I love Hollow Knight. I’m just going to tell you that up front. I absolutely, unabashedly love it. That’s why I’ve been stalling for so long on writing this review. I actually finished the game several weeks ago, but I wanted…nay, needed….to make sure my analysis would do it justice. The Cliff Notes version of this review is that Hollow Knight is awesome, and you should play it. But if you want to know all the reasons why; settle in and keep reading.
Hollow Knight is the product of a successful Kickstarter campaign for South Australia-based developer/publisher Team Cherry. The game was first released for PC in 2017 and then ported to the Nintendo Switch as a digital download earlier in 2018. Digital versions for PS4 and XBox One are due September 25, 2018, and in a testament to the game’s widespread success, physical releases for the Big 3 consoles have been announced for 2019.
And yes, I will be buying one. I love this game so much that I will wholeheartedly pay for it twice.
Developer/Publisher: Team Cherry
Genre: Action/Adventure Metroidvania platformer
Platforms: PC, Switch (reviewed)
Coming Soon for PS4/XBox One
The story of Hollow Knight is vague, and new pieces of it are earned mainly through exploration and talking to NPCs (non-player characters). The game takes place in the bug kingdom of Hallownest. The kingdom has fallen into ruin, the Pale King has vanished, and a mysterious Infection ravages Hallownest’s remaining residents, causing them to become mindless, violent drones. As the unnamed, titular knight, players must stop the Infection, freeing Hallownest from its toxic influence.
But don’t get the wrong idea. A Bug’s Life this ain’t. Hollow Knight is a game that is big on mood, and while there are many touches of humor, the overall atmosphere is wonderfully Gothic and quite, quite serious. Death is always near, so much so that it’s almost a character in and of itself. Most of the NPCs you encounter will not have happy endings. Yet the game never comes across as hopeless or overly morose. There’s a wonderful balance between really feeling the bitter ruin of Hallownest and the defiance that comes with the possibility of a better tomorrow.
While much of the story is never fully explained (and instead left up to the player’s imagination), there is an astounding amount of depth in this world. There is a thin line between life and death, between waking and dreaming, and the knight’s quest is so much more than playing the hero who swoops in to save the day. There is love, redemption, regret, sacrifice, betrayal–everything you need to make an epic, you’ll find it all in Hollow Knight.
Not Your Average NPCs
Not everyone in Hallownest has fallen victim to the Infection, however, and it is these characters that give life and depth to the story of Hollow Knight. Unlike many games where NPCs exist primarily to take up space (and where talking to NPCs yields mainly bland, filler responses), every NPC in Hollow Knight occupies an important piece in the world’s lore. They are not merely shopkeepers and sidequest givers, but unique individuals with hopes and dreams and broken hearts. Talk to them all, more than once.
There is Quirrel, the insightful explorer drawn to Hallownest for reasons he cannot remember. There is Hornet, Hallownest’s fierce defender. She will be your ally or your enemy, depending on how well you prove your strength. Zote the Mighty is a blustering old knight who brags of his exploits (yet needs to be rescued again and again from less-than-heroic situations). I could go on, but you really should meet them for yourself.
Another wonderful touch that adds depth to this world is the unique language spoken by the bugs. Although the text presents in English (or whichever other language you choose), the actual sound bites of the bugs speaking are in a unique language that I believe to be of Team Cherry’s own making. Like everything else in the game, it is purposeful. It does not appear to be a bunch of random gibberish tossed together, but rather a structured, consistent dialect. I love it.
Hollow Knight is a single player, 2D action/adventure Metroidvania platformer. For those unfamiliar with the term, the word “Metroidvania” is born from the games Metroid and Castlevania. In this genre (as in its namesake games), players must explore large, interconnected, non-linear world maps; as the player acquires additional skills or items, they will be able to expand their map.
Hollow Knight fits this description perfectly. Players begin the game in the town of Dirtmouth (the main safe hub), and from there, they descend down a well into the game’s first area, Forgotten Crossroads. Using a sword-like weapon called a Nail, the knight must jump, hack, and dodge his way through enemies, all while exploring new areas and hunting for secrets. From time to time, players will encounter a boss. Successful vanquishing of these foes yields prizes, such as Geo (the game’s currency), new abilities, or the unlocking of doors into new areas.
Best of all, the controls are smooth, and the knight feels quick, agile, and capable. Very fun to play.
For a while, I considered posting a shot of the game’s completed world map to show just how much there is to do and explore. But in the end, I decided against it. Since filling in each of the map’s 15 distinct areas is a reward that must be earned through exploring the territory on foot, showing the full map would be too much of a spoiler. However, players can seek out Cornifer the cartographer. For a fee, he will give you a map of the current area. It will be incomplete, but it’s a start.
Players will soon realize that many areas of the map remain inaccessible to them. To reach these, you must first acquire items or ability upgrades. For example, earning the Monarch Wings gives you the ability to double-jump, and with your new height-reaching talents, you will be able to go to new places. At some point, you’ll likely wander into areas of the map that are so dark, you can’t see where you’re going. Don’t bother trying to tough it out (as I initially did). Just turn around, go back to Dirtmouth, and purchase the Lumafly Lantern, which will light your way.
This process of exploring Hallownest through the gradual acquisition of abilities means that you’ll spend a lot of time backtracking through areas you’ve already been. You will come to know some of the early areas (such as Forgotten Crossroads and Greenpath) so well, you’ll no longer need your map. While additional abilities do give old territories a fresh feel, players who have a low tolerance for repetitive travel will likely find themselves annoyed.
