Hollow Knight may feature a hero with mundane skills and a progression that is not too different from that of other titles of its genre, but it climbs to all-time greatness by achieving unmatched performance in other rather important areas
From a certain perspective, one could easily claim Hollow Knight goes down a path that has been overly trodden during the past few years. After all, taking advantage of the fact the two biggest franchises of the Metroidvania genre have been either stuck in a swamp of mediocrity (Castlevania) or criminally underused (Metroid), indie developers have preyed on that gameplay style and, via quality design as well as thanks to gamers’ thirst for good releases of that kind, achieved notable successes.
Moreover, living inside a bubble where budgets are short and the need to be technically proficient exists as a prerequisite to catch the audience’s attention amidst an ocean of interesting software, these companies have more often than not thrived in titles that use minimalism and a dark tone as the motifs over which they paint their worlds. And it is precisely in the overlapping of these two trends that Hollow Knight exists. It is, by all means, a Metroidvania adventure; as its gameplay consists of traveling, non-linearly, through an underground maze looking for new abilities that will open the path forward. And its tone is invariably somber, as the tunnels and areas that are traversed emit an ominous aura that holds palpable danger while seemingly hiding a twisted truth.
However, even if it makes its home in an area that is certainly overcrowded, Hollow Knight stands out spectacularly. And, more impressively, such a statement is not merely valid as a description of its status among its contemporary peers of independent background. Hollow Knight, actually, does Metroidvania so amazingly well it comfortably makes its way to the side of all-time giants that are often regarded as untouchable. It may seem like an exaggeration to put a modern title that has yet to be evaluated by the passing of time in the same pantheon as Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night, but when playing Hollow Knight it is hard to shake the feeling that every new corner that its hero’s journey opens up is oozing the quality in level design, the balance in difficulty, and the unstoppable craving for more exploration that are reserved to the genre’s very best efforts.
Yet, even in the middle of so much greatness, finding a feature that defines Hollow Knight is a troublesome task, which makes the matter of its excellence even more mystifying; perhaps even more puzzling than the past of the kingdom where its quest unfolds. The game’s silent protagonist, simply alluded to as the knight, has no especially creative skills. Using a needle as its weapon, and starting its adventure with nothing but the ability to jump and move around, the brave knight will go on to acquire moves that are absolutely common to anyone who has ever played a handful of sidecrolling platformers, such as a double jump, a wall jump, a dash, three distinct spells, and a few others.
These are the absolutely straightforward keys that, when collected, will allow players to overcome physical barriers that once seemed impossible to surpass, therefore opening up quite considerably the area that is available to be explored. Additionally, as another indication that Hollow Knight is quite basic at its heart, where other indie Metroidvania endeavors (like SteamWorld Dig) toyed with the genre’s usual progression, Team Cherry’s product follows it diligently, as never does it dare to walk out of the pattern that involves finding a new item and figuring out where to use it so that a different location can be reached.
It would be easy to look at these two safe traits as flaws that turn Hollow Knight into just one more addition to a pile that keeps on getting taller. Nonetheless, when it is all said and done, they actually come off as qualities, for they are the true and tested pillars that support the facets where the game truly shines; that is, its world-building, its sensible tiny gameplay twists that go a long way towards adding to the experience, its tremendously alluring collectibles, and the depth of its content. As such, the fact that a phenomenal Metroidvania is based on moves and progression that are so utterly mundane just serves to amplify how stunning everything else it does is. And, when it comes to those areas, Hollow Knight is completely remarkable.
The game starts as the knight, standing on the edge of a cliff, stares down a group of lights that emerge from the dark landscape below. He jumps down, proceeds through a region known as King’s Pass, and arrives at the source of the luminosity: Dirtmouth, also known as the Fading Town. The village, which once stood prosperous, is a shadow of its former glory: its buildings are closed and only one of its inhabitants remain. And that is because, right below it, there used to be a legendary kingdom, called Hallownest, where bugs – once brainless and untamed – suddenly escaped their wild nature and built a solid society under the leadership of a strong king. The place, however, fell into ruin. Its dwellers went back to their feral state, and much of its lore as well as the reasons for its downfall were either eroded or distorted with time. Due to that, Dirtmouth, once the gateway to that alluring world, started being sought only by those who – in search of knowledge, relics, or thrills – wanted to adventure into the tunnels and areas that once constituted Hallownest.
The knight, who is through most of the way a gigantic question mark to players and to the characters it meets on its journey, may initially seem like yet another of those adventurers. Its goal, however, is considerably deeper than that of its bug colleagues, and the intimate relationship between its objective and the truth behind the existence of Hallownest will send gamers to the darkest and most menacing reaches of the kingdom. Hallownest, as one of Hollow Knight’s brilliant attributes, perhaps its most valuable one, is simply huge.
It contains a total of fifteen areas, some of which feature distinctive subareas of their own. And inside them, the knight is bound to encounter landscapes of mesmerizing variety and hypnotic artistic beauty, and the game’s awe-inspiring hand-drawn visuals, alongside a beautifully orchestral soundtrack, capture a great range of tones. There is melancholy in the rundown Dirtmouth; sheer terror in the dark creepy tunnels filled with crawling bugs of Deepnest; architectural splendor in the City of Tears; and great natural beauty in the Queen’s Gardens.
