There is no need to be coy, Hollow Knight is a master class of its genre and stands among the best it has to offer.
At a Glance – 10/10
Quite simply put Hollow Knight is one of my favorite games I’ve played this year, and this is a year that God of War saw release in.
Hollow Knight is a sheer masterpiece in every regards, despite a confusing story you must piece together yourself. It is hauntingly atmospheric, gorgeous to look at, amazing to listen to, and a sheer joy to play. The difficulty has a couple of spikes, but other than that it is perfectly balanced. In my humble opinion it is one of the best—perhaps even the best—Metroidvania game I’ve ever played. Considering some of the amazing games that it keeps company with in that genre, that is some jaw dropping praise I never thought I would able to heap upon the game at the outset.
When I first started Hollow Knight I really wasn’t sure if I liked the game. It was incredibly vague at the beginning, to the point that my map couldn’t even flesh out until I bought a quill to write with; in fact, unless you equip a certain charm you can’t even see where you are on that map. That changed quickly though, as I explored the depths of the Hallownest and opened up a somber and entrancing world.
Your journey begins in what appears to be some sort of tomb, the protagonist a small beetle looking creature slight of build. You’ll make your way into a mostly empty town where you’ll discover the inhabitants have disappeared into the depths of Hallownest itself, most never to return. There is little doubt then where you need to go, and so you head into the depths with nothing but your nail and your courage to accompany you.
Right away the atmosphere of this game is impactful, and I can’t help but comparing it to the Metroid series in that regard. The developers do such a good job in making this world feel connected, and at the beginning you can pretty much go everywhere. Everything makes sense within the world and how the map is set out; you can even see in its design how each piece naturally affects the other, down to the smallest detail. Of course it doesn’t hurt that the art style is absolutely beautiful, and the animation is so fluid that it just feels perfect.
This is further propped up by an absolutely stellar sound design, with the best sound effect for taking damage I’ve ever heard. I usually played this game with headphones on, and the slight darkening of the screen along with the muted whoosh as you take damage is truly impacting. It makes you feel every hit, to know exactly when and where you made your mistake. The fantastic sound design continues across the game as, even though there is no verbal speech you can understand, the nonsense language the inhabitants speak is immediately endearing. There are also some truly horrific sounds within the game, and it’ll have you cursing the composer as your skin crawls every single time you engage some enemies.
On top of this wonderful sound design is a number of musical arrangements that are captivating, alarming, and mostly haunting in the best of ways. There isn’t always music playing in the background, and the sound designer knew exactly when and where to use the music to be most effective. One city you come to it never stops raining, and there is a sadness that permeates the area. The music goes silent, and all you can here is the constant patter of the rain. It is extremely effective.
All of that is wonderful, but if it wasn’t held up by stellar gameplay it wouldn’t matter a lick. Fortunately, Hollow Knight is one of the finest Metroidvania games I’ve ever played, including even the namesakes of the genre. I recently played through Metroid II: Samus Returns on the 3DS and loved every second, but Hollow Knight outdoes even that game in absolutely every category. The sword play (or nail play I suppose in this case) is down to the pixel timing, with perfect hit box detection on every enemy in the game. You always feel in danger in the Hallownest, but you also feel immensely skilled and powerful at the same time. Platforming is sublime—though devilish at times–and as much a star as the moment to moment combat.
A Metroidvania game wouldn’t be much without upgrades that unlock secret paths, and Hollow Knight delivers this in spades. You can head off in any direction right from the start, and there are many different orders you can complete things in. Towards the end of the game things become just slightly more linear, but even then the actions you choose to take, and the amount of things you choose to do, can drastically change the outcome of the ending.
You can also find and equip an ever growing number of charms, and these allow you to completely customize the way you play with your protagonist. If you want to focus all on making your spells devastating you can do so, or maybe you’d like to be a nail master the likes of which Hallownest has never seen. You can do either of these, and a lot else besides. There are some charms that give you life, others make you faster, and yet others provide you with allies. All of these can be mixed and maxed to create a build suited just for you, and it makes the game extremely approachable.
Hollow Knight takes after Dark Souls in a few different ways–which normally would be enough to deter me immediately—but in this case I felt the challenge was stiff, yet doable. Dying in Hollow Knight leaves a shade that retains all of your money you have acquired so far in the game that you haven’t spent, so you must get back to the shade and kill him in order to regain your funds. If you die on the way there you lose everything, and believe me when I say that it can be quite a blow. I wasn’t really spending money when I first started and had amassed over 5,000, then managed to lose everything in a fluke death. That amount of money later in the game is easily made, but early in the game it crippled and infuriated me, as I hadn’t bought many of the charms you can equip as I should. I almost stopped playing the game right then and there I was so upset, but it was entirely my fault for not investing my money sooner instead of being drawn ever deeper into the Hallownest.
Still, the game allows you to heal by using the resource of soul, which you can get every time you hit an enemy, or from containers scattered about the map. It allows a challenge that can be stiff, but also is fair at every turn, and you will very seldom die in a way that you don’t feel like it was your fault. There are moments in the game that have sharp increases in difficulty, but I only ever had severe difficulty with a couple. One of these was an optional area that allows you to get the best ending in the game, and one was a boss fight mid game that was harder than the last boss in my opinion.
Other than this the only negative I can come up with in Hollow Knight is the way it tells the story. It gave me great struggle when it came to the final score for the game, as it is a narrative style similar to Dark Souls. Though I don’t play that series, my understanding is that the way the game doles out small clues about the depth of the narrative and doesn’t give you the story directly is likened to Dark Souls. I sought out whatever clues I could, read ancient tablets in the world, even dived into the bestiary/compendium in the menu, and yet still I didn’t completely understand what had happened by the end of the game. I had the general idea and flow of the story, but it took reading a Wiki article to really get what went down.
In this case it was exactly as the developer intended, where the more devout among us and multiple playthroughs continue to increase your knowledge as the flow of the story yields ever more clues the more you know. It isn’t the way I consume games though, and so for me it simply made for a vague and confusing story. That being said the actual narrative once discovered is quite good, and though the tone is somber throughout there is a constant backdrop of hope that is extremely refreshing. You meet a variety of strange characters in the Hallownest, some downright quirky, and it reminded me of the best of Zelda NPCs in that regard. I wanted to know more about each and every one of them, and every character and piece of art in the game is placed perfectly to teach you of their world if you pay attention.
In the end Hollow Knight is a sheer masterpiece in every regards, despite a story you must piece together yourself. It is hauntingly atmospheric, gorgeous to look at, amazing to listen to, and a sheer joy to play. In my humble opinion it is one of the best—perhaps even the best—Metroidvania game I’ve ever played. Considering some of the amazing games that it keeps company with in that genre, that is some jaw dropping praise I never thought I would able to heap upon the game at the outset.