If I had to boil down the core ingredients of Team Cherry’s debut, I’d be hard-pressed to not give Dark Souls a mention in some shape or form. I know, I know – it’s trite to compare games to From Software’s seminal masterpiece, but it’s clear that the Australia-based indie outfit was influenced – both mechanically and aesthetically – by the Japanese developer and their hit RPG series.
Thing is, it’d be beyond reductive to declare Hollow Knight a mere Souls clone, as saying so is balderdash. Instead, Team Cherry have blended the design philosophies of that RPG franchise, infused it with a moody eye-catching Limbo-esque art-style, and poured this harmonious sapidity into a Metroidvania mold, topped off with a liberal sprinkling of weighty anguish and gloomy despair for good measure. But, if I had to condense my thoughts down for you even more, Hollow Knight is simply the bees bloody knees, and you should absolutely check it out.
Your adventure takes place in Hallownest; a dark and dreary bug-infested world that has succumbed to a mysterious, oppressive ruinous force. What has caused this ruin is up to interpretation, and surprisingly this cryptic storytelling gives way to some narrative ambiguity that lends a sense of poetry to the overall experience. This bleak and somber poetic expression is communicated well through the game’s rich environmental storytelling.
Enigmatic landmarks that allude to a past long-forgotten litter the destitute 2D map, and oddball characters you meet along your journey often feel like ghosts of their former selves; forgotten and forlorn, unsure of what to do and where to go next. It’s this oppressive atmosphere and bleak tone that Hollow Knight absolutely nails, but it thankfully also has the vibrant narrative chops to back it up, too. Truthfully, there’s a ton of meaningful layers to the overarching, minimalist story, but exposing too much of it in a review would be spoiler territory, for sure. Essentially, the world around you is just as important a character as the many weird and bizarre insect-like critters you interact with on your venture into the bowels of this derelict kingdom.
Mechanically, Hollow Knight is a tight action-platformer with lithe and exacting real-time combat. There’s a surprising amount of variety in the game’s wide-ranging menagerie of monstrosities. Weirdly, some of these little beasties are juxtaposed with an eerie cuteness, which sometimes makes you question whether you should be – you know – murdering these bug-like creatures in droves. Nevertheless, as you progress through your 20-ish hour journey, your adversaries ramp up in challenge, and some can legit make you think with your brain as well as your brawn. Speaking of which, nasty bosses also punctuate your adventure and these are a particular highlight, too. As is inherent in the Metroidvania sub-genre, new powers and special moves are unlocked as you progress that enables you to reach new hard-to-reach areas within the map.
One of the main gameplay twists Hollow Knight has up its sleeve is its thoughtful and unique healing mechanic. As you whittle down the health of monsters, that energy fills up a meter in the top left of the screen. You can spend this resource and heal your charming little knight on the fly, though it takes a few moments to recharge your HP, leaving you vulnerable momentarily in the heat of battle. This gifts the gameplay experience with a welcome rhythm, that not only adds a little tension to some battles, but gives you some respite during the downtime between them, too. Frankly, it’s a really smart system that I’d like to see implemented in other titles going forward.
Rounding out the Souls-like comparison is a similar risk/reward system that sees your loveable protagonist losing all their Geo (read: souls) once you’ve been defeated. This leaves a ghost-like Shade behind that must be defeated before recouping all your lost Geo, but thankfully they’re a cinch to take out. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, Geo can be used to purchase new equipment that’ll aid you on your quest. The most valuable of these are Charms that gift players with particular special abilities, like a longer attack range for your sword-like nail or bonus poise, to name but a few.
It’d be a sin if I didn’t give a shout out to Hollow Knight’s incredible, jaw-dropping art direction. Its painterly art-style is wonderful to behold and each character, enemy and boss is beautiful and unique. This helps breathe life into your moment-to-moment adventure. Each area is imbued with warm hues and vivid glows to help you differentiate between the plethora of environments. These run the gamut between garish, bold greens, and deep, gaudy blues, and this delicious cocktail interlocks neatly with the game’s overall theme and tone. Further still, the title’s haunting piano score is an undisputed highlight that adds emotional nuance to the somber timbre of the experience. Put simply, Hollow Knight is a delectable feast for the senses.
VERDICT: Hollow Knight is one of those few games that does a whole lot with just a very little. It’s a lithe experience, but an essential one, especially for fans of the Metroidvania sub-genre.
Hollow Knight is out now on Nintendo Switch and PC.