Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

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The Lowdown

I don’t really follow the rock stars of crowdfunding and have a mixed history with such campaigns, but the fact that this game exists almost singlehandedly justifies the merit of the Kickstarter platform.

Overall
4.5

Pros

  • Simple yet refined game systems
  • The world and audio are a masterpiece
  • A strong story with some very hitting moments

Cons

  • A few nitpicks, such as postgame fast travel and charm efficacy

At first glance, you may assume that Hollow Knight is nothing special. The main character is cute, jumps around, and doesn’t speak any English, so this might as well be a Pokemon for all you know. However, engaging with a 2-dimensional world reveals an astonishing amount of depth that belies its simple mechanics and controls. Originally funded on Kickstarter, this has got to be one of the most successful crowdfunded video games ever, and it deserves high praise.

As of writing this review, I have achieved two endings and 107% game completion; it took me approximately 34 hours to achieve these benchmarks.

Education Corner

Never let it be said that Flint doesn’t take the time to educate you sickos on new topics.

Hollow Knight is a Metroidvania game. The name comes from an amalgam of the classics “Metroid” and “Castlevania” and are sidescrolling action games focusing on platforming and exploration via the acquisition of new skills/equipment. The games are played on a two-dimensional plane smaller chunk of map that connects on a larger map to multiple other regions. Accessing newer regions will become accessible by overcoming lower-tier challenges and getting new abilities.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

Being a platformer, there is a huge emphasis placed on vertical and horizontal movement, especially when it comes to making sure the player character (sprite) doesn’t land in an environmental hazard. Spike pits, acid baths, and deep water are common examples to avoid in this genre of game.

There is also an additional component of “wandering,” where the maps are, by and large nonlinear. This means that, in theory, provided you have the tools, you aren’t guided in a specific direction after the beginning phase. While you may get lost, the genre definitely scratches the itch for an explorer.

It’s important to know what you’re getting into because if anything above sounds boring to you, you’re better off not playing.

Narrative: Who is the Hollow Knight?

You play as a tiny munchkin bug warrior who uses a nail as a sword. There is an infection creeping through the ruins of an underground civilization that is causing its inhabitants to either vanish or go insane.

The Knight (you) awakens suddenly and makes their way to a village called Dirtmouth, which used to be a hub of bustling activity.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

All they find is a wizened Elder and empty huts.

This is a story that is told in garbled poetic dialogue and by exploring the world map and uncovering its secrets. Nothing is explained of the jump, but as you unlock more tools and abilities, you are able to access other biomes, which reveal more about what has truly been happening under the surface.

From old catacombs to mushroom tunnels to an entirely underground city to the literal depths of the Abyss, the Knight ventures alone with its trusty blade to uncover mysteries of the deep and to save everyone from the creeping corruption.

As far as I can put together, here’s where it all went wrong for this bug community.

A bunch of moths used to worship this deity called the Radiance. However, a really powerful bug called the “Pale King” arrived and began to modernize and expand his influence through the catacomb systems.

This new civilization was dubbed the “Hallownest.” The moths forgot their deity and started to worship the newcomer instead.

The Radiance, in an attempt to have its people, remember them, exerted its power, and this resulted in an infection spreading across the world. This infection mutated fauna into supercharged versions of themselves and has taken over the minds of the sentient bugs, turning them into hive-mind husks.

The Pale King enacted a plan to try to contain the impending disaster. With his Queen, he created scores of genderless void beings called “vessels” in the hope that they would serve as a container for the Radiance.

These creations were designed to have no voice, no will, and no mind in order to prevent the Radiance from exerting influence outside the living cage. Many attempts to create this perfect vessel failed, and their corpses can be discovered literally covering the floor of the Abyss.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

That was until the Pale King finally succeeded. He managed to create an entity of the Void that would save all of his Kingdom by sealing the Radiance within, and this vessel was dubbed the “Hollow Knight.”

