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Hollow Knight – Metroidvania done right

Extensive analysis

 

Not necessarily new

During my childhood, my best friend lived a couple of houses down the street.

He was lucky enough to own a NES, and after school we used to play many a game at his place. Because of the lack in computing power, the vast majority of these games were experienced in 2D. It is where my love for 2D games (and games in general) started to grow. The Mario Bros. and Double Dragon series for example, are burned into my memory. In retrospective, the first game that I played which closely resembles Hollow Knight was Capcom’s Gargoyles Quest. Gargoyles Quest wasn’t released on the NES (Gargoyles Quest II was) but on the monochrome Game Boy system. My two brothers and I adopted one of these systems along with Gargoyles Quest upon their European release back in 1991, and we used to take turns playing because we only owned one system (darn it I’m getting old). Good times!

Gargoyle’s Quest’s Game Boy cartridge

Both Gargoyles Quest and Hollow Knight (the Metroidvania-style game from which I am about to share my experiences with you) offer 2D platform-action oriented gameplay, RPG-style leveling, and a mysterious and eerie musical score. Oh yeah, and there’s also a vast amount of content and good level of challenge to be found in both of these games. So, prepare to die a lot!

Did you feel repelled after reading this, or did it raise your curiosity instead? In either case, both of these games are superlative gems within the Metroidvania genre!

Keep on reading to find out our initial impressions on Nintendo Switch and discover how the game plays and feels.

Hollow Knight is full of bugs

(pun intended)

The game starts off with a mysterious text. After that we see Hollow Knight, the main character, drop into a pit. This is where our adventure starts.

The quirky high-res art style, fluid animations (with lots of attention to detail) and tight responsive controls are the first things that come to mind when thinking back about playing the opening scene. Every time the Y Button is tapped Hollow Knight strikes with his ‘’nail’’, triggering a pleasant swoosh sound in turn. The nail is Hollow Knight’s main weapon and seems, seen our hero’s title and usage of the artifact, meant to be the equivalent of a sword. Team Cherry seemed keen on keeping things original however, because the design appears to resemble more of a jousting lance instead. Because of the satisfying sound the nail emits and some breakable environmental details around the cave, we found ourselves tapping the Y Button over and over again. We soon discover the nail can be used to strike above and (when airborne) underneath Hollow Knight too, simply by pressing down the Directional Buttons and tapping the Y Button. This should come in handy when surrounded by enemies! Venturing further through these grottos our inevitable first enemy encounters take place – a few crawling critters and flying insects that ooze colorful body fluids each time they get bashed. They die and curl inwards with a pleasing death-splat animation and sound after being slain. Speaking of which. The grim, bug infested kingdom in which Hollow Knight takes place is called Hallownest.

This didn’t strike us as a particularly interesting videogame setting at first, but we’re glad team Cherry proved us completely wrong. A lot of insects resemble their real-life counterparts, seem animated in a generous number of frames, and sometimes sport some black magic, weapons or armor to complement the setting.

Now back to the caves, where our journey starts!

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When we get hit by an enemy, falling stalactite, or when we accidentally drop our hero on a stalagmite in the cave, we’ll notice that one of the little white alien head shaped icons in the upper-left part of the screen shatters and turns dark. Those icons are called life shards. We’ll be able to collect more of them later on in the game. On the left side of the life shards we’ll notice a round container. After killing an enemy, this container gets filled with a white energy called SOUL. If the container contains enough SOUL we can tap into the energy by holding down the A Button. It will restore one or (depending on how long we press down the button) more life shards. Further down the road we’ll even be able to employ SOUL to perform other actions to aid us in our quest.

The way in which consumption and regeneration of SOUL takes place feels really well balanced out. We were continually using the gathered SOUL to regenerate our health and it hardly ever happened that both all of our life shards and the SOUL container were full for a longer period of time. There’s some platforming to do and enemies to beat before you we are able to exit the first cave. After this we see Hollow Knight jump down a cliff and we fall down in a similar way as was the case in the beginning of the game, only to reach a village this time around.

Dirtmouth

There’s no dirt in your eyes, the village is called Dirtmouth! Founded by a mud munching millipede, perhaps? In any case, we definitely don’t mind Dirtmouth being a part of Hallownest because it functions as a safe haven. Non-hostile bugs live here, some of which offer goods or services in exchange for Geo. The inhabitants will also have a chat with us and might sometimes offer some advice.

