Hollow Knight Review

Developer: Team Cherry

Publisher: Team Cherry

Reviewed for : Nintendo Switch

Played: Around 30 hours, visiting each area and received ”The Hollow Knight” ending.

Hollow Knight is a haunting journey through a dark, treacherous and beautiful world full of surprise, and both hope and horror. Playing as The Knight, Hollow Knight’s enigmatic silent protagonist, you will explore the depths, which alternate between darkness and the light, of the cursed subterranean kingdom known as Hallownest.

All of this is done quite expertly in a way that other games of its genre will ape going forward, if they are wise. I promised myself I would avoid the following terms in this review, there really is no better way to describe games of this ilk… Taking some of the best elements of both Metroidvania and Soulslike titles, Hollow Knight marries the trappings and tropes of these genre’s and makes them it’s own, with its smart, satisfying take on 2D combat, intense platforming and addictive upgrade system.

The basic gameplay loop looks something like this. After a brief tutorial, you are set loose on the semi open world from the starting town of Dirtmouth. From here, you explore the sometimes-scary and always-tense world, encountering the games 100+ enemy types and occasionally a boss encounter (of which there are more than 30). After defeating foes, you will be rewarded with Geo, the games currency, which can be used to buy upgrades and charms back in Dirtmouth and from various other vendors around the labyrinthine world. If you die, you lose a third of your Soul meter and all of your currency will be guarded by a familiar looking shade, who must be defeated to return it and your Soul gauge to their rightful places. Sound familiar?

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All of this is set to what is one of the most evocative and memorable sound tracks to a game I have played in recent memory, whether it be moody strings to set the tone, or one of the orchestral epics that accompany any serious encounter. The art style, while simplistic, is wildly original and constantly surprising… because, and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this in four paragraphs, every character encountered, both friend and foe, are bugs. Tiny, little, lovingly hand drawn insects, from grubs to Rhinoceros beetles, spiders and praying mantises.

Now, there are a bunch of meta-narrative threads that can be drawn upon from this insect conceit, and Hollow Knight does, to some extent. Insects are a great metaphor to draw from, when your story revolves around the nature of freedom and independent thought. Of course this is explored in a lot of games media, albeit usually more so in sci-fi and Android fiction (insects are automaton’s, after all). But I found Hollow Knight’s take on all of this to be charming and refreshing, thanks to its characters, even if it is largely derivative of That-Game-Series-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named plot line, told in a similarly sparse and indirect fashion.

But we don’t play these games for their stories, that’s just a happy addition, at least for me. Hollow Knight is all play, and it plays like a dream. Surprisingly twitchy for a 2D platformer, combat is lightning fast and is so intense I would often forget to breathe during tough encounters. The Knight wields a nail like it was a longsword, and the majority of combat occurs at nail-length. This involves a horizontal slash, a rising vertical slash and a downward slash reminiscent of earlier Zelda and Ducktales titles. That is to say, that this downward strike has the added bonus of pogoing the player upwards, which can used both tactically during in encounters and also in exploration.

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To complement this, The Knight also has several Soul spells at his command, although they are unlocked over the course of the game. Soul is a resource gained by striking enemies, and it can be expended to power the aforementioned abilities, which are really the players only ranged option. To further complicate this, you can expend a third of the Soul gauge to heal one mask (Hollow Knights term for hitpoints). This healing is further FURTHER complicated by a brief charge up period, during which, if any damage is taken, then a mask is lost, along with whatever Soul was used to begin the process.

Which brings us to the charms and notches system, which I think is how Hollow Knight has kept me playing nearly 10 hours after rolling credits. Each charm has a unique effect, whether that be something mundane like increasing the nail’s reach, or increasing attack speed… to something dramatic, like exuding a dung beetles toxic odor, or spawning miniature versions of The Knight that will launch kamikaze attacks on any nearby enemies. These charms take up a certain number of notches, with you having a very limited capacity at the start of the game, this number increasing as you progress through the game and allowing for more complex setups. And this really is my favorite part of the game – build construction. You can build The Knight in a, quite frankly, absurd number of ways. Want to pump out melee damage, or increase your magic output? Easy. But how about something a little more exotic?

The example I used earlier was a build I played around with. My Knight had a toxic cloud following him at all times, that would damage any enemies that  where caught in it. And he would constantly spawn little Knights that would seek out enemies and destroy those out of reach. I had this coupled with the ability to heal quicker, and upon successfully healing my little guy would dispense a large cloud of toxic spores due to a mushroom charm I had picked up… I threw in a couple of nail buffs and I had something that worked form.  All of that on it own is well and good, but the true genius of this system are the secret synergies that underpin the whole thing. At no point in the game are you told this, and it entourages experimentation and its super fun to discover different combos. Those mini Knights, once coupled with the toxic cloud, explode on impact and leave miniature noxious cloud behind, and the effect of the mushroom too is similarly enhanced.

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It’s that sense of exploration that truly makes Hollow Knight so spectacular, both from a narrative standpoint, and from a technical one. There is a mastery here, that is truly special, and I can wait to see what Team Cherry come up with next. With Hollow Knight, they have set the bar incredibly high, and I think I will be comparing games with far larger budgets and teams to it for a very long time. I could leave you with a metaphor about an ant lifting its own weight many times over, but instead, just go out and pickup Hollow Knight. It’s incredible.

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Celeste Review

Keep Climbing

Developer: Matt Makes Games

Publisher: Matt Makes Games

Reviewed for: Nintendo Switch

Played: Around 15 Hours

 

 

Celeste is a game about climbing a mountain, both figuratively and literally. It’s also a tough as nails hardcore platformer, the likes of which I have never encountered before. And while it can be tough, it`s mostly fair. I had more than a couple of deaths due to the precise timing required by the game, but I suppose that could be a failing of the hardware I was using (attached Joycons).

