by Sean Martin
reviewed on PC
I’ll start by saying that I don’t often play platformers. I’m a strategy man for the most part and except for Inside and Limbo, they rarely make it onto my playlist. But as with those others, something about Hollow Knight forced me to make an exception, and after playing it, I realized it was because it reminded me of Dark Souls (and who doesn’t love a bit of entropy and decay?). In Hollow Knight, you are an adventurer travelling alone through the ruins of an insect world, battling bosses, conversing with a cast of oddball characters and seeking insight into what came before. Is this starting to sound familiar? There are more similarities; Hollow Knight also rewards players for perseverance in a very similar way to Souls, offering secrets and special items for completing optional challenges and bosses. But there is one significant difference that sets Hollow Knight apart.
Where Souls’ world is one of decay, Hollow Knight's is rebirth. The player is shown a world in ruins, but also the new life sprouting from those ruins, and the strange creatures who call them home. At some points Hollow Knight feels mournful: when you’re walking through the ghost town Dirtmouth, as a sombre piano melody plays you away. But at others, it’s almost triumphant: when you’re running through the forest area Greenpath, dashing and jumping as a playful soundtrack reminds you that life always finds a way. This duality is reflected in the beautifully hand-drawn art style and a muted yet evocative soundtrack. Dark Souls shows us a cycle, but it’s an unnatural cycle, it is one of pain, of a cursed rebirth. The cycle that Hollow Knight contextualizes itself as part of, is one of natural life, death and rebirth, and it is all the more beautiful for it.
A lot of the mechanics in Hollow Knight are fairly typical for a platformer: you have a health bar and a mana bar. As you delve the ruins, beating more bosses, you accrue more spells and more health. When you die in-game, the mana bar is halved and if you want to get it back, you have to go back to the area and fight a ghost version of yourself. This is okay in fairly open areas, but when you die in one of the many movement puzzles or spike pits (and you will) it can often be quite challenging to navigate a precarious position and then fight yourself. This means you often have to take into account risk vs reward. Like most platformers Hollow Knight rewards gamers for remembering where newly gained abilities create accessible routes, so the classic Zelda “Hmm I got a boomerang… maybe I should throw it at that giant glowing ceiling crystal?”.
This opening of routes based on abilities is the only real direction given in the game, except for the occasional NPC subtly alluding to “THAT CITY THAT ALL THE ADVENTURERS GO IN SEARCH OF AND NEVER COME BACK FROM”. But on the whole, the NPCs in this game are incredibly refreshing: they are funny and all have very distinctive characters. What is most refreshing about the NPCs is that they often feel optional: you don’t think “Oh god, if I don’t talk to this NPC I’ll miss that rare dialogue option and won’t be able to find that unique item”. Most of them are content just chatting to you. My favourite example of this was when walking into one of the hot-springs. I found two old bugs conversing in whispers to each other, and when I got into the spring they stopped talking and stared at me, and wouldn’t start talking again until I left.
In terms of non-traditional mechanics, both the talisman and movement system stand out. The talisman system allows you to equip items (called talismans) that you discover or purchase in-game which grant specific abilities, and that’s fairly average. But the system stood out for me because of the huge variety of talismans you can equip, allowing you to really tailor the character to your playstyle. There are talismans that give you mana when you get hurt, make abilities cost less, make your nail (sword) reach further or increase invulnerability duration post-damage. Some of the talismans also apply to the incredibly dynamic movement abilities, allowing you to use them more often or omni-directionally, and so the two mechanics complement each other very well. You will often find that movement based challenges reward you with a unique talisman, so continuing the cycle.
Curiosity Killed the Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight is a challenging game: it’s one of the hardest platformers I’ve ever played and that’s not just because the bosses are hard. The movement-based challenges require a great deal of perseverance. During my travels, I found an almost pitch black cave, filled with bats. I didn’t know there was anything at the end of it, I could’ve said to myself “Well, I probably need a special item to do this” but I thought, why not. I proceeded to spend two hours navigating its traps and spikes through trial and error. I almost gave up a few times, but when I got to the end, I emerged into one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen in a game. For me, Hollow Knight's true quality lies in its ability to reward perseverance, to reward curiosity and exploration. That challenge was so difficult, the contrast between the stark cave and what I discovered so significant, that it made me feel like I must’ve been the first person ever to discover it. That’s something I rarely experience in a game. Hollow Knight is one of the best 2D platformers I’ve ever played - it is a beautiful, quirky and dynamic game; challenging yet rewarding; mournful yet brimming with hope. When it comes to console, it’s going to cause a real stir.
Beautiful and challenging
Very occasionally frustrating