The more I rip from the bowels through the crown of the staggered ability loops and exploration-as-a-reward ethos of the 2D action RPG/platformer sub-genre, the now inescapable ‘metroidvania’ phenomena, the clearer the origins of my affinity become. When did you first feel adrenaline? Some people get it from sports in their youth and others from trauma, sexual conquest, theft, misanthropic rebellion and a host of various thrills and debaucheries. What of I in this regard? At a young age the dangerously inquisitive art snooping, the thrill of self-directed discovery, was it. Be it secret, lie, or unfound knowledge I needed to know the contents of the spaces I inhabited. In picking through the belongings of others as a child I found thrill in quiet investigation that lead to the discovery of the limits of their possessions and the weird sense that I knew them in truth. The odd notion that a person’s hidden things told of a ‘secret side’ they kept to themselves is still curious to me. Now, thankfully this habit died when a friend and I found his mother’s vibrator in our pre-teen years… but by then we had a Super Nintendo. As a child of the early 90’s arcades and consoles will attest it was an age of secrets and hidden knowledge passed on through word of mouth and the then thriving video game coverage magazines. He who knew the hints, tips, and tricks of the largely Japanese developer dominated markets of the era could thrill his fellow man with these findings, or thrill himself in discovering them by accident or intuition. How did this translate into the loop of rewards that metroidvanias bring? Breakable walls and hidden mechanics leading to hidden worlds and super powers.
Although Mega Man 5 and 6 primed me for this with optional collectibles, boss paths, and upgrades it was the 3 months I spent playing a Mega Man X on my brand new SNES that hooked me. As I collected X suit upgrades and gained new world-changing abilities it became clear that this was something special outside of the norm of otherwise bland collection or speed based challenges (see: Sonic the Hedgehog). From there Castlevania IV’s hidden branching paths and the glory of Super Metroid taught me the unforgettable language of the best sort of video games: Leave no stone unturned. Your struggle to power will be reduced and ‘hard work’ rewarded. Compare this to the lessons of the JRPGs of the same i.e. “Just grind levels until it gets easier.” These lessons and methods persist today as open world games mimic the rewards of JRPGs; Do repetitive busy work and you’ll breeze through the hard parts, if there are any skill-based challenges at all they are optional. From Horizon: Zero Dawn to whichever Assassin’s Creed the shills in the mainstream video game press are pushing this year the slog of open world games often only gives the impression of exploration outside of big budget titles that force medium between the ‘metroidvania’ and the open world (see: God of War and Tomb Raider reboots). So, as I toggle through the big, shiny and dumb games I can afford every year I return to the classic metroidvania for the thrill of discovery, the potential for secret worlds or upside-down castles within, and the progression from flyswatter flailing doofus to world surfing magic ninja. This is exactly what Hollow Knight offers within a remarkable average of 30-40 hours of content.
More is rarely better in the content rich landscape available to the middle/working class income level that most often afford themselves time and money to play video games; In this particular case Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition is more of a objectively better thing. So why didn’t I buy it on PC back in 2017? The art style looked like a bad flash game and I knew Team Cherry Games wouldn’t skip out on a Playstation 4 version as their game sold a guaranteed ton on every platform it touched. It finally dropped in September this year and from the moment I landed in Dirtmouth Hollow Knight fit like a goddamn glove. Slick, fast and tight controls that only got slicker, faster, and tighter as I progressed would initially see a slow opening 3-4 hours which is admittedly about as difficult and worrisome as the first couple of hours in any recent Castlevania game but even without tutorials the mechanics of platforming in Hollow Knight make themselves obvious. The first and initially most important revelation in terms of platforming comes with the realization that, allow for physics of momentum and gravity, you can swipe your nail (sword, essentially) downward to vault off of enemies and dangerous spikes and use directional control along with momentum to access yet unreachable areas and items. I recorded a stream on YouTube that chronicled the first several hours of my time with the game and you can watch me discovering some of these platforming nuances there [Click Here to watch on my YouTube page].