Whether the scenery is barren or lush, and even when flooring views that deserve to be turned into paintings appear, Hollow Knight is always underscored by a feeling of looming threat. And there are plenty of reasons for that. Firstly, its halls are packed to the brim with dangerous enemies that differ from one another in design, attack patterns, and defense mechanisms; and Team Cherry went to such an absurd extent to give each area of Hallownest its own set of murderous creatures that the game has over one hundred regular foes. Secondly, bosses (both major and minor) are equally plentiful, and given there is no clear indication of when one is about to appear, it is easy to – when exploring – unknowingly step into a boss room.
Although all these battles, due to the knight’s simple moves, fall into a pattern that involves dodging blows and slashing, they are able to touch upon pleasant creative grounds thanks to the varying nature of bosses and their unique attacks. Thirdly, and most importantly, Hollow Knight is plain hard: its normal enemies can kill effectively, its bosses are difficult to take down, its caves have a lot of environmental hazards, and the game offers no guidance whatsoever.
That last quality, in particular, plays a major role in defining the experience gamers will have when playing Hollow Knight. The title takes such a radical hands-off approach that vital assets such as a map and a compass, which indicates where the character is on the map, are not as readily available as one would normally expect. The latter is an item (which can be purchased very early into the adventure) that needs to be bought and equipped, meaning that for the first hour or so gamers will be left to walk into Hallownest without knowing exactly where they are. The mapping system, meanwhile, has numerous quirks of its own, and all of them play into the hands of Hollow Knight’s status as a Metroidvania that, more than any other of its peers, leaves it up to players to take the necessary measures to figure out its enormous maze, therefore giving them the power to decide what to do next and how to proceed.
The maps of all areas are bought individually by finding the place where Dirtmouth’s cartographer is hiding in a region. And although they are indeed helpful as soon as they are acquired, they are far from being complete. The character will often remark he was unable to advance deep into the regions due to obstacles. As such, a whole lot of mapping is left for the knight itself to execute. Furthermore, as a twist, the map does not update as the hero moves through the area; new places that are visited are only drawn onto the sheet when the knight sits on a bench to rest, restore its energy, and save its progress.
The effect of that feature is that the outline of these initially unmapped rooms, as well as the entrances and exits they contain, only become fully visible some time after they are visited, essentially forcing players into either exploring them as thoroughly as they can the first time around so that no stone is left unturned or opting to return to them afterwards for a more detailed combing of all their corners once their shape is revealed. Finally, pins that mark important spots on the maps (such as save points, merchants, fast-travel stations, and more) need to be purchased at Dirtmouth’s shop before they automatically show up. And the same goes for markers that can be freely put on the map by players to highlight spots they wish to remember, a helpful feature that will be a very welcome sight to those who forget the precise location of collectibles or exits that were just out of reach without the ability they have just come to acquire.
That do-it-yourself nature, one that carries a great deal of challenge and freedom, is what makes Hollow Knight, and it beautifully translates into its exploration. At any point in the game, regardless of the abilities they currently have unlocked, players will have a handful of possible destinations to explore; a simple glance on the map will reveal corridors that were left untouched, entrances leading into new regions that were ignored, and rooms that have way more space to them than what was seen at first glance. And all gamers have to do to find out what there is to be discovered is let themselves be carried away by the joy of exploring Hallownest. Sure, sometimes all they might find is a ledge that is too high or a pool of acid in which the knight can only swim with some extra protection, but Hollow Knight is so overwhelmingly open-ended and has so many extras that, more often than not, untraveled roads will lead to remarkable discoveries.
The fifteen areas of Hallownest can be accessed in more ways than it is possible to count; the connections between them (be it through means of transportation like a stag, a tram, and elevators; or physical links, like tunnels) are numerous; and the order in which they are uncovered is highly dependent on one’s choices.
Consequently, even if the game obviously has a certain general chain of progression, with one skill opening up the way to the next one, there is a very good degree of freedom to be found when it comes to the sequence of events one must go through in order to get to the finish line; so much, in fact, that major locations can go unvisited, important lore can remain unseen, and key characters or bosses may end up not being met by those who do not make a point to scour the kingdom. There is great looseness and non-linearity to the development of Hollow Knight’s quest, to a point that has never been reached even by the best Metroid games, and it is all executed in a way that feels natural, as players will constantly find new nooks to explore and rewards to collect while they are looking for the next major upgrade.
Hollow Knight underlines that almost unmatched knack for exploration with sensible tiny gameplay twists, the most important of which is probably the hero’s Soul reservoir, a meter that slowly fills up whenever the knight attacks enemies. It may seem like a rather commonplace mechanic, but it has a pretty considerable ramification. Other than being consumed every time a spell is cast, Soul is also necessary for healing, and therein lies the reason it heavily influences every single passing second of Hollow Knight’s quest. Healing comes heavily into play due to how Hollow Knight has no health-restoring items whatsoever.
