Review: Hollow Knight

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There aren’t many games that have cast a longer shadow over the industry than Dark Souls, and much like what you’ll find lurking within them it’s been a bit of a curse. Too many indie games have been overtuned to provide a similarly punishing experience, narratives have been undercooked to mimic the subtle storytelling, and action has been slowed to a crawl to imitate the methodical combat. But some titles have taken the right bits of inspiration and mixed them with their own brew of mechanics, and from just such a concoction you will find Hollow Knight. And in many ways, the mix Team Cherry has come up with is a richer taste than what inspired it.

Hollow Knight is the tale of a little bug in a big, dark, scary world of bugs. It’s bugs all the way down, you see; the kingdom of Hallownest was once a great and powerful society, spread across deep warrens beneath the surface. But something went wrong long ago and the kingdom fell silent. Now only the tiny hamlet of Dirtmouth remains to mark its location, though recently bugs have found themselves drawn to the lost kingdom in search of something. You will follow them down there, meet them, battle them and the unknown denizens, and change the fate of the cursed kingdom forever.

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Pretty heavy stuff, right? Hollow Knight gets that, and that’s one of its first and most prominent achievements. The tone this title strikes is both unique and flawless, an unexpected mix of charm, despair, humor, and dread. You’ve probably noticed already that your little dude is absolutely adorable, nipping along with his little white mask and nail. The other bugs nice enough to speak to you are often just as cute, but sometimes have sinister edges to them, or in a few cases are downright creepy. Friendly critters may crack jokes or help you out, while others relay ominous portends or warn you of the many dangers in and around Hallownest.

This balance carries on to the environments in a big way. The game world is massive for a metroidvania, and each area has a distinct style and atmosphere that hits all the right notes to evoke powerful reactions. From the first area of dark caves and ruins you may end up in a lush grotto of vines and creatures, a pleasant change until you realize the water is acidic and every bush may hide terrible dangers. Or you could descend into the caverns of potent fungi, with mysterious, bulbous foes that must be approached with great caution. Later journeys take you to decaying cities, silent graveyards, bustling coliseums, desolate wastes, and two of the most horrifyingly oppressive places I have ever visited in a video game. I’m not kidding here, Hollow Knight has topped titles from Half-life to SOMA in crafting locations that give me relentless anxiety.

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Another achievement worth mentioning is how Hollow Knight can craft such an atmosphere without hobbling the player in how they approach it. Part of the Dark Souls experience is trundling around at a slow jog, fighting battles and dodging traps at a measured pace. Team Cherry wisely elected to ignore this aspect of their inspiration, instead making your little knight swift, nimble, and refreshingly responsive. The controls here are tight, allowing you to execute your dashes and sword swings with ease as you dance around bugs both great and small, airborne and grounded, armed and fanged. At no point was I frustrated with the pace at which I could move about, and the fluid motion made the elaborate and creative battles against bosses and larger enemies all the more enjoyable.

As a metroidvania there’s a wealth of hidden items and powers to scrounge up across the world as well. Some are common pieces of the genre like health and magic upgrades, weapon skills and wall climbing and such. But even here there are unique implementations, like one of your earliest powers being essentially unlimited horizontal flight. Uncovering this treasure so early on feels incredibly liberating and exciting, but also reveals to you just how important verticality is to the game. You can further augment your movement and combat with charms that can extend your sword reach, change how you move when hit or attacking, or grant you all sorts of additional effects. I will admit a little disappointment here at how essential some charms are over others and how the limited slots for them tend to keep me from experimenting much, though.

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I suppose I could gripe about a few other annoyances, like the rare bug I get where my charged attacks don’t work, or how spread out the fast travel is. That latter one is a bit of a pain in truth, because the stations used for fast travel tend to be quite far from points of interest. You certainly won’t be relying on them as much as you would Castlevania warp rooms or Dark Souls bonfire warps. The map is another aspect that could be a drag, but honestly I love it. You don’t fill in new areas of the map until you reach a save point, and to get a map at all you have to locate an amateur cartographer in each area. He tends to be near one of the logical entrances and has audio and visual cues to lead you to him, so there’s a bit of tension in each new locale as you seek him out.

It’s details like the map that make me love the game more, really. Hallownest isn’t just a maze to run around, it’s a functioning world with its own rules and requirements. The things Hollow Knight asks you to do are never unreasonable and fit with the dark and unusual tone of the places you visit. Nothing is out of place here, and it all works in concert to immerse you in this strange world of bugs and mysticism. The characters and locations are far more memorable to me than those of similar games, in large part because they can be funny or creepy or adorable and still fill their role in a seamless narrative. There’s a lot to unpack about Hallownest, but instead of just resting on riddles this game makes you WANT to puzzle it out.

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On top of everything that Hollow Knight does right, it looks and sounds absolutely breathtaking. The hand-drawn aesthetic gives the enemies and environments an extra spark of life, complimenting the strong lines and flat colors with impressive animated details. The environments in particular are labors of love that bring together careful linework, bold lighting, and rich particle effects to make them feel deep and authentic. And the sound design does just as well, with appropriately subtle, melancholy melodies and impactful effects. There’s so much going on here that it baffles me how it could all work together so perfectly and yet it does, on and on for easily 20 hours or more. Hollow Knight does what few games manage to do, take clear inspiration from classics and find its own way to surpass them.

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