Title: Hollow Knight
Available On: Steam
Developer: Cherry Dream
Publisher: Cherry Dream
Genre: Action Platformer, Metroidvania
Official Site: https://hollowknight.com/
Release Date: February 24th, 2017
Where to Buy: Steam
Hollow Knight is not here to innovate the gameplay of the action platformer. Mechanically, jumping and basic attacks will account for most of your playthrough, but to say this makes Hollow Knight a shallow game would be overlooking its greatest assets.
Hollow Knight instead rests its laurels on a fully-realized world. The first thing you’ll encounter is a town that’s all but abandoned, the husks of its past denizens wandering aimlessly in the void below. Exploring the depths of Hollownest you’ll find abandoned temples and ancient cities, mere shadows of a great civilization now in ruin. A somber soundtrack follows Hollow Knight through beautiful hand-drawn environments, where corrupted creatures wait for their chance to turn the unsuspecting knight into a vengeful shade.
This sorrowful world is so well-crafted, that it ends up being what elevates Hollow Knight from a simple 2-D platformer to something greater. The excellent art direction and vibrant characters consistently made the world a joy to explore. While the journey isn’t without its issues, traversing this world of bug and beast as the tiny masked knight felt so engrossing that Hollow Knight may just be one of my favorite games ever.
The story of Hollow Knight is left intentionally ambiguous with much of the mystery left for you to uncover on your own. Minimal exposition hampers you at the outset, letting you gradually piece together the purpose of your journey to Hollownest in the first place.
While Hollow Knight begins with only the ability to jump, attack, and heal, gradually new abilities are gained as you traverse the environment. These abilities are mostly nothing new to the 2-D platformer; I doubt anyone will be surprised by gaining the ability to wall jump, but it’s noteworthy that with tight controls and expertly-animated movement, these abilities always felt like natural inclusions, while simultaneously expanding on Hollow Knight’s combat options. It won’t be long before you’re dashing in for a quick hit, wall jumping overhead for a downward slash, and firing off spells to dispatch your foes.
Unlocking new abilities gradually helps Hollow Knight reach new areas of the world as well. Unfortunately, this means that there are occasionally traversal sections that simply can’t be passed without the right ability, which can often hinder the free-form nature of the exploration. At times I’d venture deep into a new area of Hollownest, only to be rebuffed by a gap that was too wide for me to clear at the time.
While this can feel a little restrictive, it’s ultimately understandable. Hollownest was designed to be a sprawling, interconnected area, with the player being free to tackle areas and bosses in a way that’s surprisingly nonlinear. Limiting a player from reaching certain areas until an ability is gained is what preserved the depth of the world while allowing for players to be funneled in the right direction.
Of course, depth means nothing if there’s nothing to find, but fortunately, Hollownest is full of hidden rooms and challenges to complete for extra rewards. These can be anything from charms that provide buffs, to health and soul upgrades, to new vendors ready to help Hollow Knight in his quest.
In a 2-D platformer, world connectivity is success enough, but even the rooms that comprise the 15 different areas felt designed with multiple routes through each one. If you’re more comfortable with combat, take the low route with more enemies. If you’re more comfortable with platforming challenges, then you may view to take the high path instead. Since objectives will often require Hollow Knight to backtrack through these areas, it’s nice that an attempt was made to give the player a few options in traversing these rooms. Shortcuts are scattered throughout the world, meaning typically finding new areas will result in you creating new passageways and expanding your explorative options.
Hollownest is incredibly vast, so navigating the world becomes vital. Pins for keeping track of important locations can be found at a shop in the first town. These pins are then added to your map automatically the next time you sit on a bench, making the layout of Hollownest easy to learn and easy to memorize. Since these pins are placed automatically, however, Hollow Knight lacks a feature to manually mark areas yourself, which ended up being a nuisance. There’s no way to mark that impassable gap to revisit when you have the right ability, a feature that felt pointlessly excluded. That being said, the maps were functional enough to ensure that I never felt like my exploration was unnecessarily hindered by being lost.
The corpse run mechanic of Hollow Knight works well with the gradually completed maps, as a shade must be killed in the place where you last died to retrieve your in-game currency. The shade is marked on this map, and with a good handle on navigation and well-placed shortcuts, corpse runs always felt pretty fair.
The sole issues with Hollow Knight are the issues that tend to plague a lot of 2-D platformer titles. Often the camera will have trouble showing you all relevant information. At a few points, I was hit by a stalactite or projectile fired from off-screen, which always felt a little cheap. The camera can be controlled, but doing this in the midst of a platforming section never really felt comfortable. A 2-D space also means that movement towards some of the late game enemies can be pretty limited. Fighting large sentries leaves you with few options besides baiting attacks and taking a quick swipe before retreating and trying again.
The variety of excellent boss fights alleviates this somewhat, as most bosses have a move set that forces quick decision making and skilled play rather than baiting attacks. The bosses were generally impressive in their own ways and felt well-suited to the Hollownest atmosphere. Venturing deep beneath a mantis village to challenge the Mantis Lords is was an experience I won’t soon forget.
Hollow Knight is a special game, one that I’m likely to start again immediately on a higher difficulty. The vibrant world was a joy to explore from beginning to end, the soundtrack was the perfect accompaniment for the somber journey, and each piece of history brought the world of Hollownest to life a little more. The minor issues were not enough to hold Hollow Knight from being an instant classic, and at the end of the day, this miniature adventure accomplished great things.
Verdict: The beautiful world of Hollow Knight elevates it to great heights. Every location is dripping with lore, telling stories of the tragic downfall of the world around you. With gorgeous hand-drawn environments, a fantastic soundtrack, and a cast of vibrant characters, Hollownest was a delight to explore from beginning to end. The gameplay is nothing innovative, but the journey is amazing all the same.