Hollow Knight, Team Cherry’s stunning debut game, has taken the Metroidvania genre to a whole new level, with its intricate exploration and challenging combat. Hollow Knight’s parallels to From Software’s Souls series are obvious, but make no mistake, it stands alone in its own uniquely desolate world.
Hollow Knight is a deceptive game; on the surface it looks simple, but it is much more complex than it lets on. When I played the sneak peak—which was limited to the first level, the Forgotten Crossroads—I was already surprised at how intricate it was. The more I played, the more shortcuts I unlocked, and the previously isolated caves became an intertwining web of tunnels and pathways. I compared Hollow Knight’s level design to From Software’s infamous Souls series in my first impressions, but in terms of intricacy and complexity, Hollow Knight is on a whole other level. Indeed, the levels are so intricate that although I completed it in 25 hours, it has a 3 hour speed run achievement. Early levels feature inaccessible pathways leading to later stages. As you explore, each level becomes a hub leading to every other level, allowing traversing the caves, even without the unlockable fast travel, to evolve from slow and meticulous to rapid and effortless.
In the ancient ruins of Hallownest, which lie deep beneath Dirtmouth, you can find many hidden secrets, treasures, odd friends and dangerous foes. These colourful characters have distinct personalities and quirks, and a select few will even set up shop in Dirtmouth. For a fee these shopkeepers provide some essential abilities, tools and items that aid you in your long travels in the perilous caves below. Other characters you meet provide you with the the lore and context of the world, and, much like in the Souls series, it’s really up to you to put the pieces together. One important character sells you a map, a necessity required for navigating the often confusing caves for the first time. The map will only update after you finish exploring and rest at a bench. These benches also replenish your health and act as save points.
Hollow Knight puts an equal emphasis on exploration, platforming and combat. The combat itself starts off relatively simple, with the unnamed character you play as only able to slash enemies, but as enemies begin to spit acid and throw spears, you learn to dodge and keep on the move. You unlock more evasive abilities and offensive attacks as you progress and the combat becomes increasingly more complex; the diverse array of insectoid enemies attack with more ferocity, and a variety of attacks and projectiles begin to fill the screen in an almost bullet-hell-like way. New enemies are introduced in each level, but some enemies return with reskinned looks and retooled abilities. Each unique enemy provides an interesting challenge as you try to figure out their attack patterns, and many of the reskinned enemies also add surprising wrinkles to the combat. For example, the flying mosquitoes that attack in a docile way early on become furious and unrepentant bloodseekers.
Not only are the normal enemies varied, but almost every boss is unique, each with a diverse set of attack patterns and quirks. Analysing these attack patterns is integral to defeating each boss. If you rush your attack it’ll lead to almost immediate death in most cases, as each boss packs a devastating punch. The boss battles are definitely the highlight of the gameplay, as they really emphasise the game’s dodge-based combat and put your skills to the test.
Progression is very deliberate and slow; when you progress it feels meaningful and game changing. Hollow Knight’s controls are tight and fluid; allowing you to deal with the intense platforming and combat with ease. As you attack enemies, your special souls meter fills; souls are used for healing yourself and/or attacking enemies in various devastating ways. In intense battles you have to balance healing and special attacks. Combat is complicated further by charms you buy from the vendors or find in the decrepit tunnels. When equipped, the charms alter your abilities in numerous ways, or even add new ones. For example, one charm can automatically absorb any coins dropped from fallen enemies or found in deposits of treasure; another decreases the cost of using your spells; and yet another gives you extra health, but takes away the ability to heal yourself. Mixing and matching these charms to create interesting combinations provides some variety in the downtime between acquiring new abilities. The platforming can be unforgiving, with seemingly impossible jumps and spikes littering the levels, but these sections are passable with patience and skill and reward you with charms, coin deposits and bountiful treasure chests. The combat makes great use of the platforming mechanics by forcing you to keep nimble and bob and weave as enemies bombard you from all directions with various attacks. Vanquishing enemies without a scratch is an exceedingly satisfying feeling when pulled off.
As mentioned before, Hollow Knight is visually stunning. Its hand-drawn 2D aesthetic looks painstakingly crafted, and is key to bringing to life the isolated and depressing atmosphere of its withered world. Each area has a distinct look and feel, and each is as gorgeous and haunting as the last; the barren and sterile caves of the Forgotten Roads are a far cry from the densely overgrown ruins of Greenpath or the violet-hued industrial caves of the Crystal Peak. Ari Gibson’s art direction coupled with Christopher Larkin’s chillingly beautiful, appropriately subdued soundtrack, propel the atmosphere beyond anything I’ve experienced in a 2D game before.
However, Hollow Knight’s major flaw is its obscurity. I spent a few hours lost in many levels because I either missed a certain ability, or an obscured pathway. Nooks and crannies where required items and abilities are to be found are often so small they’re easy to miss, even when checking the map. It was also difficult to remember every individual room, especially when there were so many distinct rooms containing only extra items unnecessary for progression. For example, you come across so many locked doors early on that when you finally find a key, it’s a tedious case of trying every previous door until one unlocks. And in most cases the item description only contains the vaguest of hints for where it’s meant to be used.
A more minor complaint is a technical issue; the game sometimes stutters, often in the middle of a jump or an intense battle, resulting in loss of health, or death. Though, Team Cherry have already said they’re working on this, so expect it to be patched soon enough.
Nevertheless, Hollow Knight has set the bar for other indie games; it may appear simple, but its complexity rivals the Souls series from which it draws much of its inspiration. The combat and platforming are tight and satisfying and the character progression keeps the game interesting and fun right to the end. The cherry—pun definitely intended—on top is the unrivalled art direction and soundtrack, which complements the intense gameplay to create a uniquely withered and bleak world.