Hollow Knight City of Tears

After playing Hollow Knight for its first 6 hours, and after losing all of my money to the same boss for the third time in a row, I felt a more intense urge to vent and scream and smash my controller to tiny fragments than I’ve ever felt before from a video game. Intead, to save my poor joycons from harm, I wrote—and here is the product of my delirious state.

Ok, this game makes me soooooo mad. I hate that whenever you die you lose all your money and have to kill your ghost to get it all back, but if you die along the way well then oh no you lose all of it. It clashes so hard with the game urging me to explore, and in exploring maybe I died super far from a save point in a place I don’t have the map for so it’s an incredible pain to get everything back. And what’s more, this mechanic forces you to continue the same specific part of the game over and over rather than letting you be like “ok I need a break and want to explore over here now as a breather.” And god forbid the game puts some save points near the bosses. (**future me: in retrospect, the game did–—I didn’t find them.**) Wouldn’t want to miss out on the rage-inducing 5 minutes spent just getting to the boss fight again. And then suddenly all my money is trapped in a boss room so I can’t even improve my character to make the fight easier. Seriously, there’s a point where being rage-inducing for the sake of being a “souls-like” rage-inducing game is not fun. Like, at all. I’m all for hard games and boss fights. Just look at my Breath of the Wild Lynel fight replay for verification. I died like 30 times in a row and kept on trying. I absolutely don’t mind dying a lot to a boss and brute forcing my way into figuring it out. But don’t make it so inconvenient for me to try again, and certainly don’t make me lose all my money so that I can’t even buy anything anymore!!!

- Alex Walker, seconds before putting down Hollow Knight, probably for good

Hollow Knight is one of my favorite games of all time. One year ago, when I ever-so-gently and totally nonviolently threw the game aside, I would’ve never thought that this would be the case. However, people grow and change, and eight months after letting the memories of the pain this game brought me fade, I decided to give Hollow Knight another go. And it all just clicked this time. I fell in love with the game’s fluid controls, its creative combat, its ever-so-satisfying exploration, and most especially its beautiful world, music, and atmosphere. Sure it was still frustrating at times, but never overwhelmingly so.

So what changed?

Well for one thing, I found the save point near the dung beetle boss room, which was what made me rage quit before. That helped. I also discovered that money doesn’t matter too much, which made it a bit more ok when I inevitably lost it all. Overall, though, I just understood the game’s systems and design so much better this time, which allowed me to enjoy everything that was already amazing in it. I was also able to play patiently and overcome my desire to just push through enemies. (Can you blame me though? Give me a sword and I’ll just want to swing away as much as I can.) I certainly don’t blame my past self for being stubborn—I was just playing the game how I wanted to play it. But sometimes you need to step back and reframe a game in order to understand it better. For me that took time.

Anyway, I guess the lesson here is that if there’s that one game you know is beautiful and well-made and fun and intriguing and you just couldn’t deal with it at the time…

maybe give it another shot.

Random Note: I just realized that the real difference-maker was switching the button layout to what I’m used to for Super Smash Bros. Surely if I had done that the first time I would have never rage quit.

But wait, there’s more

As a little addendum to this post, I’d like to mention some of the many things that made this game so special. Maybe in a separate post I’ll go into greater detail. (Also, some spoilers ahead.)

  • I love how varied the regions in Hollow Knight’s world are. Each has its own distinct visual style, tone of music, and enemy design, all of which add up to some crazy levels of atmosphere. The backgrounds are so fantastic, too. Walking around the City of Tears, hearing the melancholic music, and seeing all the abandoned locations and backdrops all drenched in blues and purples…it really sucks you into the world.
  • The story of the world is surprisingly interesting, and I found myself invested despite there being barely any actual story that happens while you’re on your journey. Most of it is just hidden in the details of the world, there for you to discover if you want to.
  • The DLC title screens are amazing, especially the Godmaster and Grimm Troupe ones. I spent a good 20 minutes after beating the game switching between the different themes just listening to the title music.
  • The interconnectedness of the world is really well-crafted, even compared to other great metroidvania games.
  • The blending of hand-drawn animation with CG effects was handled extremely well, to the point where you don’t even notice that there’s a difference between the two.
  • The platforming sections were surprisingly fun and really highlighted how tight the controls were. It’s a blast just running about as the knight and using all of his movement options.
  • The boss fight against Nightmare King Grimm was one of the most satisfying video game moments ever for me. It’s so ridiculously difficult that when you finally figure out the patterns you feel like you’re unstoppable. Again, the music and atmosphere of the boss fight is top notch and its pace never gives you a chance to breath. The best part about this fight, though, is that as a dream fight you can instantly restart it as many times as you want. Also since it’s so fast, you die nearly instantly, making each death feel less consequential. Without this, I don’t know if I would have retried the fight the 200 some times it took me to finally win.
  • The boss fight against the Hollow Knight is staged and executed perfectly. It has a brilliant lead-up where you enter the black egg and have to slash away the chains holding him down, then it jumps into the fight, in which his initial speed and range makes you feel overwhelmed Then finally there’s the tragic moment you realize he’s just a shell of his former self trying to destroy the void that has corrupted him. The music here is actually just the best track in the game. It tells the story of the fight perfectly, and leads directly into the amazing cutscene that caps it all off. If you have no intention of playing the game, go find this fight on youtube and watch it. It’ll be well worth-it.
  • The fight against the mantis lords had such a fun rhythm to it. I got obliterated on my first attempt, then figured out the mantis lord’s patterns and felt like a genius…a feeling which immediately fled once I realized I had to fight 2 at one time. Looking back at it now, it’s actually quite easy compared to many of the other ones, but at the time it really took everything I had to weave through their attacks and get attacks of my own off at the same time.