Sealing the Abyss with his seal, the Pale King simultaneously enlisted the help of three extraordinary bugs who would become jailers of the Radiance. They would fall into an eternal sleep in three separate domains around Hallownest, and their slumbering power would serve to keep the angry god hidden.

However, things don’t always go as planned.

Seeing as the Pale King raised the Hollow Knight, the significance of their bond festered as an impurity and allowed the corruption to leak out of the Temple and wreak havoc once again. The Kingdom fell into ruins, with those strong enough to survive isolating themselves in the far corners of Hallownest, waiting for the end of days.

And this is where your story begins.

Your character, The Knight, has somehow escaped the Abyss and is called to Hallownest. You know nothing about any of the history, context, or sense of purpose that you are destined for. All you know is something is wrong, and you must figure out what.

Your journey takes you from the humblest of hamlets to the edge of the very Kingdom where the Pale King first landed. It becomes clear that the Knight is the only entity able to take the ailing Hollow Knight’s place at the center of the Temple of the Black Egg and contain the Radiance within them.

All roads lead to a confrontation with your fallen older sibling, but your explorations and actions directly impact in which manner you fulfill your purpose as the true “Hollow Knight.”

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

If you wanted me to get philosophical, I’d probably go on about how the “weight of expectations” and “destiny” can cause even those with the noblest of intentions to become polluted, twisting them into monsters and messes of equal measure. That’s not what this is about, though, so we will move on.

The plot has a lot of tropes that you may expect from this brand of “prodigal son returns to vanquish an interdimensional being,” but nothing came off as cringy or overdone. There is a subtle air to how the tale is woven that I, for one, very much appreciated.

An apt metaphor would be gently brushing the leaves off a forest floor to reveal an ancient Roman floor mural. You initially have no idea what’s happening, but it generally comes together in a way that doesn’t require a degree in literature; after a little bit of parsing things through.

I have provided a very rough summary of the key events, but if you play it again and read about the game on the internet, you will pick up small details all over the place that fill in the edges of an intricate painting.

What’s certain in my mind is that FromSoftware (another game developer famous for titles like Dark Souls) needs to take some notes. Yeah, you can hire that twit George RR Martin to write some sister-f***ing into a plotline, but that doesn’t mean you’ve struck gold.

Hot take, if your game has an entire subindustry of people interpreting the drivel being regurgitated in your gameworld via Youtube video, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got a bad story or game, but maybe it’s kind of ridiculous to suck them off about it?

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

Anyway, my mild frustrations figuring out what was going on sometimes aside (more on that below) once I got my gourd wrapped around it, I found it captivating. It probably had to do with how incredible the A/V package was as well, but again; I will talk about that below.

Hollow Knight Exploration, Combat, and Progression

For a game with such a top-notch atmosphere and a grand epic of a story, the controls are relatively simple.

You are able to move in the four cardinal directions; up (by jumping), down (by falling), left, and right. You are able to swing your Nail (weapon) in those directions, in addition to being able to do an extra hurtful “magic” attack in those four directions as well.

By finding ancient Nail masters scattered around the map, the Knight will also get access to three distinct, powerful moves that do 2.5X the damage of their normal strikes.

Controls being simple doesn’t mean the progression system is, however.

Regions and, subsequently, the story objectives hidden within them are barred by the absence of tools in your inventory. Only locating such equipment will allow the Knight to carry on their quest due to the new movement/utility options they provide. This sometimes requires backtracking to explore previously inaccessible areas that may hide resources that were just out of reach.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

To be clear, not all of this is entirely necessary, but this is a game that encourages one to explore every nook and cranny possible. These are pretty standard of the Metroidvania experience, but Hollow Knight does it extremely well.

For example, to greatly increase the Knight’s mobility, you will have to acquire something called the “Mantis Claws,” located coincidentally in the Mantis Village. This claw allows the Knight to cling to walls and spring off them, affording increased precision and verticality when it comes to navigating chasms and avoiding spikes.

