Metroidvania is an interesting genre of video games that focuses on progression, exploration, and non-linearity, the term being homage to the Metroid and Castlevania series which feature those aspects prominently. In metroidvanias, players explore a world that is initially limited to them, but upon acquiring more gear/abilities, their ability to explore becomes increased. This sort of game can be challenging to get right as back-tracking and re-visiting old locations can easily become boring to the player if it is executed poorly, so good level/world design as well as a substantial sense of progression are both crucial to the experience. Hollow Knight by Team Cherry is not a new game at this point in time, being released almost three years ago, but having discovered it through Humble Bundle’s Covid-19 bundle, I finally had the fortune of playing through it for the first time.
The player pilots a small, cute skull knight known as a “vessel,” and must journey throughout the realm of Hallownest and its various sub-regions to discover its secrets, which include the plot of the story. The story and goal for the player’s journey are not initially clear, and it is up to the player to discover that through playing the game. While I have made the Dark Souls connection joke many times in the past, Hollow Knight definitely has some influences of the well-known FromSoftware games in terms of its approach to gameplay and storytelling, and as a fan of FromSoftware I am perfectly content with that.
At its core, Hollow Knight is a 2D platformer with a lot of combat elements. The combat is fairly simple, with the player character being able to slash in four different directions, up, side-to-side, and down if in mid-air (down-slashing objects/enemies will also give some upwards momentum). However, with progression, the player will eventually have access to different spells as well to spice things up, and they can also customize their combat style via charms. Charms are special trinkets that grant a certain ability, and the player needs to use up several charm slots or “notches” to equip a charm, so good planning is encouraged as it is impossible to just stack every charm and use all the abilities. The different charms add a lot of depth to Hollow Knight’s combat as it really allows for different play-styles, from more melee-based fighting to a more spell-casting style depending on one’s charm set-up. Not all of the charms are combat-oriented, and there are a few charms that are really useful for difficult platforming sections or just general exploration. The bosses for the most part were pretty fun to fight as well as decently challenging, and due to its 2D platforming-based nature they tended to be both a combat challenge as well as a platforming one as a lot of bosses would have projectiles or environmental hazards that the player needs to avoid while still dealing damage.
The platforming is also pretty fun, for the most part being a nice challenge without reaching the point of frustrating. Hollow Knight’s movement feels super tight and responsive, and a minor thing like being able to control the height of a jump is a huge part of why I enjoy it as there are a good amount of platforming obstacles in the game that require somewhat precise spacing. That being said, I am no platforming expert, and there was one particular section of the game that I thought was borderline unfair difficulty-wise (for a non-platforming enthusiast), but I felt obligated to complete it because it was required for the game’s true ending, ignoring the DLC-added ones. It probably is not that bad for people who are actually into platforming, but it did feel super disconnected from the rest of the game difficulty-wise so it caught me off guard. Otherwise, I was a big fan of the game’s overall level design, and every time I acquired a new ability my first thought would be to see what secrets I may have missed the first time going through. Hollow Knight thoroughly rewards exploring every nook and cranny, and I love games that appeal to my innate sense of game completionism without exploiting it (aka not artificially padding game time via boring mechanics like uninspired fetch quests).
A lot of the game’s overall narrative is not initially clear to the player and must be discovered through exploration and conversations with various NPC’s, which is reminiscent of the Dark Souls approach where exposition is minimal and the story is told through the world. Hell, once the player figures out the plot and what the purpose of the vessel is, the similarities just increase (a really crude generalization of the plot would be Dark Souls but with bugs). The general atmosphere of Hallownest is not a particularly pleasant one, with most of the region in decay, but the few sentient NPC’s the player meets on the way are all colorful characters with their own purpose which do a lot to brighten the mood. The best part of the story was honestly not the story itself, but rather the process of discovering the story through Hollow Knight’s rich, albeit dying world, and figuring out what my purpose as the player character was.
Gameplay and writing aside, I also appreciate the music and art style of the game, which are both phenomenal. The music greatly enhances the feel of each region of Hallownest, whether it be the tranquil serenity of Greenpath or the creepiness of Deepnest, and the different boss battle tracks are also all amazing to listen to. The art style is really cute, and honestly does a lot to prevent the game from ever feeling too depressing with the various character designs. Combined, the music and visuals really elevate the exploration value and do a great job of instilling a sense of wonder with each new region I stumbled upon.
I really do not have any substantially negative things to say about Hollow Knight; it is a masterpiece, especially considering its indie origin and thus lacking the backing of a huge AAA company. Team Cherry have done some amazing work, and I look forward to the sequel, Silksong that will be coming out some time in the future.
Rating: This game’s $15 retail; there are very few games that give you so much for that little.