The Metroidvania genre is a subcategory of platformer that is best exemplified by the titles that make up the name: Metroid and Castlevania. Unlike most platformers, which are level based, Metroidvania titles are defined by their large, interconnected worlds that allows the player to explore them in their search for new abilities on their way to the game’s ending. While games like Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are among the defining titles in this genre, the 2017 indie title Hollow Knight, developed by Team Cherry may be one if not the best titles in this genre.
Hollow Knight’s successes are numerous. While the Metroidvania genre is built on the principle of non-linear gameplay, Hollow Knight gives the player more freedom than virtually any other title in the genre. Once the player arrives in the game’s first area, the Forgotten Crossroads, there is never a time when there is only one path to progression. The player is always capable of reaching at least two, if not more of the game’s bosses at any given time. Each area of Hollow Knight links into others in surprising ways, and the deeper the player goes into the game, the more they discover. Traversing Hallownest is made much more manageable because of the presence of fast travel stations allow the player to get around the kingdom quite quickly, so backtracking to previous areas is rarely a chore. One annoyance is that while the player has a map, they to find a specific NPC and purchase a map of the area to see the layout of the region. The NPC that sells them is usually easy to find, but unlike games like Super Metroid, where the player can see the rooms they have explored, in Hollow Knight you find yourself exploring in the dark until you purchase the area’s map.
The game’s presentation is also spectacular. Hollow Knight uses a hand-drawn art style that is able to be unsettling and charming at the same time. The detail in the backgrounds of each of the game’s areas is stunning, and every area in the game is visually distinctive and is oozing with detail. Every area uses a different color for its background, which helps each area remain distinct. For example, the Forgotten Crossroads is mostly grayscale, which contributes to its dark and eerie atmosphere. Contrast that with the greens of the Greenpath or the shades of pink that define the Crystal Peak. Its musical score is similarly gorgeous. Hollow Knight’s soundtrack easily fades into the background for creating ambience, but just as easily can create incredibly exciting boss fight themes. Each of these themes is orchestrated and range in tone from somber to energetic to mysterious.
Also to be commended is Hollow Knight’s approach to teaching the player. Apart from showing the player the input required to execute each new technique, it is left to the player to discover and hone the skills that are used to explore the world. For example, the player learns early on that contact with spikes does damage, but also hitting things with their sword also knocks their avatar back slightly. The player later will find pits that their jump cannot cross, but if they hit the spike pit with a downward sword swing, they will spring upwards and gain the distance needed to cross. Hollow Knight is full of situations like this, and the fact that it is left up to the player to discover and refine these skills contributes to the game’s overall atmosphere. Hollow Knight takes place in a ruined kingdom, and the Knight has precious few characters that he can rely on beyond itself. The approach by which players are required to learn the game’s systems by themselves adds to that feeling of aloneness.
These tests of skills gradually ramp up in challenge as the game continues, presenting the player with harder and harder platforming tasks and boss fights. While some of these challenges are incredibly difficult, as a whole Hollow Knight is very fair about its difficulty. Even incredibly difficult areas can be made manageable with the correct set of charms equipped, and the only bosses that feel downright unfair are almost all optional. Most of the hardest challenges come in the form of free DLC that Team Cherry has been incredibly generous with. Of particular note is the Grimm Troupe expansion which adds a new quest and two fights whose difficulty is only rivalled by their spectacle, and the Godseeker expansion which is a boss-rush mode that allows the player to battle against every boss in the game, either individually or as a part of a series of five gauntlets.
Hollow Knight has been released both on PC and home consoles, and while each version plays mostly the same, having the Nintendo Switch controller, as well as the portability the Switch offers is a great added convenience. Hollow Knight’s structure allows for a pick up and play style of play because of the game very rarely comes to a stop. Finishing an area or defeating a boss usually segues straight into the next bit of content, so being able to put it down and immediately pick up where you left off is a great boon. There are few games that are not improved by the Switch’s mobility, because it allows a player to take such a large adventure anywhere.
Hollow Knight is a rare breed. It perfectly synthesizes old and new ideas together to make a product that is both familiar and utterly original. It is difficult, but rarely unfair. Its art and world is beautiful, terrifying, depressing, and heartwarming. While the game’s open-ended and ambiguous structure may be off-putting for players who are more used to more story driven and directed affairs, Hollow Knight is a title perfectly suited for those who love the thrill of exploring an ancient network of caves, searching for treasure and danger.