Throughout the course of my history as a gamer, there are two game franchises that are my kryptonite: Dark Souls and Metroid. The former brutalized me with its unforgiving combat and its need for players to really study the nuances of it all in order to scrape by. The latter exploits my inability to memorize directions. To this day, I’ve still never beaten a Metroid game for that reason, even though I own most of them.
Hollow Knight is the twisted child of those games mashed together. With a labyrinthian cave to explore with limited navigation guides, methodical combat that will punish button-mashing, and a limited save system that will regularly cause you to lose many minutes of play by virtue of not being able to locate the next save point in time, I initially had no plans to play this one at all. Never say never I guess, as the rave reviews and a sizable discount inspired me to give this one a go.
You play as a knight, who also happens to be a bug. With your trusty nail in hand, you venture into the long-abandoned kingdom of Hollownest. At first glance, the game’s stunning visuals give off a Nightmare Before Christmas vibe that immediately drew me into this dark and dreary world. The game is consistently dark, but there’s a lot of visual variety in the different areas. One area of concern though is the frame rate. A few hours into the game, I found areas and situations where the game’s frame rate would falter during enemy explosions. It wasn’t enough to detract from the performance, but it was disappointing to see this issue crop up after a few hours of butter smooth gameplay. It’s particularly problematic in a few end-game areas. This issue is present on the Switch version, but I don’t know if it appears elsewhere.
With my direction issues at the top of my mind at the start of the game, I checked for the map. Nothing. As it turns out, you start out without a map or a compass, leaving you to essentially explore the world blind. Once you buy a map, you quickly realize that it doesn’t show your current location. You’ll have to buy a compass in Dirtmouth if you want that functionality.
Furthermore, the maps you buy are mostly incomplete. I was confused for a while as my character would routinely venture off of the map with no idea of where I was headed. After a few hours, I realized that was the point. You’re goal is to trace your footsteps in this world that hardly anyone has come back from. When you find a bench, your character will then sit down and take a moment to draw in all the details he found along the way. Not only does this process allow you to figure out where you’re going, but it gives you an idea of where to go. For players doing a second play or for those who really want to challenge themselves, it is possible to take on the game with without navigational aids. Personally, I will stick to buying every map, compass, and tool that helps me find my way.
There are some other functional benefits to this system as well. For one, if you’re stuck in a particular area, odds are the answer lies in an area of the map that isn’t fully drawn in. Making the trip to an unfinished spot of the map opened up many new areas in my journey. If it’s something you still can’t complete, you can buy special markers from the shop to denote it as a place worth visiting later. Best of all, it adds to the lore of the game and the overall sense of adventure. If this area hasn’t really been documented before, it’s logical that you would have to draw everything in yourself. On top of that, you never know what lies ahead, further adding to the drama.
Traversing through this world can be quite the challenge. Enemies are certainly beatable, but you’re not going to be able to mash your way through them. Instead, a more methodical approach is necessary, where you’ll read and react appropriately. Towards the latter half of the game, specific boss fights took me dozens of attempts and a few hours to conquer. Furthermore, the worlds are full of hazards that can require precision platforming. Thankfully, the controls are tight, making these functions as precise as possible. However, you will die – a lot – and the consequences of dying suck.
Save points are few and far between. I’ve lost many minutes of action through dying and having to retrace my steps. Furthermore, the game has the Dark Souls recovery mechanic where you need to go back and get all of your souls (the game’s primary currency) before you die again. If you perish before recovering all of your stuff, it’s gone forever. I have lost hundreds of souls because of this, and yet I somehow haven’t spiked my Nintendo Switch into the ground.
What makes it all worth it occurs when you find something new in the world. Maybe a power-up that gives you a new ability. Or maybe an intense boss encounter that handsomely rewards you if you can beat it. It could be a bench that allows you to save your progress and update the map. Even a chance encounter with an NPC somewhere deep in the caves can be a reward for what it adds to the story or what they give you in return. Wherever you go, there’s something worth finding, as long as you’re able to keep at a steady pace of traversing through new areas. Knowing that kept me playing for many hours on end.
In spite of my initial aversion towards playing Hollow Knight, as well as the initial bumpiness from understanding the game’s mapping system, I have fallen head-over-heels for it. Beautiful visuals, haunting music, and a brilliantly designed world that will challenge and reward players every step of the way makes this one a deeply engrossing game that wouldn’t let me go for hours on end. Frame rate issues put a damper on certain sections of the game, but it’s not enough to deter you from experiencing this adventure. Glad to have given this one a chance, as it’s vaulted itself to being one of the best games I played in 2018!