Venturing into a realm without a map and only your instincts to guide you is a joy rarely found in entertainment outside video games. Heck, I won’t leave the house in real life without my destination punched into a GPS and that comforting blue line guiding me every step of the way.
Getting lost is uncomfortable. It forces you to critically analyse before making decisions or rely on your gut to drag you through. It’s a risk, a plunge into the unknown that makes small payoffs rewarding and the big moments unforgettable. For that reason I love Hollow Knight.
Australia’s Team Cherry has built a world that is simultaneously scary and inviting; a 2D maze of horrors that can both terrify and inspire the curiosity needed to keep going. It’s a balance the studio strikes so perfectly within the player, allowing the beauty of their world and its moment-to-moment gameplay shine.
Given the story of Hollow Knight is never laid bare for the player, the internal drive to explore that the game evokes is all the more impressive.
You play as a Knight, arriving at a town called Dirtmouth ready to explore the long abandoned kingdom below, known as the Hallownest. That’s about all you get. Delving into the kingdom’s depths exposes shreds of the world’s history but it’s never a concrete telling. Ultimately, the gaps will have to be filled by the player’s imagination; gaps that add to the mysterious atmosphere at the risk of limiting the impact of the game’s final act.
Hollow Knight is very much a ‘Metroidvania’ title. Scour every corner of the world, unlock ability upgrades and ‘badges’ (which you can wear to improve your strength, speed or grant shields, etc) to access to more areas. Much of that is tied to your character’s ‘soul’ meter, which can be used to regain health or perform powerful attacks. It’s an addictive loop which forces you to tinker with your character to best the tougher enemies.
On that note, it must be said that Hollow Knight’s bosses are HARD. Comparisons to Cuphead are definitely apt and besting one of Hollow Knight’s beasts is a rare feat. Adding to that, when you die you lose all of the ‘geo’ currency you’ve collected. You can get that back if you manage to find and kill a specter version of yourself (below) at your place of death, but die again, and it’s lost forever.
It’s a daunting punishment and I enjoyed being forced to be smarter in combat situations for it (as a known sucker-for-punishment), but I can see how it would be a frustrating set-back that puts off less experienced gamers.
Making matters worse, you respawn at benches that double as rest and save points, which can be extreme distances away from each-other and boss fights, making retrieving your hard-earned coin all the more difficult.
Fast-travel is available but limited to set ‘stations’ which I found too infrequent to be useful late in the game when I was wishing I could just teleport wherever I wanted on the map.
I understand why this is; Hollow Knight’s world is the star of this story. It’s a character we want to learn more about and one that we’re driven to explore. Navigating its winding tunnels so much that you know where you’re going without looking at a map (which you do eventually find and buy) is in itself rewarding, but it can feel like a drag in that last few hours I spent with the game.
Ultimately, these are minor complaints about a stellar title. Hollow Knight’s hand-drawn art is charming, its controls and combat are incredibly tight and the game runs as smooth as butter in the Nintendo Switch.
I finished Hollow Knight with a 75% rating and unlocked the first of the game’s three endings. In time, that will be 100% as I can’t wait to delve back into its world an unlock every secret on a second run.
For anyone who can appreciate the joy of getting lost, Hollow Knight is a MUST PLAY.