There’s a fun thing that happens to me sometimes when I think about using this column for games that have been out for relatively long, and to good acclaim: I get anxious about reviewing them. Like, I get anxious about… doing it wrong, I guess? I’m not 100% on it myself. Am I anxious about not contributing to a closed discussion, if I just say ‘yeah, it’s as good as everyone else says’? Am I anxious about having a bad experience and becoming the one dissenting voice? Am I just anxious that nobody will care anymore? I’m legitimately asking because I can’t parse how my own mind works.
This is what happened with Team Cherry‘s Hollow Knight, a game that everyone and their parent of preference has been telling me to play since forever. I bought it a little over a month ago, when on sale, in case you were wondering how strong my commitment to this has been. Again: No idea why. But I finally managed to finagle a week in which I had relatively little other commitments: If I’m going to take a look at a game that this many people seem to love, I might as well do it right.
And hey: Turns out the ‘final content pack’ for Hollow Knight, ‘Gods & Glory’, is releasing a few weeks from now. How’s that for accidental timeliness.
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, high.)
(Game source: Patreon funds.)
Well, this title screen is certainly interesting. Mysterious, in an alluring way. Ethereal music, thematically appropriate background and text colours, and three jarring brightly-coloured icons to the left, for some reason.
Options-wise, there’s not altogether that much to write home about. Resolution, V-Sync, particle effects, blur. The expected audio settings, though no subtitles. Fancy Xbox controller image with lines coming out of it, the usual. The only standout here is the option to change the menu’s colour, from current blue to muted blue to circular purple to raining red. This apparently matches the aforementioned content packs: The colours I’m currently on match ‘Lifeblood’, presumably the most recent pack. I can also check what any of these packs do, in case I really need to know when each piece of content was added to the game.
Oh, and starting a new game, I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that the brightness setting tells me to ‘set brightness to desired level’. None of this ‘make sure this symbol is visible but this isn’t’ nonsense, which — let’s be honest, it’s 2018. Does anyone not just set it to whatever setting they like best?
Anyway, I start a new game of Hollow Knight. Then quit the game and start again. And again, and again, and again. It turns out Hollow Knight uses the class of cutscene that completely skips if you press any two buttons too quickly. Including, say, the buttons I use to screenshot.
What I can piece together after the fact is his: Someone’s name is spoken with reverence and regret. There’s a dusty town, which includes at least a lantern and a bunch of chains. Some creature with a white face and swirling black void eyes is moving towards that town.
It’s… not much, but it’s what I have. Blame Team Cherry.
Then the game proper starts and I’m falling.
I land on the blue-grey stones with a thud. I’m… what am I? Some sort of minimalist horned beetle Lego figure, best I can tell. With a sword. Colour-wise I fit in with the rest of the land very well, so there’s that, at least.
Since the game’s not very immediately forthcoming, I try out some controls. Analogue stick moves the lil’ fella, unsurprisingly. A jumps, X attacks with my sword. That’s it, for now.
Since there aren’t any obvious exits from this screen, I opt to go left, because that’s usually wrong. I find a secret cave for my impropriety, announced by an unmistakable ‘you found a secret cave’ jingle and hiding some sort of weird studded rock. I try jumping on it, which doesn’t do anything, and then slashing at it, which causes it to break apart into smaller studded rocks that hover into my character. On the side, the game’s opening credits start rolling, as if I didn’t just derail what’s probably intended to be a cool cinematic opening.
Since there’s nothing more to the left after this, I move to the right instead. There’s a cracked locked door, which I slash to bits with my sword. Then another, and another. In the hallway beyond there’s a small crawling bug, somewhat cute and ultimately harmless-looking, which I slash to bits with my sword. It explodes in a shower of orange blood, a stark contrast to the general blue of the overall level.
I explore some more. Cracked doors, and pits, and more bugs, some crawling, some flying. Some platforming of the horizontal variety, some of the vertical style. Some more side paths off the side, again leading to the big rocks with what I presume to be money in them. Spikes. Never touch spikes, that’s my life lesson.
If the above sounds dismissive, it’s not intended to. It’s more… matter-of-fact. This first opening minute has felt like a distillation of the essence of action platformer. It hasn’t stopped to teach me anything, either outright or implicit, beyond placing obstacles in my path and assuming I can figure out how to deal with them. It’s refreshing, in a way, though I have to wonder about the accessibility.