Another example is in order to access the Queen’s Garden and unlock certain endings, you will need to head down into the Abyss to locate a “Shade Cloak” that allows you to horizontally dash while intangible through ominous walls of shadows barring the path.

The early game equipment upgrades and pathing are more linear, but as more become available to you, the choice is yours where to go.

Personally, I liked the balance they struck on not providing too many options and instead focusing on upgrading a core group of abilities to their maximum potential.

Exploration isn’t all about finding equipment, however; it’s about increasing the Knight’s survivability and making the rest of the game easier. While there isn’t an XP system where you level up and get stronger, typically, the Knight will get stronger by finding artifacts, charms, and raw resources in the world at large.

Your health bar is in the top left of the screen and is represented by masks. The Knight takes one mask of damage from most enemies, with some hefty ones dealing two. Collecting four mask shards around the world through various means adds an additional unit of “health” to the meter.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

Likewise, finding vessel fragments increases the amount of “magic power” that the night will be able to expend healing or casting offensive spells.

The final two key “non-money” related items to get your hands on scattered around the map are “Pale Ore” and “Charms.”

Pale Ore is a resource that is necessary for the refinement of your Nail. There isn’t a lot of it lying about, and you’ll typically get them after defeating a miniboss or in difficult-to-reach locations.

After collecting an ample amount, you will have to take them to a specific Non-Player Character (NPC) called “the Nailsmith,” and he will increase your damage output. This is pretty important, and such ores should be prioritized because as you descend into late-game areas, enemies take a lot more punishment.

Charms are slightly more interesting. Likewise scattered in odd spots all over the world, these allow the Knight to alter their gameplay function, provide new abilities, and/or improve the player’s quality of life.

You get a certain amount of notches that represent how many charms you can equip at one time, with the more potent ones costing more slots than the cheaper ones.

For example, one of the earliest charms you should beeline for (haha, insect-pun) is essentially a compass that allows you to pinpoint exactly where you are located on the map. An expert at the game may be able to figure out their rough position with experience, but in all my hours of playing, having this in part of my loadout was essential to making sure I wasn’t lost.

The only time I took it off was when I was sure there would be a boss fight nearby and a respawn point (a humble bench) right around the corner.

The compass only costs a single notch, but a charm called “Fragile Strength” and its upgraded version, “Unbreakable Strength,” cost three as they increase your damage output by 50%. It is up to the player to balance these notches depending on their strengths, weaknesses, and playstyles.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

In terms of the enemies you fight, they differ by biome, but most of the time, their behavior will largely be the same. Some will attempt to crash into you; others will punch or hit you, and others will shoot projectiles your way.

Most of them were well animated and distinctive enough to identify what their schtick was, but where Hollow Knight truly shines is through the implementation of minibosses.

In what may be a common theme, I love minibosses in almost any game they appear in. I love the idea of having these ‘oomph’ moments in a narrative to clearly mark when a challenge has been overcome and what way to do it better than having a gigantic monster multiple times your size suddenly appear in front of you.

The mini and major bosses in Hollow Knight are absolutely iconic, and each has a unique set of attack patterns/moves to use against you. Defeating them may be challenging, but it all comes down to pattern recognition at the end of the day.

From the eerie movements of the Soul Tyrant in their tower to the skittering of Nosk in the deeps to the boisterous nature of the Dung Defender, they all clearly stick in my mind as I write this piece. I was also impressed how each of them seemed to perfectly encapsulate the traits of the particular area you encounter them in. That’s not easy, and Team Cherry nailed it.

Now as if all this wasn’t enough, you also get the Dream Nail.

The Dream Nail is given to you so that you can access another subset of souped-up bosses that exist in the “dream realm,” but it also will allow you to access the true ending after receiving enough experience using it. Basically, you go around the map killing ethereal bosses enough, and you get rewards, capiche?

This weapon also allows the Knight to access a whole new map called the Godhome, which functions as a training ground/challenge arena to hone the Knight’s skills.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

A final important thing to note about exploration is in relation to death.

