Hollow Knight is what you’d get if you took a talented art student’s notebook, crumpled up all the paper and tossed it in a blender, threw in six parts Super Metroid, and four parts Dark Souls and fired up said blender on high. It doesn’t have any one idea that hasn’t been seen in a game before. But it manages to execute each individual idea extremely well, leading to a truly engrossing and difficult adventure.
You play as an unknown creature with a white mask for a head and a weapon simply called the Nail. The game plops you in a town called Dirtmouth, where a very small handful of friendly residents offer you guidance and useful items (for a price of course). It turns out that Dirtmouth is the last remaining settlement of a kingdom called Hallownest, a vast underground network of caves, caverns, tunnels, and everything in-between populated by various races of bugs, some friendly and most not. Who or what you are and what your purpose is is not quite clear, and much of the Dark Souls element comes from the gothic design of the world and the way it tells its story through cryptic dialogue and its environments.
And what a world it is. The graphics are immediately striking, with gorgeous hand drawn character models for everything in the game, as well as smooth animation and great variety in level design. It can’t be understated how great this game looks in motion. Subtle cues like a cape flapping in the breeze, or a creature drawing a breath before it’s about to pounce all breathe life into the world of Hallownest. There are a staggering number of enemy sprites in the game, all different from one another just enough so you can immediately identify their function after confronting them a few times.
Additionally, special attention should be given to the levels. This is a much, much bigger game than it first seems, and each area has a distinct mood and feel thanks to the strong color palette on display. From the sickly greens of the Fungal caverns to the disturbing darkness of the Deepnest (possibly one of the scariest areas in a game in recent memory), each area feels different from the last, but never once do they feel out of place in the world. It lends a strong sense of atmosphere to the game, one that adds to the mystery of the narrative.
Everything is presented from a 2D side scrolling perspective, which is where a lot of the Super Metroid comes into play. You’ll be backtracking through each area numerous times, discovering new secrets upon each visit. Like the best games in the genre, the game teases you with secrets that you know are there but can’t quite reach early on, leading to a sense of escalating anticipation. Sometimes an area you couldn’t reach leads to a platforming challenge that holds a special upgrade at the end. More often than not, though, it leads to a brand new area. Exploration is immensely satisfying here thanks to how many different kinds of secrets are tucked away in every nook and cranny. This is a game where it’s wise to attack anything that looks suspicious, because the amount of hidden areas and breakable walls will keep any 100% runner busy for quite a while.
I mentioned platforming challenges in the above paragraph, and make no mistake- there are some real tough segments in this game. Whether it’s tricky platforming that requires absolutely airtight precision or a series of challenging fights against swarms of enemies, this game does not shy away from putting the player through the ringer. Combat is simple enough- you can whack enemies with the Nail, building up Soul that you can use to heal yourself or cast offensive spells. The key is, though, that each action takes up a certain amount of time, which makes combat less about raw skill and more about knowing when to perform certain actions. And because health is simply measured in the number of hits from anything that you can take rather than a life bar, you can’t just expect to damage boost your way through a fight. The game punishes those who don’t take a moment to consider a situation and rewards those that have the patience to know when to heal or when to strike.
Some of the greatest challenges come from the many, many bosses this game holds. Each boss is extremely different from the last, and more than a few are entirely optional. But each one is refined and polished in a way that makes it just feel right. It’s very old school in the sense that it’s all about pattern recognition. There are several bosses that seemed impossible at first due to their speed and move set, but careful observation through repeated deaths showed the cracks in their strategies, and it isn’t uncommon to eventually best a beast that once gave you trouble without taking a single hit. The feeling that comes from triumphing over one of the game’s many formidable foes is great.
There are steps you can take to help take the gas off some of these challenges, as well. As mentioned above, the world is packed with secrets, many of which are upgrades of all kinds. Some increase your health, some increase the Soul you can carry, some might be ore to upgrade the Nail with, and some are Charms. These are essentially accessories, but they can change up your play style immensely. They range from simple functions like showing your place on the map to more radical ones like shielding you while you’re trying to heal. There are loads of Charms to collect, and finding the right one for the situation or your own play style is easy as swapping them out at a resting point (called benches because, well, they’re benches scattered throughout the world). You have a limited number of Notches to use and certain ones use more notches than others, so you should think carefully before heading out into the wild because you’ll never know where the next Bench will be.
Speaking of Benches, they lead to the most directly Dark Souls esque aspect of the game. When you die, your character leaves behind a Shade and loses a third of their maximum Soul capacity and all of their money (which is definitely something you’ll want plenty of in order to buy the various upgrades and Charms throughout the game). You have to return to the point where you died and defeat your Shade in order to get your money and Soul capacity back. The thing is that if you die in a particularly difficult section, it can make getting your money and Soul capacity back a tricky proposition. It’s a fine feature, but I will say that it does lead to one of the game’s flaws, which is repetition. If you’re stuck on a boss, chances are you’ll have to play through a good portion of a level to get back to your Shade, and playing through the same difficult section over and over again can get old after a while. Sure, it makes you want to master the section so you can move on, but the inherent structure of the game means you’ll be playing through the same section several times.
That’s a small flaw on an otherwise fantastic game. For fifteen dollars, you get a gigantic world to explore, one that is packed with secrets to find and challenges to overcome. From the wide array of bosses to the distinct level design and cryptic story, Hollow Knight is an absorbing game, one that is difficult to put down once you pick it up. To top it off, the developers have released all of its DLC thus far entirely for free, and this hides some of the most deviously challenging content in the game. Those who appreciate rewarding exploration and challenging gameplay need to add Hollow Knight to their collection.
+ Gorgeous art style is pleasant to look at and helps each area feel distinct
+ Absolutely gigantic world packed with secrets to uncover
+ A wide array of bosses to take on
+ Charms are a neat way to customize your character to suit your play style
+ Challenging but fair most of the time
+ Completely free DLC further expands play time
- Replaying the same section over and over again due to repeated deaths can get old