Hollow Knight is a perfect game.
I know, a bit grandios to begin a review of a game with such a definitive and superlative statement, but I truly believe there is no other way to describe this title.
So hear me out.
Let’s start with the gameplay:
Smooth, precise and varied. Challenging, without being punishing. Exciting, but allows you to breathe. The pacing is well mannered and accessible. Rarely does it feel like the game is being unfair, even when you fail more than once.
Attacks feel weighted, even while playing as a tiny character. A character identified as small, not only by the environment, but by the NPCs themselves. Yet, you are strong, and feel as such. Your character is an agile warrior, and you are constantly reminded with a clever progression of mobility upgrades and swift attacks, but you don’t become an overpowered God to early game monsters, either. Anything can kill you, and you are always required to play the dance of mechanics. There is something satisfying in this, as predecessors like Dark Souls have shown.
While there is certainly souls/metroidvania inspiration in this game, I hesitate to compare it too much, as it is so very able to stand on its own legs. While some mechanics may be lifted, others are simply things it has in common. Such as the immaculate and deliberate level design. Rewarding exploration and discovery. Non-linear storytelling and unguided pathfinding. The challenging gameplay and varied bosses, requiring you to learn mechanics. There are a number of things which have a bit of a souls-like/metroidvania feel, and the fact that you have to go “get” your body after dying in order to reclaim some of your life does have some parallels for sure.
But all of those things contribute, and never feel reused or stolen. Namely, because the game’s world itself is unique and fascinating.
I want to preface this next part with the fact that I don’t like bugs. Spiders creep me out, and even just the idea of visiting Australia gives me anxiety because of how huge some of the bugs are. Hell, I’ve never even seen Antz or A Bugs Life, (and I am the appropriate age to have seen them) because that’s how not interested I am in bugs.
So when I say that this marvelous little bug world really drew me in, I want you to understand that I otherwise I have no interest in entomology or even just having bugs near me. It is easily the most immersive 2D game world ever designed, in my opinion. Character design is diverse and creative. Monsters are varied and curious, not always just typical “bad guys.” Boss fights are glorious and reward you in unexpected ways. Sometimes you meet a new friend. Sometimes you earn the respect of warrior-leaders. Sometimes you’re just learning something new.
The lore is also deep, while never spoon-fed. You have to read, converse and make decisions to unravel the mysterious world around you. There are some aspects debated to this day, such as the result of spirits being hit by the Dream Nail–an important weapon given to you, which gains power upon striking lingering ghosts–and whether or not it is good or bad for the spirits, as many you find are innocents and kind souls. This is the kind of thing which makes great games stand the test of time. Hollow Knight is a game worth pondering over, while you play it.
I suppose I can admit to some bias when it comes to this kind of game. I do love metroidvanias, and I consider Super Metroid to be one of the greatest games of all time, without question. I like sidescrollers, and I like platformers, and Hollow Knight is most certainly inspired by some of the classics which guided the early game industry as we know it. It doesn’t hold back on platforming, either, and even has some challenging spots which require fairly precise wall-jumping. I wouldn’t call it as punishing as say, Super Meat Boy, or Celeste, however, and much of the truly heavy platforming is relegated to side areas which are not mandatory to progressing the game.
Mostly I just love existing in this little bug world, which to me is the sign of a truly great game. I remember when I was young, playing Ocarina of Time on my N64, I’d just ride on my horse around the open world for hours. Just ride. I can’t name too many games where I just want to spend time in the world without any specific intent to accomplish anything, and Hollow Knight is one where I’ve done circles around the map, just to see if there are any new undiscovered nooks and crannies.
It’s safe to say I’m pretty excited for the follow-up, Silksong to release (hopefully) this year. As such, I’d really like to point out the wonderful developer of this franchise, Team Cherry. I own this game on both Steam and Switch, have pumped more than 60 hours into both versions, and would say that the performance is indistinguishable on both. It always runs at a steady 60fps, and I have never experienced so much as an obvious frame drop, glitch, or even localization error. It runs as smoothly on a technically hand-held console as it does on my brand new gaming PC with an overclocked i7 and 3080.
Part of this is due to the fact that they don’t give release dates until the game is close to finished. Which is easier for a smaller team, for sure. I followed their Switch development cycle fairly closely, and while they’d give updates every few months, they’d continually say they weren’t comfortable giving a release date until they were sure it was polished enough to do so. The same methodology has continued with Silksong. I believe this is the correct way to publicly develop a game. Internal goals are fine, but as soon as you tell the public a date, you create expectations, and we have a Cyberpunk, or No Man’s Sky situation where a game is delayed several times and still released unfinished. The only expectation we should have is that a game be finished. The date is irrelevant if it’s unachievable. (Expect an article about the fallacy of setting expectations via release dates sometime in the near future)
I could probably write another several hundred words about all of the things that make this game great, but I feel like I may have made my point to the uninitiated, and am just preaching to the choir when it comes to the existing fans, so I will leave you with this:
Hollow Knight is a perfect example of why this is the era of indie games. Big publishers continue to have their blunders by either misreading the market, or releasing unfinished games, while spectacularly good indie titles are coming from tiny studios with big hearts, and a passion for what they’re making. No amount of Ray-Traced realism, and hi-res, next-gen graphics can replace that in my gaming collection.
Modern indie masterpieces like Hollow Knight are a glorious reminder that games are made by artists; and there’s a big difference between corporate-designed pop music, and an orchestral symphony.