Hollow Knight is something of an indie oddity. Birthed by a small team, it saw true breakout success, and eventually took over the world in one way or another. I became aware of the game back in 2018, as buzz built for the bug-filled platformer, and as a fan of Metroidvanias and the macabre, the world of Hallownest felt like a perfect fit for my tastes.
The Nintendo Direct in June of 2018 announced the Switch port of Hollow Knight to the world, along with a shadow drop, as developer Team Cherry and Nintendo made the game available to purchase immediately after the presentation that day. I remember hopping in straight away and eagerly taking my first steps into this strange illustrated world filled with dark secrets and challenging enemies.
After a few hours, I felt lost, confused, and sadly disappointed. With no map and no real way of knowing where to go, my first blind stumbles through Hollow Knight contained fights with brutal enemies and multiple deaths, losing any progress I might accrue, and ultimately leaving me deflated. I didn’t play Hollow Knight again for nearly a year, and now in 2023, it stands firmly as one of my favorite games of all time.
To put things into context, I have quite bad ADHD. I’m used to the immediate feedback of pressing the jump button in a Mario game, and seeing Mazza leap into the air with a hearty “Wahoo”. Hollow Knight challenges you, especially in those first few hours, and refuses to give you any leeway until you learn how to approach, and ultimately master this world.
First of all, looking at things mechanically, Hollow Knight feels both satisfying and swift to control. Protagonist The Knight (not the Hollow Knight, it’s a whole thing) feels like a small creature in a larger world, which is fitting as they’re a bug, but the single weapon known as The Nail is a sharp sword that stabs quickly and with purpose. Jumps have a slight float to them, but both actions and reactions have a consequence that feels natural and intuitive.
As you slowly explore the world, like in any good Metroidvania, you find more abilities and combat opportunities, and The Knight gains powers in speed and platforming that quickly change how you interact with the world. Those cold and dark first steps into Hallownest are brutal and unforgiving, you truly feel like an ant under a boot, but if you can survive, if you can gain your confidence, Hollow Knight rewards you with ample abilities that soon make you feel capable of anything.
One of the main appeals of Hollow Knight is the bosses, and this is also one area where the game leans heavily into Souls-like territory. Each Hollow Knight boss presents a uniquely tough challenge, whether by being so large as to take over a room or with multiple enemies all demanding your attention. Both the character design of enemies and their attacks work together to both endear you to them, but also enrich the world around them, as almost every boss tells a part of the larger story.
The first boss, The False Knight, is a lumbering beetle several times bigger than The Knight, soon after you encounter Hornet. This character matches you in size and presents an acrobatic and lethally quick boss fight that demands tight reflexes and a good mastery of your attacks. Then, standout challenges like The Mantis Lords are a thorough test, but the design always feels rhythmic, steady but deadly, and if you learn to understand patterns and react quickly, everything feels achievable, even if it’s still extremely difficult.
Hollow Knight has a huge roster of bosses for you to tackle, and while some like Uumuu feel cheaper than others, some of Hollow Knight’s finest moments are the scariest or most difficult bosses like Nosk and the Crystal Guardian. The Dung Defender is absolutely oozing with charm and humor, and it’s all conveyed brilliantly through the simplistic illustrated art and simple sound design.
There are no real words in Hollow Knight, as characters use a strange language or communicate through hums, laughs, and other subtle noises. The voice cast does a stellar job of adding emotion and character to these bugs, working to imbue even the softest noise and most simple chirp with charm. One of my favorite elements of the game is hearing the gentle hum of Cornifer, a cartographer you find hidden around the world. If you follow the direction of his tuneful song and find him, he rewards you with a map of the area you’re exploring, it’s a fantastic way to bring together smart game design and world-building.
This expands further to the world design, with Team Cherry imbuing every biome in Hollow Knight with its own personality. The curation and smart layout of each level, the color palettes, and the fantastic score all work to create strong themes for each area, and help to tell the story buried in every corner. The flat and ornate architecture of the City of Tears works as a good proving ground for your first steps, while it also gives hints towards the fallen society at the heart of Hollow Knight’s mysteries.
Plus, the murky green world of the Fungal Wastes uses its mushrooms to give The Knight some bouncy challenges, adding a unique twist to this area and helping you get better acquainted with the more acrobatic demands of the latter half of the game. If you make it far enough, the oppressive monochrome presentation of The Abyss reduces your field of vision, adding an extra challenge, and also helping to sharpen your reflexes when you can’t plan attacks from a distance. The melding of challenge and charm is beautiful, and Team Cherry instills every single frame with an element of the larger story just waiting for you to discover it.