As you might have guessed, Geo is the main currency used in Hallownest. It typically gets dropped after beating enemies, but sometimes we might stumble across a secret area (by bashing a brittle wall, floor or ceiling for example). In these secret areas we might find a pile of Geo. The pile will fall apart after hitting it a couple of times with our nail, allowing us to gather and acquire the Geo.

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One of Dirthmouth’s shopkeepers is offering us, among other things, our first charm. A charm is an artifact that can be equipped by pressing the – Button. It will summon the Charms menu, which shows us the perk or ability our charm offers and it will allow for assigning it to one of our charm slots.

Gamers that are accustomed with how the materia system in all-time classic Final Fantasy VII works will feel right at home in Hollow Knight – the Charms menu operates in a very similar way. Just like in Final Fantasy VII we can boost abilities even further when certain charms are simultaneously equipped. Hollow Knight differs from the latter though in that it only allows for Charms to be equipped when we are at a save point. These save points come in the form of benches, and our first bench is waiting for us right in the middle of Dirtmouth.

The first save bench which we’ll get access to is located in the center of Dirtmouth.

Dirtmouth is one of few areas located above the soil.

Once the village’s elevator takes us underneath the ground, we will discover the hostile environment that awaits us there…

And this is the part where we should write about all the things that we did in Hallownest in order to appetize you for playing the game. But we choose not to do so. We consciously choose not to so in order to leave these adventures untold, for yourself to experience.

What happens underground, stays underground!

 

The path of pain

One of many reasons why this title has a special place in our gamer’s heart, is that it made us face (and almost conquer) the most difficult challenge we ever faced in any videogame, appropriately called the Path of pain

After accidentally locating it, we discovered how to get access to it. This stuff is hard as nails!! And it turned out, that its purpose was only meant to serve as an introduction on what to come. We repeatedly got served small but incredibly difficult segments of platform action. Each completed section activates a checkpoint, and we died many hundreds of times before making it to the end. A boss was waiting for us patiently at the conclusion of the last section and it was clearly deprived from food for too long, as it managed to slay us in less than two minutes. After that, we discovered team Cherry blessed the boss’ weapon with the ability to send us back to the beginning of the Path of pain (it was only then that we realized the true meaning of this levels’ name). Brain activity reached an all-time low as we kept staring powerless and discouraged at the screen for a couple of minutes without ever blinking our eyes. Disbelieve got briefly replaced by hatred during the course of a few minutes as we vowed never to try a shot at the path of pain again. We decided that the Path of pain is the most sadistic and brutal thing we almost conquered in any videogame (and despite getting killed by that boss we also decided to count reaching the end of the Path of pain as our biggest game-related achievement to date, period).


When you recognize you’re in this area, you know you’re pretty much screwed.

 

Conclusion

We clearly remember our first thoughts on the game prior to its release, as we checked out one of its short official video trailers. Hollow Knight initially left us rather unimpressed. The protagonist with the big head, big eyes and weird little horns had so much action crammed into its short debut-trailer that our guess on the game was ‘’Probably another one-in-a-dozen eShop titles screaming for attention’’. But instead, we came to the conclusion that the saying ‘’Do not judge a book by its cover’’ never lost its relevance.

Whenever we descended deeper in the countless tunnels of Hallownest’s kingdom, the lack of means to navigate them efficiently led us to become disoriented quite a few times. Taking the already challenging difficulty level into account, we can imagine that some people might feel a bit discouraged early on in the game. We are happy to let you know however, that the process of navigating that world will become increasingly efficient.

Our thirst to explore Hallownest’s beautiful handcrafted 2D world kept being fueled by the challenges of each new world and non-stop Geo drops. We barely had to deal with loading times and when they were there, they were usually short. We found the (limited) use of colors throughout the game to stimulate our imagination while adding a layer of eccentricity to the game.

After reading some of the other online reviews we occasionally found ourselves baffled with the mild praise that some of our colleagues had for the game (we’ve read understatements like ‘It is worth its 15 euro’’ or ‘’An enjoyable title, we would recommend it’’).

There are numerous unique bosses and enemies to encounter, all with characteristics and fight patterns that have to be figured out in order to advance in the game. And when we venture deeper in the kingdom of Hallownest, more reasons are added. The sheer number of unique enemies (think 100+!) and moving details in the foreground and/or background makes the game feel vibrant and organic, not to mention challenging.