I’m about to be taught, though. As I pass a wall mural, it glows white, and the text ‘
Let’s try that out, huh? In the clearing beyond, I find a flying bug. I hit it with my sword, and sure enough, the big orb at the top left fills up with a white fluid. Then the bug hits me, and sure enough, one of the small white masks that form a bar next to that orb breaks away. Obviously I intended to get hit like that — that second hit was intentional too, you can’t prove otherwise. After I dispatch the bug, I hold the B button, and my character focuses for a moment, while energy streams around them and the white orb drains. And then, poof: Mask restored.
The rest of the exploration proceeds apace. There’s nothing altogether weird, if you don’t count the giant pulsating sack of blue fluid that splatters when struck, providing me with two extra blue ooze-dripping masks that vanish entirely when depleted.
Or the ground that falls away from under me, forcing me into an underground detour that ends in me smacking apart some wooden scaffolding to make even more ground collapse. But it’s good this time, totally intended.
Or that time I bash open a giant cracked door, and it takes me into the town I saw in the intro. I think.
Dirtmouth seems mostly abandoned, all dark buildings with locked doors. The only person I meet is Elderbug, who…
…has the same weird horned look as I do, more or less. And my character reminded me of a beetle. And they’re called Elderbug. And the sign outside said this kingdom is called Hallownest. Are we… are we bugs?
I talk to Elderbug for a while. The gist of what they tell me is: The town is mostly abandoned now. The other residents all went down the well off the side of town. It’s supposed to lead to the once-great underground kingdom of Hallownest. People go there to find treasures, but fall victim to monsters and madness. Oh, but if I want to take a quick rest before doing that same thing myself, this bench over here is looking pretty comfy!
I recognize obvious suggested pathing when I see it. My course of action is clear me now.
Alright, fine, I’ll go down the death well.
I explore the Forgotten Crossroads. There are some monsters here, of the expected creepy-crawly variety. There are also other bugs, much more immediately identifiable as bugs by their posture. They mill around aimlessly until they catch sight of me, then weakly charge at me.
On the left side from the entrance, I find a room with a sad, old-looking grub, presiding over dozens of empty grub holes. On the right, on a ledge, a young grub sits in a glass container, mewling sadly. Could this be… Sadly, no matter how much it perks up when I get close, I can’t actually land the jump that gets me close enough to do anything. Sorry, lil’ grub. Maybe later.
And so it goes. I explore the strange, oddly beautiful underground ruins — this game is really pretty, I can already tell. In a strange stone temple I meet a fellow non-mad bug called Quirrel, who talks about ancient mysteries. In a distant path studded with pink crystals, a miner bug called Myla sings me a song. I fight crawlies and mosquitoes and glowflies that spit acid, and other wandering bugs, including this giant Havel The Rock-looking motherfucker. It guards a grub similar to the one before; this one I can reach, and after shattering the pot it’s in it digs into the earth with a happy squeal. The next time I visit the old man grub, my rescued grub is there, and the old man throws me a bunch of money in gratitude.
I can already see the shape of things. The Forgotten Crossroads are large, with dozens of paths going here and there. Most of them I can’t access yet: This one’s too high, this floor won’t break, this exit is guarded by a monster I can’t seem to kill. Hollow Knight has ‘Metroidvania’ written all over it, which promises to make this an interesting week. Or rather, it would, if I could actually find the right way to proceed. There’s so many twists and turns here.
Maybe I should ask this fellow?
This fancy-looking bug is called Cornifer, and in trade for some of my ‘Geo’ — the money rocks — he’ll sell me something I didn’t even know I was missing: A map of the area, bound to LB. Or rather, a partial map of the area. It’s not complete, he apologizes, since he’s just one bug and this place is full of dangers. But if I return to Dirtmouth and talk to his wife, who by now should be finished setting up shop, I can buy extra supplies. Like a quill, that’ll let me add to the map, or pins, to mark areas of interest. Or a compass, so I can actually tell where the dang I am right now.
Now how do I actually get back to Dirtmouth? You’d think it’s just a matter of going up, but… No, that’s a dead end. No, that’s a hot spring. No, that’s just a pile of corpses. Wait, a pile of corpses?
Maybe I should ask this fellow?
I’m suddenly keenly aware of how much I want to play more Hollow Knight. This game is… intriguing, so far. If it manages to keep this atmosphere up throughout, I can easily see why people have been so unreservedly positive about it.
Only one way to find out if it does!