To say Hollow Knight is a 2D action adventure game is to say that an Aston Martin is a car. Both statements are true but simultaneously grossly inadequate. Hollow Knight is so much more than the sum of its parts and trying to create a concise, yet complete description is difficult at best. It is massive, beautiful and challenging and while it isn’t perfect it’s few flaws are easily forgiven thanks to its sheer brilliance.
From the outset Hollow Knight provides few hints on the direction forward. The game proper begins when you descend to the ruins under the town of Dirtmouth where you face your first decision – left or right. It’s a simple, unremarkable choice with nothing to drive you one way or the other – no breadcrumbs or hints, no guide or annoying sidekick, just the two choices. It’s a situation that presents over and over and sums up so much of what Hollow Knight is about. Exploration.
What begins as a slightly maddening lack of direction soon becomes an exhilarating sense of freedom. While Hollow Knight has its share of rewards in items and the game’s currency, geo, the real reward is just seeing what’s on the other side. After 30 hours Hollow Knight was still able to surprise me in both presentation and diversity of location, characters and enemies. Make no mistake, this beautiful game.
The art direction and animations are stunning, as is the soundtrack, and the NPCs have a surprising amount of character. Exploring this world is a pure joy and a reward unto itself. Even having finished the game I still have an incredible desire to examine every inch, to find every secret and to see every single thing the game has to offer.
It’s a massive world and the map system is unique and worth addressing because it can be challenging. Upon entering a new area you will not have a map until you discover the NPC Conifer. He’ll sell you a map but only the parts of that area you’ve been in will display. It is then updated at check points, assuming you have purchased the quill, as you continue to explore.
It’s an interesting design decision and one that I really came to enjoy as I progressed. I can navigate around most of the zones in Hollow Knight better than the streets in my own suburb, because I actually need to remember the way.
As you traverse the huge game world below Dirtmouth you will encounter a vast array of enemies. Your foes begin with the simplest of attacks, as do you, a simple swing of your nail. While your foes will become more difficult and combat both quick and mobile, the pacing in the early parts of the game is very slow. If you came expecting a Diablo click fest you are going to be sorely disappointed, especially early on.
That being said, do not expect to stroll through Hollow Knight without breaking a sweat. … or possibly a controller or two. The difficulty of the game ramps up significantly and there are some particularly difficult boss encounters, as well as a couple of maddeningly hard platforming sections. Boss encounters are a huge highlight of the game and a great reminder that games are meant to be challenging. If you expect to roll up to an encounter and successfully completely it within one or two attempts this game is probably not for you. It certainly doesn’t have a Dark Souls level of difficulty, but you really do need to learn each encounter – and then execute the combat well – before being able to proceed. The payoff is an incredible relief and satisfaction when overcoming a particularly hard section of the game. It’s been a long time since I’ve experienced such a rush at victory in gaming and it’s a welcome and highly addictive return.
The difficulty of the some sections highlights, painfully, the one major issue I have with Hollow Knight, the checkpoint system. The game auto saves regularly, but you respawn at the last bench you rested on and there are generally only two or three in each area. While I’m sure there is some rhyme or reason behind their placement I couldn’t see it and they are occasionally frustratingly far from difficult encounters. This means spending a couple of minutes making your way back to your most recent defeat, often through a number of enemies, before engaging in an encounter that has already been kicking your ass for far longer than you would care to admit. More often than not you’ll respawn pretty close, but it happens enough to make some deaths far more painful than they should have been.
The other purpose the rest stations serve is to let you change your charms. Charms cater to the RPG element, allowing players the choice of powered up abilities, increased survivability or simple quality of life improvements. There are far more charms than slots available so some thought is required when it comes to charm selection, particularly when heading into some of the more difficult encounters.
Hollow Knight is a remarkably polished game. There have been, however, some performance issues. Occasionally the frame rate will plummet and I have, from time to time, taken damage that I would otherwise have avoided but for a brief screen freeze. In well over 30 hours gameplay I’ve experienced it four or five times personally, although some have reported it occurring more often. It has had next to no impact on my enjoyment of the game, but be aware that it has for some. We do know Team Cherry are working on a fix at the moment, so hopefully it will be resolved soon.
Hollow Knight is a triumph of the metroidvania genre. Team Cherry have created an incredible world, filled with variety, charm and wonder. It was a pure joy to explore Hallownest and incredibly satisfying to finish the game. The combat is challenging with a number of particularly memorable boss encounters and the old school difficulty is well balanced and hugely gratifying. Put simply, Hollow Knight is a magnificent game.