Upon the Knight’s death, the void essence within you will leave a wraith in roughly the same position where you met your demise. You will also lose all of the money you have on you, and in order to get it back, you must locate your shade and send them straight to Hell.

While your “soul” exists outside your body, you are only able to store a limited amount of “magical energy” to use your spells on. What’s even more horrific is that should you die on the way, you will lose all the money previously stored within the wraith.

While this doesn’t matter so much in the late game, in the early game, it’s incredibly deflating.

To summarize, I’ve found that a lot of games these days try to throw an absolute Thanksgiving buffet at you in terms of mechanics. They’ve gotta have a resource system, a skill tree that upgrades your movement speed in minute increments, an online multiplayer component, base building for some reason, yadda yadda.

What tends to happen is that the need to shove as many systems into a game renders them each as disappointing as you were on your wedding night.

Hollow Knight keeps it simple, but everything is fine-tuned and refined to a level that makes them engaging. It’s simple to use, simple to understand, and hard to master; I think they did great.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

Hollow Knight Maps and Music

Hollow Knight is gorgeous. You may look at the cute graphics and the two-dimensional environments and think that this isn’t art because some old dude with syphilis didn’t paint a weird nymph in it, but you’d be sorely mistaken.

The gameplay has a few things I’d quibble about, but Team Cherry has created a masterpiece when it comes to visual and audio components. This is on par with just about anything I’ve ever seen in terms of creating a sense of awe as you complete the epic journey before you.

It is actually hard to describe just by typing out what was good, so instead, let me describe four separate moments that I recall clear as day from my playthrough. This isn’t an analysis, more of a feeling that these scenes imparted to me.

These are going to be poetic and a tad lengthy, so you may be weirded out, but frankly, I don’t give a shit.

1. The Ascent from the Abyss

The Abyss is an eternal sea whose waves are comprised of the corpses of Vessels discarded by the Pale King in his pursuit of perfection.

Buried underneath the surface, the Knight stares into a reflective black egg. This is where they were born, this is where they were made, and this is where they climbed.

A vision consumes the Knight. They claw their way up through the legions of the dead, and all they see is darkness.

Under an atmosphere so heavy it may as well be solid, the Knight has nowhere to go, nowhere to go but up. So they climb, leaping across rock formations and over lethal spines; the Knight begins their arduous journey out of the pit from whence it came.

Sounds start to return as the miasma lessens its hold, but this is no relief, no balm to soothe a wound. All the Knight can hear is the steady crunching and thumping of their siblings continuing to fall around them and smash onto the rocks below. They rocket past you at breakneck speeds, shattering on impact onto the very platforms to which you scramble for purchase.

In the background, amidst the dark, you can see more of them plummeting downwards, an endless sacrifice of untold magnitude. But that will not be you.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

Not the Abyss; I was too in awe to take a proper screenshot. Sorry!

The Pale King’s words rip through the fourth wall and, amidst an angelic choir, seem to reach out to the player themselves. He seems to explain, no, to demand your understanding as to why so many had to die so that his Kingdom could live as if you control the keys to the very gates of Hell itself.

The crescendo of a violin grows, and the Knight climbs higher and higher, each leap more frantic and desperate than the last. Suddenly light!

The Knight clings to the edge of the precipice and dangles over the literal maw of the Void. He sees his father, his King, a veritable God, in all their glory….but there is another. They look so much like you, yet they are not you.

The Pale King strides towards the light without even acknowledging his intrepid Knight, who has climbed so far over the bodies of those who came before. Your twin spares one long glance at the Knight, and for that moment, you can feel the yearning to be saved.

“Pull me up!” you’d imagine the Knight would scream, but alas, they were made with “no voice to cry suffering.”

The moment passes. Your twin strides after the Pale King and the door slams shut, sending the Knight careening down to the depths, back into the silence from whence it came.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

2. The Last Stag

Your only true friend in the midst of the labyrinth is the massive insects that ferry you diligently from station to station across the Hallownest.