There is not the huge volume of sidequests in Hollow Knight that one would find in, say, an open world RPG, and those that are present are mainly the concern of completionists (FYI, don’t think you are done when you reach 100%. You actually need 112% in order to platinum). And if that’s your goal, be prepared for a challenge. You will need to complete such heroic tasks as conquering an escalating series of pit-fighting challenges in the Colosseum of Fools and taking on a vicious platforming challenge (complete with buzz saws, because why not?) called the Path of Pain.
However, one of the simpler sidequests and the earliest one presented to the player is the saga of the missing grubs. When you descend into Forgotten Crossroads, travel left until you reach the last room. There you will find the elderly Grubfather, weeping as he surveys his family’s empty home. As you explore more and more of Hallownest, you’ll find various grubs trapped in glass jars. If you can reach them and break the jar, they’ll excitedly rush home. From time to time, you can return to visit the Grubfather, who will reward you for each lost grub you rescue.
In all, there are 46 missing grubs, and rescuing the lot will yield a big final reward. But do yourself a favor: once you receive your final reward from the Grubfather, never go back to that room. Just trust me on this one.
Unlike just about every single major game studio, when you buy Hollow Knight, Team Cherry has included four DLC expansion packs that are completely free. The content of these packs (Hidden Dreams, The Grimm Troupe, Godmaster, and Lifeblood) integrate seamlessly with the game as a whole, so you won’t be aware that you’re experiencing the extra music, boss fights, side quests, and color palettes. They don’t draw attention to themselves and thus don’t break the player’s immersion into the world of Hallownest, but you will enjoy them just the same.
About the only complaint I’ve heard regarding Hollow Knight is that it can be, at times, brutally difficult. I won’t deny this. But I suppose whether this is a good point or a bad point depends on your perspective and preferences. For me, if a game is brutally difficult in a way that feels impossible or unfair, that’s a deal breaker. But Hollow Knight has never seemed this way to me.
Being a gamer of quite average skill, I only conquered most of the bosses in this game through sheer stubbornness: playing them over and over and over again until I learned the attack patterns and could react accordingly. It’s a very old school, retro way of playing. Other times I had to abandon the effort and go looking for upgrades to my health or Nail so that I could return to the boss stronger and better prepared. More than once while playing this, I wished leveling up was as easy as grinding out battles against low-level enemies, but that is not the case. Hollow Knight does not allow you to cut corners.
As is often the nature in Metroidvanias, the game does not give you directions regarding where you should be going or what you should be doing at any given time. You have to figure it out yourself, and this can lead to players feeling lost at times. You’ll eventually go through a period of desperately retracing your steps, hoping to get lucky with a discovery. But because of this, finishing Hollow Knight feels like a true accomplishment instead of merely being handed a participation trophy. You must earn it. No one will hold your hand along the way.
The Downsides: Saves & Fast Travel
Despite my gushing, Hollow Knight is not perfect, and I will address my two main gripes now. In the game, players save their progress by resting on benches spread throughout Hallownest. However, benches are not always adjacent to boss areas. This means that should you fail to beat the boss on your first try, you will have to travel by foot, often for long distances, to get another chance at them. And if the area you are travelling through is especially challenging (such as the Mantis Village), you’ll take large hits to your health along the way. This can result in starting difficult boss battles already at half-strength.
Not all boss experiences are like this. Sometimes finding a save bench nearer to the boss is simply a matter of looking harder. But it does happen often enough that it’s a noticeable drawback.
The primary methods of fast travel in Hollow Knight are by riding either the Stag Beetle or the Tram Line. While both are extremely welcome features, the stations for each are spread few and far between. This means that players will often find themselves stranded approximately a million miles from where they need to be with no Stag or Tram stations in sight. The silver lining here is that it provides excuses to search for missed secrets as you walk to your destination, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that it can be aggravating at times.
I fell in love with Hollow Knight at first sight. It is such a beautiful, visually unique game. The gloomy color palette appeals to my suppressed teenage goth side, while the haunting, melancholy score by Christopher Larkin has taken up permanent residence on my favorites playlist. Every map area is distinct in color and sound and types of mortal danger, yet they all fit together as a cooperative whole. And the few uses of bright colors (such as Hornet’s pink frock or the sickeningly vivid orange of the Infection) make an immediate, startling impact.
Keep your eyes open for clever touches throughout the game. For example, in Deep Nest, the spiders seem to crawl out of the screen in a way that makes you shiver. In Fog Valley, all sound is muffled, as if you are underwater. Everywhere you go, there is something to smash or break with your Nail. It’s this attention to detail that makes me very excited for what the future of Team Cherry has to offer.
For a low price (currently $15 on the Nintendo eShop), Hollow Knight offers an incredible amount of value. Not only is there an enormous quantity of in-game content, but upon completion, you unlock an additional difficulty mode (apparently for those who thought the Path of Pain was a walk in the park). However, if you want to see absolutely everything, you’ll have to replay until you get each of the game’s possible five endings.
Additionally, the Quests tab on the Main Menu lists all the challenges laid out before the player. There are a lot, and some are mutually exclusive. For example, one quest awards you for rescuing Zote the Mighty, while another requires you to leave him to his fate. Successful completion of all the Quests will likely require several playthroughs.
But even beyond all that, I believe Hollow Knight has excellent replay value simply because it is such a phenomenal game. I know that I will be revisiting Hallownest many, many times in my future.