Hollow Knight (2017)

This year has been great for video game lovers. There have been many large releases that saw massive success and critical acclaim. Only 5 months in and we already have: Resident Evil 7, Yakuza 0, Horizon Zero Dawn, Nioh, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, NieR: Automata, Prey, and Persona 5. Alongside all these huge titles it may seem strange, but the biggest surprise of this year was the indie game Hollow Knight. This is the first game by the Australian independent studio Team Cherry, but it feels like these guys have been making games for years. Hollow Knight is a metroidvania style game that takes place in the ruined bug kingdom of Hallownest.

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The setting and atmosphere of Hollow Knight is the dark and dingy underground kingdom of Hallownest. The game is very cryptic and it is pretty much left up to the player to interpret the plot through subtle clues scattered through the environment. There are plenty of different environments for the player to discover and explore, each with a completely unique setting. These gloomy areas are accompanied by a matching moody soundtrack. While the game definitely has a drab vibe to it, there are plenty of charming moments. For example, there are these cute little Grubs scattered throughout the world that have been trapped in jars. As you find them and set them free you can visit them back in their home and the Grubfather will give you a present for each one that you have rescued. Accompany moments like that with the beautifully hand-drawn art style of Hollow Knight and you have a game that is simultaneously dreary and endearing.

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Do not let the cutesy bits of Hollow Knight fool you, this game can be brutally difficult at times. It starts off slow, as most metroidvanias do, but quickly ramps up as you acquire new abilities. There are many difficult boss fights and platforming sections that took me numerous tries to master. Despite this, I never felt like the game was unfair, it achieved a perfect balance of difficulty. It was challenging enough to be entertaining and engaging, but it was never frustrating. While another recent metroidvania in Ori and the Blind Forrest focused mostly on platforming, Hollow Knight is much more combat focused with platforming sections scattered throughout. There are dozens of unique boss fights to perfect and complete. When you are fighting bosses, you are exploring the masterfully crafted world of Hollow Knight.

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As a metroidvania, Hollow Knight has a big, interconnected, sprawling world. As you acquire new abilities and items you can access new places that were previously unavailable to you. This world was particularly well thought out. It is incredibly easy to get from area to area, as they are connected in such a way that makes them simple to navigate. There is so much to be found in the world of Hollow Knight. Grubs, health upgrades, magic upgrades, new abilities, upgrades to abilities, and new items are all around the player. There is so much to discover and be found that I was constantly enthralled with the exploration aspect of this game. One pretty unique thing about Hollow Knight is that it really never tells you where to go. It is up to the player to explore and stumble upon the correct path. Many of the paths that you will take will lead to boss fights, new abilities, and secrets, but a lot of these things are completely optional to complete the game. I really loved the fact that the game does not tell you where to go. There is less pressure to move forward, and it opens up a much bigger window for exploration. This game lets you play and discover at your own pace. Instead of saying “Well let me go here and move forward in the game”, I was saying “Let me explore and I will see what I stumble unto”. The latter is much more compelling, especially in an exploration based genre like metroidvanias.

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One of the most common complaints that I have heard about Hollow Knight was its map system. When you discover a new area, you have to first find the cartographer to sell you the base map. From there you have to explore on your own to record the full map. Some people do not like this because they claim it makes navigating new areas a chore and a hassle. I do not agree with the sentiment in the slightest. I quite enjoyed that feeling of mapping out areas for myself. When you can see the whole map from the start, a lot of the excitement of finding different paths is lost. The only criticisms for Hollow Knight that I have is that I would have liked to see the base town of Dirtmouth to be built up throughout the course of the game. Maybe some new vendors to sell the player some items that would help locate secrets at the end of the game. In games like this, I can reach about 90% full completion pretty easily, but finding those last few secrets and items can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. So, towards the end of the game I would have liked to see some way to find those secrets that I missed. Other than that, the only real issue with Hollow Knight is that is really nothing “new”. It does not introduce any spectacularly new mechanics or revolutionize the genre. That being said, it does a fantastic job of taking all the greatest aspects from other games and combining them into the best metroidvania that I have ever played. While I value innovation pretty highly, I also greatly value the ability for a developer to perfect a genre and Hollow Knight does exactly that.

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I rarely talk about prices of video games, but I think something has to be said in the case of Hollow Knight. This game is only $15 for a ton of entertainment, just to complete the game it will take about 20 hours. To get the true ending or 100% the game it takes more in the realm of 30-40 hours. Compare this to other fantastic indie games like Owlboy, Ori and the Blind Forrest, and Shovel Knight. Those games are about $20-$25 and will last the player maybe 10-15 hours. Not only is Hollow Knight a phenomenal game, but it gives you a pretty big bang for your buck.

