Played on Windows.
Also Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, macOS, and Linux.
I previously talked about buying three games in January of 2018, as they were some of the most interesting games of 2017. Included in the pack was Sonic Mania, A Hat in Time, and Hollow Knight. Now I’ve reviewed all three games on Steam, and recently re-reviewed A Hat in Time as it was part of the Humble Monthly Bundle of August 2018. We actually have to go back to the three pack a second time, as I am beginning my reviews of Humble Monthly Bundle of November 2018. So how does Hollow Knight play?
It’s great to go back and re-review Hollow Knight as it allows me to replay a large portion of it, and experience it with fresh eyes. I did not have a website, nor the youtube channel back then and I look at games a little differently now, especially with having a rating scale instead of a simple thumbs up or thumbs down system. So let’s dig in.
We can start with the graphics of Hollow Knight. My first look shows the beginning area, and it’s one of the most interesting games to just look at. The graphics of the game is unique and almost any image in the game makes me think of Hollow Knight, as you can see below.
The art style in Hollow Knight is extremely crisp. The main character is a very unique character, wearing horns on a skull-like creation, and draped in black. His exact species is left unknown, though he is the titular character, a hollow knight. Though as the character moves through the world, he looks amazing.
Much of the game has a similar beauty. That crisp look permeates everything and whether it be random NPCs, the typical enemies or the bosses of the game, there are a lot of really great looking characters and designs here. Many take familiar imagery like the horns on the Hollow Knight’s head, and yet use them on a completely new character.
Though I use the term beauty with a caveat. I love the look of this game but there is a macabre feeling with the designs as well. The music and sound also have this feeling. It’s almost like something is wrong with the world as you play through it and that leads you an empty feeling as you explore. The world is both normal, and yet strange. The word that comes to me as I think about this game is dreary, but I don’t mean that in a negative context. The world is run down, and yet it looks great as you explore it.
There’s an awkward sadness with the game, This is the main town, it starts with only a lone man standing in the center.
This even extends well to the feeling of light and shadow in the game, which is used amazingly well, as you travel the world you just find amazing locales and areas, and the movement between screens and areas really shines here.
There’s an iconic feeling to almost every scene, enemy, character, and design in this game, and it makes me realize how well the art design was done here because any character in this game removed and placed in something else would still be recognizable as belonging to “Hollow Knight”. It just is so well designed and so consistent in its designs.
I do also have to say each location has its own feel. It’s pretty impressive because once the player enters a second area, it’s immediately noticeable that something has changed. While the enemies have changed, the level design and graphics are subtly different and each area of the game is very clearly defined by the environment as well as the enemies and the map.
While the graphics look fantastic, it’s a shame the lore in this game doesn’t rise similarly to the occasion. It’s not that the story in the game is poor, but rather the game uses a similar style to Dark Souls. In fact, much of the design of the game mimics parts of Dark Souls, and I will limit myself in referencing that game, but the lore is so similar that I feel required to bring it up..
This is most of the story you see on the critical path.
However, the story here is unique in it’s telling. Rather than hand you a story that will tell you what happened and what you should do next, Hollow Knight gives you pieces to the story. My first time through the game, I only saw a few key moments, finding a fountain that informed me of three sleeping characters, known as the Dreamers, and a Temple of the Vessel.
I did see many characters going through my first playthrough but I didn’t spend that much time really thinking about what they were saying and that’s how I put the lore aside because of those characters, those small moments of talking. Even using a special weapon to look at the thoughts of characters is how the lore is handed out in Hollow Knight.
The second playthrough that I did recently had me find some of those characters, however, they were in different places, talking about different pieces of the game. The fact is if you want a story, this is where you can find it, located at these various one-off moments and then pieced together by extremely dedicated fans.
There is a problem with this as a way to tell a story. I understand that there are many ways to tell the same story, but in this case, the characters can actually move or change locations due to what the player has done. If you beat a boss, a character may move on to the next location they’re assigned to be in. Sadly, this means you likely will miss their dialogue and story pieces, and in fact to understand the entire game will take many playthroughs. However similar to Hyper Light Drifter, it will take more than that. I believe a dedicated player will need multiple playthroughs of Hollow Knight as well as guides to know where each piece of lore can be found and even then they have to piece everything together.
The characters are interesting but can easily be missed.
