Hollow Knight is one of the best, if not THE best, Metroidvania games I’ve ever played. This fact is made all the more remarkable by the knowledge that this is Team Cherry’s inaugural game. On their first go, this Australian team has managed to create one of the best ever Metroidvania games, and certainly one of the best games I’ve played in years, full stop.
Hollow Knight was released on PC in 2017 and on Switch in June 2018, but this latest version for PS4 and Xbox One – the Voidheart Edition – came out in September and includes all of the previously released DLC. And it’s just so, so good. Be prepared, for I’m about to gush praise into your pleading eyes like a wordy hosepipe of good tidings.
In terms of structure, Hollow Knight doesn’t deviate too far from the well-worn Metroidvania template. There’s a huge map to explore, and as you gain abilities, you can delve into previously inaccessible areas. The abilities you unlock are fairly standard, like a double jump, a dash move and charged attacks, but like everything in the game, they’re just so well-implemented, with such an absurd amount of polish, that it’s simply a joy to play.
I’ll give you an example of how this game goes above and beyond what you may expect. Like countless games before it, Hollow Knight features an arena, where you fight waves of baddies to gain a reward. We’ve seen things like this before in every game from Fire Emblem to Monster Hunter, but Hollow Knight takes the idea and runs with it, piling on more and more features to make something truly special. For a start, there’s a neat little area under the arena where the fighters are resting in-between bouts – you’ll find them slumped on benches, panting and sweating, which is a great touch. And in the arena itself, you come across completely unique enemies that are found nowhere else in the game. Not only that, the arena warps and changes between waves, with walls closing in, platforms appearing and spikes popping up, and there are even moments of humour, which the animated crowd reacts to with laughter. And if you follow a certain character’s quest line, they’ll even make a cameo appearance.
Team Cherry could have got away with simply ticking the arena feature box by adding in several waves of the regular enemies you fight throughout the game. But they didn’t – they made something unique that surprises you at every turn, especially when you’re faced by enemies you’ve never seen before. And this level of polish – and this constant defying of expectations – carries on through the entire game.
I’ll give you another example. There are dozens of baby grubs trapped in jars throughout Hallownest, the insect kingdom in which the game is set. You’ll get used to smashing the jars to free them, but later on in the game, something completely different and surprising happens when you smash one of the jars. And then eventually you can unlock an area that reveals why all of these grubs are in jars in the first place – and if you die in that area, something quite amusing happens. I’m trying to be vague so as not to spoil the surprise when you play it, but the point is that it’s yet another Nice Touch in a game that’s absolutely jam-packed with Nice Touches.
In terms of plot, you’re mostly kept in the dark at first. Your character turns up at the deserted village of Dirtmouth, and as the player you’re not even sure who you’re playing. All you know is that below Dirtmouth is a huge kingdom called Hallownest, where something has gone VERY WRONG INDEED. The game is then a quest to discover exactly what happened and put it right. There are very few lore explanations, however – most of the storytelling is done through the environment, which works exceptionally well. Each area you discover is unique and packed with loads of background details that provide hints about what exactly went down there. And there are dozens of characters to meet, each providing brief snippets of conversation that often give hints at Hallownest’s past. It’s up to the player to put it all together, to work out the mystery – and that’s just fine by me, as it provides a great incentive for exploring.
And exploring is incredibly rewarding. There are secrets tucked into every corner of the map – and even the map itself is a secret to uncover. A mapmaker called Cornifer can be found scribbling away at various points in the game, and you can buy a map of the local landscape if you can find him in the area you’re investigating. But until then, your map is frustratingly blank – which provides a great feeling of venturing into the unknown. And Hallownest is BIG – even after playing the game for dozens of hours, I was still constantly being surprised by stumbling across previously unexplored nooks and crannies.
Hollow Knight is practically a perfect Metroidvania game. Where other games in the genre have fallen down, Hollow Knight shows how it should be done. For example, whereas equippable perks in Iconoclasts seemed superfluous, here they’re essential. The various charms you collect each offer useful abilities, like regenerating health or more powerful spells, and I was constantly experimenting with different combinations of them in order to beat tricky bosses. And whereas Chasm became far too easy by the end once your character was fully levelled up, Hollow Knight keeps the level of challenge up throughout. Partly that’s down to its relatively freeform nature – there are some areas that can be reached in multiple ways, and you might stumble across places with enemies that are far too powerful for your weedy knight. But that’s fine, because you can always explore somewhere else and come back later when you’ve upgraded your weapon and health. Throughout the game you’ll have loads of choices about where to go – another reason why exploration is so fun.
The graphics are also just blimmin’ fantastic. I love the heavily stylised insects you meet, and the locations are eminently memorable, from soaring glass towers to genuinely scary dark caverns. I want to cover my walls with artwork from this game. And the animation is just beautiful, and full of wonderful touches – like when you click the map button and your avatar whips out a paper map and starts studying it.
If I have one criticism of Hollow Knight, it’s that it can get brutally, insanely hard during the end game. Some of the later bosses are ridiculously fast and powerful, and the trickier ones took dozens of tries before I could beat them. Then again, it was very rewarding when I came up with a strategy to deal with them – but if you were present in my house during some of those bouts, you may have been shocked by the language that was coming out of my mouth.
But the thing is, all of the really difficult bosses are completely optional. You can easily finish the game without being tested too hard. It’s only if you want to go for 100% completion (well, actually it’s 112% completion with the DLC) that you’ll run up against the really tough foes. Oh, and getting the ‘good’ ending means fighting an alternative final boss who I found infuriating at first – and unlocking that second boss also means fighting through the utterly brutal platforming of the White Palace, full of spinning saws and stabby spikes. Oh my god, the White Palace. Don’t talk to me about the White Palace.
Basically, what I’m saying is that there’s a point very late on when fighting the bosses goes from ‘enjoyable but very difficult’ to ‘masochistic’ – and the point that I bailed from my plan for a Platinum Trophy was when I discovered the boss rush section in which you fight ten bosses in a row. No thanks, I’m done here. But no doubt a certain percentage of gamers will revel in the rock-hard challenge.
Another caveat is that a few of the secrets are almost impossible to find without a guide. Towards the end I looked at an online map to see what was left to find, and I was surprised by just how much was hidden away – I would never have found it without that map. Likewise, the game doesn’t always explain itself very well – I was carrying around dozens of rancid eggs for most of the game with no idea about what they were for. It turns out that you can give them to a certain character to restore your ‘shade’ automatically, which would have been very useful to know early on. (When you die, your ‘shade’ (i.e. ghost) gets left behind in the area where you were killed, and you have to fight it to recover your money and soul (i.e. mana) – but if you die while fighting it, all your money is permanently lost. That happened a few times, to my howls of frustration.)
These points are really just tiny niggles though – Hollow Knight is an absolute masterclass in how to make a Metroidvania, and it’s easily one of my games of the year. The fact that I’ve been happily playing it for over 50 hours, long after I’ve finished the main story, is testament to that. Buy Hollow Knight, you won’t regret it.
Hollow Knight is available for PS4, Xbox One, Switch and PC. We reviewed the PS4 version.
Disclosure statement: Review code for Hollow Knight was provided by Team Cherry. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.
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