For someone who really likes the Metroidvania style of games1 it’s possibly a little strange that it’s taken me this long to get around to playing Hollow Knight. It came out at the start of last year, it costs almost nothing (thanks to Brexit any game priced at £10 or less counts as “almost nothing” these days), it looks absolutely gorgeous and it’s by far the most Metroidvania game I’ve played since Portrait of Ruin of my ancient DS. These are all significant points in Hollow Knight’s favour, but counting against it is a word that is rather unfortunately all the rage these days: Soulslike.
The Souls in this case refers to Dark Souls, and I cannot recall a popular game series I’ve bounced off harder in the last decade. Before you get the pitchforks ready, I do not think Dark Souls is bad. The game mechanics are almost perfectly pitched to piss me off, but from the ten-odd hours of it that I played it appears to execute on them exceedingly well — or at any rate, well enough that the Dark Souls clones that have started to crop up in recent years have had extreme difficulty replicating them with any degree of success. I just have a philosophical disagreement with games that intentionally go out of their way to make the process of playing them harder than it has to be; I’m down with difficult enemies and bossfights that take time to master, but I’m far less enthusiastic about having to spend 5-10 minutes running back to my corpse past a bunch of respawned baddies every time I fail. This is a key part of Dark Souls, in that it wants you to have a more tangible stake in your success or failure by penalising you every time you die, but I have a limited amount of time to spend playing games these days and I’d really prefer that they not waste it the way Dark Souls seems to enjoy doing.
Anyway, we’re here to talk about Hollow Knight, not Dark Souls — unfortunately for me, however, Hollow Knight has imported both the punishing level of difficulty and the corpse run mechanic2 from Dark Souls, so it’s impossible to get through a review without at least mentioning it, and pointing to it as one of the reasons why I’m going to call Hollow Knight a potential masterpiece that’s fallen just short of true greatness thanks to a couple of boneheaded design decisions. Hollow Knight is very, very good; when it’s firing on all cylinders it’s about as good a game as I’ve played all year. The model that Team Cherry have chosen for the combat and bossfights has frustration built into its very core, however, and while things start to click later on as you get more upgrades and abilities it’s still presented as a set of conspicuous rough edges on what is otherwise an astonishingly smooth experience.
Hollow Knight is the tale of an unnamed bug knight who drops into a desolate town called Dirtmouth, built atop the ruins of the bug kingdom of Hallownest. Hallownest’s inhabitants are nearly all either dead or insane thanks to a virulent orange infection that has spread throughout the population, and the goal of the game is to find the source of the infection and stop it from spreading any further. Occasionally the knight will run into other uninfected bugs — one nice touch is that you’ll keep running into the same NPCs further and further into Hallownest as they progress on their own journeys — but mostly it’s just you, a vast set of ruins to explore, and a ridiculously varied number of enemy types to slay as you ransack the kingdom in your search for a way to stop the infection. Oh, and you also have to figure out who you are and what you’re doing here, as the knight is effectively another amnesiac protagonist whose backstory is inextricably entwined with his quest. It’s a cliche that’s about as old as videogames, but one of Hollow Knight’s great strengths is that the backstory is handled in a significantly more hands-off manner that most examples of the trope. Hollow Knight favours building atmosphere and letting the player draw their own conclusions from the things they see on their journey over cramming Important Plot Details down their throat in a series of cutscenes, and this is something that I really wish more games would do because it works spectacularly well. You don’t need to spell out every tiny plot point to the player; just paint a picture in broad enough strokes and our imaginations will fill in the detail more effectively than a hundred expository info-dumps.
Speaking of atmosphere, this is something that Hollow Knight has in spades. The hand-drawn art is spectacular; every single one of the screenshots I’ve taken of this game looks stunning, and it looks even better in motion. The use of music is interesting in that it takes a back seat for the majority of the exploration, as you’re running through a deep, dark cave system that’s full of appropriately spooky and/or haunting sounds and Hollow Knight really wants you to be able to hear that stuff. When you transition into some of the more lively areas of Hallownest, such as the leafy Greenpath zone, the music will come to the fore with something a little more upbeat. This contrast is extremely effective at highlighting just how remote and isolated some of the areas you visit actually are, as you go from these less dangerous, more alive areas to parts of Hallownest that are truly desolate, where the knight is surrounded by thousands of bug corpses and a constant fall of ash from the remains of giant beasts. In these latter areas the game is almost totally silent apart from the howl of the wind and the echoing pat-pat of the knight’s tiny footsteps as it treks through an already-huge world that is made to feel so much larger by the clever use of background art, sound and music.
