Well.. looks like I’ll be calling my game of the year already and I really don’t think anything that could release will beat the technical, mechanical, and artistic genius that is Hollow Knight.
Platformers have been in a sort of renaissance period lately, seeing many popular franchises getting modern international like Rayman, Retro style revivals like Shovel Knight, and several new indie franchises like Ori and the Blind Forest getting critical praise. They are brilliant games in their own way and have begun showing that there is more to the platformer genre than simple gameplay and mechanical tricks. Hollow Knight feels like the culmination of what the genre has been working forward to; showing the best of retro style exploration, modernised gameplay, and brilliant artistic vision. It is a masterpiece in gaming design and I’m completely and utterly in love.
Combat and Progression
The combat itself seems like the meat of this experience and it is as polished as it needs to be considering the fast paced nature of attacks and movement. It starts off rather slow just based upon the enemies and your own limitations with attacks. A basic slash at first that works well with the slow moving enemies and their own attacks but this slowly grows to encompass a wide range of special attacks of your own, with increasingly complex and fast-paced enemy attacks.
This might have been overwhelming if introduced too quickly but the game flows extremely well with introducing new mechanics and enemies. It’s much like a prolonged tutorial that extends throughout the game with a basic attack pattern you might learn early on from a simple enemy being constantly expanded upon with a new style of that same enemy, or entirely new ones. Simple patterns you learn over time, more and more being added until you are easily able to recognise such attacks, dodge, and counter them freely while playing. New attacks and animations being added over time as well, with these too seemingly being added and improved upon in future enemies.
This extends well to the bosses to with patching around an area taking through, what amounts to a pre-sets fight with many of the same attacks and animations but not as chaotic. It let’s you learn such abilities before meeting an enemy with more and faster attacks that would feel incredibly overwhelming – if not go for already being practiced. The soul Sanctum area I just explored is a good example with a basic enemy spamming the same ranged attack, and a larger fight with a similar downward slam attack. The boss you get to after is still hard, but you are already aware of such attacks and can plan and react accordingly.
There is a rather fast paced challenge within the mantis village too wherein you must defeat, what I believe to be their governing force. You first must defeat a single member, which afterwards becomes two at the same time. Fighting one can be tough, but then two would have felt overwhelming if not for the previous practice, and getting a pattern into that muscle memory stage. It’s smart design that turns new areas, bosses and challenges into encounters that feel difficulty without feeling entirely unmanageable.
The gradual power curve there works well to reinforce this learning and extension of difficulty as well, but never in such a way to truly obsolete. Maybe just one less hit needed to an enemy at first. A couple new abilities that offer more options during combat but you still need to be aware of your surroundings and the enemy animations
The mechanics around exploration seem rather well planned and implemented as well with, what original is a rather planned and directed experience through the first three areas, quickly becoming a large open world map where you can delve into quite a few different areas. It gives you a few basic abilities, a bit of knowledge about the world and systems and, then, goes have fun.
It is rather astonishing just how much the individual experience can diverge at this point due to the variety of different ways you can open up the map. Exploring one zone and finding a secret entrance had me then falling into the Abyss of another zone and having to find my way out again. Gaining a new ability opened up a couple more areas once again and depending on which way you go is how your character progresses. Watching a few other let’s plays showed this as well, areas I still haven’t been too – others found much earlier.
I rather enjoyed this approach as exploration became it’s own joy. I wasn’t just exploring those little nooks and crannies to get a new trinket, or item but to begin searching out and charting the unknown. There is also a lot of optional systems within this exploration with areas that everyone can get too, not necessarily needing to be explored. A different path or section to a zone may reveal a new Boss – or maybe even a new character ability. Such things don’t feel overpowered, or needed like the upwards soul blast but more begin filling out your characters.
The amount of choice it offers with the badge system also highlight the reward of exploration and with giving more options to the player. You can only equip a certain amount, with this number growing as you go, and each seems to have a certain benefit to a style of gameplay. Whether exploring or grinding. Playing for attack and defence. The variety there even allows you to optimise them for the bosses you might face. The flukeworm boss absolutely decimated me at first but with a small upgrade of these badges it became much more manageable.
