The wait for Hollow Knight has been a long and arduous one. I got my first taste of the game back in 2014 when I was lucky enough to secure an Alpha build. I was instantly hooked into the mysterious and wondrous world the folks at Team Cherry were building. Nothing about the game had been explored or spoiled online, everything felt fresh and exciting. I was sure the final release wasn’t too far off, due to how polished the Alpha was. Flash forward nearly three years and Hollow Knight has finally graced Steam with the full release.
Hollow Knight follows the mysterious adventure of a small bug wandering through a subterranean kingdom known as Hollownest. With no clear goal and no guidance, you set off through an abandoned well to fight, platform and uncover the secrets that lie below. During your journey you’ll come across a vast cast of colorful bug characters, engaging boss battles and unlock the secrets of the past.
With the tried and true Metroidvania formula under its belt, Hollow Knight gives you a large playground to explore. Exploration can be quite intimidating to the casual player since you aren’t given a map right off the bat. It’s your job to try and find the map cartographer within each new location to purchase a map from him. Luckily, if you manage to complete an area without a map there is a vendor located in the central hub world that will sell it to you.
When I say Hollow Knight’s world is big, I mean it’s absolutely huge. There are so many directions to pick and choose and new power ups will allow you to reach areas once unreachable. It’s an absolute delight getting lost in this huge interconnected world, especially being someone who enjoys making mental maps of a games world.
Let’s talk about some core mechanics that you’ll quickly get acquainted to. Focus, which you gain from slaying enemies, is basically a pool of power that allows you to regain health by holding down the B button. Knowing when and where to back off and use your focus is key to staying alive as it takes a few seconds for every bit of health you regenerate.
When you do happen to die, you’ll lose all of your Geo (the currency in Hollow Knight) and half of your Focus bar. You’ll also leave behind what’s known as a vengeful spirit (think of losing your souls and humanity in Dark Souls), which you’ll be given the chance to kill and reclaim your lost Geo. Should you die twice, you’ll end up losing all the Geo you had saved up. Meaning you need to be extra careful on your trek back to where you died in order to not lose all your precious Geo.
Controls have been meticulously fine-tuned to perfection. Platforming is a breeze due to the great amount of control you have over jump height. You’ll be jumping over enemies, spikes, thorns and other hazardous objects on your adventure. Some platforming sections include repeatedly jumping and attacking an enemy in order to make it to a varying path. This is where the only flaw Hollow Knight has comes into play, the random framerate stutter. The stutter seems to stem from Unity and not the game itself. Luckily the developers have taken note that this will be patched probably by the time you’re reading this.
While we’re on the subject of controls, let’s talk combat. Your weapon of choice is a sword-like object called a Nail. This Nail is used throughout the game, but can be upgraded and enhanced later in the game by the use of ore and charms. Charms by the way are a type of skill that you can equip onto your character, but are limited in how many you can equip at a time. Combining certain charms gives you added boosts, so it’s always a good idea to try out different combinations the more charms you find.
Besides charms, each boss fight or major encounter you have will unlock new upgrades that help you traverse Hollownest. Without spoiling too much, you’ll gain the Mothwing Cloak which gives you the ability to dash quickly, whether it be on the ground or in the air. Mastering this dash move is key to reaching new areas once unattainable. Next you’ll come into acquiring the Mantis Claw, which let’s you wall jump and may well be the most useful upgrade in the game. This continues throughout the game, much like Metroid, where acquiring new upgrades opens up a multitude of different areas.
Hollow Knight isn’t shy about sharing its influences. There are plenty of mechanics and homages to the Souls series and Berserk to be found. But unlike other games that try to copy the formula that makes Dark Souls so good, Hollow Knight pulls certain mechanics from Castlevania, Metroid and Dark Souls while still making it its own. The atmosphere gives off a grandeur sense of mysticism and wonder I personally haven’t experienced in many years.
Boss battles are a key part of Hollow Knight’s level structure. As I mentioned earlier, every boss gives you a key item that will unlock another area or an upgrade that lets you access previously unattainable sections. Early on in the game the bosses are quite easy with predictable attack patterns and clear designs. Like the games that influence Hollow Knight, the later bosses encounters are much tougher and require patience in finding weak points and memorizing attacks. There’s a particular boss battle called the Dung Defender that was – to put it bluntly – one of the funnest and most entertaining battles I’ve ever encountered.
