Hollow Knight Review
Hollow Knight is a 2D side-scrolling Metroidvania developed by Team Cherry. Originally released on PC in 2017, it eventually made its way to consoles, which included the Nintendo Switch in 2018. Featuring the titular character, you guide the Hollow Knight through a world of bugs. Entering caverns, you look to explore the kingdom of Hollownest and reap the treasures that await.
In this month’s edition of A Look Back, we take a look at the Metroidvania Souls-inspired indie title that won many hearts. A love letter to Metroidvania, however, not all is perfect in the world of Hallownest. Let’s enter our journey below.
The mysterious and vague story of Hollow Knight involves a small Knight exploring the ancient kingdom of Hallownest. In a world filled with anthropomorphic bugs, the Hallownest area brings in a dark, ominous, and depressing atmosphere. Few villagers survive in the opening village area. And while you’re warned of hostile intent in the world below, others, such as the mapmaker, seek the adventure and thrill and choose to enter the hostile underground.
Hollow Knight’s tale weaves itself largely through its lore. You’ll learn things about NPCs by the conversations of other NPCs. Similar to Dark Souls, you can learn more things by speaking to characters multiple times. You can also use the Dream Nail to read their minds later in the game.
The presentation in Hollow Knight toes the line between charming and creepy. On one hand, you’re in a dark world. Darker colors, dim lighting, spikes, and dead bug people litter the underground. On the other hand, your characters are colored with bright colors and large eyes. Some monsters are creepy, while others are cute or make funny noises.
Scored by Christopher Larkin, the music in Hollow Knight fits its atmosphere perfectly. You’ll hear piano among other classical instruments. Boss music is faster paced and much more intense, slowing down as you hit that climactic final hit to save yourself against a powerful opponent. There’s no voiced dialogue in the game, however. Any voiced lines you hear come from a brief line of jibberish or a grunt spoken by an NPC.
As a 2D Metroidvania title, Hollow Knight finds its roots in 2D platforming and exploration elements. Wielding a nail – your alternative to a sword – you’ll explore caverns, hop platforms, and slash enemies. Gaining new abilities, such as the air dash, allows you to explore areas previously unreachable. You’ll encounter these abilities after fighting bosses or exploring difficult areas.
You can upgrade your health or your soul by collecting masks. These are similar to Heart Pieces. As you bring several together, you’ll gain another orb of health or increase your Soul gauge. You’ll be able to use more spells this way.
Magic spells are held in the orb icon that represents the character’s face. You can use it to heal your wounds or use offensive spells. These throwing projectiles inflict great damage on enemies and bosses alike.
Speaking of bosses, they range from humanoid-sized enemies to colossal creatures. You will slay bosses based on learning their patterns, an element akin to Castlevania’s DS titles. Futhermore, you’ll find no shortage of enemy design, either. Some are simple bugs ramming you. Others are proficient with sword and shield. Still others will stick out of the wall and shoot at you. Hollow Knight covers enemy design in spades and you’ll find them in all sorts and sizes!
Hollow Knight attempts to be one of the most challenging games you’ll ever play. Taking many cues from Dark Souls, the game takes cues from its hallmark challenge. Dying costs you all of your Geo, which is your currency. You have one chance to get it back. Should you fail before reclaiming it, your Geo is gone forever. You must also get your “soul” back so you can fill your magic abilities once again.
Despite its noble intentions, however, Hollow Knight is not without its issues. Hailed and praised as a top indie game with a large fanbase, it might come off as a bit surprising to learn this game isn’t the perfect answer to modern-day Metroidvania. Its main problems include its art style, limited combat options, and level design.
For starters, the art style looks like the work you might have seen in indie games before. It features that cutesy-creepy vibe with a diminutive main character in a large world. This goes for the enemies with big eyes, bright colors, but sharp teeth and long claws. One look and I immediately thought of The Binding of Isaac.
Video game designers influencing one-another is forever a common concept. However, I felt unimpressed with the presentation and found it derivative. I think the lighting suits the mood and the caverns are colored nicely. It doesn’t feel like it has the sense of identity that you would find in classic Metroidvania titles. Comparatively, you’ll find a number of indie titles that don’t feel like they take the look from another game. Dust: An Elysian Tail, Salt and Sanctuary, and Guacamelee serve as good examples.
When you’re battling enemies, you bounce back during a hit. At first, this seems like an innovative, maybe more realistic feature to combat in the game. Later, you can equip a Charm that will allow you to hit without bounce-back. At that point, it occurred to me that this mechanic served only as a gimmick to increase challenge. It feels like the developers gave the players a minus, penalizing them with each attack.
