On the surface, Hollow Knight looks like another entry in the oh so tired ‘Metroidvania’ genre. However, spending a little time with the game will reveal that it is so much more than what meets the eye. Delightful characters, a risk-reward combat system, and hours upon hours of endless exploration are what make Hollow Knight, not only one of the best indie games I have played in a long time but one of the best games I’ve played period.
Not So Hollow:
Winding paths of greenery, hallways lined with crystal, overgrown fungal caverns; welcome to the mysterious and beautiful world of Hallownest. A kingdom that has mysteriously fallen to ruin and turned those who wander its depths into hostile beings. You have come here as an unnamed traveler with a mission that is still unclear to you.
You see, Hollow Knight has very little story to offer those who aren’t paying close attention. An intro cutscene with no dialogue sets the cold and chilling atmosphere; however, the details are all left for you to discover. And if you dig deep enough, there are plenty to find.
Simply talking to shopkeepers and other travelers that you meet along the way will reveal just how much lore this world is absolutely drenched in. You’ll even find statues, plaques, and journals that offer a wealth of knowledge about Hallownest and its inhabitants.
The greatest part of this is that it rewards your exploration. Every cavern I braved through felt like it held another secret to offer. Even after my 30-hour playthrough of Hollow Knight, I know there is still so much to discover and that I haven’t even scratched the surface.
Hollow Knight has three endings that can be obtained. So, exactly how deep you choose to make your experience is entirely up to you. However, I know that the rich lore of Hallownest has me itching to jump back in and discover every hidden secret that it has to offer.
Hollow Knight’s gameplay could be boiled down to some of gaming’s oldest and most tired cliches. However, it almost feels unfair to even compare it. Sure, Castlevania and Bloodbourne seem to be major sources of inspiration for Hollow Knight, but the developers at Team Cherry really found a way to make this formula fresh and fun again.
The key to Hollow Knight is exploration. So many ‘Metroidvania’ games have attempted this before, but few have succeeded at it the way Hollow Knight has. You start with nothing. No map, no compass, no direction on where to go. As you explore, you will soon discover maps and other useful items that you can purchase to make your travels easier. However, none of them will tell you what to do next. That is completely up for you to decide.
As you wander the seemingly endless depths of Hallownest, you will come across new abilities that will open up even more of the world for you. This is not a new concept for this type of game, but how much becomes open to you is simply amazing. Every time that I felt stuck at a boss or a certain area, there was always about five other ways I could go to keep on exploring.
This kept that sense of progression alive. There was never a moment in Hollow Knight where I felt trapped or forced to beat a boss that was too challenging. I could always head in another direction and become more powerful or even abandon it and find an entirely new place to explore altogether.
The combat in Hollow Knight is a prime example of an easy to execute, but tough to master system. Your knight starts by wielding only a nail that is weak and dulled. As you progress, you will upgrade your nail and discover a completely new arsenal of powers at your disposal. Beating foes will require more than just spamming your attacks. You will have to be very defensive as these enemies are very lethal.
It can not be understated how challenging some of the boss fights are in this game. You will die time and time again, but if you take your time and study every movement that the enemy makes during a fight, you will soon discover when to flee and when to attack. This will make your victory all the sweeter when you finally land that crushing blow.
Combat never got boring in Hollow Knight. Even after several attempts on the same boss I always felt that there was a new strategy for me to try. That “one more try” feeling became addictive in a way that constantly made me want to keep going. When I wasn’t engaged in battle I was exploring the amazing world and discovering new secrets that seemed to never end. All of this together made for a game that was easy to pick up, but oh so hard to put down.
When you do die, you will be sent back to the last bench you’ve sat on. Benches are essentially this game’s version of a save. Here you can also choose what Charms to equip. Charms are items that you will either buy or discover on your journey. The abilities they grant are varied; ranging from adding a marker to track yourself on the map, to granting you an extra life, or even giving you longer reach with your nail. You will have to choose which ones to equip carefully though, as you only have a certain amount of slots open to equip yourself.
Experimenting with the charms is always fun. You can discover some hidden combinations of charms that create powerful attacks. Finding these combos without knowing what will happen always feels satisfying. Like when you’ve discovered something that only you know.
Now that you are equipped and ready to go, you will want to head to the last place you died. Whenever you die, your soul will be left behind and, if you are able to slay it, you will get back all of the Geo (this games version of currency) that you left behind. So, you will want to be careful about when and where you die, as you might have to choose if you’ll go back and retrieve all your lost belongings.
Echoes in the Deep:
Graphics and Sound
The art style immediately stands out in Hollow Knight. The graphics give off a gorgeous hand-drawn feel. Every character manages to look unique enough to give all the areas of the map a different feel. While our protagonist comes off adorable, some of the bosses are made of the fuel from absolute nightmares. It never feels like you are fighting too many of the same enemies over and over again.
For a game that is so dark, the color palette is a colorful spectrum. From the muted greys of the Ancient Basin to the bright green overgrowth of Greenpath, the map is varied in such a way that you never know what you might encounter next. It feels lively and adds to that feeling of a living world.
Something I don’t often say when talking about a game is how great the sound design is. While in most games sound feels like an oversight, here Team Cherry made sure that every sound came through amazingly clear. You can find hidden grubs by hearing their high pitched barks through the walls and enemies will snarl and growl in the most disgusting and vicious ways. When you are walking in the depths of a sewer, you can hear the individual drops of water and the footsteps of enemies in the dark.
In a way, the sound is used as a navigation tool for the game. Whenever you are lost, you may hear the clear humming of Cornifer, the delightful NPC who sells you the maps for all the new areas. Listening closely to the enemies grunts will alert you to what kind of threat you may be facing before you even see them. Sometimes bosses can even be heard from several rooms away, luring you into their arenas.
To top it all off Hollow Knight has an absolutely incredible OST composed by Christopher Larkin. The music hits all of the right cues: being calm and atmospheric while exploring to absolutely pummeling when encountering your larger adversaries. It really adds to the entire tone of the game and makes the world become even more alive during the games more epic moments.
A Whole Lot of Soul:
Hollow Knight is more than just your average indie game. Its world, gameplay, and fantastic sound design make it an unforgettable experience. While it is unabashedly inspired by the games that have come before it, Hollow Knight manages to provide a new fresh take on the 2D exploration genre.
Its addictive take on combat will always leave you craving one more go at that overwhelming foe, while the beautifully crafted soundtrack will make exploring feel like a grand adventure that is ripe with new discoveries. Even as my adventure came to an end, I felt like returning to discover the countless secrets that Hallownest has to uncover.
There are plenty of games that follow the ‘Metroidvania’ formula inspired by the classics of the past, but none of them have perfected it like Hollow Knight. A game that is almost certainly destined to become a classic itself.