In terms of PC settings and how well the game works with resolution settings and framerate, it does absolutely great. I played in 1440p at 96fps and the game worked flawlessly besides the framerate stutter that was mentioned earlier. Since Hollow Knight is a 2D game there isn’t much of a need for graphics settings, but the game does offer v-sync and resolution size settings.
Within the vastness of Hollownest, there are plenty of hidden objects and rooms to be found. Optional boss fights are also hidden away and can easily be overlooked if you don’t have a keen eye. These bosses don’t usually give you key items needed to advance the plot, but they do offer a lot of important upgrade items that will strongly assist you later on in the game. Cracked walls, wobbly floors and more are all clear indications of hidden pathways, so make sure to keep a close eye on your environments in order to get the full experience Hollow Knight offers.
Hollow Knight features an incredible musical score, full of melancholic and dreary pieces that set the mood and tone for the game. That isn’t to say there aren’t more chipper tunes to be found, one such track is the main theme for Greenpath which features a lush and colorful aura where the music helps give off a lighter tone. Sound effects are top-notch, every sword clang, rain drop and ambient noise were made of the utmost quality. NPC characters feature voiced dialog, but not in English or any real-world language, instead using a made up dialect that combines sounds with vocalizations.
As you’ve seen from the screenshots above, Hollow Knight features an extraordinarily detailed and unique visual style that combines parallax foregrounds and backgrounds with beautifully hand-drawn environments and characters. You’ll notice rain drops dropping and splashing in the background, leaves and grass trailing behind you as you run about and more tiny details that were meticulously added to push the visuals even further. Hollownest is full of sign posts, weeds, rocks and more that are all destructible with your nail and add that extra layer of intractability with the environment that most games gloss over.
Difficulty is a constant concern with modern games. A lot of indie developers want to attain that level of difficulty that was common with the SNES and Genesis games of yore, but have a hard time finding the right sense of balance between difficulty and fun. Hollow Knight follows the lead set by Dark Souls and gets difficulty right. Leaving it up to your degree of skill to determine how easy or hard the game is.
If you want to swing your nail around like an idiot instead of taking the time to learn patterns and weaknesses, you’re going to have a hard time coming on top in battles. Patience and being able to adapt quickly to an evolving situation are what separate those who go onto the discussion tab on Steam to whine about putting in an easy mode and those who love and cherish the steady difficulty and learning curve offered. No joke I’ve seen too many threads on the Steam forums of people crying that the game is so pretty, but so hard. Learn from your mistakes and you’ll do well.
The game has set the bar in terms of visual fidelity and craftsmanship in what an indie game can achieve with the proper allocation of time and attention to detail. With playtime taking anywhere between 20 to 40 hours to complete and dozens of more hours to attain 100% completion on top of an added difficulty mode, Hollow Knight is an absolutely breathtaking feat and Team Cherry has earned my dearest devotion. In terms of value with the game only being priced at $14.99 and offering more content and playtime than many full priced $60 titles, it’s an absolute steal and worth every penny.
Quickly becoming one of my favorite games I’ve played in years, I regret not supporting the Kickstarter back in 2014 as the finished product was worth the wait. Offering tons of hours of content with cleverly hidden side content, collectibles and bosses, the amount of time and dedication that went into making this gem of a game is easily noticeable. With a breathtaking soundtrack, gorgeous visuals and some of the damn best controls I’ve experienced in years, I can easily say that Hollow Knight will be one of if not my game of the year choice for 2017. Team Cherry has outdone my expectations and risen the bar for what I’m going to expect from an independent game in the future.
For the first time in Corecade’s short history, I’m awarding Hollow Knight with the highest score possible and recommending that everyone with even the slightest interest in the game to go and check it out. With an upcoming release on Nintendo Switch, I can see this game being perfect for both handheld and docked mode. Once I purchase the Switch version I’ll update this review with some added thoughts on how the game plays and handles on the system.
Release Date - February 24, 2017
Review code provided by Team Cherry