Hollow Knight is a journey into dark fantasy. Clearly inspired by classic games of a bygone era, Team Cherry has brought something that not only relives moments of glory from the past but brings new elements to the Metroidvania subgenre of 2D side-scrollers. The result, then, is a beautiful game with a haunting atmosphere that demands the player’s full attention and respect. Its rewards are always plentiful and impactful, and its challenges are never shallow. This is the game’s mantra, and it almost never deviates from this masterfully-crafted formula. Simply put, Team Cherry hasn’t only knocked it out of the park, but has also managed to create something worthy of having twenty years of history behind it.
Everything from the game’s visuals to the game’s score reminds you that the world you’re in has been abandoned. The art is a Tim Burton-esque throwback that emphasizes strong messages sheeted by simplicity. Interesting-looking characters reminisce over a better time when the land wasn’t so broken and vacant. Through the art alone, you get a strong sense of what daily life was like before a cataclysmic event destroyed it all. Part of the fun is knowing that there’s a mountain of lore in every aspect of the game. Throughout my quest, I couldn’t wait to uncover a new area or meet new inhabitants, because it was all gorgeous and consistently meaningful.
The music, while not necessarily having a lasting impact, does a great job of selling you the idea of loneliness. New areas are given the attention they deserve and are serviced by a score that never rests on its laurels, always making sure to highlight new events that are reflected in the game world. Boss music in particular contains some of the best moments that truly feel epic in scope. The last fight in particular is one that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
However, none of that would shine as much without a deep combat system. It’s a good thing I can happily say that combat was my favorite aspect of Hollow Knight. Taking cues from Castlevania, Metroid, and Zelda II, Hollow Knight constantly drops the player in ever-changing scenarios that demand a sharp mind and quick reflexes. Instead of stats or a leveling system, Hollow Knight opts for a fluid gear-based system instead. And while your weapon and health upgrades are permanent, the loadout you take with you into battle can change at any given time based on the needs of the player. I never found better gear during my twenty-four hours of playtime, but I always found varied gear. Each new piece let me tackle the world in some new way. It was truly up to me to find my own playstyle, and I never once thought I was getting something I wouldn’t at least consider using later on.
Unfortunately, the game stumbles when it comes to checkpoints. Much like Dark Souls, you can rest at predetermined points on the gargantuan world map. They take the form of lone park benches that heal you, revive enemies, and act as a respawn point when you die. And you will die. The combat is fair overall, but sometimes I felt that the game’s handling of death was teetering on the edge of frustration. Much like Dark Souls, your in-game currency is left behind at the spot where you met with tragedy. Assuming you can make it back to that same spot, you’ll have to fight a shade of yourself if you want to regain your coin. Since so many pieces of gear, select upgrades, keys, and a few other services cost money, losing it all in a botched platforming segment can be demoralizing. In most cases it’s never hard to regain that lost money, and a bank that will store your currency (which unlocks a few hours into the game) helps, but sometimes the only way out of an area is a complicated maze filled with tough enemies, spike pits, and the occasional mini boss. A bad bench location can turn a hard segment into an unintentionally brutal one.
Fortunately, the bench locations seemed to be designed with boss fights in mind. Redoing critical path bosses never meant I had to retread large sections of ground, and a fast travel system helps to alleviate the distance between areas on the map. Additionally, exploring optional content is usually rewarded with a shortcut that leads back to the main path, further feeding into the addicting cycle of exploration. Uncovering secrets is half the thrill of Hollow Knight. Story content, boss fights, new gear, weird characters, and lore are often hidden. Most are never presented outright. For the players who love digging deep, Hollow Knight has a lot to give, including a big end-game event if the player is able to max out their character. I won’t discuss it here (and I certainly didn’t unlock it myself), but I promise that—much like every other reward the game gives out—it is worth your time.
Overall, Hollow Knight is a wonderful addition to the recent slew of fan-backed classically-inspired games. It lives up to its premise of being a modern Metroidvania title and often goes beyond it, bringing something fresh to the 2D subgenre whilst paying homage to the titles that came before it