It’s a neat concept on paper, but I feel it hampers you when it’s not needed in a game already challenging as it is. Let alone the Charm taking that away just makes it pointless to have to begin with.
Moreover, you’ll find yourself with no healing items, using your Soul to heal yourself. This takes a cue from Dark Souls, forcing you to spend time to heal. This lures the boss to just attack you instead while you’re in danger. You’ll do this frequently while also fighting enemies using stick-and-move tactics, some of which take a while to die. This slows down combat against enemies immensely.
When you’re roaming the world and want to return, you use the Stag Station to return. You can also use a Tram, which you will find late in the game. However, don’t expect to use any items to return to a point in the game. The game even states you won’t find a Stag Station in every area. Yet in Castlevania and even recent Metroid titles, like Samus Returns, the game set up warp points so you wouldn’t spend 5 minutes going back and forth when not needed. Or you wouldn’t spend 5 minutes at a time running back to the boss who just killed you.
This serves as poor and repetitive pacing in lieu of better game design. Challenging the players with bosses and enemies is a fair choice. But in 2019, it feels all too archaic to force them to walk a long distance back to the boss they must fight once more.
Finally, level design is a hit or miss. You’ll spend the entire game in a labyrinth of caverns. Green overgrowth reminiscent of Super Metroid’s Brinstar, a city that perpetually rains, and even a dark, abyssal cavern filled with spider monsters. In the case of the latter – The Deepnest – you’ll find spikes everywhere. You will run into spikes, fall to spikes, and even have floor crumble beneath you to spikes.
In Metroidvania titles, spikes damage your health. You escape and move on without the game blacking out and sending you back to where you just were. In Mega Man, you die. But Mega Man is also a 2D platformer, not a Metroidvania. Its challenge lies in avoiding hazardous pitfalls that will take a life and send you back to the start of the level. Fundamentally, it’s different. Yet Hollow Knight makes you watch the scene of the Knight dying every time he hits spikes, sending him back to where he was. This becomes dull and repetitive.
Furthermore, this is exacerbated by the lack of proper screen zoom indicating spikes are below you. Through my years of Metroidvania, none of the best ones I’ve played purposely pranked players by obscuring spikes at a fall point. Even in Super Castlevania IV, where you fall downwards in the library, you knew to watch your step and could glance out the hazards that lie below you.
Hollow Knight is an indie title with its heart in the right place. It’s creepy, charming, and offers the exploration and combat you’d expect from a Metroidvania title. Its pretty music and dark areas will enchant you and you’re bound to connect with it similarly to how you loved past Metroidvania or Souls titles.
Unfortunately, Hollow Knight serves largley as a love-letter to these titles, not as a compliment or an evolution. It takes what Metroidvania titles accomplished before, yet it barely capitalizes on the chance to innovate. Instead of just not innovating or serving as a great game in the genre, it takes several steps backwards in the process: it limits your own abilities behind the standards set in previous Metroidvania and Souls-type games, it runs entire levels with spikes to inconvenience rather than challenge the player, and it makes traveling back-and-forth longer than it needs to be.
When Super Metroid was released in 1994, the scope of Planet Zebes was far smaller than Hallownest. There were no warp points in the game, but the game wasn’t so big that they were really necessary either. Hollow Knight is a much larger game. The lack of warp points or even return items feels like an unacceptable method to force the player to add hours into a game that’s longer than needed. And if you die to a boss and your last save point was a mile away, you’ll be returning that mile every single time you lose until you get it right.
In the end, it serves as a little throwback to the games we loved. Its derivative art style screams Binding of Isaac, but with bug creatures and less gore. Still, the influence is both obvious and abundant throughout the game. I feel the developers could take the time to be more original and not restrict player abilities. Instead of push-back on attacks, use that Charm slot for something to empower the player instead. It feels better than being a restrictive element to the player. Instead of spikes everywhere, have different obstacles. The devs had their heart in the right place but the level of polish and choice for challenge could have been a little better.
In the meantime, Team Cherry is working on the sequel – Hollow Knight: Silksong. With a bit of polish around the level design and a little bit more leeway in abilities and combat, I could easily see myself purchasing the game. I feel they could have done better here, but that’s also why we have sequels to improve upon.
Finally, if eye-candy Metroidvania with lore and solid controls are your thing, don’t let the flaws stop you. Just be aware of them. If it sounds like cake to you, then by all means, I recommend Hollow Knight. This generation has a shortage of quality Metroidvania titles and I feel Hollow Knight is a fairly standard example of what we’ve had in the last few years. If you’ve beaten Metroid: Samus Returns, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS4), Shantae, Salt and Sanctuary, and Guacamelee 2, let Hollow Knight fill your void for Metroidvania action!