Listen. I already know what you’re going to say. “Hollow Knight came out back in 2017 so why are you doing a review of it now?”
Well, to you– fictitious person I just made up–I would say, “I wasn’t doing game reviews in 2017, and Hollow Knight is one of my favorite games of all time.”
At this point you would probably try and get a word in edgewise.
But nay, I was not finished.
I would continue, “Also, Silksong has to come out at some point. So let’s just say that this review is for people to stumble upon as the sequel draws ever nearer… Also, my heart needs this.”
At this point you would nod with admiration for my candor and begin a slow clap.
(It’s so easy to win a debate with myself).
Anyway, I am basically doing this for myself, but if someone who’s never played Hollow Knight decides to give it a try because of this, well, I’ve done my duty.
Enter: the Knight
Hollow Knight is a side-scrolling metroidvania game that follows the adventure of a nameless–and adorable– bug knight as he explores the ruined kingdom of Hallownest.
Although this sounds like a simple enough premise, Team Cherry executed it so beautifully that it makes my soul hurt a little inside.
We’ll get into the details below, but if you’re in a hurry, here are a few highlights about what makes this game so amazing that I needed to review it 3 years after its release.
- The art is hauntingly beautiful
- The progression of gameplay is deftly handled
- The story, though well-hidden, is worthy of several epic poems
- The combat is tough but deeply rewarding
- The music direction is amazing
There are probably a few more bullet points I could shoehorn in here, but these laid the foundation for a game that sits upon the throne of its genre.
The Knight is Dark and Full of Shadows
One of the most immediately striking aspects of this game is its art, and that’s because Hollow Knight is completely hand drawn. From the town of Dirtmouth to the claustrophobic tunnels of Deepnest to the The Knight himself, every facet was lovingly, and precisely, crafted.
Each area is brimming with little details that bring the world to life. Whether that’s the spores that drift listlessly through the Fungal Wastes, the ever-present rain in the City of Tears, or the encroaching darkness of The Abyss, you’ll get the sense that this is a place that has existed long before The Knight and will stand long after he’s gone.
The dark, somewhat gothic, art direction lends itself to the overall tone of the game and lets you feel the weight of Hallownest’s history. Every broken statue, every abandoned building, and every lifeless carapace tells the story of what happened to the once proud kingdom.
I remember the first time I entered The Forgotten Crossroads. At the time, I wondered why everything was so dark and creepy, but the more I played the more I understood. It wasn’t “dark and creepy,” it was forgotten and lonely. The sense of loss and abandonment can be felt even in the farthest reaches of the game, and makes a cohesive world that is not often accomplished in AAA games, let alone an indy release.
Hone Thy Nail
One part of the game that I did not appreciate on my first playthrough, which became much more evident on subsequent playthroughs, was the level design and how it progresses.
Hollow Knight is basically a master class on how to build a game from the ground up. The first few moments teach you how to play the game without a single word being said, or text to prompt your actions. Every enemy you encounter or obstacle you must overcome is foreshadowed by everything that came before it.
When encountering enemies, you are left to discover for yourself the best way to deal with them. By the time you encounter any given boss, you will have the skills (or at least an understanding) of how to defeat them because you learned from previous encounters with similar enemies. Even the platforming segments build upon themselves, teaching you what you can and cannot do so that when you find yourself standing before the Path of Pain, you should be ready for whatever comes next.
The progression of movement throughout the game is one of my favorite aspects of Hollow Knight. I know that most metroidvanias have this–it’s one of the defining characteristics of the genre–but somehow each new ability feels like regaining a lost piece of yourself, instead of a new ability you’ve never had before. When you gain the ability to dash, double jump, or perform wall jumps, it feels more like becoming who The Knight was all along instead of becoming a better version of himself.
All of this combined makes for a game that never beats you over the head with tutorials but allows you to learn simply by playing, and that is an accomplishment that few games can claim.
Echos of Civilization
My first playthrough, I was able to get the gist of the story. I vaguely understood what was going on and what my character was trying to accomplish.
Once it was over, I was satisfied with a job well done. However, when I started my second playthrough, I began to notice the little things that went over my head the first time. I began to see the whole picture, instead of just the part involving The Knight. The story of Hollow Knight is largely hidden, but If you take the time to investigate every nook and cranny, you will find a story that is both epic and heartbreaking.
It is the story of the rise and fall of Hallownest.
It begins with the arrival of the Pale King, and ends with a kingdom driven mad. However, the story is not told in any specific way. You might find some statues built by a defender to honor his comrades. It could be an incomplete tramway that lies abandoned along with the corpses of those who attempted its construction. It could be a lone statue atop a crystalline peak, the last vestige of a dead religion.
The pieces might not mean much on their own, but together they weave a massive tale.
Unfortunately, finding the story is an arduous process. I’ve played through Hollow Knight several times and still made new discoveries on my most recent playthrough. I’ve even watched YouTube videos on the Lore of Hallownest, and even the people who search for this kind of stuff for a living don’t have the whole story.
What I’m trying to say is that the story is there if you want to find it, and it’s amazing. But, if you don’t want to scour a game for hours on end, you should at least give the videos a try.
The Path of Pain
The Combat of Hollow Knight is one of its greatest–and most exclusionary–features.
It is tough, unforgiving, and can make you want to shatter your controller from time to time, but it is ultimately fair. It might seem too hard at times, but all you need to do is “Get Good.”
In all seriousness, the combat in Hollow Knight is not for everyone. It can be brutal, especially with some of the later bosses (looking at you, Traitor Lord). I literally had to repeat some fights upward of 20 times before I was eventually able to push through. While that seemed like a good investment of my time, others might not feel the same, and that’s ok.
If you are not having fun, don’t bash your head against the wall. Hollow Knight is an amazing game, but if you’re ready to pack it in because the first boss is hard, it doesn’t get any easier.
All that said, if you’re looking for a challenge, this is the game for you. There are a total of 47 bosses in Hollow Knight, each with their own moves, which could eviscerate you for making a single mistake. There is even a DLC that allows you to fight them all again at higher levels of difficulty–just in case you found the original too easy.
Filling the Silence
I chose the music of Hollow Knight as the last section because it, like, really tied everything together man.
While most of the game is soft orchestral fair, it does do some work during the boss segments with epic scores that get your adrenaline pumping. There are also times where the music fades, letting you traverse Hallownest in foreboding silence. It’s these choices, and a million more, that make the music of Hollow Knight one of it’s more enthralling features.
It’s true that without the music, the game would still be beautiful and serve its function. However, it’s what really makes you feel the emptiness of the Forgotten Crossroads, the life bristling anew in Greenpath, and the regret in the City of Tears. It conveys the game’s emotion from the title screen to the moment the credits stop rolling.
It’s the soul of the Hollow Knight.
Late to the Game
I know that I’m late to the game as far as a review is concerned, but Hollow Knight is a game worthy of the 9.5/10 that I’m giving it.
For a little indy title, it has set the standard that I personally have for all metroidvania games moving forward. Its story was well written, the art is beautiful, and the combat is en pointe. It’s one of the few games that I’ve played through more than twice, and there is a reason for that.
So, if you missed Hollow Knight the first time, I urge you to take a look at this amazing game as the sequel draws nearer. In fact, I might do this more often: make game reviews for older games that deserve more attention.
I could call them Late to the Game reviews… and apparently this is the first one.