A few hours in
I’m just going to cold-open this second review page: I played Hollow Knight every day for the whole week, including almost 75% of my actual waking time this weekend. It’s very compelling, is what it is. Some might even go as far as to say: It’s good! Seems like those other reviews haven’t quite led me astray.
Hollow Knight is actually so good that I’m a little worried I won’t be able to give it a good review. What I want to do right now is just gush, about how cool it is and how much I enjoyed it, which isn’t quite the sort of critical breakdown you might be hoping for. But then nobody said this job was easy.
If I had to describe Hollow Knight in one phrase, I’d tell you that: It’s like Salt and Sanctuary [which I reviewed here] meets A Bug’s Life. It is a 2D Metroidvania game that blends the genre-expected platforming and combat with distinctly Souls-like elements like perishable resources and slow-building lore that, and I stress that this is crucial, takes place entirely in a kingdom of bugs. You’re a bug. Your friends and allies are bugs. Most of your enemies are bugs. Your ‘sword’ is actually a nail. Your large environment obstacles are centipedes and giant worms. It does play this take mostly seriously, it’s not like your town is actually a shoebox or anything that goofy. But still. It’s bugs all the way down.
Taking this joke to a more serious level, Hollow Knight‘s aesthetic is nothing short of incredible. The overall style is so evocative. It looks great in still images, and even better in motion. And every distinct part of the overworld has a unique audiovisual theme, all of which contrast one another obviously and immediately (with maybe one or two exceptions). I remember one part where I moved between two sections of the Royal Waterways that took me through a screen belonging to the Abyss, and the difference was striking that I had to stop and take a breath.
It’s a thousand little things that make this aesthetic as good as it is. The consistency in bug-based enemy designs with regional differences. The unique NPCs with their little mannerisms. The exceptional use of sound as a travel cue. The fact that different areas sometimes have different bench designs, instead of using the same iron bench model everything. The use of colour, just, in general. It’s all very good, but also something I don’t really have any criticism on. So let’s establish that I think it’s great and move on from there.
The ‘Metroidvania’ genre label comes with certain expectations, especially if you tell me it’s good. I expect a large open world to explore, most of which I won’t be able to access at the beginning. I expect to early on see specific puzzles and obstacles I can’t yet overcome, but which I can predict I’ll be able to deal with later. I expect progression in powers and movement abilities that keep par with the progression of challenges and enemies, always keeping me challenged in the ‘current’ areas while increasingly making ‘past’ ones easy to traverse. I expect engaging combat and interesting boss battles that test my mastery of skills and abilities. I expect to have options about where to go, real ones, not just ‘this one path is clearly the right one, and the others are going to dead-end you within two screens’. And I expect good tools to help me keep track of everything.
Hollow Knight knocks all of these out of the park.
Hollow Knight takes place in the world of Hallownest (or rather, The Kingdom Of Hallownest And Surroundings), a place that’s large, dangerous, and intriguing. Not that you know that at the start of the game. Exploring this world, actually exploring it, is one of Hollow Knight‘s main gameplay drivers. You don’t really have an explicit mission at the start: The game expects you to want to dive into this well of doom, for no other reason than that it’s there, and start figuring out what’s there and what you should do about it. And you do, if this is the sort of game that appeals to you.
One major (and occasionally questionable) design choice that drives this exploration theme is the mapping. As hinted at on the previous page, you don’t just ‘get’ a map of any new area you find. First you have to track down Cornifer, the mapping bug, by following his trail of documents and humming… or go up to the map shop if you’ve ‘missed’ him in any given area (I still have no idea what triggers this). Even then, the map you get is rudimentary, with only a few core areas highlighted: The Cornifer zone, some connections to other areas, probably a boss you’ll want to fight. You’ll need to fill out the rest yourself, which works like this: After you buy the mapping supplies from the shop (which doubles as an early suggestion that some shop items will be vital to proceed), any unmapped areas you enter are added to your map… the next time you rest on a bench. Or die, which sees you respawn on your last-rested bench, which totally counts.
It’s an interesting design decisions, because the result feels more like exploring than other Metroidvania games I’ve played in recent memory. You don’t just magically get to know everything: You travel around, then take a moment to rest and capture what you’ve learned. Which won’t be everything! It forms a cycle: You delve into unknown areas, using your established maps as a baseline. At some point, you either decide to return to safe grounds, find a new bench somewhere, or die. Either way, this fills out your map, which will now probably include hints to side passages you missed the first time. Which then prompts more exploration. It’s an interesting way of playing with uncertainty and the drive to find what’s out there. Hell, you don’t even get to see where you are on the map unless you make a specific sacrifice (more on that in a bit).
And there is a lot to explore, both in size and in terms of activity. Related to the former, the coming screenshot is a little spoilery — so if you don’t want any of that, just squint and scroll past this image, and definitely don’t maximize it.
There’s just a lot to find, too. There’s the expected health and mana (‘soul’) upgrades, for one. But you can also find bonus charms, optional boss fights, shortcuts and links to other areas, and even whole NPCs, vendors and quest givers and lore dispensers and everything, that you could otherwise just miss.