Although the game can be labelled as highly challenging, it is clear from the get-go that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Evidence in this is found in the graphical style and subtle use of humor throughout the game. What can be taken serious however, is how Hollow Knight’s no-bullshit gameplay, responsive controls, enormous variety in enemies and the both huge and detailed Metroidvania-style world blend together. After 56 satisfying hours of exploration and waging battle, we proved able enough to make it to the final boss and see the end credits roll (game completion rate 78%).

 

Verdict

It’s not hard to imagine that it might have been a daunting task for team Cherry to capture the game’s essence in a short trailer. It’s an incredible entertainment product that’ll reserve a place in your long-term memory after completion – with as cherry on top of team Cherry’s cake its 15 Euro price point (sometimes even a dwarfing 10 Euro when it’s on offer).

 

Pros

👍  Tough but fair – platform and battle aspects are equally challenging and satisfying

👍  Highly atmospheric due to exceptional piano, violin and sometimes rock infused score and tasteful high-res art-style

👍  Unique setting and huge number of different bugs to battle

👍  Tight controls and absence of lengthy control and game-mechanic tutorials

👍  Rich in content – insane value for money

 

Cons

🐛  The game’s story was so cryptic that we couldn’t figure it out

🐛  Occasional screen lag while playing in undocked mode

🐛  Gamers looking for a casual experience might want to look elsewhere

Hollow Knight, the equivalent of what honey is to a bee (or dung to a dung beetle):

Highly recommended!

9/10

Review by Dion van Oeteren
on 31 Jan, 2019

Originally released 12 Jun, 2018

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Super Mario Odyssey – Still elevating platforming

Analysis

 

Potency of the platformer

The games industry evolved al lot in the last decades and the times in which publishers focus their efforts primarily on platform games are behind us. Why would the genre remain relevant? To answer that question, we need to take into consideration what differentiates these games from other game genres. In a well-designed platform game, we barely have to learn anything to play. The story is usually subordinate, so there’s little between us and the gameplay. And because of their simplicity and accessibility they’re well suited to enjoy in short bursts of gameplay – perfect to unwind after a long day of (whatever gets you stressed)! And seen the fact everyone’s increasingly busy… You get the point.

Fair enough, it’s not exclusively platform games that check these boxes (think casual games, and sometimes fighting or racing games). It is the continuous flow of great new Super Mario (Bros.) entries that has managed to keep this videogame saga on the favorites list of platform-game fanatics around the world for the last two decades though. The Kyoto based company managed to grow an unparalleled reputation as developer of platform games – the Mario series are synonymous with quality. Does this latest Nintendo Switch reiteration do justice to the legacy of the plumb plumber?

 

Turtle shell wedding hell

After having started the game we get a pleasantly fresh and crisp title screen. One or two player mode? After selecting ‘One player mode’ a gorgeous and cute looking cut-scene appears.

Bowser likes to marry princess Peach and we learn that the most logical first step the giant turtle can come up with is to kidnap her with his airship. For reasons unknown, a hat genie called Cappy (a living cap) and his sister Tiara (a living tiara) are also on board of the ship. Suddenly, Mario makes his entry on the vessel. Bowser throws his hat towards us. Boom! Spot on. We see Mario falling off board and the propeller of Bowser’s airship shreds most of our iconic red cap to pieces. Luckily, a piece is recovered by Cappy.

 

Cap Kingdom

We’ve fallen into the dark Cap Kingdom now and gameplay commences!

The controls feel super tight and it’s instantly satisfying to hear and control Mario again. After exploring a small 3D environment there’s no option left than to leave the place by crossing a bridge. It initially doesn’t quite feel like a Super Mario game though, due to the absence of his trademark red cap. Another cut-scene kicks in.

Cappy is introduced, a Hat-genie of sorts who restores the cap to its old form.

MAMMA MIAAA, we can breathe again! With the exception of two big eyes in his red cap, he looks like the Mario we know and love again!

Those big eyes in the cap, are from Cappy by the way. He took possession of our cap after restoring it to its old form. It serves as an introduction to one of the brand-new gameplay mechanics, in which you throw Cappy boomerang-style to everything that raises the sumption of being interactive. If your hat strikes enemies or objects with build-in Cappy interaction, you’ll be able to control them.

It felt a bit forced to me: the excuse Nintendo needed to go all-out with their imagination. Well. In that, they succeeded… The controllable assets come in the wildest variations and each with their own set of gameplay mechanics. It is the foundation of how you advance in Super Mario Odyssey – the borrowed abilities are crucial for reaching new areas. A lot of the basic moves from Mario’s previous 3D outings have also made their return, including the (side)somersault, ground pound and wall jumps.