There is a good story in hollow knight, it just is one of the most hidden treasures of the entire game as it’s so easy to miss out on a piece of it, and I definitely have a reservation on that. If the story is so hidden that most people playing without a guide will completely miss it, can it be a good story at all? I don’t know but if you’re looking for reasons or understanding, this game will likely make you work entirely too hard to earn the story. Then again, if you absolutely adore playing Hollow Knight that might not be a negative for you.
Still, I believe that the difficulty in finding that lore, especially the fact that much of the lore may occur in places that the player will never discover without a guide, is a problem. Even the fan who can beat every part of this game still may not see everything, and that’s a shame.
Which leads us to the gameplay. Well to start, Hollow Knight is a bit of a Metroidvania. Though when I played Timespinner, I realized what Hollow Knight is really missing. In Hollow Knight you will explore a large environment and go to many locations, even having multiple bosses and locations you can go to at the same time. The more I think about Hollow Knight, the more I’m reminded of Axiom Verge and the original Metroid. That’s not a major negative, but for me, a true Metroidvania needs some experience level based system or some way to gain power outside of the pre-determined upgrades.
The big piece of this game is that exploration step. Much of the game is based on exploring the world, finding new upgrades, enemies, and locations. In fact, when you enter a new area for the first time, the player is not given a map. While the World Map may name the area, the player has no way to know where he has traveled except memorizing the rooms he travels through.
Eventually, the player meets a character named Cornifer in almost every area. Cornifer is a character who appears to be based on a plague doctor’s mask. He is my favorite character in the game, just for his utility. He offers the player a map of the current area for a reasonable price, usually around 100 “coins”.
Good old Cornifer.
However, the map itself is actually a thing of brilliance. The player gets a map of the current area, though, it’s not complete. There’s a number of doors that lead to unmapped parts of the same area that are not filled in. Though without the map, the player is unable to see anything in the area. Even with a map, the player is a bit limited, as he can’t see his own location. The solution is to buy a charm from Cornifer’s wife (Iselda) in the starting town.
The charm when equipped will show the player where they are on the map but will take up an important charm slot so the player has to choose if they want to spend that slot knowing where they are on the larger map, or instead memorize the map and learn from it. The map is also a bit plain, and Iselda does offer other pins to stick in, including the location of different types of objects. The whole map system though is one that really enhances the rest of the experience of Hollow Knight and the maps are so well drawn, that it’s amazing to see them fully filled in.
In addition, as mentioned in the graphics section each area has a unique look and feel to it, and it helps to benefit the exploration. The player can know when they switched areas not through little signs or loading, or even text appearing on the screen, but they can also feel a difference both in the enemies that appear and the amazing visuals there are. This adds quite a bit to the level design but also the map development as well.
The charms mentioned above are the big collectibles and equipment of the game. The player is able to earn a large number of charms, and most of them have a lot of variety, though provide some synergy. The players can make a lot of different choices that will change how the game plays, and many enemies, areas, and bosses, will require a different setup. You can take a charm that increases the amount of magic (Soul) earned, reduces casting cost, and makes casting easier. Or perhaps you might want to take defensive boosts, which will damage enemies when you take damage, throw out a cloud of dangerous spores when you use your spells, and take less damage. The choice is up to you, but the fact is there are so many of these choices available and the charm system allows for a lot of different builds
Those builds are important. Hollow Knight is a challenging game. I’m sure many readers will already know this, but Hollow Knight is quite happy to challenge the player and cause frustration while learning the game. The game feels like the whole goal of the experience is to never take damage. The game does start with five life points, but damage is hard to heal. Every three successful attacks on enemies will give the player enough “Soul” energy to cast a spell that restores a life point, but those five life points go very quickly, and many enemies are designed in such a way that the player will often trade damage, taking a hit to finish them off.
There’s quite a bit of platforming as well.
In addition as the game progresses, that “Soul” energy can be used to cast other spells which are valuable to the player, including spells that cause damage in any of the four cardinal directions, so while the player can heal with that energy, it’s more efficient to use that energy for other abilities. If that wasn’t enough, the ability to heal does take a significant amount of time. While it’s not a major problem for many enemies, fast attacking enemies will make it hard for the player to find the right time to cast the health spell.
Many games have similar rules or systems, but the design of Hollow Knight really changes the feel of the game. Rather than having safe areas, or relatively low action points, so many parts of the game will damage the player, that they’ll often die just because they failed some minor part of the game, or fell on a set of spikes a couple of times. The game pushes you and forces the player to risk his life points as the game moves from dangerous locale to dangerous locale.
