When it comes to the pantheon of beloved indie games, few stand as more revered than Hollow Knight. It’s hard to believe it’s 6 years old at time of writing; I still see it crop up in conversations constantly today. It remains a game with a strong streaming presence, many of my friends still run it, and there’s a thriving level of discussion around its hardest challenges. It feels like Hollow Knight has enjoyed a lifespan unlike that of many of its contemporaries, but why is that? And why has it taken me so long to start yammering about it?
Hollow Knight (PC, PS4 [reviewed], Switch, Xbox One)
Released Feb 2017 | Developed / Published: Team Cherry
Genre: Metroidvania | HLTB: 27 hours
The answer to the former starts with our main character, the Knight. The Knight is a diminutive bug who has made his way, following some unknown call, to the ruins of the once-proud kingdom of Hallownest. As the game opens he trudges into the tiny, dying hamlet of Dirtmouth, riddled with empty homes hewn from giant shells of ancient insects. A wizened old man warns him against descending down the town well into the tunnels beneath the surface, but with just a step the Knight is gone, down into the deep dark.
This is a perfect opening. We know nothing about, well, anything – who is the Knight, and why are they here to venture into the ruins below? What relation is Dirtmouth to this crumbling and desiccated kingdom? The Elderbug who greets the Knight tells us that the town is, save for him, entirely vacant, its residents all having succumbed to Hallownest’s lure and each in turn disappeared into its depths, never to return. The impression from some of his other lines suggest that the Knight is merely the latest in a long line of intrepid, and typically doomed, explorers, but we are left with the mystery as to why precisely anyone would brave the tunnels. It’s a tantalizing feeling, feeding the player with just enough of a sense of explorer’s excitement. As you stand at the precipice of the well it’s impossible not to feel the clutching grasp of trepidation and the thrill of secrets to be uncovered.
The rest of the narrative is obfuscated, and therein lies yet another of Hollow Knight’s triumphs. Hints of what happened to Hallownest are given to us only in dribs and drabs, eked out from the rare still-living characters we find who share tiny snippets of history, or otherwise gleaned from reading and interpreting elements of the world around us. Hollow Knight is a masterful example of the art of environmental storytelling, inviting its players to guess at what caused the downfall of the great nation that lies in moldering ruins at our feet. It’s not the only thing that shows its clear Soulsborne influences, but it is definitely my favourite. Like so many of the great examples of this style of storytelling, the world is almost as much a main character as any other. Each area is distinct in aesthetic and style, with everything around used to tell the story of Hallownest.
As we drop down the well from Dirtmouth into the abandoned pathways of the Forgotten Crossroads, we are greeted not by emptiness but by wrought-iron railings and intricately-sculpted lamps and at once we’re invited to consider the grandeur of Hallownest’s gorgeous Victorian-esque architecture. The vast City of Tears, the capital itself, is perhaps the single most beautiful of locations in the game precisely because it revels in this Industrial Revolution-but-made-of-bug-shells aesthetic. Other areas are more organic though; I particularly like the sickly ochre glow of the Fungal Wastes and the lush verdant gardens of Greenpath. There’s a very tangible sense of beauty to be found almost everywhere in Hollow Knight; not just in the aforementioned places, but also in the gloomier and grimmer corners of the world. This is a land of bugs after all; it should come as no surprise that some parts of the map are claustrophobic, steeped in an all-encompassing darkness.
It’s just as well then that our Knight is supremely well-equipped to traverse the myriad perils and pitfalls of Hallownest. He comes equipped with just his trusty nail at first, which can be swung around with wild abandon to deal with the many enemies that dog the tunnels, but it doesn’t take too long before the combat shows some hidden depths. Aside from being your primary weapon, the nail is also a vital part of exploration as you can Ducktales-style pogo jump off hazards with well-timed downward strikes and in true Metroidvania style, mastering this fiddly nail skill causes the world to open up massively.
Your nail can only take you so far, though; before too long you’ll need to augment your melee combat with charms. These are accrued across gameplay; some are gleaned from bosses, some are granted at significant story moments or after beating challenges, but the majority are found by exploring the world and squirreling away into the hidden depths of Hallownest. Charms are passive augments to your skills. Each one takes up an amount of slots, and you only have a very limited set of slots to work with so you’re encouraged to find the ones that best suit your playstyle. They can only be changed at benches, which are tiny safe seats that restore your health, so once you’ve got a build you’re stuck with it for a while. I got through a lot of the game with a set of charms that favoured a melee build, with charms to boost my nail’s range, but I found towards the end that I needed to pivot between having that melee build for dealing with regular enemies on the map but I moved to a spells-based setup for dealing with increasingly harder bosses. Not all charms are strictly useful in combat though, and indeed many are either non-combat based in entirety or have secret additional uses. Perhaps the most useful charm in the game was the humble compass one that marked the Knight’s place on the world map; without it I found it all too easy to get horribly lost while trying to navigate the twisting tunnels of the underground kingdom.