After dabbling a bit in Cap Kingdom, experiencing our first metamorphosis (riiibbit) and beating a Broodal (an anthropomorphic rabbit) we set course for the next kingdom.

 

Cascade Kingdom

A description for obtaining our first moon appears on screen while there is a nice soundtrack playing that screams ADVENTURE. The sun is shining, the wind plays with the beautiful green grass, and we see and hear a waterfall flow next to the start of the hill. Yeah, instead of collecting Stars or Shine Sprites, we collect Power Moons now. Same concept, different name and look. Let’s move on. We find some purple coins tucked away behind a stone hedge. What purpose do these coins have? Not too long after getting our first power moon, there’s a sleeping T-Rex on our path. Let’s be a cheeky plumber and throw Cappy towards it. Seconds later we’re trampling enemies and roaring at them to show ‘em who’s the new boss of the Cascade Kindom. Although we still haven’t seen a single mushroom, fire flower or star yet we did head-jump a few question mark blocks on our way already. And, as always, there are plenty of coins to collect. The game is loaded with enemies of all shapes and sizes which you’ll have to take control of in order to solve puzzles, reach new areas, or beat enemies which will remain in Mario’s original pizza eater form otherwise invincible. FAST FORWARD. There’s the stage’s end-boss again already. Another anthropomorphic rabbit…

The airship in Super Mario Odyssey is called the Odyssey. There’s a beautiful (real-time rendered) cut-scene playing every time we get transported from one level to another. The same can be said about the worlds that we visit. Those worlds are both from a gameplay and audiovisual point of view and without exception, very appealing. There are some really nice throwbacks to legacy titles build in (like 2D gameplay with 8-bit style music and graphics or the ability to wear the Super Mario 64 outfit for example). And it’s thanks to Super Mario Odyssey that we’re able to discover that Mario’s overall fetish expanded to a fetish for dressing up in general. By collecting special colored coins throughout the worlds, you can save up for themed outfits in wild colors and variations at the special shops that you encounter.

 

Conclusion

This game is in a league of its own, there’s simply no 3D platform game out there with so much personality. There’s also so much thought put into every Kingdom in regards to the amount of gameplay that you can get out of each world that the game proves incredibly enjoyable to return to. Still, there are also some flaws we’d like to point out.

Although the game can be challenging at times, we found the overall difficulty to be too low. Many power moons are fast and easy to obtain and bosses are often fast and easy to beat. Super Mario Odyssey still lives up to its name though. The chance is high that you’d like to return to the lively worlds every once in a while, in order to collect things you might have missed during your first run or to simply check out some of the amazing 17 kingdoms the game has to offer.

 

Verdict

He’s been running and jumping around colorful Goomba, Koopa Troopa and power-up filled worlds for over 35 years now. Grandparents, toddlers and everyone in between have been humming and whistling the catchy soundtracks under the shower, at work, bus stations, etc. etc. My description of this saga might be over-simplified and cliché but Nintendo has been entertaining people of all ages for such a long time with a platform game.

Which platform game out there truly competes with Mario? Although the game is not without a bunch of obvious flaws, we tend to answer that question as none. Nintendo and (more recently) the indie scene act as important catalysators for platform games as a genre: they’re here to stay!

 

Cons

🐢 Obtaining power moons and winning boss fights is often too fast and easy

🐢 Support for Joy-Con Motion Controls and 2 Player Mode feel redundant

🐢 Some iconic Power-ups are missing

🐢 Boot up time is a bit long

🐢 The Bonneters (Cappy, Tiara) and Broodals are not very imaginative – Broodals also return as regular boss encounters

 

Pros

🍄 Everything else is inventive, fresh and chock full of personality

🍄 Smooth gameplay and super polished audiovisual presentation

🍄 There’s a lot to do in every world, you won’t get bored

🍄 Clever twists to keep the formula fresh

🍄 In a league of its own

 

An Odyssey definitely worth your time.

