It’s only just the beginning of the 3rd month of the year, and already I have my share of pleasant surprises for an entire year. The latest pleasant surprise of 2017 is Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight. While Hollow Knight managed to evade my detection until release, the same cannot be said for everyone. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign towards the tail end of 2014, Hollow Knight was originally slated for a 2015 release. It finally, however, saw the light of day on February 24th this year. Having not known about game until its pending release, thankfully I don’t have those sorts of expectations that can build over a long delay.
So what is Hollow Knight about? Beneath the town of Dirtmouth lies an old and forgotten kingdom. The residents over time have been drawn down below looking for old secrets, wealth and/or glory. This does, of course, lead to the interesting question of how the residents were drawn to search out wealth and glory in a place that has long since been forgotten. Never mind that though, as you take control of the Hollow Knight and search to unravel the mysteries of the world around you. The story is an interesting one as it unfolds from that rather inconspicuous start.
The first thing to really know about Hollow Knight is that it certainly isn’t a short game. From start to finish it took me 36.5 hours. That still wasn’t everything either, as I only managed to finish the game with 84% completion. Yup, that’s right, there’s still more to be done and found. Of course, times may vary, but to put it into perspective, there is a speed running achievement for beating the game with 100% completion in under 20 hours. It certainly is not light on content.
So why does it take so long to complete? There are 3 main factors that go into answering that question. The first and simplest is that the map is huge. Depending on how it’s counted, there are 17 or so different zones (plus 1 more optional area). Some areas do have more than one zone in them, which is the reason for the uncertainty in pinning down the exact number. On top of the large number of areas and zones is the fact that some of the individual sections are also quite large as well.
The second factor is that Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania style game. In simple terms, that boils down to non-linear gameplay with upgrades that will unlock more areas. There is a surprising amount of freedom in choosing how to tackle the map. This, of course, means a lot of time might be spent backtracking through areas that have been previously “finished”, either to get to another place in that zone or an entirely new area. While there are some fast travel options, they first must be discovered, and then towards the end most of the objectives that are left seem to be far from those options.
The third main factor in the game’s length is its difficulty. Like fighting bosses? There are over 30 of them. Some, of course, are harder than others. But the game’s first boss fight will set the tone. It is hard, and there certainly is a pattern to be worked out. This will most likely result in more than a few deaths and lets the player know that the old tank and spank isn’t going to fly here. But that’s not all from the difficulty department. Don’t expect to just have the map. No, that’s too easy, there is a cartographer hiding in each area that sells a somewhat complete map, not entirely though.
That’s quite a bit there to help explain the time factor, so how about some more of the actual gameplay, the nitty gritty, so to speak. The Hollow Knight’s main weapon is the nail, which is just a sword/dagger. This is, of course, the go-to weapon and can also be upgraded in its effectiveness throughout the game. There are also 3 special moves that can be done: a cyclone attack, powered slash and slash while dashing. These moves are learned from the aid of 3 different nail masters.
Those are the basic attacks, but there are also, for lack of a better word, “magical” attacks: a projectile attack along with a smash up or down, plus a heal. There are also the ability enhancers, such as dash, wall jump and double jump. If it sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Oh, and there are also upgrades for several of those moves as well. Did I mention there is a lot of content? While options were plenty, I still almost exclusively used the regular nail attacks. I never attacked once with any of the special nail specific moves, nor were the magical attacks up or down ever used, except by accident while trying to do something else. The projectile type “magic” attack also diminished in use over time as nail upgrades made that far more powerful and didn’t use precious “magic” that could be saved for healing.
Not enough yet? There are charms which can be equipped as well. These will augment certain abilities: longer swing, quicker casting time, or even just a compass to see where the heck you might be on the giant map. They do offer some pretty cool combos as well that sometimes will spawn some unique abilities. There are 36 or so of these charms in the game. Geez, almost forgot, there is also a dream nail, which sometimes serves more of a way to dig deeper into the story than anything and occasionally dispatching spirits. So yes, there are options galore.