In addition, the game also uses an interesting save system. There are a number of benches that are scattered around the map. Each bench allows you to sit on it, and restore your health to full and save the game, essentially marking where your new home point is. If you die you’re returned to the bench. That sounds like a reasonable system, however, the benches are just far enough apart that the player will have some difficulty to get between them, at least up to the mid part of the game. In addition, the benches are only marked on the map after reaching those rooms, so often times, the player has to explore the map to discover where the next save point is.
There’s often a pull on a player to return to a bench to save his progress, which also fills in the map of areas he has just visited, and an equal or stronger pull to go just a bit farther in the hopes of finding a bench in the next room.
Though death in the game is done in a relatively unique way. There’s a monetary system in the game, where a death will leave all the money the player is carrying with the corpse, which is, of course, a bit like “Dark Souls”. In addition, every death leaves a spirit rather than a corpse behind and that spirit is placed in the middle of the room that the death occurred in rather than the actual spot of death. That spirit will also attack the player. While the spirit itself is rather weak in most cases, it will often be combined with fighting whatever killed the player, usually risking a second death. When a player dies twice in a row without killing the spirit, the original spirit and all the money they carried is lost. There’s also a penalty for death, which is until the spirit is killed, the amount of “Soul” (the magic system) is limited to two-thirds of the original amount (usually meaning the player can cast two spells in a row when filled, instead of three).
The bench and the death system usually works well, though there are some challenges with them. The first comes when the spirit of the player is placed in a bad area. Many times, the spirit is easy to recover and can be lured out of danger, but when dealing with a boss, regaining the spirit can involve forcing the player to challenge the boss a second time, and sometimes that’s something the player isn’t ready to do.
The map is visually impressive, and makes you want to explore more.
In addition the bench system works well 90 percent of the time, however, there’s one area of the game (The Deepnest) which allows the player to save in a position where it’s hard to return to the previous areas. It’s one of the more interesting areas of the game for a number of reasons, and the player is giving some subtle hints of the danger, but they are more nudges than true warnings. The lack of a skill test to get in there and the challenge to exit is quite frustrating.
Speaking of frustrating, we come to the bosses. While the difficulty of a majority of the game can be hard, it’s doable with some skill. There’s no Super Meat boy “The Kid” levels here that feel impossible, but there’s still a decent amount of challenge to moving around the environment.
However, when you reach a boss, the game ramps up the difficulty. Almost every boss is extremely challenging, and most players will die a couple of times just to learn their attack patterns and when to attack.
Where the normal game has a give and take system where you can trade hits, most bosses don’t allow the player the time to cast the healing spell except for certain points of the fight, and for a few bosses, there might not be a great time to heal without some luck from a random number generator. This does make the other spells more useful but makes almost every boss fight extremely challenging as the player only has that limited life. The challenge can also sometimes increase as large enemies and bosses can do more than one health point of damage an attack.
There is, of course, a range of difficulty, the early bosses that you can see in my First Look are challenging, but have a simplistic moveset. There are a lot of different bosses, and since there’s no required order, the player can run into bosses at different points in the game. Many early bosses are easy, but there is also a great variety in the experience. An example from my second playthrough is the Dung Defender. He’s a boss that can be tackled early, but personally, I’ve never had a problem killing him. However, some people do feel he’s one of the harder bosses. Yes, that’s a subtle brag. Let me tell you the other side of that, I have found ways to die on bosses that everyone calls simple as well.
Gruz Mother, the first boss, who I never remember existing because she goes down so fast.
The fact is, even if Dung Defender didn’t challenge me, some boss would, as the bosses in this game are rather difficult. Even the easiest ones on every list are challenging to new players who learn their patterns, however as the game goes on, later bosses start exhibiting different tactics. There are more attacks swung at the players, more phases to learn, faster attacks (Sometimes much faster) a longer path back from the nearest bench and more randomness.
A good example is the Watcher Knights, a relatively late game boss, that’s… honestly just painful. They not only have rather random and different attacks, but there are two of them to start, and a total of six of them you have to kill, they have fast attacks, and when you have to try to deal damage to two of them at a time, you will likely get overwhelmed fast.
Though there’s one interesting feature of Hollow Knight, not every boss is required. A boss I always have trouble with is the Flukemarm, however, she’s optional and not required, only giving the player a charm, and not even opening up a new area. There’s a decent amount of these optional bosses in the game that is not required for even the best ending. That’s a rather interesting design choice, and it’s one I rather praise.