One of Hollow Knight‘s Souls-y influences is how it uses terrain shortcuts to instill a sense of progress through the world, and to keep an objectively large world relatively accessible. It’s full of the suckers. Larger areas connect together in interesting ways, including several shortcuts all the way back to Dirtmouth. But every major challenge or particularly difficult enemy encounter also has some form of shortcut, that you can open after clearing it once. And then there are the ‘fast travel’ options: It’s tempting to make the connection to Morrowind here, since in both cases ‘fast travel’ involves riding a giant bug around predetermined stopping points.
A large open world is only fun if it’s fun to move around in. Luckily, Hollow Knight lands this one as well. The basic movement is fairly smooth, and in most areas feels responsive and fast. It has to, since so much of this game’s challenge is relatively precise platforming. I’ll make a note here that in my case, the jumping had a habit of not triggering if I tried to jump too close to the edge. But it’s equally possible that’s just my controller acting. By and large, moving in Hollow Knight works the way you feel it should.
And you’ll unlock meaningful movement upgrades over time. I say ‘meaningful’, because most of these upgrades aren’t just gimmicks. Some of them are: I still only use the downward dash to solve specific puzzles. But over time, without even really noticing it, I’ve incorporated the side dash and the wall climb and the double jump into my regular movement, moving in ways and at speeds I couldn’t have imagined before. It also helps in this case that Hollow Knight incorporates various open-ended movement challenges throughout the game. It’s not just a matter of ‘you got the double jump, now solve all the issues only a double jump can solve for the next five minutes, before you get a new power’. The world is built to challenge all the skills you’re expected or required to have at that time, but generally allows you a lot of leeway in how to apply those skills. Do you want to double-jump here, or wall-jump, or find a vantage point to launch, or drag an enemy over to bounce off them? Go ahead. Revisiting old areas with previously-difficult challenges serves to highlight how much easier everything gets the more options you get under your belt.
If I had to pick my favorite things with regard to movement and world exploration, though, it’s this:Hollow Knight is actually open and semi-nonlinear, to an advanced degree. It gives you choices in where to go, and which areas to tackle next: Real choices, with real rewards and real outcomes, not just letting you jot around in disguised dead ends for a while. Sure, there’s some linearity to it: Game researchers would probably call this a ‘repeated diamond’ structure, where the game constantly converges on particular points that you do have to hit to proceed. But between those, it’s totally viable to strike your own path. I’ve had several occasions where, after defeating some meaningful-seeming boss fight, I’d pull up my large map and look at where I wanted to go next. Not ‘where did I think the next plot beat was going to happen’; ‘where did I want to go’.
Or maybe it’s fairer to say that Hollow Knight pulls off a rare thing with aplomb: It constantly made me feel as if my choice to chase down certain leads and opportunities wasn’t intended, wasn’t ‘the right way’, but that it was my own decision to do what I did. This is literally the one thing I remember about the first Risen, and the one thing I still praise that game for: It would constantly loop ‘side quests’ and ‘things I just wanted to check’ back into the main plot. Similarly, I’ve discovered world-opening upgrades and critical lore on paths that I were sure were nothing at all. I really just wanted to see what was behind that bend. Definitely didn’t expect there to be a whole thing here.
If movement is one side of the Metroidvania medal, the other side is combat. You tend to fight a lot of enemies in these games, so combat had better be interesting, engaging, or at the very least painless. In this area, Hollow Knight performs fairly well. The basic combat is simple, but functional: Swipe your nail at enemies and avoid their follow-up attacks, gain soul energy from hitting, and use that to heal. What makes this work well enough is the integration with player mobility. Early enemies shamble at you and attack simply, but it doesn’t take long for flying enemies, jumping enemies, wall-crawling enemies, and powerful enemies with complicated patterns to show up. Enemies function as an extra layer of obstacles while you traverse the space, forcing you to integrate combat maneuvers and awareness into your routine. This goes doubly for the boss fights, which are generally a test of both your combat and pattern-recognition and your ability to react quickly and think on the fly.
Two complications are introduced over time. First, less important, you gain access to a small number of spells as you play. Two, right now, which is why I call it ‘less important’. These spells use soul energy, same as healing, forcing you to make choices about what to spend a limited resource on. In practice I’ve never used the Desolate Dive in any combat setting, but, hey. Maybe the last content pack will add more.
Second, and much more important, are the Charms: Fancy pins you can equip to your armor for fancy effects. You find these Charms in the world as you play: Hidden in treasure troves, bought from NPCs, rewards from boss fights, you get the idea. And based on your current progress you can equip a number of ‘notches’, with individual Charms ranging from 1 to 3 notches’ worth.
What I like about Charms is that their effects are actually interesting. It’d have been easy to include Charms with predictably boring effects, like ‘you do more damage’ or ‘you have more life’. But with only a small handful of exceptions, most Charms are way cooler than this. This Charm makes it so your dash ability deals contact damage. This Charm lets you charge up special nail attacks more quickly. This Charm replaces your attack spell with a horde of angry flies. This Charm lets you dash more often, and also unlocks the ability to dash downwards. And so on, and so forth. They’re functional upgrades, not statistical ones: Your choice of Charms to some serious extent determines how you can engage with the world.
