overrated

Hollow Knight Review — Symphony of the Ninja Souls X

by Jed Pressgrove

With gorgeous art, an exquisite score, and an array of places to discover, Hollow Knight resembles a masterpiece. Indeed, the game is very good at resembling things, whether because of its focus on ruin, souls, and hollowness (Dark Souls); its level structure, wherein players can travel new pathways via newly acquired techniques (Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night); its curt swordplay (Ninja Gaiden); and its wall-jumping and dashing mechanics (Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man X). Look beyond its great looks and great sounds, and Hollow Knight more than lives up to to the first word of its title.

In a world of bugs, you play as a warrior on a vague quest in which you have many sorrowful run-ins with destitute and hostile creatures. As such, Hollow Knight is indebted to the storytelling approach of Dark Souls, but it says nothing specific about the human condition. In Dark Souls, a sense of real-world ennui pervades the proceedings as your character goes through the motions of killing, leveling up, and collecting currency, and the game is never shy about showing the deleterious effects of a decaying habitat on the mental states of the characters that you meet. In contrast, Hollow Knight’s friendly nonplayable characters, distinct in their audiovisual quirks, often display a strange level of enthusiasm considering the wretched state of their environments, yet there doesn’t seem to be any philosophy that inspires their general positivity. Worse, the protagonist is but a silent and nameless shell who moves with a ruthless type of efficiency; he’s a cold product of decades of video-game logic with no emotional meaning.

Controlling this brutal killer is pleasurable once you gain enough abilities after combing the game’s interconnected locations several times. You can double-jump to swing your sword up at an aerial enemy, then dash away toward a wall, kick off the wall, slash the foe from the side to eliminate it, dash again in midair, and use your final jump to land safely on a modest platform. You can bounce on adversaries by swinging your weapon downward at them from above. You can perform a few special moves, including a fireball of sorts and a dive-bomb, if you have enough Soul, which also allows you to heal if there’s enough distance between you and an active threat. But looking back at it all, I can’t name a single thing in Hollow Knight that I haven’t done in other games — a realization that creates a feeling of profound emptiness, especially considering the length of the experience.

It’s almost like developer Team Cherry bases Hollow Knight on a disturbingly patronizing pitch: “This time, it’s with bugs!” If all you want is to admire how intricately detailed animation and audio can make you feel as if you are among a wide variety of creepy crawlies (the game’s Deepnest region ingeniously epitomizes this sensation), Hollow Knight is the greatest platformer of all time. Outside of that, it’s simply another title, like Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge, that echoes the past with the vain hope that it too will go down in history.

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Night in the Woods — Ode to Millennial Egotism

by Jed Pressgrove

As expressed in The Who’s pop masterpiece “My Generation,” most people don’t like their generation being outright dismissed or insulted. But if millennial gamers sing high praises for Night in the Woods, any defense of themselves will be hard to swallow. Writers Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry have created a puzzling contradiction with protagonist Mae and the small-town setting of Possum Springs: while the latter by itself has palpable authenticity, right down to the humorously varied “Get off my porch” dialogue from a grumbling male, Mae becomes more and more irresponsible as employed, stressed-out people allow her privileged behavior to grow to unbelievable degrees.

Simply put, Mae epitomizes the stereotypical millennial’s disconnection from traditional everyday toil, and the script of Night in the Woods pretends that working-class citizens would not call her out for mooching and breaking the law. In the story, Mae has returned to her hometown to live with her parents again after dropping out of college. From there, you guide Mae through a variety of self-absorbed, immoral activities that include tampering with crime evidence, shoplifting, and unearthing the coffin of a boy, all with little or no consequence. Although the anthropomorphic cast of Night in the Woods gives the writers leeway to indulge in some cartoonish, unrealistic depictions, the story suggests the supporting characters have real-life concerns, especially pulling one’s own weight, that help the player suspend disbelief. Why, then, do these people — family members, friends, and hard workers — excuse, overlook, or laugh off Mae’s flagrantly selfish and stupid actions?

At one point, it seems Benson and Hockenberry will address this glaring question through Bea, Mae’s childhood friend who has been running a business ever since the death of her mother. Bea confronts Mae’s blase attitude toward dropping out of college: “I stayed here and got older, while you left and stayed the same.” Yet Bea inexplicably goes on to support Mae’s thievery and grave defilement (and for some unknown idiotic reason, the populace of Possum Springs doesn’t care about a decades-old corpse being disrespected). Bea’s dedication doesn’t get rewarded, though: in a late scene, Mae embarrasses Bea with callous disregard, which causes Bea to bring up how she wishes she could have had an opportunity to go to college like Mae, who can’t even offer her good friend a reason as to why she quit school. Bea eventually says Mae is “genuinely a good person,” even though the story has only shown evidence of Mae taking advantage of everyone around her, with no effort toward explaining herself or making a contribution to society.

Developer Infinite Fall also excuses Mae’s deplorable acts by gamifying them. Stealing, destroying property, and stabbing are presented as fun, throwaway minigames. This design choice, coupled with the townspeople’s bizarre lack of criticism for Mae’s egomania, implies that sociopathy should be celebrated, not examined. Even if Night in the Woods had a cogent point, Mae would remain an unflattering caricature of a millennial. Benson and Hockenberry’s writing is unacceptable in light of Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition, which demonstrates how the hardships of a capitalist society give millennials and baby boomers more spiritual connectedness than many realize.

Night in the Woods is at its most tedious when Mae drags all of her friends on a ghost-chasing mission, as it’s fairly obvious from the start that there are no ghosts. Benson and Hockenberry use this setup to reveal that Mae and a clandestine Republican-leaning cult are similarly insane. For connecting mental illness to murder (straight out of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”) and all sorts of other unsavory activity, Night in the Woods registers as pandering and cliched Democrat hate on one hand and a demented apology for millennial immaturity on the other.