Metroidvania must be the most popular genre of video game that has almost no representation amongst traditional big budget retail releases. And given how long it’s been since there was a new entry, that includes both Metroid and Castlevania. The Batman: Arkham games count, or at least the first one does, but other than that almost all Metroidvania games are indie titles. In fact, we’ve got another still to review this week, in the form of Blaster Master Zero. But we wanted to get this one done first, even if it is full of bugs.
Hollow Knight was released on Steam last month, and is due to launch on Switch later this year. But we have to admit that until a week or so ago we’d never seen or heard of it before. Apparently Australian developer Team Cherry attracted the equivalent of £36,000 in funding from Kickstarter, but if that’s all they needed to make such a gorgeous-looking game then truly video game budgets are completely out of control.
The game’s animation and art design is fantastic, and we say that despite having a general aversion to anything with more than four legs. But every Metroidvania needs a theme, and rather than Mexican luchadors or genie pirates Hollow Knight’s is… bugs. Everyone’s a bug in the cursed town of Dirtmouth, and you play as the titular knight who arrives to explore the secrets of a lost underground kingdom. So kind of like Bloodborne but with invertebrates.
We do not make the comparison to From Software’s masterpiece in jest, as the gloomy, doom-laden halls of the underworld create a melancholic mood that is highly reminiscent of their work; despite the fact that everyone you meet is a cartoon insect. This is clearly not a coincidence, as the game handles death in a very similar way to Dark Souls – forcing you to revisit the spot where you died, and fight an enemy, to regain your items.
Like all Metroidvanias, you start out with very little in the way of equipment, weapons, or abilities and must instead earn them as you progress. So while you’re free to explore the game world however you want, many areas will be inaccessible until you have the proper tools to do so. Hollow Knight makes things more difficult than usual though, by refusing to give you any map or compass to point you in the right direction. Instead you have to buy maps from friendly bugs and work out your own plan for exploration.
Hollow Knight is not an easy game, but despite the parallels with Dark Souls et al. it’s not punishingly hard to the same degree. Death can come quickly during combat but it’s fast and enjoyable, with a great sense of impact courtesy of the excellent animation and sound effects. The boss battles are particularly good, with a wide variety in enemy designs and the techniques needed to defeat them. The platform design is generally good too, although the overreliance on a difficult-to-pull-off downward slash is the game’s most consistent point of frustration.
Generally speaking, Hollow Knight is a game without major problems, thanks to its flawless presentation, a haunting soundtrack, and more spit and polish than the average triple-A game. And yet disappointingly Hollow Knight is also just about as innovative as the average big budget blockbuster. Which is to say not very innovative at all.
Strip away the insect motif and clever graphics, and most of the abilities that you pick up are a disappointingly predictable collection of standard platforming techniques like double-jumping, ground pounds, and wall jumps. There are a few more original ideas, such as being able to use collected energy from a successful attack to heal yourself or perform a more powerful move. But even that has a whiff of Bloodborne about it.
The question of how important originality is to any new game is largely a question of personal taste, but Hollow Knight offers some compelling mitigation for its lack of innovation: the gorgeous presentation and the insanely low asking price. There’s no question that Hollow Knight is hugely enjoyable and great value for money. But if its gameplay had been as imaginative as its visuals it could have been a genuine classic.