Until recently, the Metroidvania genre was something of a fruitless fascination for me. I always found the concept appealing, but even Metroid games themselves failed to leave me with a powerful impression. Each Metroid or Metroidvania that I played either lost my interest before I could complete it, or left me with no more than mild enthusiasm for the game. I even managed to lose interest in Ori and the Blind Forest, oddly enough. I thought for a long time that none of these games would quite connect with me the way I wanted them to.
My outlook on this genre changed when I played Axiom Verge, however. I’m still unsure what set it apart from the others, but I was compelled to explore it in full, to uncover every little secret I could. I had finally found the Metroidvania that was right for me, and I was eager for more. I was eager for Hollow Knight. And I was right to be. From the start, Hollow Knight proved itself a far greater Metroidvania even than Axiom Verge.
The first thing most players will notice about Hollow Knight is its peerless, hand-drawn art style. I’m confident when I state that it is the single most visually impressive game I have ever played. Each environment is gifted with sublime atmosphere and attention to detail. Enemies and NPCs are animated like a cartoon, with life and character. Like nothing else I’ve seen, it’s whole and immersive. Every last piece belongs to one unified artistic vision that comes almost within arm’s reach of perfection. In a way, it’s a shame this work is confined by the niche of an indie game. It deserves so much more recognition than it will ever receive.
Hollow Knight’s gorgeous world is compelling to explore, as that of any Metroidvania should be. This is achieved in part through a smart map system. Each zone’s map cannot be viewed until you locate an NPC cartographer who scouts the area himself. Because he is still in the process, or finds certain areas beyond his means, the maps are incomplete. In turn, each map will provide points of interest as well as gaps that must be filled in. It’s how the game points players in the correct direction without obnoxious hand-holding, and ensures a constant sense of progression.
There is meaningful content to seek out everywhere in Hollow Knight. Arduous optional boss battles, secret abilities, hidden upgrades, tough platforming sequences, and entire secret levels await. Discovery is natural and frequent, though spaced out just right that it doesn’t overwhelm. And the world itself, Hallownest, grows from tame levels early on, into a deeper, more fascinating, more beautiful place by the end. It’s a rich journey with more than enough to see and do.
This engaging exploration forms the steadfast backbone of Hollow Knight’s structure, and only suffers from a limited fast-travel system. For the most part, I had the patience for it. But I found certain treks between checkpoints to require excessive backtracking. There were also several times when I quit (the game saves all progress when you do this) and reloaded the game just so I could return to the previous save point. It begged the question why there was no special item or feature that allowed the same function in-game.
If exploration and discovery is Hollow Knight’s backbone, then the combat is the lean, sculpted body it supports. Every action is deliberate and precise. At its best, the combat hits satisfying beats like a steady and rhythmic dance. Players are rewarded for patience and thoughtful strikes, same as the Dark Souls series that Hollow Knight clearly took some inspiration from. And there’s a huge variety of challenging enemies and bosses throughout. The bosses in particular rival those of Bloodborne as some of the most solid, fun, challenging, and ultimately rewarding I’ve had the pleasure to defeat in any game.
The core of this excellent combat is elegant melee that is further deepened by magic spells, as well as Charms that grant passive bonuses. The spells are powerful magic that present a balancing act between health and offense. They draw from the same source of power that allows you to heal: SOUL. This is collected each time you damage an enemy with a melee attack. Thus, you must be mindful of when to heal and when the extra oomph of a spell is necessary while you continue to deal enough melee damage to maintain a supply of SOUL. It’s a refined system that requires and rewards skilled play.
The Charms are a fun but less consistent wrinkle to the combat than the SOUL system is. You are allotted a number of slots for Charms, and more powerful Charms require more slots. There are lots of useful combinations that can change up the flow of combat more than you might expect. The wide variety of passive bonuses includes several unique mechanics, such as a protective shell while you heal. However, I only found the more offensive and defensive combos necessary for boss battles or other difficult encounters. The rest of the time, I used a simple build that aided exploration and helped collect more money. It should also be noted that I discovered a combination of Charms that made it almost too easy to heal. It wasn’t the best fit for every battle, but I did use it to tank two of the most difficult bosses in the game. Although I still could never have defeated those bosses without some skillful dodges, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I cheated a little bit. Other than that small balance issue, I enjoyed experimenting with different Charms to find the best build for each boss. That considered, as well as how exciting it is to discover new Charms in Hallownest, their existence in Hollow Knight is easily justified.
With the exception of a specific level that sticks out as more brutal than most, Hollow Knight’s balance of challenge is superb. Any time I did get stuck behind a difficulty wall, the frustration didn’t last too long before I broke through. It’s also good that nearly all of the game’s toughest challenges are optional. Players like me have the freedom to test our mettle, while others aren’t forced to unnecessarily punish themselves. Although, they would miss out on some nice upgrades. Finally, while it may seem too difficult to collect very much money (Geo), and too easy to lose a lot of it Dark Souls-style, it’s not a lasting issue. Even a heavy Geo loss likely won’t impact long-term progress very much. The difficulty is balanced such that Geo losses aren’t commonplace, and I eventually found myself swimming in the stuff. Hollow Knight’s challenge is fair, fulfilling, and, for the most part, consistent.
In the end, this is an adventure that carefully peels back layer after layer to unveil a whole that does not surprise so much as satisfy. The combat grows piece by piece from simple melee to a tense, fine-crafted balance of spells, melee strikes, and positional dodging. Hallownest slowly manifests its true depth and wonder to become a fully realized, majestic world. From start to finish, each cornerstone of the experience demonstrates remarkable growth, and coalesces into a gratifying journey. Don’t let the name fool you; few games today are as whole as Hollow Knight.
As I made clear before, Hollow Knight’s visuals are incredible. Of course, art is subjective. But there is no denying that this is crisp, polished, highly detailed work. What’s more is that the soundtrack melds seamlessly with the hand-drawn world. While little of it is music I would listen to outside the game, each piece sounds great and complements the game well. I very much enjoyed the more ambient pieces, in particular. The one tiny chink in Hollow Knight’s presentation armor is audio for a few NPCs. Most of the time, it’s wonderful. Their charming emotes are a delight as they hum a tune or grumble an unknown language. The exception is when, in a few cases, their audio endlessly loops with no silence. It’s quick to grow more annoying than endearing. Regardless, Hollow Knight is almost unmatched in presentation.
Just look at how gorgeous this is.
Does it work?
With visual polish usually comes the assumption of technical polish. Unfortunately, unlike the art, it’s clear Hollow Knight could have used a little touching up in this area. I experienced several glitches in my playthrough: A falling block repeatedly collided with the floor. A specific enemy type clipped through the ground and fell out of the world on two separate occasions. A screen-shaking animation made by a different enemy failed to end until I moved to a new map zone. And late in the game, another enemy crawled off the wall and onto the air as if it was a solid surface. They were rare and mostly harmless bugs. The only exception was when the game crashed in the inventory menu. I didn’t lose any progress, and it never happened again. Although, it did worry me for a little while. After that passed, Hollow Knight’s few technical problems were rare enough to be easily forgotten.
Hollow Knight is…
I’m only a new fan of the Metroidvania genre, and this game blew me away. If you enjoy similar games, do not miss this. I would also recommend it to fans of Dark Souls, as it is mechanically similar in some ways and equally rewarding. The story and setting are inspired by that series as well. As for players who aren’t fond of highly challenging games, maybe find a good Let’s Play somewhere. The art is more than worth a look, but otherwise I doubt it will change your mind. Hollow Knight is for anyone who, like me, craves a challenge, savors strong atmosphere, and admires a lack of hand-holding.