As far as the Metroidvania part of Hollow Knight goes, I have very few complaints. It’s a huge, sprawling game, and the major problem with it isn’t so much that you can’t figure out where to go next, it’s that you have to decide which of the many available unexplored areas you’re going to tackle. Keeping track of which areas are gated by powerup items that you don’t currently have is a bit of pain, but there’s a decent mapping system that allows you mark points of interest with pins which is very useful for reminding yourself to come back later on. Interestingly — and unlike most games that do the Metroidvania thing — there appear to be multiple valid routes through the game; I blundered into picking up an item that let me swim through acid pools far earlier than I think I was intended to and that opened up huge swathes of the map for further exploration, but I was so busy doing that I didn’t pick up the double jump until the final third of the game. I’m very pleased by this non-linearity, as all of the Metroids and Castlevanias that I’ve played have had pretty strict progression paths from A to B to C to backtrack to A to get to D etc.; it does introduce something of a hazard in that it can be genuinely unclear where you’re supposed to go to get the next mobility item (and thus there were a couple of points where I did feel deadlocked and had to check a guide), but then exploration games that constantly signpost your next objective aren’t really worthy of the title.
Hollow Knight’s selection of player abilities is similarly pleasing. I do have a small bone to pick with the game here as it felt extremely miserly at the start, with the knight only able to run, jump and swing their nail weapon; this resulted in the opening couple of hours feeling unnecessarily claustrophobic, but that’s partially because I was unaware of the potential of the nail pogo maneuver that lets you bounce on spikes and other lethal surfaces just as long as you can keep the rhythm up. It’s still rather limited, and even picking up the dash ability doesn’t free things up that much as it lacks the usual invincibility frames (these are a separate upgrade towards the end of the game). It’s not until you get the wallclimb ability 4-5 hours in that things really start to open up, but once that happens Hollow Knight starts to come together properly and getting around becomes more of a pleasure than a mild annoyance. There’s a vast selection of equippable charms that alter standard abilities, like extending the range of nail swipes or causing thorns to erupt from the knight’s body that damage nearby enemies when they get hit. The knight’s nail can be upgraded to do more damage, and there’s a selection of spell abilities that can be used to damage enemies beyond melee range, but probably the most important ability is the final one you start the game with: the heal ability.
Hollow Knight’s heal ability is very clever. As it has gone for quite a punishing level of combat difficulty even when fighting regular enemies, the player is getting hit and taking damage an awful lot. You’re healed back to full whenever you rest at one of the bench checkpoints that are scattered around, but these are few and far between, so Hollow Knight’s solution is to give you the ability to heal anywhere if you can grab a couple of seconds to channel the ability and if you have enough mana, which in Hollow Knight is called Soul. You get Soul by hitting enemies, and a few whacks gives you enough Soul to heal a single hitpoint while a full Soul meter heals three. This gives you quite a wide margin for error when fighting the regular enemies infesting Hallownest, as you can take a hit and have a high chance of being able to heal that damage back up again once you’ve killed the baddie. Of course if you’re on low health without any Soul you’ll have to risk a fight in order to heal, and if you’re doing badly mid-fight it can be tricky to find that two second window to channel the heal ability — but this is precisely why I like the mechanic so much. It’s far more forgiving than Dark Souls’ flasks while adding a fair chunk of tactical depth and decision making over when and how to heal, and once you get the hang of it you’ll be cruising along at full health almost all the time outside of particularly tricky platforming segments or the bossfights.
Ah yes, the bossfights. At first I was pleasantly surprised by Hallow Knight’s bossfights, as they were appropriately tricky while also feeling like they were designed for human beings rather than obsessive speedrunning savants. I died multiple times on almost every single bossfight, but I persisted because I was getting noticeably better with each attempt. The boss attack patterns were reasonably well-telegraphed and consistently dodgeable once figured out, and so once I accepted that the first couple of attempts would need to be spent learning those patterns it was encouraging to see the improvement each time I tried one. None of the regular bosses in the game — those required for completion — took more than six attempts to beat, and my median was around three or four, which seems quite nicely tuned to me; not so hard that it became overly frustrating, but not so easy that the victories were meaningless.
Now, I used the word “regular” to describe those reasonable bosses since there are an absolute ton of optional bosses in the game including harder dream versions of most of the regular bosses you fight, and these dial up the levels of bullshit way beyond what I’m willing to accept. I got all the upgrades and monstered the end boss of the game in a single attempt, and then decided to try a dream boss called Grey Prince Zote. Half an hour later and I’d yet to survive more than sixty seconds in the arena with him, and so I swiftly decided that the dream bosses weren’t for me. Most of the free DLC that’s come out since Hollow Knight’s release has been focused around adding more of these harder bossfights to the game, and getting the true ending requires beating at least some of them (as well as a truly godawful Super Meat Boy-style instant-death platforming experience that’s replete with buzzsaws and is massively out of place considering the rest of the game’s style). This was something that I found instinctively disappointing since that means the only way I’m going to see that true ending is by looking for it on Youtube, but after I actually went and did that I’m very pleased that I didn’t bother putting in the hours of frustration it would have taken to get it myself, as it didn’t make a huge amount of sense compared to the “bad” ending that I got. Hollow Knight feels like a game that’s more about the journey than it is the destination, anyway; you spend 25-odd hours wandering through this ridiculously huge world and soaking in its atmosphere and backstory, and while it’s annoying that it cannot stick the landing it’s done enough good work along the way that it still gets a couple of grudging sevens from me instead of falling flat on its face like so many modern games.