9/10

Review by Dion van Oeteren

on 5 Feb, 2019

Originally released 27 Oct, 2017

Games as a service vs. traditional games

 

Without a doubt not co-incidentally, the most common way to learn about any game’s inclusion of micro-transactions, is to check out the part that brings every self-respecting gamer the most joy and pleasure: reading the game’s Terms of Service. We get prompted to confirm that we’ve read, understood and agree to the complete terms of service before we commence play. In this way, the developer hopes to grow our understanding of the choke hold that we are getting ourselves into. A precaution that makes sure we depend on the mercy of the all-powerful developer in case any future complaints regarding those purchased cosmetic items
are submitted. If we are in luck, we might even get notified in a clear and transparent way about these micro-transactions within the game itself. Within the game itself, can you imagine? Unfortunately, it seems that legislation is merely playing catch-up with these cunning practices.

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It is in these times, that indie developer Team Cherry produced the beautiful, handcrafted, massive and at its core old-school game Hollow Knight and it is completely yours for a measly 15 euro. There’s a strong message resonating from that simple fact, which I am only able to interpret as this is made for gamers, from gamers. I can’t stress enough how much I respect them for that.

I defeated countless (mostly) huge bosses as the small-sized Hollow Knight and after finishing the game I couldn’t help but see a parallel with what’s happening on the other side of the gaming spectrum. On that other side, we have (typically) huge studios prioritize their production goals differently. Their number one goal is called profit, and making a very enjoyable game just happens to be the most efficient way to reach that goal.

When gamers (and non-gamers alike) recognize me as a gamer, I often get the question:

‘Do you also play Fortnite?”

I consistently answer:

‘Nahh, these are not my kind of games’’.

 

It appears to be a question that needs to be asked, just because it’s trending (as fuck).

Let me correct that. Trending is in Fortnite’s case an absolute understatement.

Fortnite has turned into a cultural phenomenon.

I believe it’s incredibly important for us to reflect on the fact that games (leaving games on mobile operating systems out of the equation) which are able to suck up disproportional huge amounts of money via their inherent implementation of micro-transactions, are a fairly recent phenomenon. Before Epic Games’ Fortnite stole everyone and your mother’s attention, the notorious EA Games has most likely been the world’s record holder for making boatloads of money in their yearly returning FIFA series. And seen the fact that they produce what is considered the most popular videogame regarding world’s most popular sport, the chance that FIFA will stop generating dollar bills for EA in the near future, is likely small.

In the meanwhile, Epic Games apparently looked at EA Games enviously and must have thought, how can we transcend this money generating revolving-door-formula in each possible way?

Well..

For better or worse, we know the answers by now…

1. By making the game’s most popular mode free to download (because of this the title managed to become popular on a global scale).

2. By building the game around the concepts of two games that have already proven to be immensely popular (PUBG started the Battle Royale trend just before Fortnite became as popular as it is right now, and Minecraft remains the recordholder for world’s best sold game).

3. By making the game besides on PC and consoles, available on mobile platforms too.

4. By making the game accessible for a crowd aged 12 years and up (opposed to FIFA’s 16 years and up).

History speaks for itself:

According to a recent report by TechCrunch, Epic Games made an absolutely staggering 3-billion-dollar profit in the year 2018.

You will never hear me say that (socially-connected and always-online) Fortnite is a bad game. Quite the contrary, it would be extremely ignorant of me to believe Fortnite isn’t a really entertaining game and there’s really no discussion needed about the viability for it to exist. I feel repelled by the thought of (games like) Fortnite influencing increasingly more developers to approach our hobby as a games as a service concept though, and I believe the game has become influential on a level in which it is likely to be able to manipulate the games industry as a whole.

I respect Rockstar games’ ‘’sandwich’’ approach on the matter though:

Create a traditionally stellar and micro-transaction free single player experience, and add the optional multiplayer part later.

Rockstar Games made huge amounts of money by selling Shark cash cards within Grand Theft Auto Online (GTA V’s optional multiplayer experience). Because of this, I imagine the criticism they have to endure concerning micro-transactions (during the span in which they support Grand Theft Auto Online) to be relatively minor. They’ve tried to duplicate the success with the launch of their next flagship title Red Dead Redemption 2. Although the game received universal praise and is now often mentioned as one of the most impressive single player games ever made, Red Dead Online continues its struggle to match that success (mostly due to a broken in-game economy system). Anyway. Unfortunately, as we all know, Rockstar’s approach is rather exceptional.

The biggest potential pitfall is that the games industry’s business model eventually shifts towards games as a service and innovative and creative processes will consequently suffer. Not to mention, the obligatory act of having to accept the game’s Terms of Service before you start each and every game. NOT COOL! To my joy, traditional games (and indie games) are currently still over-represented on most major platforms 🙂

 

                                  Written by Dion van Oeteren on 31 Jan, 2019