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Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition (PlayStation 4) artwork

Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition (PlayStation 4) review


"There's nothing hollow about this experience. "


Since experiencing the SNES' Super Metroid and the PlayStation's Symphony of the Night, I fell in love with the sub-genre of games given the "Metroidvania" label. But there was one tiny problem: here we are in the year 2020 and those two games, both well over 20 years old, were still my standard-bearers and nothing newer that I'd played had even threatened to unseat them from the podium. And so, after a few failed attempts to find that magic again, I found myself playing these games far less frequently than my "kind of fell in love with…" sentence would indicate.

But this year has brought me all sorts of new experiences. Some, like cowering in my house while viruses rampage across the countryside, might not be all that; but at least I've found a new Metroidvania and it was good enough to be placed on a comparable level to those classic titles. Hollow Knight even solves the one nagging problem I've had with the best of these games -- their overall lack of difficulty.

Sure, there might have been a challenging moment here or there in Super Metroid and I'm sure that a person could self-impose limitations to not utterly break Symphony of the Night over their knee, but when I'm thinking back to what made those games special, I'm thinking about their worlds, the wide variety of enemies and locations featured in them and the creative ways in which they would gradually open up as you collected new equipment and weaponry to turn previously impassible barricades into open doors. With Hollow Knight, I can contemplate all of those things, as well as how a few specific bosses punched my teeth down my throat more times than I'd care to remember. Or how a couple of its platforming challenges are more diabolical than ones I'd found in similar games. Or simply how this game might have five different endings (assuming you have all the additional post-release content), but I've only seen the easiest to get and would have quite the uphill climb to access even one more of the bunch!

Whenever a game can be marketed in part due to its challenge, the thing to do nowadays is to shoehorn in a few comparisons to Dark Souls, so no time like the present to get that out of the way! Although in this case, there is some legitimate merit to that discussion, even if this game is a two-dimensional side-scroller instead of having a third-person perspective. Both feature you as an anonymous character exploring the ruins of a once prosperous kingdom in order to discover its secrets and eventually get to the bottom of just what caused its downfall. Both hand out background information rarely and in small doses, essentially forcing you to either be very diligent in seeking out secrets or simply going online to get the gist of what exactly has gone on in the game's world. Both give you a "home base" area that starts out scarcely populated, but can gain a few more residents based on your actions. Hollow Knight even takes lessons from the Souls series in how it treats death, as you'll lose all your currency and have to return to where you expired and defeat the vastly weakened shade of your former life to regain it…or perish again beforehand and have to build up your bank account from scratch.

But the thing is, a big part of a Souls game's difficulty lies in a player coming into it and expecting the sort of hand-holding that most modern games are fond of supplying. Get used to the battle system and develop a character-build that works for you and they'll get a lot more doable, with most setbacks at least partially alleviated by grinding a few levels or upgrading some equipment or simply figuring out a tough foe's attack patterns. Hollow Knight never let me feel complacent.

You have VERY limited health in this game. You start with five masks and every successful enemy attack takes an entire one -- except for the ones that remove two. By rooting up every secret you can find, you can collect enough shards to eventually create four more masks. And possibly use a handful of the game's many charms to add a few more to your health meter. Of course, you also have a limited number of slots for charms and the majority take more than one slot. By adding extra health via that route, you'll potentially sacrifice the ability to summon small beasts to assault enemies on your behalf, increase the range of your melee attacks, improve the potency of your magic and all sorts of other benefits. Replenishing health brings its own issues. By attacking enemies (or taking damage with the proper charm equipped), you'll fill a Soul meter, which works as your pool for casting spells. By standing still and hitting the appropriate button, you'll be able to use Soul to slowly refill expended masks. This is great…when you're a safe distance from opposition. Trying to heal in the middle of a boss fight, on the other hand, can easily result in you simply taking more damage because you might not be moving, but nothing is slowing their assault.

