Set in the ruins of a sprawling, diversely populated but dead empire, Hollow Knight is a 2D action platformer set firmly in the Metroidvania genre with a healthy infusion of some key Dark Souls mechanics. You enter this world of twilight and faded glory as a small, adorable looking bug knight armed with a nail (sword) who has come to Hallownest for some reason that I’m not quite sure of. Arriving above Hallownest itself, this brave knight ventures into the labyrinth below and explores the numerous and diverse areas while learning new skills and uncovering much, but not all, of the lore of the what once was in this sad, beautiful place.
The set up for this game is a pretty classic one, but done extremely well and with amazing detail and skill. Beating various bosses and reaching certain points of the game grant you new abilities, double jump and wall climbing are but two of the more mundane ones, that than let you go back and explore other parts of the world that you did not have access to. Other check points let you change what talisman you equip or let you fast travel back to the surface to save and shop. Along the way you meet a good variety of fellow bug people, all who offer different and useful resources or abilities. One sells you maps, which really are helpful, another buys your unwanted junk… even the fast travel mechanic is actually a large and friendly bug who enjoys carrying your around the lost city (for a reasonable price of course).
The story, such as it is, is vague enough to be enjoyed pretty much no matter how much of it you discover; ultimately, you must beat back or destroy and ancient foe that destroyed what was once there.
But what really gives the world and setting a great feel and unique sense of place are these other bugs you meet along the way. They are all well designed and extremely charming people who really help lift the dark and melancholy aura of the game from brief moments of time. They don’t erase that feeling, that’s not the point, but rather they help remind the player that even in the darkest of times, when the world has faded from that it could have been, people are still friendly and good-natured enough to help build a world as best they can. From a friendly mapmaker who has truly found his life’s calling, to weird shopkeepers, to hostile fellow explorers who doesn’t know they can trust you, the game’s cast really is fleshed out in a such a way that most games don’t even attempt.
Visually, the game is stunning. The above-mentioned characters that I grew to like so much would not have connected with me without the amazing art that brought them to life. and places look hand drawn and are clearly created with great care and skill. Various rooms and levels drip with atmosphere and feel as old as they are implied to be; the game has an amazing sense of place that goes a long way to drawing the player into the game. From humid jungles to fog filled mines, the game looks distinct and draws you in. the game’s storytelling does that weird trick that old 16 bit era games do where they present you with this well-crafted, charming world that doesn’t actually tell you a whole lot and then you fill in the rest yourself as you play. I grew attached to Cornifer the Cartographer for no real reason beyond I liked that he whistled when I entered a room that he was in and the way he looked. Modern games foster attachments with great dialogue or epic moments where you and other characters come through something together (Garrus from Mass Effect). Hollow Knight takes that older formula and works wonders with it in the modern era of video games. I would not want all games to do what Hollow Knight does, but I’m always happy to play one that does what this one does well.
Gameplay wise, things are pretty classic. Initially, you run, jump, slash with a sword and have the ability to heal, while picking up Soul (energy/magic), Geo (cash), and, occasionally, new abilities. While some of the new abilities have uses in combat, most appear to primarily serve the function of opening up the map for you bit by bit; air dashes and body slams obviously make you more dangerous, but they also help you destroy that rock pile blocking your way or jump across that crevasse that was always just a bit too wide. Some are probably more necessary than others, but I’m not really sure about that either way. You also collect little charms that can further augment your abilities, sometimes in a pretty big way. One charm lets you air dash straight down as well as left and right, which can change combat quite a bit if you are talented enough. Others give you more health, return damage to enemies when they strike you or increase how much Geo you find. I never found a combination that felt like the right one, rather I used different charms for the situation I was in. Boss fight? Equip ones that give me more defense or make me hit harder. Grinding for more Geo? Use the ones that help me survive for longer runs through different levels. Whatever you want to do in the game, there is a combination of charms that will help you better accomplish that task. While I didn’t go too far out of my way to hunt down more charms, I always was interested in the ones that I found and experimented with them to see how they affected my play through.
Generally speaking, the combat is hard but fair. You really do need to pay attention, learn enemy’s patters and pay attention because even the mildest little worker bug can mess you up really quick. The boss fights are pretty dang hard; I died many times on more than a few of them and had to watch a couple YouTube videos to really get the hang of things. I don’t know if it was me or the game, but some of the boss fights felt decidedly unfun and were a real grind. That, combined with some of the dark soul mechanics, combined for a rather large dark mark on this game’s otherwise stellar performance. Whenever you die, you have to go find your ghost and fight it to reclaim your lost experience. And depending on how much exploring you have done, this can be a very difficult job that requires tedious back tracking to places you might not have a map for or only half remember how you got there. Combat on these reruns feels scary, tense, and extremely frustrating in a way that simply is not fun to experience sense the stakes are so high. Losing thousands of Soul that you have worked so long and hard to accrue is a devastating feeling. Often, the deciding factor for when I would stop playing is when I would lose so much progress and be forced to run back to get and simply not having the energy or willpower to do so. Is that on me? I guess, but regardless, is that fun? I don’t think so. Video games can break your heart, or make you mad to the point that you throw the controller or have to log off for a couple of days, but that feeling either needs to come from the story or have a strong sense of fun and playability to it for me to want to endure such a feeling over and over again (and as a good, but not great, gamer, I know I’m going to have that experience several times). Spoiler, I never finished this game because the cost was simply too high. There is everything to love about Hollow Knight; but ultimately, it broke me and I had to walk away.
I understand playing hard games, I understand the desire to be good at games and the thrill of overcoming challenges and obstacles that not everybody can or choose to handle. But I don’t understand playing a game that so grossly punishes you for the things games ought to reward you for, like exploration or daring to take a chance. An action platformer should reward the player to push things as far as they can, to take risk and dare to be better, and in so many ways, Hollow Knight does just that, only to slap the player down hard in such a way that ruins the rest of the experience. I so wanted to love this game, and I do on many levels, but the Souls mechanics and punishing ethos of the game just wore me out.