The knight also learns a modest array of spells as you progress. The earliest one is with a standard hadouken-style blast which I found deeply gratifying that it stays great the entire way through the game. A couple other spells can be found as you go, both of which are variants on doing damage in a specific direction, but don’t mistake that with them not being useful! Casting spells costs you SOUL, which is replenished by striking enemies with your nail. This encourages players to avoid turtling and instead requires you take the fight to your foes to some degree. You also spend SOUL to heal, which is done by standing still and Focusing for a few seconds as your SOUL drains and your health restores pip by pip. Managing those brief moments when you can afford to sit still and heal around what can be extremely hectic fights is one of the trickier elements to Hollow Knight’s combat, but it adds a delicious tension to the hardest encounters.
Your exploration of Hallownest will eventually be hampered by some sort of insurmountable obstacle, and you’ll have to turn around and try another direction until you gather some new upgrade that changes the way you interact with the world. It’s another grand Metroidvania tradition, of course; in Hollow Knight’s case it includes skills like being able to dash across gaps, clamber up sheer walls, or traverse lethal pools of acid. One of the aspects of Hollow Knight that elevates it, however, isn’t just that it has lots of fun exploration upgrades, but how it expects mastery over them from its players, and how it helps you grow those necessary skills.
Hollow Knight, y’see, owes an awful lot to Dark Souls. Like, a lot. While there are other games out there that stick to the Soulsborne formula even more closely than Hollow Knight, or visually resemble it even more, what Hollow Knight manages to capture is the mindset and ethos of fromsoftware’s beloved franchise. This is apparent at every level of Hollow Knight, from the narrative right through to the gameplay, from the aesthetics to the world design, and crucially, in the way the player interacts with all of these.
Mechanically, the Soulsborne influence is obvious. At some point in your adventure you’ll almost certainly bite it at the hands of some deadly threat that lurks in the darkness. Once you do, you both lose your entire cache of geo, the game’s currency, and you leave behind a shade, a floating dark facsimile of the Knight. On respawning you’ll definitely want to make a beeline back to where you died, although doing so is made slightly more challenging by the fact that your mana pool (or amount of SOUL you can hold onto) is reduced; that means less SOUL to hold onto for spells and healing. Once you do return to your death-site, you get an opportunity to defeat your shade; if you do you’ll recover not just your geo, but also a wodge of SOUL and, more importantly, you’ll also repair your mana pool. Die on the way there though, and your money is gone for good.
Mechanics don’t a Soulsborne make, however. Part of what characterizes fromsoft’s games is a deep sense of cynicism, a darkness of tone that is steeped in futility and death and that is clearly embedded in every facet of the world and its inhabitants. While plenty of games seek to recreate the mechanics of the Souls games as publishers look to capitalize on the franchise’s rampant success, few seem to grasp its tone and presentation as key aspects of the appeal. Not so with Hollow Knight, though. The world we explore has death baked into the very fiber of its being. Hallownest isn’t just dead; it’s a corpse that has long since rotted. The Knight doesn’t arrive to save it, and there’s no chatter among the few survivors below about restoring it to any former glory or resurrecting the kingdom. That sense of heroism is denied us in the face of the overwhelming and inescapable truth of Hallownest’s ruin. While there is beauty to be found here, it’s a beauty of the bleakest kind.
To make matters worse, the land is overrun by a sickly orange infection. The signs are subtle at first; in the early game stages of the Forgotten Crossroads and the neighbouring environments, the only real signs of it are the globs of orange mist and blood that spurt from defeated enemies. You wouldn’t even think twice about them attacking you; after all, action games have to have foes, and the immediate assumption on seeing the slack bodies ahead of you twisting around and launching into an attack as vacant eyes stare out would naturally be that these must be some sort of reanimated carapaces. But the deeper we delve, the more apparent the rot is, and the clearer it is that it and the fate of Hallownest are intertwined. And yet, there’s still that same attitude of refusing the right to heroics, still no solution readily offered; the player remains driven by a need to explore rather than a narrative of a chosen hero pushing them along.
As I played I felt terribly surprised that I was enjoying Hollow Knight. I still am, to some extent. I freely admit that I haven’t, in the past, especially enjoyed or gelled with any of the Soulsborne titles, and often I find that games which seek to emulate that franchise tend to wind up committing to the same gameplay loops which I simply can’t enjoy very much. I like to feel heroic and triumphant and powerful when I play games, not like I’m some useless pawn in an uncaring and threatening world. I also think that the typical Souls-like gameplay tends to inflict upon its players an infinitesimally dreary expectation as it gleefully exults in your constant deaths, while waiting for you to learn how each challenge in the game works. Those who love it often frame it as an intense learning process that rewards diligent players but I really struggle to enjoy what often feels like banging my head against a concrete wall.
And yet Hollow Knight manages to succeed where so many others failed for me. Frustratingly, I’m not sure I can put my finger on precisely why, either. Maybe it’s the wonderful Burton-esque aesthetics that bring a grim charm to the crapsack world, or the brutally simple combat that nevertheless remains hectic and fun to analyse after another death. Perhaps it’s the constantly creative boss fights against a massive variety of foes, each with just the right amount of learnable patterns so as to keep you gassed to come back and try again. It could also be because Hollow Knight is one of the finest Metroidvanias in recent years, capturing that feeling of exploration exquisitely as each new region discovered opens up ahead of you and invites you in to delve. Whatever the reason (or indeed, for all of these reasons) I can’t recommend Hollow Knight enough. It is a near-perfect game, and one I urge you to play if you’ve not already.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.