So as you can see, there is certainly a lot going on, but what about whether it’s good or bad? Let’s start with the maps. They are great, when you have one. That, however, isn’t always the case. Having found the cartographer very quickly in the first area, I mistakenly assumed that he would be easy enough to find in every area. I spent quite a lot of time in the next area searching for him, unsuccessfully. It took just physically mapping out the area on an index card to finally track him down, which at that point was sorta useless to have as I had already mapped out nearly the entire area anyway. The physical mapping of the area was only done after maybe an hour or so of going in circles.
Because each area generally has more than one connection, finding the map can either become a relatively quick and painless experience or a totally blind exercise in just guessing the right way to go. More often than not the cartographer is also in a hidden area within a room. Placement could have been done a bit better in some areas that go more with the natural flow of the game. This, of course, can lead to sometimes extended moments of frustration, but it seems this is going to be corrected a bit with the next patch adding in some paper trails and audio clues to help find the cartographer.
Navigation is really a theme with things that could be done better with Hollow Knight. Far too much time is spent traversing over previously tread upon ground for little to no reward at times. While this might have been due to my own poor decisions in what needed to be done next, some easier travel options would be appreciated. Nearing the end, so much time was spent just getting from one quick travel option to the other. While there is a central hub of sorts where both the Stag beetle routes and tram routes can both be accessed in a closer proximity, they are still somewhat far apart. At this point the enemies along the way don’t cause any grief, but it would be greatly appreciated to have at least one area where those two are much closer together.
The platforming seems to hit a nice medium. While most of the time it is not particularly challenging, the hard sections seem to hit just the right amount of difficulty without going overboard. This, of course, is provided one understands the mechanics of the area. The game is proper old school in that there is little to absolutely zero in the way of explaining a lot of things. I had personally left an area undone for quite some time thinking I did not have the proper tools for the job. But then I was stuck with seemingly no place to go, and only by accidentally swinging my sword downwards did I realize that it was possible to bounce high off the tops of mushrooms.
On the not so good portion of the program, there are a few bugs floating about. No, not the game’s bug-filled lore but rather the kind that can make it difficult to play at times; the most prevalent of which is the occasional lag spike. This is not something that is due to playing with a low spec computer, rather something that effects nearly all users. As mentioned before, Team Cherry is working on fixes for those issues. The beta test of the initial fixes went up right as I was about to take on the final battle. Not wanting to change then, I did not try it out yet, but suffice it to say they are being addressed.
While it can be easier at times to focus on the negative, there is lots of good with the game as well. Yes, the game length can be considered a positive, but also, apart from late game travel, very little time is spent in areas that are just a walk through. The areas generally require quite active participation. This can be a bit exhausting on extended sessions, but you are never left wanting for action. Did I mention that there are at least 30 different bosses?
Most of the fights can be rather challenging. While trying to avoid a Dark Souls comparison till now, it is easiest to just say the major bosses are indeed hard. There will most likely be deaths, sometimes many. The challenge is there, yet it is also not so unforgiving that a single mistake will end any hope of winning. Like with the platforming, a really good balance has been struck between providing enough of a challenge and yet still remaining fair. There is a bit of that Mega Man feel; the nail, like the Mega Buster, can defeat any boss, it just might not be the fastest and most efficient way, but it can still be done. Now that’s something I love about it.
While I’m dispensing some outright love, the art is just fabulous. Hand drawn animations, the whole 9 yards. It looks great. There is a real eeriness to everything. Even areas that are bright and green still exude this odd vibe. It’s all done so fabulously, never really breaking form while showcasing a lot of different environments. Not being one to generally be swayed one way or another by art, I must say it really works well for the game and has made me a fan.
Developer: Team Cherry
Publisher: Team Cherry
Release Date: 24th February 2017