And this brings me to the variety of ways Hollow knight has the refined the experience into something that feels more manageable while still championing player skill. I guess the first easy point would be the design around your little soul meter. A simple design that feels inspired by dark souls style games, but one in which adds a little more nuance and thought to general play. It is of course used for replenishing your health bar, but at the same time used for magical attacks. A risk reward style situation of survival vs damage that provides a little consequence to player actions during general gameplay.
This ties into how Hollow Knight tends to reuse enemies throughout the game and make them something more than just filler. With the soul system, gaining soul on hit and using it for healing and magical attacks regular enemies become a means to your own recovery, and a way of preparing for greater challenge. The city of tears area that you get locked into seems rather overwhelming at first with the fast attacking and high health enemies. But then placed in between areas are some of the easier enemies for you to kill and replenish your health. You still need to be careful mind, but it feels more natural and planned than just adding a healing kit and adds a little tension to a player’s exploration as you delve deeper into Hollownest while trying to keep your health to topped up.
I love the level of detail they’ve done through with creating this world to to make one that feels lively, interesting and full of secrets. One such moment is after beating the Mantis Council. From then on none of the mantis enemies won’t attack you unless provoked, in fact, they bow to you upon approach which subtly tells you various things upon their culture, and makes you wonder more about the other mysteries of this weird.
The various characters you meet are rather amazing as well with such lovely little dialogue moments that, even in just a small moment you meet them create interesting personalities, and even hint at the greater mysteries of the world around. They each feel so distinct at times with how they greet the player, the structure of their sentences and the content they talk about. ZOTE THE MIGHTY amuses me to no end with his large ego and rambling. Quirrel and his pensive talk of the nature of this world, and then there is the mysterious hornet – seemingly on a quest of some type. Even one off characters like the Moss prophet just have so much personality, and add a lot too the experience. It all speaks to a lovingly crafted, and incredibly rich narrative that spans the world, including each character in this narrative while intermingle them in with the overarching mystery that you attempt to uncover.
And then I really just have to stress how absolutely impeccably placed the various platforming elements are and how flawlessly timed the various animations and hitboxes are. Even in the earlier Greenpath area you notice this with platforms as, just cutting down a small platform is enough to let you jump up to the ledge. Perfect placement. Then later on are areas that are maybe just a single space out of reach, but are designed as such for later abilities. The enemies animations are more exact than I would have expected to, slashing within a near perfect arc. So perfect in fact that blades can clash without damage if the animations match up just right.
So right now it ranks number 1 on my prettiest indie games of all times list. It contains the Architectural and environmental atmosphere of the Dark souls series. Incredible detail in the backdrops with twisted caverns, or intricately woven metal grates. It is that gothic style of building and design that oozes an oppressive atmosphere yet has it’s own inherent charm. It has the environment diversity of diversity of platformers like Ori and the blind forest but with less of the saturated mess. Nothing is lost in the detail of the world because of it, and the distinctive colouring makes it all the more memorable – especially when it highlights various set pieces.
It is a game, that feels set in darkness with its, what borders on sort of monochrome vision but it’s the subtle differences in areas that breaks through that visual into many spaces that feel familiar yet visually distinct. The subtle blue tones of the city of tears. The deep drowns of Deepnest. A vibrant purple of the forgotten crossroads and many more. It has its own, very distinct style because of that – and a style that creates many memorable moments.
And god damn that Soundtrack. I don’t often even notice music in a more conscious fashion but this actually had me stop and listen at times – admiring the scenery and listening to the mournful, soul jerking notes playing in the background.
My only complaint so far is with the map system and how you must first find the Map NPc, Cornifer, in order to then get the map to chart and see where you are in your surroundings. Without, it can make exploration feel a little more like a chore at times, especially when you get down to some of the larger and complicated areas. It’s something that makes no sense, since I can obviously write my own corridors and areas down, why not just grab a random piece of paper. It is a nice modern feature that some of the older titles in the genre didn’t have, but it’s a modern convenience I rather dislike having to constantly unlock.
And that’s it. My game of the year and for only $15. Such a small price for such a magnificent little gem.