Therefore, while in most Metroidvanias minor enemies are an annoyance to be avoided, the game’s creative and vast array of foes becomes an integral part of its gameplay. Given ignoring them means having no way to recover energy, constantly engaging in combat and finding effective ways to beat all of them is a must. Moreover, since restoring a piece of the knight’s health takes a couple of seconds of holding down the A button, which makes the character be temporarily defenseless, finding good moments for healing is key to defeating the game’s bosses.
Once taken down, enemies drop Geo, the kingdom’s currency, and that hard-earned loot is vital to surviving in Hallownest, because Hollow Knight is not the kind of game that gives relief for free. Other than being exchanged for maps and markers, cash is needed to pay the tolls that unlock the access to fast-travel stations and game-saving benches.
Besides, Dirtmouth and a few other locations offer plenty of merchants that sell a wide assortment of items and upgrades. There are different keys that unlock distinct doors. There are mask shards and vessel fragments, which respectively increase the knight’s soul reservoir and health by one unit whenever three and four are collected. There are charms, which when equipped give the hero a variety of different abilities, including a longer needle, faster healing, damaging enemies whenever hit, temporary vulnerability following the loss of health, and much more. There are notches, which allow for more charms to be equipped. And there are needle upgrades, which come at a steep price and that also require the gathering of a rare collectible. And those optional purchases, at least some of them, become somewhat necessary given the fact Hollow Knight does not pull any punches, and advancing far into the adventure without a large slice of those assets is an achievement reserved to few.
Getting to the end of the journey of Hollow Knight should take the average gamer slightly more than twenty hours, a length that is by all means far above what the genre usually offers. That gameplay time, however, can be severely expanded if one seeks full completion. The corners of Hallownest hide an eye-popping amount of extra content. And – amazingly – that meat goes beyond what regular Metroidvanias tend to bring to the table. Sure, there are the usual hidden collectibles, such as charms, mask shards, vessel fragments, relics, and over forty captive worms, the latter of which can be exchanged for various prizes; and it is rather appealing to go after them not just because they add to the game’s completion rate, but due to how they are usually tucked away in places that expose brilliant design, as they guarded either by nice bosses, tough platforming gauntlets, or engaging exploration puzzles.
Additionally, Hollow Knight holds a Coliseum with battle-related challenges, an encyclopedia that lists all foes encountered (where every entry is completely filled up with intel after a specified number of enemies of a certain kind are defeated), and a couple of sidequests that involve over a dozen optional bosses. It is, simply put, an obscene amount of content, one that is unparalleled inside the genre. And since tackling it all entails spending twenty or so extra hours in the arms of Hallownest, it is likely most players will feel compelled to embrace the challenge, especially since full completion will award them with a special ending.
Due to its size and quality, Hollow Knight constantly flirts with perfection. A couple of noteworthy issues, though, keep it from being truly flawless. Firstly, its lore, although presented wonderfully well via brief punctual text that never overshadows gameplay, could have been clearer, as some of the details of the kingdom’s past and present will fly over the heads of many players. Secondly, checkpoints are sometimes too far away from bosses, which means that dying in a tough battle will occasionally force gamers to take long walks (through dangerous terrain) to reach the big bad guys again.
Finally, whenever the knight is killed, its Soul reservoir shatters and the hero leaves behind – in the room where its death happened – a shade, a special enemy that carries all money the knight had at the time of its defeat. The shade has, therefore, to be vanquished for that cash to be recovered and for the Soul reservoir to be restored. Numerous are the annoyances that stem from that quirk. Not only does that make it almost mandatory for players to return to where they died, which may sometimes be a boss room one feels like avoiding or a place they only want to go back to later, but – to make matters worse – the shade may also be produced in places that are just way too hard to reach, and dying in the process of recovering a shade means forever losing all cash it carried. Truthfully, the game does have a merchant that offers, for a price, the service of summoning the shade from wherever it is, but the whole pain could have been avoided altogether with better punishment implementation.
Balanced against so much outstanding quality, though, it is easy to see how minimal – not to say completely negligible – those problems are. Hollow Knight blasts by them, and it constructs an adventure of all-time greatness. By giving its starring knight a set of skills that is absolutely common and presenting a progression that is not too different from that of other classic Metroidvania titles, it muscles its way towards excellence by achieving unforeseen performance in other areas.
The size of its world is stunning; the level of freedom players have at any point in the game is mesmerizing; the tsunami of content, both mandatory and extra, it carries is flooring; the design of its levels – which have a fine-tuned balance between platforming, environmental puzzles, and exploration – is masterful; the optional challenges that protect its most valuable collectibles are as brutal as they are fun; and the way it completely puts all elements of its exploration into the hands of players (including figuring out where to go, opening shortcuts, and putting effort into mapping the terrain) is daring. All of those pieces come together to form, in the depths of the gorgeous haunting Hallownest, a quest that gloriously walks through the halls of gaming history that are reserved for the industry’s finest productions ever.