Hollow Knight (Review)

Souls-like gone mad

Platform: Playstation 5.

Available on: Playstation 4/5, Xbox One/S/X, macOS, Windows, Nintendo Switch, Linux.

Genre: Action-adventure, Metroidvania.

Developer: Team Cherry.

Publisher: Team Cherry.

Released: February 24th, 2017 on PC, June 12th, 2018 on console.

Hollow knight is a game that has been floating about in my peripheries for quite some time now. When I would talk to people about games they would always say “you’re a souls fan have you played Hollow Knight yet?”. To which I would respond “it’s on my radar I will get to it eventually”. That response was usually met with “let me know when you do, I know you will love it”. Another reason I kept putting it off is that I am not traditionally good at 2D action-adventure games. Now that Hollow Knight was made available as one of the PlayStation Plus games for November 2020 I had no reason to keep it on the back burner any longer.

So were all those people telling me I would like the game, right? Well, yes and no. I was captivated by its beautiful but bleak art style and how it had more secrets to discover than Tom Hanks in the Da Vinci Code. It definitely checked the soul’s box with a very large tick and the Metroidvania style had me excited every time I made note of an area I would get to explore later. However, its XP recovery system, level design, and boss fights had me more than a little frustrated and more than once too. So let’s get into why I think Hollow Knight is an excellent 2D souls game that maybe just wasn’t right for me.

The lore of the land

In terms of the basic narrative, Hollow Knight brings nothing new to the table. In fact, its story is one we have seen many times before in souls-like games. You are the lone adventurer that is drawn to the kingdom of Hollownest. A place that seems to be at the end of its life but for a few intrepid warriors and merchants seeking to stake their claim on what remains of this once great land. You quickly learn that Hollownest fell prey to ‘The Infection’ driving its citizens mad and even rendering some in a state of undying.

We learn that an ancient king tried to eradicate the infection using a living darkness whose lack of a will could not succumb to the infection. After many attempts, he created a suitable vessel or ‘Hollow knight’. With the king long since vanished it’s up to the now awakened Hollow Knight that was long ago rejected with so many other failed attempts to try and push back the infection and cleanse Hollownest. A world on the verge of death, falling victim to a plague that only a lone adventure can save has been done many times before. That’s not to say that there isn’t some interesting lore here for those willing to seek it out. That lore is just wrapped in a cliche narrative that the soul’s genre is known for.

Hollow Knight features many characters for you to interact with that have not yet fallen victim to Hollownest. These are largely merchants where you can spend your hard-earned Geo on items to aid your quest. These NPC’s are often your primary source of lore and finding out what happened to this world. One thing I should mention is that all the characters in Hollow Knight are insects and bugs.

The reason I bring this up is that one of my favourite parts of the game was the environmental storytelling and ambience that lead throughout my adventuring. When I entered a lush green garden-type area it was filled with fuzzy flying almost cute creatures. When I entered a dark cave-like place they were filled with spider and centipede-like enemies. This really made me feel that a lot of care went into giving the player a sense that these are the type of creatures they would experience in these areas in real life.

Nail-biting stuff

The gameplay of Hollow Knight revolves around close encounter melee and spell-based combat as well as Metroidvania style level exploration. You use your sword in this case known as Nail to swing at enemies and hope to kill them in a couple of hits. Should the enemy land a strike you will lose one notch of your five notches of health. Lose five notches and die leaving behind your shade which is the floating corporeal form of your dropped Geo. You can of course upgrade your health throughout the game but it’s at a very slow pace. No matter much health you amass even the most basic of enemies will still strip you of one notch if they hit you. This can lead to boss runs becoming very frustrating but I have more to say on that shortly. For now, let’s talk about your shade.

As mentioned when you die your shade is left in your stead. In order to claim back the Geo that your shade embodies you must fight it. While an interesting mechanic that I had never come across before. I found it fast became frustrating after the novelty wore off. Once you made your way from a bench, the game’s checkpoints, back to where you died your shade more often than not wouldn’t be in the exact spot you died. This became increasingly difficult if you died in one of the game's very tricky platforming sections which would often require you to stay constantly on the move to avoid death.