Something I’m less willing to forgive is the corpse run mechanic, which appears to be present in Hollow Knight for no real reason other than because Dark Souls did it, and which adds absolutely nothing of worth to the experience beyond wasting my time. It works much as you’d expect — on death the knight will vomit forth a dark shade in the location where they died, and the shade has all of your money despite not having any pockets or, indeed, a physical form. As an extra insult your Soul meter also gets cracked and only fills up to two-thirds capacity until your retrieve the shade, so you pretty much have to go and get it even if you weren’t carrying much cash. Depending on where you died this can be a massive pain in the ass, and if you die again before retrieving the shade you lose all of the money it was carrying. Pretty standard stuff, and I’d be annoyed regardless of how it had been included because I regard it as the antithesis of game design that actually recognises the player may have a life beyond videogames that gives them limited time to play and would really rather not spend it trudging five minutes across a level to retrieve a corpse, thanks very much.
Hollow Knight is a particularly egregious offender, however, because it’s so inconsistent with how it applies it. Let’s look at the mechanic as applied to bossfights, as this is going to be by far the largest cause of deaths in the game; once you die in a bossfight you respawn at the last bench you checkpointed at (not the nearest bench by default, although if you’re sensible you’ll go to the nearest one you can find and checkpoint there before attempting it) and have to run back to your shade. The length of that run is entirely dependent on where exactly the bench is, and the placement in relation to bosses is seemingly random. Some bosses require you to do a five minute run over a moderately tricky platforming segment to get back to them (hello, Traitor Lord), while others have a bench practically outside their room and all it takes is a mere ten seconds of jumping to get back in the fight. Sometimes the shade will spawn just outside the bosses’ room, allowing you to collect it at your leisure, and sometimes it’ll spawn inside the boss room requiring you to trigger the boss again before trying to gather up the shade while dodging the boss attacks. In a tacit admission of just how fucked up both their dream boss difficulty and the corpse run mechanic actually are, Team Cherry have removed it completely from dream boss attempts, likely because it’d make even their most dedicated players ragequit in the face of Grey Prince Zote if they had to do fifty corpse runs just to beat his first incarnation. For dream bosses you just respawn right outside the boss room with no penalty for having died. Given that all the corpse run really achieved was to ensure I couldn’t fail a boss without at least a five minute buffer window to get the shade back before turning the game off, and on some bosses it wasn’t even a factor thanks to bench placement, could they not have done that for every bossfight?
Bah. At least Hollow Knight is a bit smarter about integrating its Soulslike mechanics than something like Dead Cells3; it at least has the wit to reserve its worst excesses for optional content only, which is, if not fine, at least moderately acceptable. Absurd bossfights that will require dozens if not hundreds of attempts are present and correct in the game for the people who enjoy that kind of thing, and I can (and did) still get to 100% completion on the parts that have been designed for actual human beings (since the maximum completion percentage you can achieve for Hollow Knight is actually something like 112% thanks to DLC). Aside from that, Hollow Knight’s other structural flaws don’t diminish the experience too much; exploring its world is a pure joy for someone like me, who loves ferreting out secrets and finding alternate routes and generally trying to get to places where I’m not supposed to go yet, as Hollow Knight is jam packed full of all of these things. The quality of the art and music were a very pleasant surprise and ended up being one of the game’s biggest strengths; certainly I doubt I would have persisted past some of Hollow Knight’s more painful points if the general experience of running through its levels hadn’t been quite so beguiling. Thanks to the above few paragraphs it falls a bit short of being an unqualified recommendation, but if you’re willing to look past those mistakes (or, god help you, think that sounds like your idea of a great time) then the fact that it costs a mere £11 on Steam means you can’t go far wrong with it.
- In which levels are linked together into a sprawling world with lots of alternate routes and secret areas gated by mobility powerups such as double jump and wallclimb. ↩
- I’m aware that corpse runs have been a thing ever since Diablo (and possibly far earlier than that), but it’s Dark Souls that has everyone rushing to copy it so it’s Dark Souls that receives the blame. ↩
- Which is one of the most misguided and confused games I’ve played in quite some time. ↩