The rest of the game unfolds in incredible fashion as the game does what games like Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, Death’s Gambit, and to a lesser degree Salt & Sanctuary tried to do in creating a ‘hub’ area akin to those of the From Software Souls series. The design of the game is not entirely as cryptic and ambient as Hidetaka Miyazaki‘s worlds but the overarching lore doesn’t really elucidate itself without force. In keeping with that ethos the mechanics of death are tied with currency in the same way where the Geo (‘souls’ as it were) you collect from defeating enemies, bosses, and quests can be lost if you die and do not collect your geo from a black specter left behind where you died. Not only does it suck to lose any amount of geo but it limits your soul ability which acts as your estus flask when you use it. Instead of being able to heal three points of health with every full soul meter (upgradeable in all aspects, though) you’ll only be able to heal two until your spectre is defeated. This type of mechanic was likewise implemented in Death’s Gambit and The Mummy: Demastered in slightly different ways. Although I didn’t necessarily enjoy the tension created by the healing mechanic, its general slowness was the only aspect of Hollow Knight that generated any appreciable difficulty beyond minor strings of platforming challenges.
Where Hollow Knight is admittedly genius lies within its ‘natural’, player determined pacing. I don’t mean that your intellect will guide you through its main connections but that your instincts will be guided by the design’s inherent intellect. Such tedious detail is given to all potential pathways at any given time that the corridors and the platforming challenges appear as a series of events within a reasonable ecosystem. The pacing and wonder of exploration never ceases despite the length of the game. The only reason the 30+ hour playthrough actually works in practice is owed to a constant system of rewards and an emphasis on time-saving fast travel when the game has you backtracking to fill out the map. The world you inhabit evokes the innards of a failing corpse, decomposing around the structures built by the bugs and beasts born within the rot. The only damned shame within the game world’s design comes with the great foul ball of all metroidvania games: Lackluster and unimportant boss encounters.
No doubt Team Cherry Games did everything they could to ensure each battle leads to either a traversal power, stat boost, important item, shortcut or necessary through-way but the fights themselves pay homage more often than they surprise. From the Legion (see: SotN) style optional boss fight in the depths of the Ancient Basin to fighting your similarly leveled doppelgänger, they’re borrowing from the best with little meaningful addition to Hollow Knight‘s own creative legacy. These fights were absolutely never as clever or challenging as those in Death’s Gambit or Salt & Sanctuary. A couple of two part bosses (see: Crystal Peak area) and multiphasal fights with a specific NPC make up for this but, they also appear as too-clever and/or frustrating tests of your use of the badge system rather than a test of skill or reflex.
The badge system includes a total of 40 collectible (purchasable, found, or given as completion rewards) items that cost a certain number of slots to use. To use more of them you will need to collect more and talk to a certain NPC merchant to unlock slots for badges. This is both an issue and a great perk at once. These badges can do much more than enhance your sword’s range, your dash ability, your health regeneration and invulnerability frames after getting hit; They also occasionally enhance spellcasting abilities or create impressive combinations (see: Castlevania: Circle of the Moon card system). My personal favorite combo came with a badge that emitted a noxious damaging gas around the character (see: Mandragora active card, CotM) which could be paired with one that automatically sprouts small enemy seeking kamikaze familiars (think of Binding of Isaac) who become additionally toxic explosives as you run around, provided you keep your soul meter filled. What if you run out of soul too often and can’t heal? There are multiple badges that cause you to gain more soul gauge as you attack enemies (or, when you get hit by them). It takes at least 15 hours to find enough badges and level your slot capacity to be able to really play around with the badge combos but it keeps the late game backtracking brisk and gives a feeling of earned power as you progress.
