Hollow Knight review
Hollow Knight is a Dark Souls-inspired metroidvania. By "Dark Souls-inspired" I mean almost everything: its world, its themes, its characters, its dialogue system, and its death system. As such I'm going to be constantly comparing it with Dark Souls. However unlike Dark Souls I have a favorable view of this game.
Dark Souls review
As a Dark Souls wannabe, the combat is melee-focused dodge-and-poke action, however unlike other Souls-family games there is no block or parry; only dodging, with a variety of movement options acquired throughout the game (such as horizontal dash, double jump, and wall climbing) allowing it to fill the void. Hollow Knight is also a platformer and occasionally mixes this with combat for something fresh.
Unusually for the Dark Souls family, there's remarkably little trial and error. Enemy telegraphs and hitboxes are mostly intuitive, and there aren't a lot of unexplained subtleties about your own abilities like in Sekiro.
Trial and error
The difficulty is a significant step down from the family, which may be welcome if you aren't a veteran of this type of combat. Personally I found it slightly underwhelming - there was only 1 fight in my whole playthrough that I failed more than twice.
Pretty much my only issue with the combat is that you can't see enemies' health. When combined with certain bosses that have way more health that expected, this leads to unnecessarily stressful fights.
Thank god, they did away with experience! You don't gradually become stronger from killing mobs. You do get Geo (money), which is sometimes used to buy combat upgrades, but you generally have enough Geo to get all the available ones.
Instead of grinding, your stat growth mostly comes from exploration (new movement options are mostly rewards for bosses). Many stat upgrades are found in side paths, many after hard platforming.
Another thing that's really cool about this game is the prevalence of non-vertical upgrades. A lot of upgrades come in the form of *charms* which you can equip a limited number of at once, and there's plenty of non-trivial decisions there! Charms even balance different power levels by occupying different numbers of slots.
No quantitative information
Are we surprised? For an RPG? I don't think so, but goddamnit.
Charms don't show you the quantitative information about what they do, so you can't make informed choices except by trying them both out. Mitigating this, many charms are rewards for exploration rather than purchase, so no committal is involved, and as above, Geo is not a huge issue.
Death and saving
As I mentioned, it basically clones the Dark Souls death system: when you die you return to the last bench you rested at, with all of your Geo gone, and also your soul (mana) meter is cracked and its capacity is reduced. In the place you died is your "shade", a weak enemy that looks like you and killing it recovers your Geo and repairs your soul meter. If you die again before killing the shade, the Geo is gone forever (luckily that never happened to me).
A major improvement over Dark Souls is that when you die in a boss fight, the shade usually spawns in such a position that you can lure it out and kill it without triggering the boss.
It is still annoying that bosses don't have benches nearby so you have to redo a long trek back to the arena for each try, but less problematic than in Dark Souls because you are much more mobile than most enemies so you can easily run past the ones on the way to the boss.
Also, there are no consumables to lose!
The respawning when you fall (which only takes 1 hit) is wonky. The standard in non-instakill platformers is that you go back to the last stable ground you were on, but in Hollow Kinght you sometimes go back several stable grounds, sometimes just 1, or sometimes you respawn on the platform you just failed to reach!
I never expected much from the story because I knew it's a Dark Souls game, and as such it has a silent protagonist. But I was a little surprised by just how closely the whole thing is cloned from Dark Souls. It is almost pathetic: the lore is filled with *knights*, *kings*, a ruined kingdom, light and dark, and a force that's driving people insane, just like hollowing from Dark Souls. Oh and someone who sacrificed himself to the infection to contain it. Oh and it ends with... well I won't spoil that much.
Also... like... erm, Dark Souls, no attempt is made to really explain the story in-game, not even at its end. I learned the story from a fan wiki.
The ending - at least the one I got, which based on the wiki is probably what most people get on their first playthrough - was abrupt and very unsatisfying. I went into the end expecting a big boss and story moment but not *the end*. The only reason I even knew when I was fighting the final boss was because I knew from someone else playing the game what its name was. There were a bunch of things I'd seen that were never resolved: a type of obstacle I encountered early in the game that I kept expecting the next movement ability I got would let me pass but never did, and I never found a use for a super grandiose macguffin I got with super grandiose flavor text.
Those things do have resolutions, but I learned from the wiki that it would've required a ton of work to see most of it and unlock the other endings.
There is also a significant story thread that is foreshadowed and just dropped: multiple references to the king being ruthless and it being hopeless to stand against him, setting up the expectation that the player will eventually do just that, but nothing like that happens in any ending.
Can't end the review without mentioning this. The game has a mandatory spider dungeon which was very problematic for me with my phobia of webs. I managed to get through it by attaching an external keyboard to my laptop so I could sit farther away from the screen, but it was still very uncomfortable and I'm lucky there are no mandatory bosses in that area. So, consider yourself warned if you are arachnophobic.
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