Developer: Team Cherry
Publisher: Team Cherry
Reviewed for : Nintendo Switch
Played: Around 30 hours, visiting each area and received ”The Hollow Knight” ending.
Hollow Knight is a haunting journey through a dark, treacherous and beautiful world full of surprise, and both hope and horror. Playing as The Knight, Hollow Knight’s enigmatic silent protagonist, you will explore the depths, which alternate between darkness and the light, of the cursed subterranean kingdom known as Hallownest.
All of this is done quite expertly in a way that other games of its genre will ape going forward, if they are wise. I promised myself I would avoid the following terms in this review, there really is no better way to describe games of this ilk… Taking some of the best elements of both Metroidvania and Soulslike titles, Hollow Knight marries the trappings and tropes of these genre’s and makes them it’s own, with its smart, satisfying take on 2D combat, intense platforming and addictive upgrade system.
The basic gameplay loop looks something like this. After a brief tutorial, you are set loose on the semi open world from the starting town of Dirtmouth. From here, you explore the sometimes-scary and always-tense world, encountering the games 100+ enemy types and occasionally a boss encounter (of which there are more than 30). After defeating foes, you will be rewarded with Geo, the games currency, which can be used to buy upgrades and charms back in Dirtmouth and from various other vendors around the labyrinthine world. If you die, you lose a third of your Soul meter and all of your currency will be guarded by a familiar looking shade, who must be defeated to return it and your Soul gauge to their rightful places. Sound familiar?
All of this is set to what is one of the most evocative and memorable sound tracks to a game I have played in recent memory, whether it be moody strings to set the tone, or one of the orchestral epics that accompany any serious encounter. The art style, while simplistic, is wildly original and constantly surprising… because, and I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this in four paragraphs, every character encountered, both friend and foe, are bugs. Tiny, little, lovingly hand drawn insects, from grubs to Rhinoceros beetles, spiders and praying mantises.
Now, there are a bunch of meta-narrative threads that can be drawn upon from this insect conceit, and Hollow Knight does, to some extent. Insects are a great metaphor to draw from, when your story revolves around the nature of freedom and independent thought. Of course this is explored in a lot of games media, albeit usually more so in sci-fi and Android fiction (insects are automaton’s, after all). But I found Hollow Knight’s take on all of this to be charming and refreshing, thanks to its characters, even if it is largely derivative of That-Game-Series-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named plot line, told in a similarly sparse and indirect fashion.
But we don’t play these games for their stories, that’s just a happy addition, at least for me. Hollow Knight is all play, and it plays like a dream. Surprisingly twitchy for a 2D platformer, combat is lightning fast and is so intense I would often forget to breathe during tough encounters. The Knight wields a nail like it was a longsword, and the majority of combat occurs at nail-length. This involves a horizontal slash, a rising vertical slash and a downward slash reminiscent of earlier Zelda and Ducktales titles. That is to say, that this downward strike has the added bonus of pogoing the player upwards, which can used both tactically during in encounters and also in exploration.
To complement this, The Knight also has several Soul spells at his command, although they are unlocked over the course of the game. Soul is a resource gained by striking enemies, and it can be expended to power the aforementioned abilities, which are really the players only ranged option. To further complicate this, you can expend a third of the Soul gauge to heal one mask (Hollow Knights term for hitpoints). This healing is further FURTHER complicated by a brief charge up period, during which, if any damage is taken, then a mask is lost, along with whatever Soul was used to begin the process.
Which brings us to the charms and notches system, which I think is how Hollow Knight has kept me playing nearly 10 hours after rolling credits. Each charm has a unique effect, whether that be something mundane like increasing the nail’s reach, or increasing attack speed… to something dramatic, like exuding a dung beetles toxic odor, or spawning miniature versions of The Knight that will launch kamikaze attacks on any nearby enemies. These charms take up a certain number of notches, with you having a very limited capacity at the start of the game, this number increasing as you progress through the game and allowing for more complex setups. And this really is my favorite part of the game – build construction. You can build The Knight in a, quite frankly, absurd number of ways. Want to pump out melee damage, or increase your magic output? Easy. But how about something a little more exotic?
The example I used earlier was a build I played around with. My Knight had a toxic cloud following him at all times, that would damage any enemies that where caught in it. And he would constantly spawn little Knights that would seek out enemies and destroy those out of reach. I had this coupled with the ability to heal quicker, and upon successfully healing my little guy would dispense a large cloud of toxic spores due to a mushroom charm I had picked up… I threw in a couple of nail buffs and I had something that worked form. All of that on it own is well and good, but the true genius of this system are the secret synergies that underpin the whole thing. At no point in the game are you told this, and it entourages experimentation and its super fun to discover different combos. Those mini Knights, once coupled with the toxic cloud, explode on impact and leave miniature noxious cloud behind, and the effect of the mushroom too is similarly enhanced.
It’s that sense of exploration that truly makes Hollow Knight so spectacular, both from a narrative standpoint, and from a technical one. There is a mastery here, that is truly special, and I can wait to see what Team Cherry come up with next. With Hollow Knight, they have set the bar incredibly high, and I think I will be comparing games with far larger budgets and teams to it for a very long time. I could leave you with a metaphor about an ant lifting its own weight many times over, but instead, just go out and pickup Hollow Knight. It’s incredible.