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All in all, Hollow Knight is one of the best games that came out this year, and that says a lot. I cannot sing enough praises for this game. If you like metroidvanias, 2D platformers, or 2D action games, definitely check this one out. It is expertly crafted and is quite possibly the best metroidvania ever made. For these reasons, I give Hollow Knight a 10/10. It may not introduce anything entirely new, but it does a damn good job of perfecting the formula.

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NieR: Automata (2017)

NieR: Automata is a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. You may think that it is just a niche Japanese game at first glance, but I encourage you to give it a chance. Yoko Taro, the mastermind behind the cult classic Drakengard series, teams up with Platinum Games, who developed critically acclaimed action games Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, to make a truly memorable experience. It is a truly unique, fun, and mind-bending experience provided by NieR: Automata which makes it an unforgettable game. This review will be spoiler free, but I will talk about the unique way that this game is structured.

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NieR: Automata is the story of a war, not between humans, but between androids and machines. Androids were created by humans, while the machines were created by alien invaders to wipe out mankind. Androids were made to imitate humans, in both physical appearance and in how they act. The machines look more like robots and seemingly are not capable of individual thoughts or emotions. You play as the android 2B who is assigned to fighting the machine forces alongside her partner 9S. 2B and 9S quickly realize that the machines have begun to imitate human behaviors and seemingly developed a consciousness. Throughout the game 2B, 9S, and the machines struggle with existentialist concepts.

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The world of NieR: Automata is filled with philosophical questions and concepts. The androids and machines frequently question their own purpose and why they exist in the first place. Both in the main story and in side quests the machines and androids have troubles coming to terms with their existence. Interestingly enough, many of the side quests drop hints and introduce you to the concepts before the main storyline runs with these ideas. When the machines develop their own thoughts and freewill, many lose their purpose. The machines find human records and start imitating the info that they have found. Some develop a hobby and take it to an extreme, some form cults and kingdoms, others form villages and settlements. The biggest question asked is are these machines and androids really alive, and is their consciousness real, or just a program? Other questions are posed, for example if we lose our memories, are we still the same person? These are just a few of the questions posed, many more are touched on but you really should experience them for yourself.

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The gameplay of NieR: Automata is fast paced action. It takes a little while to get a hang of the controls, but it is extremely satisfying and fluid once you get used to it. 2B can select two weapons to fight with and string combos together with. You also have access to pods, which are floating robots that you can use to fire a steady stream of bullets at the enemy. Pods also have special abilities like lasers, bombs, the ability to slow time, etc. that the player can use to their advantage. On top of that, you can customize your plug-in chips to give you stats like more damage, healing, speed, among other things. You can even take out elements of your heads up display (HUD) to make room for more combat oriented plug-in chips. All of these elements made for a completely customizable experience with infinite options. You can play with all sorts of different combo options to really step up your game. Unfortunately, for the most part you did not need to learn many combos, I only needed a few basic combos to beat the game. That being said, there is a lot of room for just playing around and testing out all sorts of different moves. Most of the basic enemies in the game were just fodder and easy to defeat, but the boss fights were truly epic and intense, especially as you learn the backstory for the bosses that you are fighting.

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The environment of NieR: Automata is that of a post-apocalyptic planet earth. Most areas reflect this and are bleak, like the city ruins, the desert, and the factory. On the other hand, some sections of the world are beautiful and thriving. The forest and the amusement park are quite elegant. Another interesting aspect of NieR: Automata is the lore. It is technically the next installment of the Drakengard series and it is the sequel to the original NieR. Trust me, you do not need to play those games before playing NieR: Automata. This game is set so far in the future that all that remains of those games are occasional references. That being said, there is a ton of extra lore in the Drakengard and NieR universe. Both in the game and out, there is lots of extra tidbits that you can find. In game, you can find intel which references the past, and out of game there are concerts, books, and stage plays that expand upon this world. This game strikes a nice balance; it is both accessible for newer players, and it allows for more dedicated players to get more info. Something that needs to be mentioned when talking about NieR: Automata is the original soundtrack. It is without a doubt one of the best soundtracks ever created for a video game. It is mostly classical music, but it has a mechanical theme that is evident. The melancholy tone of most of the songs fits the game perfectly. The songs are incredibly memorable and instantly recognizable once you have played the game. What is really cool about the soundtrack is multiple versions of every song were recorded and used so that they blend together seamlessly according to the environment and situation. If you want a taste of the soundtrack, take a listen to this: “A Beautiful Song.” I rarely listen to video game songs outside of the games, but I now often find myself listening to many of the songs from NieR: Automata.

