You have one last life left. You have just cleared the enemies in this map—at least those you can see, anyway. You know you are gonna die as soon as you step forward and explore the uncharted territory—and lose everything you have gained so far. Going back is not an option because you are not confident you can clear your way back to the closest bench to recover your health points with only one life left—what do you do?
You make the leap and charge forward and—as you have accurately anticipated—die miserably, leaving behind all the money you have collected so far behind. Of course, that is the case unless you make all your way back from the bench again and kill your own ghost.
That is a very typical scenario in the several dozens of hours I have spent in playing Hollow Knight, the Kickstarter-funded platformer game that gained immense success and critical acclaim since its PC release in 2017 and recently got an surprise release on the Nintendo Switch e-shop (June 2018), the same week after the latest E3. Frustrating as it sounds, I made the attempts time and again, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience—even the repeated failures. Not to mention how satisfied—empowered—I felt whenever I actually did make some progress.
Hollow Knight shares quite a few key traits with Limbo and Inside, with the astonishingly clean aesthetics, depressingly dark tone, and fairly simplistic and yet extremely fine-tuned and nuanced game mechanics.
It is far from the first time I play a platformer and be totally engrossed, frustrated and satisfied—sometimes all at the same time. I can recount the countless frustrations I had when I played through the now-legendary Limbo and Playdead’s follow-up Inside. Actually, come to think of it, Hollow Knight shares quite a few key traits with Limbo and Inside, with the astonishingly clean aesthetics, depressingly dark tone, and fairly simplistic and yet extremely fine-tuned and nuanced game mechanics.
It is probably worth pointing out that Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania game, which is a game industry jargon referring to action games that combine the major features of two classic games, Metroid, and Castlevania. Without going into too much details here, in a Metroidvania game the player explores a vast interconnected world, where entrances to some areas are locked until you gain the extra abilities required—by defeating bosses and exploration. So the basic cycle is to explore, find the boss and defeat it, gain a new ability, explore new areas, and rinse and repeat.
The game’s difficulty is, unabashedly, on the hard side (hence the frequent dying I described in the opening), but it makes defeating that new boss after the tenth attempts just that much more rewarding and satisfying, that you keep at it, and when you look up, several hours have passed by without notice.
Metroidvania, as a time-tested formula in video games, works because it provides simple yet immense gamer’s drive. The more the player explores, the more he/she finds that there is to explore, and so the more he/she is driven to explore even more to strengthen the character by finding more loot, or new bosses to beat so as to explore more new areas. It works particularly well when the world feels expansive, the world-building is good and the areas all have distinct and intriguing features, and novel mechanisms the player can learn to master.
Hollow Knight excels in all these regards. Its world is a fallen civilization of bugs, a vastly beautiful and mysterious world with relics and NPCs and merchants you can interact with. Each area feels different—some more than the others—but there is always a comfortable level of familiarity with the controls thanks to the simple mechanics of the game. It doesn’t have a complex system of upgrades and level-ups, like a skill tree or intricate armory of different body parts which are the defaults of RPGs, yet discovering a new ability in terms of a “charm” you can equip, whether it is a new energy blast attack, dashing more frequently, or having a shield rotating around you, all feels incredibly rewarding. Beyond that, the simple mechanics of wielding your “nail” (your only weapon in the game), jumping and dodging attacks from enemies are all easy to learn, and really hard to master. The enemies are all designed to move and attack in distinct styles, with recognizable patterns that the player can learn to adapt to and deal with. The game’s difficulty is, unabashedly, on the hard side (hence the frequent dying I described in the opening), but it makes defeating that new boss after the tenth attempts just that much more rewarding and satisfying, that you keep at it, and when you look up, several hours have passed by without notice.
According to the game, I’ve spent 42 hours in the game so far and I suspect I haven’t even gotten to the endgame part yet. The Nintendo Switch version I have been playing has included the two DLCs released on PC so far, and the third, Gods and Glory, has been announced since the first season of 2018. Nevertheless, the satisfaction and enjoyment I have had with the game so far is already more than well worth the 15USD price I paid on the Nintendo e-shop. Even if you haven’t heard of the term Metroidvania before, if you even have a bit of interest in exploration and action games in general, I suggest you go check it out.