Propping up the world design and simplistic but detailed illustrated visuals, is the haunting piano-led score from Christopher Larkin. The arpeggiated stabs of the City Of Tears theme are a key part of a stunning and stirring composition, with the rising notes bringing hope and beauty to a piece underpinned with ethereal vocals, breaking through the mysterious veil. The entire soundtrack is a piece of art, and the arrangement and choice of instruments all work brilliantly alongside the different areas. Even if you never play this game, please listen to the soundtrack at least once.
While it’s all praise so far, there is a reason I bounced off Hollow Knight, to begin with, and here is where my criticism lies. Hollow Knight is clearly inspired by Dark Souls, as when you die, you must return to your place of death and beat an aggressive shade of yourself to earn back your hard-earned geo (coins). Until you do this, your soul meter (your charge for magical attacks) breaks, hampering your ability in combat. It’s a smart mechanic that dares you to push forward, instead of retreating with your tail between your legs, as the game is telling you to return to where you were and stand your ground. But, it’s often a barrier that can reduce my drive to continue.
There’s also the Hollow Knight charm mechanic, as when you find a bench (the save system) and take a reprieve, you can juggle between a choice of different abilities, with many more charms and notches to hold them hidden around the world. They offer a huge variety of possible combinations, both to combat and traversal, augmenting almost every possible element of The Knight’s arsenal. With so few notches, how you balance these and the charms you choose is essential to boss fights, though there is enough wiggle room to allow you to build your own preferred playstyle.
Your first steps into Hollow Knight and the world known as Hallownest are confusing, and while NPCs offer a semblance of explanation, this game revels in being obtuse. While you have a map early on, you don’t earn a marker on the map until later. That’s right, you simply have a map for the opening moments, with no way of telling where you actually are on said map.
Team Cherry does a fantastic job of adding mystery to certain gameplay elements, as even simple things like upgrading your weapon are a fun task that takes you all across the world. Like any good Metroidvania, collectibles and abilities are well placed in the far corners of the map, and almost every single time you master an ability or pull off some perfect platforming to reach a hidden area, the game rewards you with something interesting that serves part of your mission. Even silly things like the little grubs that are waiting for you in some extremely hidden depths serve a purpose, making exploration a joy and a reward.
The oppressive difficulty and that well-concealed mystery are rewarding to some, but simply unbearable to others. I really wanted to love Hollow Knight originally, but despite enjoying the controls, I find those opening hours just so frustratingly brutal, even if the game design is trying to teach me combat mechanics I’ll desperately need later.
You also can’t explore every corner from the beginning, as your expanding abilities and subtle narrative-driven changes to the world open up new areas slowly, but you can spend so much time running around the wrong path. Hollow Knight never holds your hand, but this double-edged sword means that it’s entirely up to you to learn about this world and understand its narrative if you have the patience. I adore the world-building of Hollow Knight, and I’m so happy I returned and persevered to uncover the secrets hidden among the dirt. Thrilling boss fights, amazing new powers, and some beautiful biomes await you, and are almost entirely missable if you don’t investigate every inch.
Hollow Knight is a huge game, with almost 30 hours of gameplay, only expanded further thanks to substantial (and fantastic) DLC. Additions like The Grimm Troupe bring fun new characters to Hallownest with some interesting new boss mechanics, while the hefty challenge of the Godmaster DLC is a test for even the most hardened Hollow Knight master. If you can get to grips with this world, if you can find your way, there’s a fascinating, beautiful, and wonderfully satisfying game just begging for you to finish it.
However, the difficulty and demanding design of Hollow Knight are often at odds with its best qualities. If you do dive into Hallownest, I highly recommend finding creators in the community like mossbag or Reylea when you get stuck, and also to explain a narrative buried deep underground. Hollow Knight is easily one of my favorite games, and Team Cherry has improved it since launch, but it’s tough to recommend a game by saying “stick with it” or “it gets good after about ten hours” and other such platitudes, even when these challenges are an integral part of the experience.
There are few games bursting with as much charm, intrigue, and satisfying gameplay as Hollow Knight. Team Cherry is a tiny Australian studio, and what it has achieved with simple 2D illustrations of some bugs coupled with stellar combat and a fascinating world is phenomenal. The Knight’s slow ascension from a puny bug into a champion of creepy crawly combat is a fantastic journey, backed up by a rich world filled with secrets and intrigue. I just wish those opening hours did a better job of inviting you into the world and adding some direction to the darkness.
While we wait for the Hollow Knight Silksong release date (any day now, we hope), get to grips with the world of Hallownest thanks to our guides covering Hollow Knight pale ore and Hollow Knight Hornet.
Hollow Knight is an incredible achievement that combines smart game design, a rich world, and sharp combat, with an enthralling insectoid world and a story just begging for you to find it. Team Cherry’s title is a high watermark for Metroidvanias, as the satisfying abilities and countless collectibles add variety and meaning to exploration, rewarding every discovery. Yet, while the challenge is a rewarding part of the process, I do wish that the title made some concessions and shone a bit of light in the darkness for those first fledgling steps.