While a large chunk of this game's difficulty resides in its bosses, it can become challenging to get to them. While benches are used as checkpoints that can restore health, they're often placed pretty far apart and not necessarily in convenient locations for quick runs to bosses. A handful of fast travel options can be accessed, but the destinations are limited to a degree that ensures you'll be doing a lot of walking. So, while you're trying to get somewhere, you'll routinely have to deal with enemies, as well as an abundance of spikes and acidic pools. Some areas are positively deadly for the unprepared. Deepnest is a claustrophobic maze of spider-infested tunnels, while the White Palace turns the game's platforming challenges into something akin to a slightly easier Super Meat Boy.

It's thrilling to find ways to overcome those challenges. One thing I loved about Hollow Knight was the amount of freedom you get to find your own path. Sure, you do have to get certain skills to advance to certain locations, but there often are ways for a diligent player to get past encounters that might seem to be insurmountable roadblocks at the time. Accessing Crystal Peak normally requires a skill obtained from a particularly tricky boss; however, one merchant sells a lantern that'll brighten a dark corridor also leading there. Another tough early-game boss guards the main entrance to Deepnest, but once you find the double jump ability, you can reach an alternate entrance. Getting back out might become an issue, but at least you made it inside creepy spider hell!

Early on, it took a bit to really get into this game because I had this feeble character and only a handful of exploration options to (hopefully) buff him a bit, but the more I played and the more abilities I gained to open things up, the more fun I was having. I'd start up a session planning to try my hand at one thing and immediately get sidetracked because there were these other places I still had to explore, or I just got a new skill or charm and figured it was time for a rematch against that one tough boss, or stumbled into an out-of-the-way optional battle, or found a coliseum and figured it'd be fun to try my hand at its challenges. Hours later, I'd be wondering where the time went or why I never got around to doing what I'd been intending, but, hey! A couple new regions discovered, a few goodies found and a few rewards redeemed from NPCs! PROGRESS!

If there's one flaw to the proceedings, it's the mapping system, which is more complicated and cumbersome than necessary. First, you have to purchase a certain item to simply be able to make a map. Then, in each region of the game, you'll find a recurring NPC who will sell you a partially-completed map he's drawn. Now, you'll be able to walk around and whenever you rest at a bench, you'll add your new discoveries to that map and, by purchasing other items, even be able to place icons on it to denote secrets you can't currently reach or bosses too tough to vanquish at the moment. But you won't be able to see where you're at on it…unless you obtain a charm that makes that a possibility. Which means that to see where you're at in the game's world, you'll have to waste one of your precious charm slots on something that will have absolutely no benefit other than keeping you from being perpetually lost.

That is a pretty stunning misstep, especially considering how Hollow Knight essentially got everything else right. The controls are tight, there is a solid variety in challenges and there is an addictive vibe making this one of those games that regularly drained hours out of my day. I was a horse, plowing through challenges with a carrot constantly dangling in front of my face, encouraging me to go just a bit farther. And farther. And farther.

I can admit that seeing any of the game's other endings isn't going to be easy. A lot of bosses I'd have to best are among those taking two masks per hit. I'd have to be good enough to clear most, if not all, of the world's challenges, whether they're super-tough optional battles or the game's most diabolical platforming challenges. There's this awesome charm that would give me limited health auto-regeneration -- obviously a big help. It's acquired by defeating a tricky and mobile boss located a fair distance from any fast travel location or bench, so it'll take a while to get there and losing to it means I'd have to traverse multiple screens of enemies for a rematch. And you know what? I don't care. Playing Hollow Knight was a joy. Simply getting the first ending felt like a legitimate accomplishment where I had to put in work to get that far. Getting anything more would only be me taking a victory lap where I'm getting more enjoyment out of a great game while improving my skills from "good enough" to "really good". While many games might not be worthy of that sort of dedication, this one is.

4.5/5

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (June 14, 2020)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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