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The structure of NieR: Automata is incredibly unique. Many modern games have an option to start a New Game+ mode after beating the game. This usually entails a few harder enemies and some new content, but it is mostly the same game. NieR: Automata takes the concept to the next level. There are five main routes in this game, labeled A-E. When you first finish route A, the game prompts you to continue playing as there is more content in the game. This is not a traditional New Game+, route A is only a small portion of what NieR: Automata has to offer, and it would be a shame if anybody stopped playing after beating it. Each route is more like an act of a play or book rather than a full game. You play as different characters to gain different perspectives and different combat options. Routes A and B feel like just a prologue to the story told in routes C, D, and E. Routes C, D, and E are all the same route, just different endings. Once you beat C, you get to play the final sequence again and that is route D, and once you beat D you get to play the final ending, which is route E.

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Route A introduces you to the world of NieR: Automata and lets you get comfortable in it. It asks you basic philosophical questions and sets up what is to come next. The biggest development in route A is the characters.  Aside from the main characters of 2B and 9S, there is a large cast of side characters, android and machine alike. Many of the machines are quite charming and funny as you get to interact with them. Watching the machines imitate humans by forming families, raising children, and making their own society was very cute. The story of route A is decent, but is obvious that you are missing some pieces to the puzzle. Route B tells the same story as route A, but from the perspective of a different character. This different perspective shows you the story in a separate light, and more facts slowly trickle in as you piece the story together. Routes A and B were certainly great, but the real story is told in routes C, D, and E. These routes are a continuation of the story from A and B, and the game fills in all the holes and answers the questions from the previous routes. The game constantly challenged my pre-conceived notions and changed what I thought. There is so much going on at such a fast pace, just as you are trying to process one big reveal of information, the game hits you with another. Routes C, D, and E have some of the most emotional and impactful moments that I have ever received from a video game. I would wager that these three routes are some of best experiences in any video game, ever. It is truly a thought-provoking adventure, and it is something that you really should play for yourself.

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While I love NieR: Automata, it does have some issues. The combat is fluid, but after a while it can get a little repetitive. While many of the side quests are interesting from a story perspective, they often boil down “go over there and fetch me this item.” They can be tedious chores, but they are mostly worth it to learn more about the characters. The hacking mini-game is pretty fun once in a while, but I feel like it is overused and can get boring and repetitive. The PC port of the game is poorly optimized and needs work, I recommend getting this game on PS4 instead of PC. My biggest issue with NieR: Automata is routes A and B. Route A would be alright as a standalone game, but it would not be anything special. Route B can get pretty repetitive as it is essentially the same as route A, the new information delivered in this route is too few and far between to make it distinct and different enough from route A in my opinion. While I know that they are just the prologue for routes C, D, and E, I feel like many players missed the memo. I think labeling them “acts” instead of “routes” may provide a big enough distinction to show players that the game has just begun. Along with that, I feel like if routes A and B were somehow combined they would be much more enjoyable and comprehensive experience. They are fine on their own, but are pretty slow paced when compared to route C, D, and E. If you combined them I feel like route A would be a more complete experience with the extra info from route B added, and you would not have to play same story twice just to get a little more info. Looking back on it, I am fine with the way that the game is structured and I understand the purpose of routes A and B, but as I was playing the game I had a different perspective. I enjoyed the game, but I did not understand what made it so special until I made it to routes C, D, and E.

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I have to say, NieR: Automata has become one of my all-time favorite games. I think it will become a classic title, especially in nerd and gamer culture. The fluid combat, the memorable characters, the desolate environments, the music, the philosophical nature, the melancholy tone, and the unforgettable story truly make this a game worth playing. If any of this sounds appealing to you, definitely pick up this game. I think that is unfortunate that many players stopped part way through routes A and B, as they did not get to really see what made this game so stellar. If routes A and B were combined, I would have no problem calling this game a masterpiece. For these reasons, I give NieR: Automata a 9.5/10. Routes A and B are not quite strong enough, and many players did not see the game all the way through to the end because of it. NieR: Automata is a truly phenomenal game, and it will be remembered as a truly special game.