You Deserve Hollow Knight

It’s like… real good, yo

All too often, I feel the need to excuse one aspect of a video game for not being quite as good as the rest of the product. It doesn’t matter that Super Mario Odyssey’s story is a barebones save-the-princess tale, that Gone Home doesn’t have incredibly deep gameplay mechanics, or that Tetris’ graphics aren’t mind-blowing. Those games aren’t about those things and it could even be argued that having them could dilute what they are about. All of this is to say: I don’t need to make any of these excuses for Hollow Knight.

The game’s been out for over a year and I’ve heard nothing but praise, but I never quite took the plunge until recently. There were just so many great games last year. I certainly had enough to play. Finally, I saw that Hollow Knight was surprise-released for Switch during Nintendo’s E3 press conference and I had a plane to catch the next week, so I paid the $15 and downloaded it. I might have been naive in my underestimation of the game, but I just wanted something to play on the plane and didn’t expect much.

I’ve never been more impressed by a game than I have been with Hollow Knight. That sounds like hyperbole, but I’m pretty sure it’s true. Hollow Knight is understatedly beautiful, shockingly expansive, deeply personal, boldly innovative, instantly endearing, maturely concise, intensely purposeful, fully immersive, and whatever other positive adverb-adjective combos they teach you at video game review school.

Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania game, which isn’t a particularly rare thing for indie games to be these days. You control the Knight, a small bug-like creature, as it explores the world of Hollownest, a long-forgotten kingdom of bugs, snails, spiders, and worms. At first glance, Hollownest might look quite a bit like Planet Zebes from Super Metroid, but the key differences that make this game special are in the details.

In true Metroidvania style, the Knight gains new abilities that expand his mobility and offensive options throughout the game. In a typical game, this could be an opportunity for looping gameplay cycles. You’d start in one area, traverse it, fight a boss, gain a new ability as a reward, and use that new ability as a key to enter the next area where you’d repeat the cycle until you run out of areas in the game. There would be nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach, but one of my favorite aspects of Hollow Knight is how ready it is to eschew a loop structure in favor of keeping the exploration experience constantly new and unpredictable.

The game starts in familiar territory, with the first boss of the game unlocking a projectile ability and expanding the area the Knight has access to, but after that it’s all up in the air. Some areas have no abilities for the Knight to gain and some have several. Many (most, actually) of the bosses in Hollow Knight are completely optional. There are some important, game-critical ability upgrades that aren’t guarded by anything at all, like the Mantis Claw that allows for wall-jumping. I often found myself engaging with what I thought was a side-quest just to end up with a game-critical item. Similarly, there are entire optional regions of the map that exist purely to enhance the experience for completionists and players in need of a few extra upgrades.

In addition to the important, permanent upgrades, the Knight can collect items called “charms” throughout the game. Charms are equipable tokens that can benefit the Knight in one way or another. Some are fairly basic in that they bestow the Knight with more attack power or health while others are a bit more interesting, turning the Knight’s dash into an attack or summoning a horde of tiny spiders to accompany the Knight everywhere they go. Some charms are much more useful than others, but they are also usually more expensive to equip than others. The Knight only has a certain number of charm notches and most charms use more than one notch to equip. You’ll always have more charms than you have notches to equip them to, so experimentation with different notch combinations is encouraged.

Between the player’s preferred charm loadout, the order in which they choose which areas to explore, how much they engage with optional sidequests and curiosities, and whether or not they check out the content added to the game since launch via content updates, every playthrough of the game is sure to vary significantly. Hollow Knight is riddled with small choices that impact not just the player’s progression but also the world of Hollownest.

In Hollownest, there are many characters to talk to and do sidequests for. One of my favorites involves a character by the name of Zote the Mighty, a self-important weakling who can be rescued from a monstrous bug’s web by the Knight. If he is rescued, he will appear in more locations throughout the game where he can be spoken to and, ultimately, challenged. While following Zote’s quest all the way through does not grant the Knight any kind of significant upgrade that puts him in a significantly better position to tackle the rest of the game, the alteration of the culture around the Knight is its own reward.

These moments are great, but most of the story telling is environmental. The history of Hollownest is vague, but there are definitely enough clues to grasp at what happened. Often it’s just a couple lines of flavor text on an item or some structure in the background of a room, but the world is rich and doesn’t seem to ever stop giving. After beating the game, I had a pretty good idea of how the plot goes, but there were many small details I wasn’t quite sure about. Searching out Youtube videos and online discussions on the topics of things like “the Pale King” and “SOUL and VOID” is part of the experience. Not investing your self in the lore of Hollow Knight won’t detract at all from your enjoyment of the game, but there is a lot of very interesting stuff out there. It’s very impressive that Team Cherry was able to craft such a rich mythos on their first outing.

Speaking of Team Cherry, it’s just two people! Made by a team of only two permanent members on a Kickstarter budget of just over $40,000 American Dollars, Hollow Knight’s mere existence challenges a lot of what I thought I knew about game development. The game shows no signs of its scrappy beginnings. I can only imagine how many man hours were spent drawing each of the unique background elements and enemy animations. This effort results in a breath-taking, hand-drawn art style which, despite its apparent lack of detail, does a lot of work in establishing the tone of the world. The animations are smooth and stylish enough to match the craftsmanship put into the rest of the game.

Earlier this year (before I got a chance to play the game), Team Cherry put out a patch for the game called Lifeblood. Lifeblood rebalanced many of the enemies’ behaviors and stats, added new animations, cleaned up some visuals, and redesigned some of the game’s audio. Functionally, Lifeblood serves as a full remaster of Hollow Knight only a year after its original release. Perhaps even cooler, Lifeblood, like the other, more content-based updates, is completely free. Perhaps coolest, more updates are in the works and they’ll be free as well. Later this month, the Godmaster expansion will add a form of boss rush to the game and, later on, an update allowing the player to control Hornet, the Knight’s rival, will be released. With all of the polish from Lifeblood and all of the other content still on the way, now is a great time to jump into Hollow Knight.

Money means a lot of things to a lot of people, so saying whether a game is worth it or not is not something I can do. That said, $15 for this great of a game that can last 25–50 hours depending on your level of completionism with this much love, polish, and work poured into it is, at the very least, far below what Team Cherry could charge for the game. If you have a PC or a Switch, Hollow Knight is not only worth your time, it’s what you deserve. This is a game I’d recommend to just about anyone, and everyone deserves a great video game they can use to explore, learn, and grow within.