Add in trying to kill your shade which fights back on top of that and regularly found myself just giving up on the Geo I had lost out of sheer frustration. While the Hollow Knight does provide an NPC that calls your shade back to them. It’s only available in the hub world which travelling back to was sometimes more trouble than it was worth.

Now let’s talk about the bosses I mentioned earlier. Hollow Knight is chock full of them in varying shapes, sizes, and difficulties. While I did find many of Hollownest’s bosses very difficult I never found any of them to be unfair. Every fight had a rhythm to it and figuring out that rhythm was the key to defeating them. In some cases, however, I did feel like I was playing guitar hero on an expert level and had to hit the rhythm perfectly or I would lose the fight. This brought back that frustrating feeling especially if I was on attempt 18 of the same boss.

This frustration was ultimately crushed by the sense of triumph and relief that came with defeating a tough opponent. There is one frustration about boss fights that no amount of triumph could squash and that’s boss runs. Hollow Knight had some of the longest and most challenging runs from checkpoint to boss of any game I have played. Sometimes bordering on feeling unfair. Between all the enemies and brutally challenging platforming, I would regularly turn off the game rather than face the boss run again.

A platform to shout from

While there are many wonderful things to praise about Hollow Knight’s level design I can’t say the platforming challenges are one of them. They often felt difficult just for the fun of it. As if the game designers just decided it would be funny that you need pinpoint precision to complete a section and you mess up you have to go through it all over again. This is mostly what contributed to my frustrations about boss runs. Not only are they a long trek from many of the checkpoints but on the way there you have to dodge spikes and other environmental obstacles with the skill of a Cirque du Soleil performer. Normally I would be the first to say that a death in a souls-like game is your own fault and you should use it as a teaching tool but in Hollow Knight, platforming deaths felt like a punishment for doing it perfect the first time.

Platforming aside I really enjoyed the overall level design on Hollow Knight. Like I mentioned earlier its environments felt like what I would expect in real life had I entered a magical garden or dank cave. Hollownest is also packed full of secrets for the curious adventurer to find. These range from hidden upgrades behind hard-to-spot breakable walls to whole optional levels you could miss without ever knowing they existed. As a person who loves to explore every inch of a game world in search of secrets Hollow Knight always had plenty to scratch that itch.

While on the subject of exploration and level design, the Metroidvania elements of Hollow Knight really shine. I would come across a place that I could not reach and wonder what treasures awaited me once I had unlocked the prerequisite skill to reach them. This instilled a real sense of excitement as once I discovered these places it spurred me to explore further so I could return and claim my rewards. Which were almost always worth the backtracking.

Hollow Knight is a game that rewards its players for remembering past areas and taking the time to return them later.

Frustration is the name of the game

So where do I stand with Hollow Knight? Well, first I would like to thank the people who recommended the game to me. They were right. I did enjoy it for the most part and I am not sorry I played it. In fact, I am very happy to experience another spin on the soul’s formula I love so much and I hope what comes next doesn’t deter people from telling me about similar games in the future.

While Hollow Knight had so many things to enjoy when I think back on my 40 something hours with the game the big thing that sticks out in my mind is frustration. How much of the time I spent being angry at unnecessarily difficult platforming or disheartened to the point where I would just turn off the game. While I like games that provide a tough challenge Hollow Knight has though me that there is a limit to how punishment a game can throw at me and still be fun. Unfortunately, this is one of those games.

Play this game if…

  • You like an old-school gaming challenge.

  • You like excellent Metroidvania level design.

  • You enjoy the risk-reward of exploring deeper into a punishing world.

  • You enjoy challenging but rewarding boss fights.

  • You like sadomasochism.

All images are taken from the Hollow Knight press kit here

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