Metroidvania games are a dime a dozen. The concept of having a giant map to explore, needing power-ups to get to out of reach places, and backtracking to get to those places are nothing new. That being said, it’s pretty refreshing when a game comes along and utilizes those concepts in a well thought out manner. Hollow Knight is all about execution and polish, a Metroidvania that utilizes the tropes of the genre in a near-perfect way while also adding new elements to freshen up the experience.
Hollow Knight dumps the player right into the action and doesn’t insult their intelligence with a lot of setup and tutorials. It’s a side-scrolling action platformer with Metroidvania qualties - you’ve played this game before and know how it goes. You run, jump, fight, and get power-ups. The knight himself is a bug. In fact, the entire game is about bugs. You play a small knight with a small sword and some basic combat abilities. After entering a small town you find out that the residents have gone missing and the ones that reside below the town are a bit nuts. As you murder your way to answers, however ambiguous they may be, you gain new abilities and fight intense bosses.
Hollow Knight doesn’t shy away from its inspirations, but it does add to them. The knight doesn’t have a constantly updating map as he moves from screen to screen. Instead, you must buy a map from a vendor and update it with the rooms you explore whenever you sit down on a bench (which also serves as a place to save and regain health). This mechanic can cause some frustration as you can spend time exploring the same rooms looking for a new route to take before you finally record all of your progress. To get the point out of the way, Hollow Knight’s biggest issue is the unbelievable amount of backtracking. That is to say that you will be backtracking as part of the narrative and out of not knowing where to go. While this leads to the nostalgic feeling that older games of the genre give off, it will undoubtedly be frustrating for some. The same could be said about the combat as well.
Combat in Hollow Knight is fairly straightforward. You have a basic melee attack and enemies take a set number of hits to die. Knowing different enemy attack patterns becomes crucial to surviving and not being knocked off ledges to certain doom. At the same time, the knight gains focus for each hit he connects with. Focus can be used to heal as well as shooting off powerful moves that will make fights easier or allow you to progress to new areas. Managing your focus and knowing when to heal and when to attack became the most interesting part of Hollow Knight for me. The exploration aspect is great, if a bit frustrating, but the combat felt tight and invigorating when I was able to take down a massive or fast-moving boss with well timed heals and attacks. Where the frustration may come in is the way the knight reacts to damage. Every time the knight is hit the screen pauses, the sound dampens, and a point of damage is dealt. This momentary pause, while a neat effect at first, can really slowdown the action with a sudden jerk that can be jarring and annoying in boss fights. With a combat system that makes such a smooth transition from move to move, the rather sudden effect of a screen pause, especially when it results in an uncontrollable fall into spikes, can be extremely frustrating.
Hollow Knight also follows the genre’s format of gaining new abilities as you explore further into the underground, unlocking new items to travel further, and generally getting stronger as you battle more and more. There is a certain "by the numbers" feel to Hollow Knight in its gameplay and execution, but the amount of time and effort that went into the game to make it shine so spectacularly needs to be addressed. Yes, it feels like another Metroidvania title that takes all of the usual tropes and balls them up into a new, shiny game but to only look at the game that way does it a disservice. There are dozens of subpar games of this type out there and Hollow Knight shines as a really great one among the pack.
A large part of that has to do with the game’s art style and animations. Hollow Knight starts off with a stark black and white color pallet that is aided in its simplistic beauty by the way the knight jumps and fights. Every animation feels smooth and connected and even the enemy movements feel like they’re a part of the natural way of things as well. Soon enough, you’re exploring jungle-like levels and fluorescent chambers that bring the game an incredible pop of color. While the knight is black and white, the world around him shines with a vibrancy that makes him stick out and be all the more memorable.
It’s worth noting that the game has a simplistic story that follows the knight through his trial and tribulations. It’s difficult to tell what side the knight is fighting for at times and this is made all the more ambiguous when you die for the first time. When the knight dies, a black shadow is released where you died. When you reach that spot again you must combat the shadow to regain the currency you lost. The shadow plays a larger role in the story and seeing where it takes the knight is interesting despite the barebones dialogue and storytelling. If I had one wish with regards to the game’s story it would be that the game tied up a bit cleaner at the end. The ending is ambiguous and its hard to tell exactly what happened, even when you get to the game’s true ending.
For fans of the genre, Hollow Knight is a game you simply can’t miss. It takes what people expect in a metroidvania and polishes them up to shine radiantly. The art and animation in a game like this, no matter how beautiful, can only go so far if the backtracking and general metroidvania tropes aren’t handled well. While the backtracking can be tedious and the exploration can be maddening, Hollow Knight is still worth a look to anyone looking for a great action platformer. Hollow Knight wears its inspirations on its sleeve and reminds the world that sometimes you don’t need to create completely new mechanics, sometimes you just need to make those old mechanics shine again.