Bugs are like coconuts. Though they may seem hollow, they’re actually full of sweet sweet milk!
Hollow Knight Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux, Switch, PS4, Xbox One
Developer/Publisher: Team Cherry
Hollow Knight follows an unnamed teensy tiny bug knight who wanders into the dilapidated kingdom of Hollownest. A land where a few individuals still manage to cling to life while the rest are undead, hostile, or generally monstrous creatures that serve as obstacles in the protagonist’s vaguely defined quest to either make things better or simply acquire power. It is honestly a pretty basic storyline on its face value, but it does come with a plethora of lore to uncover and a scattering of fairly endearing characters with their own memorable little quirks that make them stand out despite the limited amount of attention afforded to the bulk of them. While I am not really a fan of this more minimalistic approach to storytelling, as it often requires delving down a rabbit hole of fan wikis and video essays to fully comprehend, what’s present within Hollow Knight manages to remain enjoyable and, at the very least, comprehensible enough.
However, I am apprehensive of saying the same about the game itself. I already mentioned that Hollow Knight is a metroidvania title, and it certainly borrows more from Metroid. Something that is exemplified through its alien feeling environment, upgrade progression, and generally maze like level design that really does evoke a sense of travelling through a sprawling insect nest at times. Normally, I would be completely fine with this approach to a game’s world design, but Hollow Knight opts to make progression far less inviting to the player, namely with regards to how it handles its map.
Rather than adopting the usual metroidvania format, where the map gradually expands as the player explores, Hollow Knight takes a more rigorous route where the protagonist is completely map-less when entering a new area and can only begin to chart things out once they encounter a humming map vendor. From this purchased outline, the area can be charted in detail, yet the map can only be updated at benches, this game’s save points. This means that traversing into a new area really is a foray into the unknown, and I personally found that to be more than a little intimidating. Combine this with the anxiety that comes from a lack of map icons for every item type, and I fairly quickly found myself resorting to using a complete map with the locations of every item in the game, along with a walkthrough to tell me where to go, because this game can be nonlinear, and I did not want to tack another 10 hours to my 40+ hour playthrough.
Meanwhile the combat is a unique mix that necessitates a more calm and reactive approach to enemy encounters, where dodging is the player’s best friend, pot shots are the best way to deal damage, and quality animation-based pattern recognition is more or less required in order to overcome most boss battles. Yet even outside of bosses the world itself is filled with carefully placed enemies and hazards that can absolutely wreck impatient players in a matter of seconds. While this may seem to be an aggressive approach, especially considering the concussive effect used whenever the protagonist takes damage, it is actually quite fair, especially in how it treats the player’s health.
Unlike most of its contemporaries, and most modern games in general, Hollow Knight incorporates a surprisingly refreshing unit based health system where every health unit can withstand a single strike from (almost) any enemy. Furthermore, these health units may also be refilled at any time by using soul, which I personally prefer to call milk because it is a white liquid that is collected in a container, is harvested from living creatures, and is clearly quite nutritious. Anyways, milk is a resource that is accumulated upon damaging enemies and can either be charged to regenerate a single unit of health, or be used to cast a variety of powerful super attacks in the form of spells… though I more or less exclusively used the former. I find it to be a pleasant risk reward system where the player must understand or gamble with enemy patterns to determine whether or not it is worth it to try and heal, given the charge time needed and the often hectic nature of enemy encounters.
However, when this gamble fails, or the protagonist’s life hits 0, the game more or less slaps the back of the player’s hand, sends them back to the last bench used, robs them of their accumulated currency, known as geo, and tasks them to take out a weak shadow rendition of the protagonist located at their point of death in order to get their geo back. I personally found this concept to be completely unnecessary, as there really is no thematic justification for it, it adds a negative stigma to failure beyond needing to attempt something over again, and it can be quite annoying if the player were to fumble on, say, a tricky spike filled platforming section with projectile shooting enemies. While Hollow Knight does feature a bank wherein geo can be stored, the player needs a lot of geo in order to fully complete the game, and it is not uncommon to encounter scenarios where the player is weighed down with several thousand geo (a lot), with no shop in sight. Sure, one could grind to reclaim their lost geo, but grinding is something that most metroidvanias could do without.
Speaking of which, one of my favorite things about metroidvanias is the sense of growth and progression that the player and the player character undergo as time goes on, and Hollow Knight certainly delivers on that front. By the end of the game, the little knight with only the ability to jump and slash in four cardinal directions becomes a god of mobility. With a great wall jump, double jump, air dashes that go through enemies, a destructive shinespark-esque super dash, and the ability to hop off of enemies and spikes alike, the simple act of moving can feel empowering in and of itself. The game grants the player the tools they need to conquer the enemy that is the world around them and obtain the rich elusive goodies it hides deep in the recesses of its catacombs.
While most upgrades are either pure damage increases, health or milk upgrades, charge moves, or the aforementioned mobility aids, there is also the charm system, which allows the player to customize the protagonist’s abilities, buffing them with a variety of effects that are restricted by a number of skill slots. While I do like this system in theory and understand its practicality, I ultimately felt like some of these charms should have been treated like relics from Symphony of the Night..
Yes, having all charms be activated at the same time would make the protagonist laughably overpowered, but things like seeing the protagonist on the map, or having geo come to them instead of being sprayed haphazardly are just quality of life improvements that I would have preferred to see function as permanent upgrades, not accessories. I also cannot really fathom why there is no way to save loadouts or sets of charms for the sake of convenience, or why the reward for collecting all 40 charms is that of an amazingly distracting moaning sound that plays whenever the protagonist rests on a bench. I mean, thank you for giving me infinite milk you sexually promiscuous worm, but let me focus on which of these 40 widgets are the best for fighting this gauntlet of super bosses! I know I am going to keep gravitating to the explosive poop bugs, but let me at least pretend to have some creativity.
As for the presentation, Hollow Knight manages to strike an almost miraculous balance between something that feels cute and approachable and something that feels eerie and dismal. The bulk of the characters are given fairly simple designs to make them both more recognizable and memorable, yet despite being an assorted variety of bugs or thinly detailed ancient horrors, they all have a Kirby-esque quality with just how gosh darn cute they can be. Meanwhile, the environments run a gamut of themes that all manage to feel distinct from one another, and are constructed with a level of detail that is almost mind boggling for a game of this budget, especially when considering how vast and expansive the world ultimately is.
Even though I can admittedly look at most nearly every background here and realize that the artists did recuse a great deal of their work, repeating it in less obvious ways, it is still a gorgeous and intensive labor only sweetened by snappy animations and a really nice sense of impact applied to most hits. However, there are certain instances where I found the color balancing of the game to be a bit detrimental, as fighting multiple rapidly moving blue enemies against a blue background can result in some degree of visual chaos, and the decision to use foreground in a reaction heavy combat oriented side scrolling action game is one I can never seem to agree with.
While I am fully aware that many people view this title as being on par with titles like Super Metroid and Symphony of the Night, there are a few too many irksome qualities here for me to afford it such high praise. As it stands, Hollow Knight is an impressive and well crafted title that manages to positively nail a large number of things that I love about the metroidvania genre, but it also instilled me with a sense of great anxiety that could only be combated with external aids, and has some mechanics that seem at odds with the otherwise tight design seen throughout the rest of the game. Still, it is a title I am thankful to have gone through, even if I don’t see myself returning to the moist milky crevice that is Hollownest anytime soon.