It seems like everyday that another Metroidvania platformer lands on Steam. Some launch in Early Access and some don’t. Either way, they’re everywhere. Sure, the genre may have become a little over-saturated over the past five years or so, but when a really well-made one comes along it’s still pretty special. Games inspired by Dark Souls are also starting to become somewhat cliche, too, but again when done well they can still be extremely compelling.
Hollow Knight is, of course, exactly that. A Metroidvania with elements inspired by Dark Souls. On paper, it’s not the most original game conceivable, but in its execution it truly rises above to become something quite unique.
Hollow Knight is available on Steam for $14.99. It is also available on Nintendo Switch, Mac and Linux.
Part of the Dark Souls influence comes from Hollow Knight’s implicit environmental storytelling, and its mysterious once-thriving kingdom which has seemingly been reduced to a plundered wasteland. Nothing remains but bugs and questionable heroes trying to make a name for themselves. There’s little in the way of a direct narrative, especially early on, and you are mostly left to come to your own conclusions about what happened beneath the town of Dirtmouth. The story of Hollow Knight is undoubtedly something that people will pour over on forums across the internet, piecing together the cryptic clues and incomplete information.
There is some allusion to something, or someone, known as The Soul, or “The White”, and something referred to as The Void, or “The Black”. Across my almost 30 hours with the game, I never really had much of a solid grasp of the lore, or really any of what was really going on (but then again, I’ve played every Souls game and I couldn’t tell you anything about the story of those games). However, I still enjoyed the mysterious and cryptic nature of it all, and I look forward to reading people’s own deductions and conclusions in the future.
Further Dark Souls influence can be found in the game’s array of quirky characters and NPCs. Spread throughout the kingdom, and sometimes found in the most bizarre places, they can serve as vendors, selling you items, upgrades, or maps, or may simply be there to add a little colour to the dark and mournful world. Without spoiling anything, there are some fun little character arcs that occur throughout the game as you continually bump into certain characters. I couldn’t tell you much about these characters, who they are and where they came from, but at times they seemed as lost as me. And, honestly, there was something quite comforting about that feeling.
Hollow Knight’s gameplay is, as you might expect, its strongest feature. Although it starts out a little slow as you start gathering your basic moves and abilities, once it kicks off and you’re free to explore the world in all its cavernous glory it quickly becomes a tight and exciting experience. Helped, of course, by the fact that the game controls wonderfully and has a super tight feel to it. Jumping, dashing, wall-jumping, and weaving in-between enemies landing swift hits and narrowly evading their attacks is all extremely satisfying.
The game furthers this satisfaction with its focus on exploration. In typical Dark Souls-inspired fashion, you are given little in the way of direction and tangible objectives, especially early on when you find your way to the abandoned town of Dirtmouth and simply begin to explore the ruins below. The game is essentially directed by the smartly-placed and well-designed boss fights and Metroidvania-esque barriers (eg. you’ll need the air-dash ability to get past this part). The bosses themselves are nicely varied in their designs and their patterns and tactics. You’ll come across numerous memorable bosses, some of which are hidden and may only be discovered by accidentally stumbling upon them.
In terms of actual gameplay, though, the Dark Souls correlations become even more direct. You collect Geos from fallen enemies (souls), and you lose them when you die and must run back to your corpse and defeat a spirit to recover them. There are benches that essentially serve as your bonfires. They are your checkpoints and a place for you to switch and alter your Charms (basically your rings), which offer you a variety of unique benefits and gameplay changes. The Charms themselves present you with some difficult choices as you collect more and more. Notches are essentially your slots that allow you equip Charms. Charms will take up a certain amount of notches (typically between 1-3) and you start with only four, although you will slowly gather more as you progress, so you can’t equip every one you find at the same time.
The combat, on the other hand, is of course the part where it most obviously deviates from its clear inspirations. It’s a 2D platformer, so you can probably imagine how it plays. You can attack up, forward, or down when jumping. You’ll eventually add a dash move to your arsenal, which presents you with an effective evasive maneuver to avoid taking damage, and that quickly becomes your best tool. Although you can parry enemies that wield weapons, it requires very precise timing to properly land and can be a tricky thing to master, and I preferred to rely on my dodge. As well as your “Nail”, the name given to weapons in Hollow Knight, you gather a small arsenal of spells to aid you on your journey. A fierce and fairly strong blast of magic, and a heal that takes a couple seconds to cast being some early examples. It should be noted, however, that these spells are tools to complement your weapon, not replace it, and there isn’t enough variety to form a build around it (the game really isn’t that kind of game).
There’s a combat arena, too, known as The Coliseum. It’s essentially just a place where you can fight waves of increasingly strong enemies until you reach a sub-boss. Winning each round will offer you some great rewards if you make it out alive, and it serves as a decent place to practice and improve your skills, as well as get you used to fighting the many different kinds of enemies you’ll come across. Every enemy type has a unique attack pattern or AI routine, and each one requires you to come from a different angle or attempt a slightly different approach.
On top of the combat, there’s an element of platforming challenge throughout the game. In fact, most of my deaths probably came from platforming screw-ups, and in my experience some of it was quite difficult. With the aid of the dash, which you can perform mid-jump, you can zip through the environments in a really satisfying way, particularly when you start to layer on the wall-jump and other moves. Once you get decently far in, you’ll eventually open up a series of platforming challenges where you collect Essences that are spread throughout many different areas. The Essences themselves are important later on, and the platforming challenges you’re required to do provide a nice little challenge.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Hollow Knight’s visual style and sound design are both masterfully crafted and wonderfully cohesive. The game’s somewhat minimalistic hand-drawn art style immediately presents you with a unique and charming look. The game’s dark and mostly eerily lifeless environments are contrasted by Hollow Knight’s fixation on bright whites and strikingly luminescent lights. The player character’s white almost skull-like head feels like a beacon of light in a lot of the dark and dank areas you’ll be exploring. Likewise, your weapon shines brightly and the trail of light it leaves when you swing looks quite satisfying. The sounds that your weapon makes when it swings, when it hits an enemy, and when you parry an enemy’s attack are all equally as satisfying.
There are dozens of cool and interesting character designs throughout the game, from the varied enemy designs to the numerous NPC characters you’ll meet along the way. The way that the minimalist designs of these characters meets with the equally minimalist Sims-esque fake language comes together to create a simple yet effective charm.
The game’s music further adds to this charm with its soft and gentle soundscape that is at times relaxing and at other times quite eerie. The soundtrack does a great job of emphasising the emptiness and loneliness of the world, but also its former glory and tragic heritage. From the music alone you get a distinct impression of the dire, almost post-apocalyptic state of the world, as well as its beauty and purity.
Ultimately, Hollow Knight is a game that takes clear and frequent inspiration from a number of different games that you’ve probably already played. But the way that it presents its inspirations and some of the interesting twists it points onto them is what sets it apart. Its execution of its many ideas are all extremely tight and exciting to discover. The world of Hollow Knight is also perhaps one of the things that helps to make it something truly unique. The wonderful and desolate world is a quite intriguing, and very rewarding to explore. The game’s wonderful art design and excellent soundtrack further help to make it a delightfully cohesive experience, and one well-worth checking out.
|+ Excellent art style and soundtrack|| – Checkpoints are too spaced out, can be|
|+ Satisfying and challenging combat|
|+ Some great and fun NPC characters to meet|
|+ Fun and interesting Metroidvania progression|
|+ Tight controls and great platforming feel|