a blow from a boss or foe? 

Surrounded, but definitely not surrendering!

While Focus is indeed an outstanding assistant to Hollow Knight, so, too, are all the abilities our hero can acquire. There's a move that can charge up his nail, a move that allows our hero to dash either on the ground or in the air, as well as a double jump that assist in reaching higher, otherwise inaccessible places. These abilities serve not just as tools for progression, but help for adding more complexity to encounters with enemies. In a pinch, you can evade a baddie's attack by double jumping out of the way and dashing to safety over their unsuspecting head. 

One ability, seen here, allows our hero to unleash a charging dash
to boost across extended chasms like this crystal one.

In addition to the abilities, there are Charms that can purchased with the currency used in Hollow Knight known as Geo. Charms can also be found throughout Hollownest in hidden, out of the way locations, as well as from defeating optional bosses. Of course, the fun with the "optional" part of these bosses is that during your first run of Hollow Knight, you probably will stumble upon countless bosses, not knowing if they were optional or not until after the fact! Regardless, Charms give a host of beneficial effects to our hero, from granting him Focus energy from taking damage to placing an icon on the map screen to pinpoint exactly where our hero is situated. You can only equip so many Charms at once, so it's important to be smart and equip the right Charms for the right situation. 

Hollow Knight's map is one that doesn't reveal itself until you fulfill certain conditions. In this case, you need to find the location of a cartographer within each area you explore in Hollownest, track him down by the crumpled pieces of map he absentmindedly leaves behind as a trail of figurative breadcrumbs, and purchase a map from him. This will reveal the lay of the land which has already been explored. Upon reaching new sections of areas, your map will fill in when you sit down and rest on benches, serving a second purpose as the save points of the game. Unlike other Metroidvanias, Hollow Knight's map doesn't divulge all of its secrets right away. You need to head topside to the main town of the game to purchase different markers that reveal locations of shops, benches, and other notable points of interest within Hollownest. If you want a real challenge, you can play without these markers (including the one that tracks our hero's location) entirely, using only your [hopefully] keen navigational skills. 

If you're looking for a lengthy adventure in your Metroidvania, Hollow Knight definitely fits the bill here. My initial playthrough easily lasted over 20 hours for my first play-through, and that was without getting the game completed 100% (to be fair, I came close at 96%). The amount of secrets in the form of optional content like Grubworms to find and rescue, Charms to collect, Masks and Vessels to increase our hero's health and Focus meters, and bosses to take down is amazing. It can also be a bit overwhelming with how expansive the map of Hollow Knight is to track down every little thing in Hollownest and its surrounding areas. Fortunately, there are fast travel locations via a tram and Stag Stations to get around Hollownest in a quicker fashion, though I found these were spaced out a bit too much. This resulted in copious and occasionally tedious amounts of backtracking just to get to where I wanted to go. 

A moment of repose for our hero... that is, unless this enemy turns around, of course!

Perhaps that's my main issue with Hollow Knight. The size of the world is a double-edged sword--well, in this case I guess it would make more sense to call it a double-edged "nail". While it's incredibly fun to venture into the unknown and explore a massive world, it also results in a lot of backtracking and spinning one's wheels to reach locations. I cursed myself every time I needed to return to a location where there was no tram or Stag Station access nearby.

Still, the good far outweighs the bad with Hollow Knight's impressively large world and map. The most astounding part is how open the game is. You're not locked into a linear progression. Instead, Hollow Knight's world allows you to forge your own path, uncovering secrets and exploring areas at your own pace. Yes, there are roadblocks that require certain abilities and moves to pass that do hinder progress, but for the most part, Hollownest allows an unprecedented amount of freedom in a Metroidvania game to explore at your leisure. Of course, there's an optimal path for speed-running and to simply beat the game in an efficient manner, but it's nice to know that I could venture to new places and usually my curiosity would be rewarded instead of "Sorry, you don't have this move right now. You best travel all the way back to where you came from and on the path that we, the game designers, intended you to take." Such a breath of fresh air for this genre!

Don't mind me--just trying to mind my own bzzz-ness!

Hollow Knight is the definition of a modern classic, and it takes its inspirations from games like Metroid--with its world structure--and Dark Souls--with its penalty for dying--and expands upon them in brilliantly clever ways. The ability to not be bound to a set path and instead be able to explore the vast world freely, offers a fresh, welcomed take to the genre, and the added Focus ability is one of the smartest additions to a Metroidvania that would otherwise be impossible to complete. At the same time, it's no "win" button either with how it makes you vulnerable upon using it. Hollow Knight is a fantastic Metroidvania, and if there's one true gripe I have, it's that I waited all this time to finally play it.

[SPC Says: A-]

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