Summoned by ringing a lonely bell, you hear the gentle rumbling of its many legs approaching through tunnels time has long forgotten. As far as you both know, he is the last of his kind, and you can hear the weight of this reality and commitment to his duty echo in the timber of his voice.

This insect has witnessed the decay of everyone and everything he has ever known, but nonetheless, his gruff voice and stalwart body are there for you in a world ruled solely by madness and death. He is always there to offer a wise word, a commendation of your progress, or a word of care, and his presence means that you are, for the very briefest of moments, not alone.

3. The Suffering of the Hollow Knight

The Three Dreamers have been slain, and the locks to the Temple are undone. You see your sibling suspended from the ceiling, the hero of legend, hero no more.

This, the entirety of your journey, has come to the chance to make things right.

The Hollow Knight, now free after an eternity, lets out a bestial roar dripping with the malevolent insanity that has subsumed it. They are fast, they are huge, and their blade is sharp; but so is yours, and you are ready for them.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

Bone clinks against bone as two siblings hack at each, one silent as the grave, the other howling like a demon. It is as fitting a duel as any for the fate of the world, wreathed in the warm glow of an otherworldly infection.

Your foe summons every dark power in its arsenal, for the entity inside it knows that you are the last guardian it will ever need to vanquish.

The Hollow Knight lets out a scream of anguish more piercing than all the others and raises its great weapon high over its head as if to pierce the heavens — and, with a fury unseen by any strike against you, drives its blade deep into their own chest. ‘

Ichor, the color of the sun, spews out their back as if to dispel any doubt as to the sheer vitriol that was poured into that stab. Again and again, the Hollow Knight drives its weapon deep into their own core.

A mistake? A ploy? A moment of lucidity or a moment of self-hatred? That you cannot tell.

Soon the fight resumes, and once more, you return to the struggle for the eternal soul of the Hallownest.

4. The Deepnest

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

The sound of insects crawling assault your ears. It’s all you hear. The sounds of the Knight navigating the environment seem almost secondary to the ant hill you have found yourself in.

The Deepnest is a place where nightmares call home; a place so vile that the Pale King, even at the height of their power, chose a truce with a tribe of Mantis as they promised to exchange, keeping the monsters within at bay for their continued autonomy.

The constant scratching of many legs and mandibles chittering fill your eardrums, and monstrous pits saturated with writhing toothy worms inhibit your process. Spiders literally crawl in the foreground on your screen at random intervals, further adding to the gruesome ensemble.

Your foes consist of burrowing insects, parasites that take control of the dead, and spiders that appear out of thin air. It is a place of ambush, anguish, and unease, and you are never not being watched by something hungry.

These are just four moments in a multiple-hour game that I can remember as clearly as the time I played them. This is probably the best and only way to describe it. I’m sure, as a player, you will have your own, but hopefully, through these vignettes, you grasp the beauty the Hallownest holds.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

Hollow Knight Criticisms

Hollow Knight is probably the best Metroidvania title I’ve ever gotten my hands on so far. Team Cherry has produced an absolute rock star hit, and it makes sense why their sequel is so anticipated.

There were a few things that I’d complain about, but those just come down to personal preference, to be honest. You’ve already read over 3500 words, so this section is thankfully super short.

For example, while the overarching story is great, and the game is truly a spectacle, I did get pissed off with the way everyone spoke in cryptic twaddle half the time.

This is a consistent irk I have in games like Dark Souls, where you need to get a bulletin board with string to connect all the dots and shielded hints that the NPCs are saying. It’s just a personal preference that, at some point, I would appreciate some clarity if I’m truly going to get invested in a story. Hollow Knight isn’t the worst offender, but it still raised my hackles every now and again.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

I also have to call out a particularly annoying level called the White Palace.

The background story is that in order to become the Knight’s true identity, you must find the bones of your long-dead creator at the top of a tower and take from them one half of a charm called the “Kingsoul.”