Yeah, okay, there are boring ones: ‘Your spells are better’ isn’t staggering (though the upgraded spells do look cool), and ‘your weapon reaches farther’ doesn’t particularly wow me (though I do use it all the time). And through some series of circumstances, it is possible to get straightforward health and damage Charms. But listen: Even at the end of the game, you only have a very limited set of Charm notches to customize yourself with. And if you use that limited space to get extra hearts and damage instead of the cool stuff you could be getting, you’re a cop. I don’t make the rules.
What else is there to say about combat? It’s fast, and snappy, and lethal. Even with your ability to drain energy from enemies and heal, expect to die every now and again: Spikes are environmental bastards, some larger ‘default’ enemies pack quite the wallop, and then there are the bosses, of course, of course. When you die, you respawn at your last bench, which depending on how far you traveled may be infuriating. You’ll be pretty much hale, except that your soul energy orb is cracked and all your money is gone. To get it back, you need to make it back to the place of your death and defeat your ‘shade’ — a floating dark version of you, with health that scales to yours and all your special powers. Die again, and that shade is gone forever — and so is your money. I won’t say this happened to me often, and Hollow Knight is fairly generous when it comes to letting you get back to where you died. But you’ll still want to keep an eye out.
You’d be correct in identifying this ‘go get your money back from your corpse before it leaves forever’ mechanic as another Souls-style influence, though the specific choice of turning it into a new monster that’s also you seems unique. It’s not the most salient Souls comparison I’m hoping to make, though. The aspect in which Hollow Knight made me think of actual Dark Souls in particular the most is the worldbuilding: The setting, the lore, the presentation, and the gloomy way everything carries itself. This also happens to be my favourite part of Hollow Knight: The combat and the movement is fun, but the main reason I’ve kept playing for so long was just to find out what happened next.
I’m a sucker for slow-burning environmental stories, and Hollow Knight starts you out with absolutely nothing. A strange dream, a wandering knight, an abandoned village. The picture is slowly filled out over time, as you explore and talk to people. A vast underground kingdom, once renowned and ruled by a righteous king. It had mines, towns, gardens, waterworks, and a grandiose palace town — all in advanced states of decay, now. An undefined, poorly understood decline. The tunnels are filled now with ravenous monsters and the walking dead, all controlled by some malignant something. An infection, they call it. Most of those that survived are content to simply live out their lives in the ruins of the old world. Others are driven to explore, or to try and make things right. And then there’s you.
There’s… honestly not that much I can say here that wouldn’t verge on the incredibly spoiler-y, so I won’t try. All you need to know is this: I went into Hollow Knight with no expectations regarding the writing, save that people told me the game overall was good. I left feeling a variety of ways. It’s not the kind of storytelling that overtly sinks its claws in you: There’s no one part of it that I can point to as ‘this is the moment I knew I was hooked’. It’s a gradual process, rather, a slow teasing of interesting detail on interesting detail that let you piece together the workings of the world. Until one day you realize you just… get it. Or most of it, at least. You have an idea of it. Maybe playing more will let you get even more? Maybe if you hunt down some of the challenges you haven’t beaten yet…
And then suddenly the weekend is over and you haven’t written a review yet.
If the preceding five thousand words haven’t imparted on you how much I’ve enjoyed Hollow Knight, let me close on this: I’m thinking about playing it more after this review. Specifically, I have beaten it: I’ve reached the default ending, the ‘simplest’ ending, which only required that I explore a good seventy percent of the world and fought a selection of tough, but fair bosses over a dozen area. But I know there are other endings. And I have an idea for how to get there. And… for the first time in a long, long time, if not for the first time in my life, I think I want to fight to those endings myself. Not just look them up, actually live them. That hasn’t happened in almost four years.
Hollow Knight is an exceptionally crafted, polished, well-written game. It looks and sounds incredible, it’s easy to learn but hard to master, it has a wealth of stuff to do and a wealth of hooks to reel you in, and it has slow-burning storytelling on par with the established masters of the genre. I won’t say it’s without flaws: Some Charms are boring, some enemies are just bullshit, and with any game like this, there’s always the possibility that you get off the ‘intended’ path in a way that leads to confusion. Plus I’m not a fan of how the Desolate Dive ability costs mana to use even if you use to to progress to a level. I know there are safeguards in place to try and ensure you have the mana you need, but it’s relatively easy to accidentally overpower those safeguards and then have to go back to grind enemies. Ask me how I know this.
But with any review writing process, the things that don’t make the cut are as interesting as the things that do. I could tell you all the nits I have to pick with Hollow Knight, but I find I don’t want to do that. What I want to do is tell you about all the ways this game is really super good. And then play it some more myself.
Jarenth is going to try to make Monday next week, honest. Keep him steady on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?