Developed and published by Matt Makes Games, based out of Canada and consisting mostly of the titular Matt Thorson and a small team of his friends, Matt Makes Games have delivered an impressive title in Celeste, and won widespread acclaim for its charming mix of retro visuals, hardcore platforming mechanics and heartfelt story.

At it`s core, Celeste nails its central conceit, which is trial and error. You as the player will die over and over again searching for the solution to the complex jumping puzzles that are presented in each of the games eight or so levels. Every level has its own set of rules or obstacles, be it a strong wind that constantly forces you backwards, or platforms that will collapse underneath you.

That may not sound revolutionary, but its the precision and timing that is required to progress that I found to be the most rewarding. Celeste doesn’t pull any punches, and while there is an assist mode that can help players that are struggling with some of the games more diabolical challenges, the adrenaline felt after completing a complex sequence is the games true reward.

And you will die. Constantly. Literally hundreds of times. My final death counter (helpfully, or maybe sadistically displayed after each level) was just shy of a thousand after my first run through the game. I don’t even know if that is a lot, as I felt like I played pretty well, and didn’t feel like I got bogged down too often. Thankfully you re-spawn instantly, which really helps with experimentation, as you rarely lose more than a few seconds progress.

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The world of Celeste is told through it’s charming art style and snappy dialogue. There aren’t a lot of cut scenes, per se, but I looked forward to dialogue between the central characters. But while the witty exchanges characters engage in was great, the story itselfactually fell a little flat for me, honestly. It beats you over the head with its central theme, over and over again and with little subtlety: Depression is like climbing a mountain, and you just have to keep climbing to get out!

Which is a shame, because Madeline is a likeable enough character, but you learn very little about her. Every cliche metaphor for learning to love the parts of yourself that you don’t like is relayed through her and thrown at you the player with very little unique commentary on mental illness. Supporting characters like the loveable hiker Theo were interesting if also a little underdeveloped. I haven’t unlocked the games true ending, which requires quite a bit of grinding, but I wouldn’t expect even the ending to make up for the games sloppy handling of what is admittedly a hard concept to nail down, let alone in a platformer.

In summation, Celeste is a spectacular platformer that is well worth any Switch owners time. Hell it’s worth any gamer’s time, as its available on a bunch of platforms. I wish it was a bit more in depth in regards to the narrative, but it’s mechanics are rock solid and addictive, and it’s art style and soundtrack really set the bar incredibly high for whatever Matt Makes Games decide to do next. I cant wait to see what they do next.

 

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment Review

Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment is the latest expansion to the fantastic retro platformer – Shovel Knight. Much more than just a rehash of the base game, Specter of Torment stands on its own thanks to its twitchy new move-set and badass boss encounters. It is standalone, and can be played independently of the original campaign, and is provided for free by the wonderful folks over at Yacht Club Games.

Specter of Torment doesn’t reinvent the Shovel Knight wheel, and that’s a good thing. At first glance you might think that its more along the lines of Yacht Club’s first expansion, Plague of Shadows, which I personally bounced off of. Its not, and that’s largely because Specter of Torment features eight brand new levels, as opposed to Plague of Shadow’s remixed stages from the base game.

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But the real draw here is the protagonist of Specter of Torment, the enigmatic Specter Knight himself. In the original Shovel of Hope campaign, Spectre Knight was my favourite boss encounter, and its a real treat to play as him here. His move set is completely unique, and it makes navigating through these surprisingly difficult stages a delight. This is a hardcore platformer, and a major part of that is due to one of Specter Knights most important new techniques, the Dash Slash. Requiring precision timing, the Dash Slash manoeuvre is initiated in mid-air, and cause’s Specter Knight to fly through the air in a vicious diagonal arc, damaging enemies and allowing the player access to normally out of reach areas. It’s simple enough to begin with and is fun and fluid to use, but some of the later level’s demand a mastery of this technique that was surprising. I was constantly impressed with the way Specter of Torment kept this mechanic fresh and innovative throughout the 3-4 hours it took me to complete the campaign.

The music and art style are much the same as in the original, with the 8-bit tunes getting some remixes. Both are of fantastic quality, which isn’t really surprising considering the love and attention Yacht Club has evidently poured into the base game. The Shovel Knight games really are a love-letter to a genre of games they are almost single-handedly responsible for reinvigorating. The story line was nice enough, told through flashback sequences interspersed between the regular levels. Its a little bit darker than the original’s narrative, and actually sets up the events of the main game, but it isn’t quite as memorable. Shovel Knight and Shield Knights tale was surprisingly heartwarming, and while Specter of Torment tells a serviceable tale, it really isn’t the main draw here.

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Spectre Knight also receives a full complement of new abilities, or curios as they are known. There is a decent variety here, from various projectiles to the ability to fly and even summon a skeleton ally. Personally I found the healing ability to be essential, and maybe even a little overpowered, as I barely found the need to use the more offensive powers. Red skulls are scattered throughout the game that allow the purchase of these abilities, and collecting them all can be really challenging, and some are fiendishly well hidden. This all adds to the games replayability, along with a much appreciated new game plus mode.

Specter of Torment is a super fun way to experience the already awesome Shovel Knight universe. If you haven’t played the original, you really should do that first, as its the contrast with the original that makes Specter of Torment feel truly unique. And if you do own the original, then you really have no excuse not to jump back in here. The series trademark humour and heart are on full display, and here’s hoping it continues with the upcoming King Knight expansion!

K.