The only problem is the tower is, for some reason, an elaborate death trap of weird circular saws and spikes all over the place that make it more like an obstacle course than anything. What irked me the most is that it seemed very out of place in the overarching world of Hallownest.

The challenges of other biomes seemed to flow naturally and make sense, whereas the dream of the White Palace seemed just placed there by the development team to screw with people. Sure, you could argue that this is in the dream world and can therefore take any possibility/configuration, but it came off as crude to me.

Transportation quickly becomes a hassle as well. After completing the main story, I strived to go about completing side objectives for fun, but I grew tired of meandering through maps that no longer posed a threat to me. There are stag stations for fast travel around the map, but they always seem to be a few rooms away from where you want to go. It just grew a little monotonous after 25+ hours.

Your only method of selective teleportation is by creating a portal with an upgraded Dream Nail that remains in a single location. You can warp to it at the cost of one dream essense (which you will have in abundance) but you can only create a singular portal. Is it helpful? Yes, but not by much. I just left it out by the Godhome entrance because that place is a pain to get to.

My final gripe is that most charms are not that helpful (IN MY OPINION). There are undoubtedly a shitload of them, and they are fun to find and equip, but mostly I stuck to the same few every battle.

I tend to play more martial characters, so the charms I equipped improved the effectiveness of my Nail — longer swings, faster swings, more raw damage, that kind of stuff.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

Yes, you can equip a loadout that emphasizes your spell damage and magic generation, but after trying this out, I quickly reverted to beating the tar out of everyone in front of me. At that point, collecting the charms just became a checkmark on the list for me as opposed to a necessity.

To be frank, these are all minor things. There aren’t that many other aspects I’d complain about from a concrete standpoint, which leads me to…

Hollow Knight Conclusion

I don’t really follow the rock stars of crowdfunding and have a mixed history with such campaigns, but the fact that this game exists almost singlehandedly justifies the merit of the Kickstarter platform.

Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong

This is a 4.5/5 game (I’d give it a 4.8 if I could!), and it probably would’ve gotten my first 5/5 except for one additional thing; after I put it aside to play a few other games that I’m working on, I didn’t really feel that urge to pick it up again.

Perhaps it’s too soon, or perhaps there are other things going on in my life, but I do not feel that yearning to dive into the Hallownest once more despite its quality. That isn’t a tangible thing to critique, so I left it out of that specific section; just more of a personal feeling. I’m sure I’ll pick it up again after a little while. Your experience may differ, and that’s totally fine!

In any case, if you’ve seen this game and had even the slightest thought of trying it out, you definitely should. It is an amazing experience and rightfully should be the meter at which many future titles will be measured. Team Cherry is working on a sequel, and you’d better believe I’m keeping an eye on it. Bravo to them; a well-deserved success!

Hollow Knight starts at $14.99; it is available from Steam, gog.com, and other retailers like Amazon.

Developer: Team Cherry

Publisher: Team Cherry

Source: Personal Purchase

What I Like: Simple yet refined game systems; The world and audio are a masterpiece; A strong story with some very hitting moments

What Needs Improvement: A few nitpicks, such as postgame fast travel and charm efficacy

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About the Author

Flint Pickleback
Just some guy who plays video games to disconnect from the world. Wine is often involved, which thoroughly enhances the experience. I'm playing these games on an custom build, with 32GB RAM, 13th Gen Intel Core i7-13700KF, and a NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4070 Ti 12GB Graphics Card. Please send pitches to "[email protected]" with "[email protected]" cced.

2 Comments on "Hollow Knight Review: I Underestimated This Game For Years, I Was Wrong"

  1. jenifergreenwell | May 10, 2023 at 2:35 am | Reply

    I’m loving the bug knight! Gotta check this out

  2. This sounds like a really well made game, though I’ve hardly played anything in this genre, and don’t know if it’s for me. Thanks for the detailed review!

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