Hollow from the other side, I must have died a thousand times
I got my Nintendo Switch day one and I've put around 10 hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, the latest game from my favorite series. Not because I don't love it, but because I've been obsessed with Hollow Knight. It is that damned good.
In a year that has been absolutely filled to the brim with great games, I can say Hollow Knight is hands down without a doubt in my mind my favorite and surely an early contender for game of the year.
Hollow Knight (Nintendo Switch, PC [reviewed])
Developer: Team Cherry
Publisher: Team Cherry
Released: February 24, 2017 (PC), TBA (Nintendo Switch)
Hollow Knight is a beautifully hand-drawn metroidvania that is equal parts fun, difficult, cute, and horrifying. All of the 100-plus characters are animated to be adorable and/or hideous, and the different areas of the humongous map each have their own art styles with some of the best use of parallax I've ever seen. One area has ghosts floating in the foreground, while others have sprawling jungles or caves with layers that move independently of each other to create much livelier levels than most 2D games can offer. After only seeing videos and screenshots of the game's first area, a dreary cave where everything is a shade of blue, I had my breath taken away the moment I got to the second area, a jungle. It was so colorful and alive.
On top of that, the soundtrack is one of the most memorable and whimsical scores I've heard in a long time. There are tracks here that I'd rank beside the music of Zelda and Star Wars. It is that damned good. Even the general sound design is great, as every enemy has different realistic scuttling sounds, and many characters speak in seemingly made-up languages I found myself quoting by the end of the game. One character you'll constantly run into is a cartographer, who can always be located by following pieces of paper found on the ground and the song he hums. In most games buying maps is possibly one of the most boring experiences, but in Hollow Knight, I got excited every time I heard the faint hum of the cartographer from afar, growing louder as I got closer to his often hidden locations.
The game takes place in an underground kingdom of bugs where many heroes have ventured for various reasons, yet never returned. Players assume the role of an adorable little insect (a beetle?) armed with nothing but a nail, which just happens to be the size of a sword for a bug. Why is this cutie venturing into the forgotten kingdom? It isn't clear at the beginning but the truth soon reveals itself in a lore that leaves a lot up to interpretation, in my opinion, but that is not a bad thing at all. Being spoon fed is not always the best way to take in a story.
Speaking of not being spoon fed, Hollow Knight encourages you to go explore as you wish. Most areas of the map are accessible early on, with certain areas in them only being accessible after acquiring items and abilities elsewhere. This meant that by the time I'd reached the credits for the first time, which took me 27 well-spent hours, I was pretty comfortable navigating most of the kingdom without looking at my map. Backtracking to areas I'd been never felt tedious. Along the way I'd be killing enemies to collect Geo, the in-game currency, as well as discovering previously unreachable areas and secrets, including a slew of challenging bosses.
Bosses aren't pushovers, even with grinding to get some of the better equipment to help out. Reflexes are definitely put to the test, especially considering most bosses are unique in their move sets, meaning each of the 30 boss battles provide a whole new challenge to overcome. Players that get frustrated easily might be turned off by some of the difficulty, but I never found any of the bosses to be unfair in their tactics. I can safely say this is one of the only games where I felt a sense of accomplishment after every single boss was slain, because there were no cheap tactics to speak of, be it on the player's part or the bosses'.
Thankfully the controls here are tight, responsive, and on point. By the end of the game you'll be dodging, double jumping, slicing, dicing, shooting projectiles, and charging up attacks with ease and finesse. Mechanically you'll find most of the things you'd expect in the genre, but the one big difference here is the Dark Souls-like ghost you leave behind when dying. This ghost of your former self must be slain to regain the money you were carrying when you died, as well as make your 'bug juice holder' complete again. 'Bug juice,' as I've taken to calling it, is used to heal at any time by holding a button. This process takes a few seconds to start up and complete, meaning you'll be hard-pressed to do it during most battles, but boy did I find ways to do it during boss fights since it is almost necessary unless you're a golden god of gaming.
I love both of those mechanics. They circumvent a couple of issues games have always had, namely appropriate punishment for failing, and a risk-reward system. In most games when you die, you're forced to redo a portion of a level, or even to start from the very beginning, but here you're simply spawned back at the most recent save point -- in this case benches that are all begging to be screenshotted -- and tasked with making it back to where you died and slaying your ghost. Dying before you get there means losing all of your money, which sucks, but I'd argue is a good punishment. It drives players to try their best at all times. The same could be said about healing, especially during boss fights, as you've got to find the perfect moment to heal.
Another thing to love about Hollow Knight is the wealth of content. At 28 hours, I finished the game with around 85% completion rating, getting the bad ending. Judging by how much I still have left to discover, plus the two other endings I know exist, I could easily see myself ending up taking somewhere around 35 hours to 100% the game. This includes finding equitable charms that act as abilities, upgrades, and buffs, rescuing cute caterpillar babies, taking out optional bosses, and talking to a mysterious mushroom person among other things. I can't stress just how much there is to do and find here, with all of it feeling worthwhile and exciting. I guess you could say the game is anything but hollow -- on the contrary, it is cram-packed.
If it isn't clear, Hollow Knight is not only what I'd say is the best game so far this year, it also very well may be the best metroidvania title out there right now, and it is easily one of my favorite games of all-time. Truly a masterpiece of gaming if there ever was one, and certainly art worthy of being in a museum. This fact is even more impressive when you consider the game only pulled in around $43,000 USD on Kickstarter and was made by a very small team of indie developers. Having played it on PC, I'll probably revisit it once it eventually comes to the Nintendo Switch at a yet-to-be-determined date, hopefully with an amiibo to boot (make it happen, Team Cherry!).
For a moment there I thought I was growing out of video games, but damn has this past six months restored my faith thanks to Hollow Knight, Owlboy, and Breath of the Wild. We are truly living in a new golden age of gaming.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game purchased by the reviewer.]
Hollow Knight reviewed by Jed Whitaker
No game is perfect, but comes as close as it could get within its genre. The new game to beat in its sector; we're talking pure video game ecstasy.
How we score: The Destructoid Reviews Guide