“Dark Souls and Metroid loved each other very much and had a beautiful baby together, and it was good” would be an entirely accurate review of Hollow Knight, if a little on the short side. After the bloviated mess that was my Kerbal Space Program review, I’d like to take a break from pedantry and just talk about a game I like a lot that’s not very complicated. But I’d like to say more than just that one sentence.
Well, I do have ONE small pedantic point: Despite widespread use of the term to describe it, by journalists and gamers alike, Hollow Knight isn’t actually a “Metroidvania”. It’s just a Metroid. The Castlevania twist on the Metroid formula was to add RPG elements, such as leveling up and getting new weapons and other items. Hollow Knight doesn’t do that; you can improve your weapon, and you get new movement abilities like Metroid, but you don’t level up, and there’s no items to use. You do get equippable charms, which I guess are kinda like armor, a little? But I hardly think that alone qualifies it for the “-vania” suffix. I think the confusion arises because there hasn’t been a decent classic 2D Metroid game in a long time (well, until Hollow Knight), so people forgot the tropes of the series and how they differ from Castlevania’s post-Rondo entries.
Hollow Knight is a game about a kingdom of bugs, which is a pretty cool idea. They were granted sentience by their king, and they lose it if they leave the area. The kingdom is called Hallownest, and it’s a kind of bug version of Anor Londo, basically, with knights and heroes and such. Instead of swords and shields, they have “nails” and “shells”. I don’t mean to diminish the game’s setting by drawing that comparison. On the contrary, I really like the look and feel of the game’s world, and it definitely has a unique personality all its own. It’s only the surface elements, the kingdom in ruins with a large central castle town surrounded by outskirts areas, that remind me of Dark Souls so strongly.
You play as one of this kingdom’s knights, coming back after a mysterious absence to find Hallownest in ruins, overrun by a strange plague and nearly deserted. As you venture deeper in and explore, you uncover a story told in fragments, featuring NPCs with interesting personalities that move around the world and have their own quests and goals, bosses that have ominous significance, you know the drill. This is Lore with a capital L, again a Dark Souls thing. I happen to really enjoy this style of storytelling in games, and Hollow Knight does it very well. I compare it quite favorably to “Salt and Sanctuary” in this regard, which is another game that tries for Lore but falls somewhat short by dint of being too wordy and yet also saying much less. Characters in Hollow Knight know when to stop talking and exactly how much to say, and it feels as though the game’s story does have a cohesive and knowable whole hiding behind its hints. Areas fit together in a natural way, references hold up under closer examination, and the internal consistency is top notch. It’s not easy to tell a story this way; not even Dark Souls could do it very well after the first game. I’m impressed.
The world is hugely expansive, with lots of great variation in tone, color schemes, and layout. There’s so much here to explore, and it’s all gorgeously hand-drawn and a joy to navigate. It really can’t be overstated how beautiful the game is, in every detail. Characters animate fluidly and the designs are unique and interesting. Environments are moody and can be quite breathtaking. I think I’m contractually obligated to use the word “elegiac” somewhere in this review. Elegiac.
The music is really something special. Great pieces, very solid composition. Each piece sets the tone for its area perfectly. They also do a cool thing where the closer you get into the heart of each area, the more tracks and instruments within the piece become audible. So, on the outskirts you might only hear the main melody and maybe one track from the rhythm section, but as you get deeper in you get some counterpoint, additional rhythm, more bass, more chords. It’s a really nice touch.
I also really like how there are breakable objects EVERYWHERE. It’s dumb, but I really enjoy breaking breakable objects! Barrels in Diablo, crates in Crash Bandicoot, barrels and crates in Half-Life. Most games don’t get super creative with it. But I mean, who doesn’t love a good smashable crate or barrel? Hollow Knight goes above and beyond, with breakable objects covering every surface, from sign posts and fence posts to lamps and shell-shaped merchant carts and vines, even (yes, that’s right) bug-equivalent barrels and crates. The sound effects and animated bits flying everywhere are great, very well done. Clearly, Team Cherry loves breaking objects as much as I do (if not more).
For a long time, I pined after the Metroid series. I kept wanting Nintendo to release a new huge 2D Metroid game, something classic but with the scale made possible by modern hardware. Metroid has kinda been run into the ground in recent years, but that game I wanted does exist: It’s called Hollow Knight. This game is massive, a pleasure to explore with so much content that it’s hard to wrap your head around it. There’s dozens of bosses, lots of hidden secrets, tons of charms to collect, just all kinds of stuff. I haven’t even touched on the vast majority of what’s here, like the arena, the dream nail, the existence of a true last boss, the alternate game mode, the stagway side quest, the unlockable special moves, the Hunter’s bestiary, just a bunch of stuff. The game is also criminally cheap for how much love and detail went into it, the sheer amount of content here and the level of quality. You should absolutely pick it up. It’s well worth your time to get to know the world of Hallownest.