Spoiler Level: Low
After spending 60ish hours on it, Hollow Knight has become one of my favorite games. As someone who never played many Metroid-vania style 2D platformers, I found myself enjoying this thoroughly. The game made me want to go and explore, find out about the fantasy world of “Hallownest” through NPCs and item descriptions and get better at the combat. I really felt like I was part of a grand adventure. The game even has its own version of Pokedex called the Hunter’s Journal, indexing all the various enemies you face, not all of which you can put away with a couple of slashes of your weapon.
The art in the game is truly something to admire. The combination of the rich color palette, mesmerizing soundtrack and neat level design across the locations did an amazing job of putting me in a certain state of mind while tackling a platforming section or while battling a boss, or just sitting on a bench (which acts as the game’s save spot) and soaking in the atmosphere. Be it a sense of rising tension, melancholia or an epic wave of heroism, I felt it all. The locations themselves are diverse in the sense that I will recount them, not by name but by the experience I had there: the crawl through the dark nooks and crannies of “Deepnest” in the company of other creepy-crawlies; or the stimulating stroll through the vegetation of “Greenpath”; or the unforgiving trek through the industrially harnessed mountains of “Crystal Peak”. Everything from the enemies I faced there, to the items I found or the secrets uncovered, fleshed out the area more, literally as the map grew and figuratively in the broader picture of me understanding how it fits into the lore. The platforming, for the most part felt like a natural extension of the level itself, except for a few sections which were made solely as a platforming challenge, which did get a little tedious, and wasn’t always worth the reward on the other side.
The NPCs that populate the kingdom of “Hallownest”, thanks to their strikingly distinctive designs, dialogue that is intrinsic to their nature, and voices that are what can be described as vaguely weird syllabic gibberish, had me interested in them enough that I couldn’t help but go check on them from time to time (that didn’t end well for all of them, sadly). The combat mechanics are simple, but do require you to get better and adapt as you face different enemies and bosses. Using the melee weapon, in conjecture with intuitive movement (this is a platformer after all) and the magical spells creates for many satisfying (and equally frustrating) moments of combat. The charm system, which are basically perks that add passive abilities or enhance your basic set of attacks and spells, is profound enough that I found myself trying out different combinations not only to get an advantage in combat, but also to see ridiculous visual returns (such as turning the player character into a snail with a blue shell and mushrooms growing atop it). The game does a good job of not providing a “one size fits all” combination of perks or attacks that you can use to mundanely slaughter your enemies. I had to constantly strategize my load-out and change my approach to fighting a breed of enemies at a certain place or overcoming a boss, who was radically different from the previous one.
The lore is sprinkled in trinkets across the breadth of the map and the length of the story. Taken in its raw and often ambiguous form, it is open ended to just the right degree, that I found myself playing sleuth and theorizing what must’ve happened. The scope of the lore (when fully comprehended, for which I watched multiple YT videos) easily rivals that of a blockbuster movie franchise or a bestselling fantasy book. All the NPCs have had some or the other role to play in the history of the game world. All the apparent character arcs seems to intersect at some point or the other, before branching out into the bigger picture at the center of the story. There are no useless dangling bits or wasted subplots. The fact that there isn’t much separating what would be “side quests/challenges” and paths that actually progress the story, I was ready to be tangled in whatever mess that came next, always being pleasantly (okay, not always) surprised.
I know the comparison with Dark Souls, seems extremely cliched at this point, but in Hollow Knight’s case, it actually makes sense. The game not only borrows the way in which the mysterious lore is unfolded to the player, but also some of the thematic aspects as well, in the form of a “once great kingdom, now in ruin”.
The one gripe I have with the game stems from one of its obvious strengths. Every player is bound to experience the game differently, because after a certain point, you are free to choose which path to explore. In doing so, the game has to keep up with the rate at which the player gets better and acquires different abilities, by increasing the difficulty of the enemies/bosses in the order they are faced. It does accomplish this with some enemies, even managing to have a very challenging final boss. However, a few bosses in the middle, that were building up to be great battles, ended much quicker than I had anticipated only because I had that one extra ability that gave me the edge or because my weapon was upgraded that one step further than it was supposed to be when I faced that particular boss.
So, for something that started off as a kickstarter project, Hollow Knight is a very ambitious, and in the end, a well realized game. For me, it comes down to the way it balances its elements so naturally: it is quirky yet serious, dark yet colorful, challenging yet relaxing, the story for all the tragedy in it does have a hopeful side, there’s moments of utter dankness and there’s moments of pure heroism. Everything in it, is memorable. I do recommend this wondrous game at full price. When there are petitions from fans, asking the developers to charge more for the game as they felt like they paid very less compared to what they got, you’d think it’s worth checking out what the fuss is about. Trust me, it is.
Purchase links: Steam