If someone had told me about this game without ever having played it, I would have politely feigned interest then went home and watched YouTube videos of cats.
Thankfully, I bought this game of my own accord and for no other reason than the intriguing title. What I found was an intelligent, metroidvanian experience with stellar art and a moving score. Seriously, I could listen to the soundtrack for this game all day.
The game places you in control of a small, beetle type being, who arrives in the desolate and sparsely populated town of Dirtmouth. The town rests directly above a sprawling complex of tunnels and caverns that contain, among other things, a gigantic and thoroughly dystopian city. Most of what you see in the beginning hour or so of this game will be shaded in dull neutral colors, but don’t let that fool you. Later on, as you progress and unlock the ability to travel to previously unreachable areas, you will find areas of lush forestation and plunge into neon tinted depths.
Progression is key to any metroidvanian game, and Hollow Knight sticks to the tried and true formula of go here, kill that boss, get a new power to go to this other place and kill that boss, and so on. The abilities that you gain are rewarded at a good pace, and nearly all of them have purpose in combat as well as in platforming. One ability in particular allows you to dash quickly downward, left, or right. This proved to be an ability I utilized until the end of the campaign, and was instrumental to my survival considering that the majority of your attacks are restricted to melee.
Existing to augment your abilities and gameplay are charms. These little badges are scattered about the world in secret rooms, boss fights, and rewards for quests. Initially you can only equip about two of them, but after you run across a certain character you can increase your capacity. The functions of the charms are never powerful to the point where they make the game easy; Rather, they focus on assisting you in your own personal gaming style. I, for one, fancied using hit and run tactics, so equipping a charm that extended the reach of my melee attack proved extremely helpful.
You also gain access to powerful special abilities that utilize a resource called “Soul”. For instance, early on in the game you will gain the ability to shoot an energized blast directly in front of you. This ability is not necessary to defeat a certain incredibly annoying enemy, but it makes the fights with them much, much easier. Special abilities must be used sparingly, however, as initially the amount of “Soul” you can store is fairly moderate. Thankfully, this can be upgraded as well via gaining shards of soul containers scattered about the world.
Combat mostly consists of a combination of slashing, jumping, dodging, and parrying. Enemies hit hard (With bosses hitting even harder), and even a slight loss of focus could result in half of your health being taken down from a misstep. I don’t mean for it to sound like Hollow Knight is unfair; It always presents the opportunity to avoid an attack. But, hack and slash this game is not. Enemies follow set patterns of attack, and their types are diverse. I ran into everything from flying insects that spat acidic bile to heavily armored and (Thankfully) lumbering beetles who wielded gigantic two-handed swords. You will find your more standard enemy types here, but even they possess a unique charm that kept me guessing until I had run into them more than a dozen times. With that being said, it is worth noting that rushing into a battle swinging wildly is a good way to get yourself killed and lose all of your precious Geo.
Geo is a currency that is dropped by enemies, or rewarded for your accomplishments assisting the half a dozen shopkeepers you run across in your journey. You can use it to purchase anything from charms to mask fragments (The latter of which grant you an extra health slot when you gather enough) and the NPC conversations are always well written and intriguing; There is an immense amount of lore to be uncovered here. Geo is also used to purchase one of the most important things in the entire game: Maps.
In most games I don’t really care about maps and instead prefer to explore the world on my own. In this game, however, maps are vital to your navigation throughout the interconnected areas underneath Dirtmouth. To purchase these maps, you must locate the map-maker (A friendly NPC encountered early on) and provide him a modest sum of Geo. Locating him never proved overly challenging, as when I was near him I could hear his humming as well as follow the trail of discarded papers he had left behind. It is worth noting, however, that these maps are not always complete, and some of the areas must be explored before they will actually show up.
Even armed with a map and the various upgrades this game has to offer, though, death is something of an inevitability. Hollow Knight deals with this in an interesting way, reminiscent of games like Dark Souls. When you die, you drop your Geo and leave a “Shade” of yourself at the location of your death. Getting back that precious Geo involves braving it back to wherever you were struck down and defeating your own specter.
Saving progress occurs in-game rather than through a menu, with the game employing a function-able checkpoint system involving park benches. Resting at one of these benches provides you with restored health, soul, and fills in any blank areas of the map that you have explored. Saving at these park benches became such a normal routine that I was actually pretty shocked when later on the game used those same mechanics against me, thrusting me into the clutches of a rabid beasty.
A lot of games exist that have amazing combat, graphics, and music, but lack in the character department. I am exceedingly happy to report that Hollow Knight went for quality over quantity in their character department. Although my interaction with fellow bugs that weren’t trying to kill me was very limited, each NPC that I spoke with practically dripped character. It isn’t often that a game with text based dialogue can remain this engaging, but crazy enough, I could actually feel the difference in the separate characters’ personalities without actually having to hear them say a word. I suppose text based is not entirely true (The characters speak in a language that sounds like a cross between Ewok and a drunken Scandinavian rapper) but the gibberish never conveys as much feeling as the text itself does.
In closing, this is a gorgeously realized game with intelligent level design, challenging platforming elements, responsive combat, and intriguing characters all set up around deep, meaningful lore. Of all of the games that I have played this year, this is the one that has made the most impact on me as a gamer. All in all,