In addition, there are four free DLCs for fans who just want more. Each DLC is fully integrated with the game, and the fact that it’s not as simple as the post-game content is also an excellent design choice, as it allows players to come back and experience the additions whether as post-game content or just as they fall in a new playthrough.
Admittedly I’ve never beat Hollow Knight. I’ve tried, I swear I have, but after putting in 35 hours and running up against the Watcher Knights I knew my limit. During my replay, I’ve only played about 15 hours. I still haven’t beat the game, but I still remember the greatness here and can find it as well.
Still, I feel like there’s a problem here. Hollow Knight is an excellent game, but it’s sadly limited by the skill test it puts forth. I still can’t beat the Watcher Knights in Hollow Knight and this is after spending hours studying it and throwing life after life at it. I’m a little annoyed I’m unable to see the full game or even an ending.
There’s a vocal crowd who seems to go with the “Dark Souls” mentality of “Git gud” but that’s not a good answer in my opinion. If someone had problems with the controls in a game or is color blind in an odd way it seems people are understanding and applaud when companies assist with that. However, when a game is so challenging that only a small percentage of people can beat the game, that seems to bring out the worst in the community, allowing people to brag about beating it or claiming that it’s a good design to lock off content from players who can’t beat certain parts.
I think though that’s a mistaken view. If you can’t beat a certain song on a music game, does that mean you shouldn’t be allowed to play the rest of the songs in the game? Of course not, and it’s something most music games figured out somewhere after Guitar Hero 2. The game industry has figured this out with most games, realizing a game that makes it extremely hard to beat also will scare away a portion of the audience. Dark Souls being the exception of this rule. However, even Dark Souls has figured out ways around this. While there’s only one difficulty setting in the game, there are leveling, grinding and a decent amount of gear that can help the player, but in addition, players are able to summon other players to assist them, and that can vastly improve their chances at success.
Many games have found ways to allow players to pass, some games have a “skip” system allowing the player to skip a certain amount (or all) encounters, while not giving credit for them. Others have very powerful items so players can make the game easier. There’s the ability to make the game easier in almost every game, and while some games like Cuphead and Furi give the player an asterisk (or no achievements) for winning on easy mode, they still allow the player to continue past the troubled area.
My issue with Hollow Knight is not that it’s hard, I actually appreciate that it is, but it doesn’t have another option outside of the high difficulty. Even Dark Souls has a number of ways to make the game easier, and the idea of summoning people actually gave novices the ability to bypass the critically hard bosses. Hollow Knight though doesn’t attempt this, and while I understand the difficulty, I also wonder if there could be a better way, like specialized charm, a mode with a faster heal or even restoring life, or something else that could make this game accessible enough that players might be able to see the main “storyline” at the very least.
The fact that I was locked off from the ending or a good chunk of the game isn’t a great resolution to a game. I tried to get better, and failed, spending a few hours on a single boss isn’t a fun experience. So while I appreciate the game, I also have to call out that it’s high difficulty is ultimately a flaw, and when talking about this game, I have to caution people from it that it might become too hard.
That’s the problem, I could see giving this game a very high score, a 4.5 or a 5 is understandable for it, but I also realize that this is a game really built to challenge the gamer and while difficult games are becoming its own style. With games like Super Meat Boy, Dark Souls, and Cuphead, those games have found a way to be a little more welcoming to new fans and allowing to at least experience a majority of the content of the game. If all three of those games are still considered “Super hard games” yet allow novice players to experience the game, it’s a shame that Hollow Knight isn’t able to find its own solution to the problem.
Ultimately, that’s why I am forced to give Hollow Knight a
That’s not a bad score. If you really delight in the challenge, it would probably be even a five-star game, but for the average gamer, I struggle to give it higher, because while it’s really fun, the challenge of the game becomes a question for the player. If it gets too hard or they get stuck, they’re not going to experience the entire game, and the game is solid. It’s just a question of how many times will the player rise to the challenge presented.
You may now proceed to email me to “Git gud”, tell me that I’m a scrub or otherwise have somehow besmirched your honor for saying that there should be a way for all gamers to experience this game.
Final Thoughts: An excellent and challenging Metroidvania style game that is ultimately limited by its difficulty. If you can tackle its challenges, you’ll find one of the most exciting games.
Stats: 50 hours played 19/63 achievements earned