Hanover, Niedersachsen, Germany
“We are not always what we seem, and hardly ever what we dream.”
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56 Hours played
Prologue: I had originally given the game a not recommended, but then deleted my review because I felt that I perhaps had been too grumpy. Thus I'd set out to give it a good go and ended up somewhat enjoying it. I am now giving it a recommended, with caveats. Following is a summary of my experience as well as the original grumpy old man review for amusement in the comments.

As a fan of classic literature and Edgar Allan Poe as well s H P Lovecraft in particular I really enjoyed the themes and atmosphere. It appeared to play on Poe's "A Dream Within a Dream" poem:

"Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?"

From that perspective I particularly liked the narrative with its free verse telling through conversations and descriptions. It's very mysterious and all the mystery adds up to an intricately built world, a desolate reality connected to an intriguing dream world. The game earns high remarks in that regard as well it's varied characters and overall mood and atmosphere, especially in combination with the fantastic soundtrack.

I've spent 56 hours to "finish" the game, that is one playthrough with the "good" ending (there are several). Do I feel that I spent my time well? Honestly, I don't. I didn’t much enjoy the actual gameplay and here is why:

1. Movement is digital. It is not possible to precisely move the character or slowly inch forward. Every push on the stick moves the character a preset amount. I prefer analog movements a la Ori and the Blind Forest. I ended up "fighting" against the controls more than fighting against enemies.
2. Jumping is analog. The harder one pushes down on the jump button the higher the characters jumps. Alas, this isn't really well executed. Most of my missed jumps resulted from either not jumping long enough - or not short enough. There are also quite a lot of environmental obstacles I ended up getting stuck on due to that.
3. No "grace space" at the end of a block. In most jump and run games there's what I call a "grace space" at the end of a platform where one oversteps and is only half on the platform yet still able to jump. This is often done to compensate for variances in movement precision. Hollow Knight does not have that. If one oversteps a platform slightly the character will not jump anymore. Combined with the digital movement this leads to quite a bit of frustration. I plummeted to my digital death more times than I can count due to that.
4. Too many spike and thorn segments, not a lot of actual environmental variety. Combined with 1 - 3 this resulted in roughly 60% of playtime spent dying.

These points combined lead me to my biggest complaint about the game - it doesn't respect my time. It forces me to redo segments over and over, backtracking through difficult terrain over and over, all for fairly little reward. It plays off of negative emotions, frustrating me into fighting on. I don’t want to be frustrated playing a video game, I want to have fun. I don't respect games that aim to trigger frustration and anger in order to extend playtime.

I did fight on and was rewarded with an intriguing story but left with the bitter aftertaste that I spent way more time on the game than I should have. It wasn't really time well spent. Also, in order to get the "good" ending I employed the help of a trainer program. I usually abhor that but I'd spent enough time and simply wasn't willing to invest anymore, trying any harder to get a satisfactory ending to the story I was so diligently sticking with.

From what I gathered reading the Kickstarter description (that's how the game originally came about) the difficulty was a major selling point. I think it ultimately does the game a disservice, especially the narrative. More players could enjoy the story if HK simply had a difficulty selector where perhaps easy had a bench before every boss fight and hard had only one in the Dirtmouth, this could've made all the difference to me.

Also, I find Hollow Knight mis-labeled as a Metroidvania. It's really a side-scrolling souls-like action RPG. I expected much more of a Metroidvania. I've since played and finished Ori and the Blind Forest, which only took me 21 hours to complete, and I enjoyed that one infinitely more.

Conclusion: Hollow Knight isn't my game but it is a good game, given that one can live with the short comings I've listed or considers them valid to test one's skill.

Original review (abbreviated due to character limit):

I feel like a grumpy old man on Steam. So far, I’ve left mostly negative reviews. And here I go again, another “not recommended”. But here’s the thing – I am a grumpy old man. Well, sort of. I am beyond an age where I get satisfaction from finally beating a level or boss after failing and failing again.

When I play, I want to have fun for an hour or two. My time is precious, it’s limited. I want to feel it’s well spent. Give me a story, great gameplay, fun game mechanics, reward me for the time I play your game.

Hollow Knight isn’t any of that and I feel somewhat miffed because I hoped it would be. It looks great, I really like the art style, it has a neat atmosphere, great music. As an art piece it succeeds. But the gameplay. It’s just too monotonous. I am relegated to hitting jump and attack. That’s basically it.

Well, there are additional abilities such as dashing, flying, wall jumping etc. though they have to be found, often by beating bosses. But aren't I a bug with wings, shouldn’t I fly right away? Why do I have to find a dash, or a wall jump? Also, there are perks to be found, of which one can only equip a limited number. The limit can be increased via notches, which also have to be found. Figures. Also, you can only equip abilities by sitting on benches (more on that in a moment). Fun bit: your map position indicator is also an ability. Which takes up a notch. Wait, what? Is that what they were going for? "Take it up a notch?"

The perk system (charms) is familiar and obviously meant to add a strategic element. It just strategically irks me because it feels cumbersome. I can't easily try out different perk combos before heading into boss fights. Finding abilities and perks does stretch play time though as there is a lot of backtracking because of it. Similar games tend to provide many of these abilities up front or make them quick to find.

Hollow Knight looks great, I really like the art style. But to me it's mostly style over substance. There really isn’t much gameplay wise. No combos, no equipment, no shield block, no really clever mechanics or puzzles (aside from a few levers). I just jump around, do a little stabbing here, collect some new abilities/perks there, equip them while sitting on a bench. Kinda like an old man. I see a correlation here…

About those benches. They also serve as save points, interspersed in levels and usually far apart enough to cause frustration. Die and you find yourself back at the last bench you visited pondering your mistakes, at least that’s what it looks like. And then off you go, traversing the maze-like level you just went through all over. Fun. Not.

Thankfully, you have a map to guide you. Well, no, you don’t. Not upfront. You must find a character called Conifer in each level to buy an incomplete map. No, wait. First, you must buy a map and a quill in a shop in Dirtmouth (there’s a pun somewhere in here, I just can’t find it…). And then, after you got an incomplete map from Conifer you must sit on a bench so your character can complete the incomplete map of the maze you just went through and failed. Yeah.

(omitted due to character limit)

Hey, listen. If what I wrote sounds like the perfect game to you, if you’re someone who just loves soul-like games and/or if you have the patience and time (lots of time), go ahead. Hollow Knight is your game. You’re really going to get that muscle memory down and those levels and those patterns and all that. I wholeheartedly recommend it for that. Really.
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