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.

Dark Souls 3: The Fire Fades Review

Let The Feast Begin

Developer: FromSoftware

Publisher: Bandai Namco

Reviewed for: PC and PS4

Played: 100+ hours

 

So much has been written about Dark Souls, and the Souls series as a whole, that its really quite hard to come at it fresh. By now, we know of the series’ legendary difficulty and the impenetrable lore that is hidden so deviously throughout its massive game worlds. Its asynchronous multiplayer is unique in games, and the formula (Fromula?) that has made the series so iconic has been aped by so many games now that “Soulslike” has even become its own genre. 

But even with all that said, there is just something so compelling about the complete package. The Fire Fades Edition collects Dark Souls 3 and its subsequent DLC offerings, Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City, into one enormous game that can easily eat up all of your free time and most of your sanity, if you let it. We are talking about dozens of areas, bosses, NPC’s, and hundreds of items and weapons and armour sets. All of this is built upon one of the most satisfying combat systems I’ve ever played, which somehow manages to keep combat encounters fresh and exciting right up until the credits roll.

This is due in part to the fantastic gameplay loop that has been the hallmark of the franchise. You as the player enter a horrifying nightmare-scape of an area, timidly encounter fearsome foes, and usually die a couple of times experimenting how best to engage said foes. As you become more proficient at foe slaying, you accumulate the souls that are used to strengthen your character and purchase items and equipment, but lose them if you die. You are given one chance to reclaim your souls, but die again and they are gone for good. And while the bonfires that act as the games checkpoint system allow for quick travel and a welcome reprieve from the oppressive kingdom of Lothric, they also cause most enemies in the game to respawn. It’s a simple loop, but its so very effective at building the tension that I find so addictive. Do I push on, for glory and untold spoils, or do I play it safe and retreat, only to have to play through an area again? Couple that with the fact that most of the time new areas can only be accessed after defeating some hideous boss creature, this element of risk and reward is incredibly engaging, and I subsequently spent most of my time playing on the very edge of my seat.

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This last title takes us to the kingdom of Lothric in which, like Lordran and Drangleic before it, things have gone very much awry. As the Ashen One, an Undead who has been awoken by the tolling of bells, it is your duty to seek out the Lords of Cinder and return them to their vacant thrones, by force as it turns out. The story is really open to interpretation and a whole community has sprung up around the lore of the series. After rolling credits I immediately fell down a rabbit hole of lore videos, in particular I enjoyed Vaatividya’s analysis and would highly recommend them. But something that isn’t brought up often enough in relation to the narrative is the quality of the voice acting, which is totally off the charts. NPC’s in the Soul’s really sell this grim-dark universe, and they range from the incredibly morose to the surprisingly comedic.

What I like most about the various narrative threads and quest lines in Dark Souls 3 is that not only are most of them optional, I was in fact not even aware several story lines existed on my first playthough. It was only after failing them, for apparently no reason, that I became aware there was more going on here than meets the eye. Unless certain prerequisites are met, NPC’s can die or simply just vanish from the central hub of the game (Firelink Shrine). And while some players might find that frustrating, this is a game that lends itself to repeat playthroughs, what with its multiple endings and near infinite build options and new game plus modes. Getting to see some of the more obscure story lines play out was incredibly satisfying, even if some of the triggers for certain events will be missed by the vast majority of players.

While a lot of players may have experienced the base game at launch, myself included, From’d DLC offerings are reason enough to plan a return journey to Lothric. The first, Ashes of Ariandel, was a tad too short for my liking. It more than made up for it with its fantastic final boss fight though, which is unique amongst all bosses in the Souls series. Set inside a universe contained within a painting, Ariandel is a land of frozen forests and wild beasts that mirrors the horrors of the outside world. It has a Norse aesthetic that is used effectively, and its sombre narrative provides an interesting trail of breadcrumbs that lead  directly into the second piece of DLC. I was expecting them to be self contained tales, and I was pleasantly surprised to find out how intrinsically they are linked.

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The monster design is up to par with the base game, and in particular the Corvian Knights are a ferocious surprise for the unwary. Similarly, the packs of deadly wolves that prowl the opening woodlands signal to each other and hound the player relentlessly. Less impressive are the groups of Follower enemies, inspired by the Undead Legion of Farron, who just feel a little too similar to basic soldier type enemies we have seen throughout the series.

The Ringed City, conversely, nails its environments and smaller enemies encounters but somewhat drops the ball in its boss fights. The journey through the Slag Heap is exciting and provides a real challenge to players with its combination of deadly environments and Angel enemies, that had me flashing back PTSD style to the first Dark Souls Anor Londo and its infamous Silver Knight archers. Upon reaching the Ringed City proper, the DLC really hits its stride both in gameplay and from a narrative standpoint. And while I was fascinated by the lore implications of what transpires in the closing moments of The Ringed City, which really wraps up the Soul’s series as a whole, it is ultimately let down by its final boss fight. While suitably difficult, after eventually slaying this final foe, I found myself kind of confused. The encounter didn’t feel like a final boss fight, so much so that I spent another hour or so searching for a path I may have missed, and I ultimately was left feeling unsatisfied, which isn’t what you want to come away from a game feeling.

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Dark Souls 3: The Fire Fades is a fantastic title that will keep players playing for hours on end, and long until the night. Ashes of Ariandel and The Ringed City complement the base game perfectly, and even if they don’t live up to it in terms of narrative and boss encounters, are a meaty addition to an already lengthy game. And it is content worth exploring, for the brave and skilled alike, and for the ash that seeketh embers.

Yes, indeed.