Often attempted, but never mastered, there have been many games that try to out-do the likes of Metroid and Castlevania. Some opt to focus on the combat, while others believe that exploration with lots of secrets is the answer, but few blue these lines together outside of Metroid and Castlevania. Hollow Knight does a great job in this respect and it’s one of the strongest examples of a Metroidvania game, yet there’s an air of unoriginality that holds it back from being perfect.
The story in Hollow Knight is rather barebones, revolving around an almost deserted town whose insect inhabitants have gone seeking their fortune underground. As the mysterious Hollow Knight enters town, he learns of a curse that must be lifted in order to restore the town to its former glory.
What struck me just from seeing trailers and screenshots of the game is just how beautiful the hand-drawn art style is. Sure, the enemies range from bloated flies to armour-clad beetles, but there’s something remarkably sombre, empty if you will, about the various caverns and hallways. It’s amazing how much Team Cherry have conveyed this feeling into the game as a whole, producing one of the most visually striking games of recent years.
Hopelessness seems to seep into the musical score as well, ranging from whimsical to the haunting in tone. Much like From Software’s Souls franchise, it reserves the more dramatic pieces for boss encounters, though sadly a few are reused for multiple encounters.
Hollow Knight is absolutely huge, taking over a dozen hours for your first playthrough to see everything. All environments are either festering cesspits filled with gruesome bugs, or dilapidated palaces with gothic architecture. What’s remarkable about it all is just how it’s balanced. Things begin reasonably easy, but new enemies attack in unexpected ways, forcing you to adapt.
Those who like the Metroidvania genre know that the best moments are reserved for the bosses. Hollow Knight has tons of these, all with their own attacks, arena hazards, and even unexpected trickery up their sleeve. Pattern recognition is key to defeating them and you’ll surely die a couple of times to at least a few of them when you first encounter them.
Dying in itself is an interesting problem in Hollow Knight. Borrowing the Dark Souls mechanic where dying leaves a point to collect your lost earnings, it also restores part of your Soul gauge, used for some abilities and replenished by hitting enemies. The difference here it is that the collection point is always an enemy. In itself this enemy is not all that dangerous, taking a few hits to dispatch and regain your lost coin, but if you died in a particularly hostile area, it’s yet another thing to have to deal with.
However, it’s at this point that I must stress that while I enjoyed my time with Hollow Knight, there were moments where I could predict what ability I would be obtaining next. Sadly it’s the same old tropes of double jumping, charge up slashes, ground pound, wall-jumping, and dashing. In fact, the most original of the abilities is the healing that you obtain right near the beginning of the game. For all the originality of the visuals and enemy design, this is disappointing.
Also somewhat bothersome are the controls, particularly the emphasis on downward slashing while jumping. For such a key technique, it’s not exactly easy to pull it off 100% of the time when navigating spikes or other hazards. These hazards are mostly optional, but it’s a minor input delay that occasionally makes them difficult, not the challenge itself.
With that said, the journey is fraught with many colourful bug-characters scattered throughout the underground network of caverns and fortresses. These characters can sell you maps, which without will result in getting completely lost; badges that are equipped at benches to grant you perks, and skills to learn. Some characters are a bit aloof, but all have distinct personalities that add to the game’s world-building nicely.
Hollow Knight is well-crafted and beautiful to look at, with an elegance that is found in few games. From exploring the world to interacting with characters and fighting the minions found within, it kept me on my toes throughout. It’s far from the most original though, perhaps taking too much inspiration from similar titles, but with a little tiny tweak in the controls, it could be a sleeper hit.