Written by Jason Palazini.
Without ever playing it, a colleague strongly recommended Hollow Knight to me because he thought it “looks interesting.” He said Hollow Knight seemed like something I would enjoy and added that I should invest hours of my time into playing the game to completion and write a review on it. After several sleepless nights, I’m not sure if I should thank him, or demand alcohol for my troubles.
Either way, what a ride.
Hollow Knight’s unique charm and animation style captures players’ attention instantly. The simple two-dimensional character design is reminiscent of early Disney cartoons, focusing primarily on border outlines and color fills. Meanwhile the intricate environments suggest an artist’s careful brush strokes with foreground assets that will cover the player’s character, making the environmental scale overwhelm the player as much as it does the character itself. It’s a wonderful composition, only further enhanced by the score, composed by Christopher Larkin, whose work I am shamelessly listening to as I review.
It would be easy to write off Hollow Knight as another genre mashup, but to do so would be a massive injustice. Hollow Knight plays like Metroidvania, punishes like Souls, and charms like Yoshi. Outside of that, Hollow Knight brings something truly unique to the table.
You play as the silent titular knight, presumably a stag beetle, who sets off to explore the forgotten realm that exists beneath the town of Dirtmouth. Below the surface, you’ll uncover brutal bosses, mysterious NPCs, and a diverse world to explore. Like the Dark Souls series, the story is buried deep in lore and players can choose to uncover the story, or chop their way through it. The story bears little weight on the gameplay experience so you won’t lose out if you decide to dive right in.
Combat is simple, evolving over time like any Metroidvania should, keeping you on your toes. At the onset, your abilities are limited to basic jumps, needle (sword) strikes, and your healing ability; expanding with weapon, mobility and magic upgrades. As with any other game in this genre, progress means gaining new abilities that aid with the exploration of new terrains. But before anything else, I want to talk about the magic system.
The healing ability, as well as latter forms of magic are all driven by the Soul Meter. As you attack enemies, the Soul Meter charges, allowing you to use Soul to cast magic spells. While this is certainly a familiar mechanic to gamers, Team Cherry did a phenomenal job balancing the magic system. Each spell will consume one third of a fully charged Soul Meter; or in practical terms,you can restore three hit points before fully depleting your meter. But using the soul healing ability takes a few seconds of charging before it goes into effect, forcing you to momentarily run from combat. When you’re traversing the open map, there’s plenty of time to halt, but a boss will stubbornly deny you the opportunity to pause and mend.
Strike to gain Soul, vulnerably pause to heal, rinse, repeat. This balance is one of the two aspects that makes Hollow Knight so challenging. Timing each move is as essential in Hollow Knight as it was in Donkey Kong Country‘s mine cart levels. The slightest misstep will cost you the victory. It takes masterful observation and timing in order to progress though your adventure.
No souls-like game permits an easy death. Upon death you’ll drop a shade, and all of your currency, at the spot where you died. Without your shade, your Soul Meter will shatter, cutting down your maximum Soul level. If you return to where you were last defeated, you’ll have one chance to attack and defeat your shade to recover all of your money and restore your Soul Meter.
To ease a bit of the tension, you can discover and purchase charms. These are equippable items that will either turn on a passive bonus, or enhance an active ability. Each charm requires a set number of empty notches, or slots, as an equipment cost. As you progress through the game you’ll unlock more notches, letting you experiment with countless combinations of bonuses from counter damage to faster Soul gain.
The other big challenge that you’ll face is navigation. In order to use the map as we’ve come to expect (i.e map outline, vendor/mission icons, your current position, etc.) you’ll need to complete a number of tasks:
- Purchase the area map by finding the cartographer’s location in each region.
- Purchasing landmark icons in Dirtmouth. Without these, vendors and key locations will go unmarked on the map, even after you encounter them.
- Resting at a checkpoint to updated recently uncovered parts of the map.
- Equip a charm that allows you to see your current location.
Hollow Knight is a game filled with mystery, difficult bosses, and stunning design. While it’s only available on PC right now, it’s scheduled to release on Nintendo’s Switch later this year, with rumors of a possible PS4 release as well.
And with that, there’s only one thing left to do.