Gorgeously detailed and brimming sections of the map all feel reasonably related with transitions that are natural. The map itself must be purchased for each section and you must first find the map-maker in the section to be able to buy it. Then you have to actually fill out the map yourself, provided you bought the ability to sketch the map. This is an incredible way to keep exploration interesting as you won’t always know where you are on the map and you are forced to memorize small sections that you may not be able to add to your map until later, or until you find an ingenious route to the map-maker (who audibly hums a tune when you’re close). Beyond filling out the map areas are unlocked through traversal, keys, boss encounters, different abilities (double jump, dash, ultra-dash, etc.) and a few you’ll only find if you slap at every wall around you and discover secret breakable walls. This almost always leads to a reward be it the collectible grubs (which offer a reward at the grub nest), stat boosting collectibles, badges, or entire hidden areas. The main reason to get the Voidheart edition comes with all of the free additional content and details added post-initial release but none of it feels extraneous or like DLC. You won’t know you’ve entered a DLC area or that a certain feature was added later, and this differs greatly from a game like Horizon: Zero Dawn where the DLC was so obviously added (and gated) after the fact. I appreciate the integration being seamless.
Did I have fun? Yes, but I realize that it was obsessive behavior that drove me to this ‘fun’ I was having. I needed every nook of the map explored, I wanted every power-up and badge. It was driven by a compulsion and the challenge of seeing everything wasn’t so much great but the world was vast and occasionally changing. At the halfway point of completion one of the early areas of the game becomes afflicted with infection which ultimately super-powers and mutates the enemies in that area while also obstructing the path around that area. This was exciting at first but I quickly realized that the infection was inconsequential otherwise. You fight a small mini-boss and the infection persists after that, so there is no real reward other than fending off the boredom of breezing through that area in the late game because the enemies all die with one swipe once you’e upgraded your sword once. The fun that I had came from the constant rewards and progression of abilities as I played. Every night that I sat down with Hollow Knight I was rewarded with something. Some nights it was a pale ore (sword upgrade material), others it was a boss fight, a new area, a new fast travel point, or a new badge that made traversal or combat easier. At some point it was inevitable that I would achieve the ‘fully powered Alucard’ status and fly around the map killing everything in 1-2 hits and this is where I felt the game began to drag.
Sure, you can complete the Colosseum challenges, seek out every grub, get every badge, fight all of the challenging optional bosses, collect all of the Essence for the Seer to power your sword, upgrade the sword at the blacksmith, learn all of the combat arts, etc. but at some point I lost interest in all of the details and hidden challenges. At just over 80% completion I missed most of the Godmaster and The Grimm Troupe DLC areas/bosses. While I did say that the DLC was well integrated into the main game you won’t likely fight a boss like Grimm unless you look it up or happen to retread a very specific path. This is not a detraction but rather my way of saying that at 30+ hours of content, I was pleased but not dying to return to those areas and 100% complete the game after I beat the final boss. I mean one of the challenges has you carrying a flower across the entire map and if you get hit at all you lose it and have to start over. To properly do that quest it takes about an hour of clearing the path, backtracking, getting the flower, and then following the path you cleared. Keeping in mind that this is one of the ‘romance’ options in the game, which is just absurd and pointless. I am satisfied with my ~85% experience and am glad to have a reason to go back to the game whenever I might be more interested.
When I was in the midst of Hollow Knight I was sure that I was experiencing a modern classic and a high point for my year but after finishing the game and reflecting upon it for about a month, it’s magic only really lasts for 70% of the experience and the rest will only appeal to compulsive completionists. As I am a recovering completionist it is merely a great game worth every penny they’re charging for it. Not a revolutionary item or a mind-crushing experience, just a solid action platformer for the modern age that bests the feeling and mechanics of most of the metroidvania market at present. I absolutely encourage folks who play and complete this game and especially if you’re not familiar with the metroidvania genre because it will be a great introduction. For the seasoned player it’ll merely be an elevation of the sub-genre’s tropes with exceptional polish applied.
|Genre||2D Action RPG/Platformer|
|Released||September 25, 2018 | Team Cherry Games|
|Platform(s) Reviewed||Playstation 4 Pro [Digital]|
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