My soul is waiting for me in the next room, I’m planning on getting it back because over the years we've become attached. I’m also interested in the fortune my soul is carrying in its pockets: which if I die before retrieving my soul, will be lost forever. I drop down into the cavernous chamber and as I fall ready myself with a shoulder roll and deep breath. As I land the boss is right on me, the animation that played from the first time I saw him is now bypassed: I muse that this is a thoughtful mechanic but then receive my first punishing strike and am brought back to the present.
As my brain and thumbs try to work together I deliver a few well-placed strikes but then start to miss: I now regret not getting the charm that gave me a longer strike range. As the fight continues, I ponder how much health this bastard must have left and this second lapse costs me my last health point. I quietly take off my headphone and carefully put my controller down: fighting the urge to pitch it at my monitor. A cup of tea and I shall return; for now, Hollow Knight had me licked.
Here we have a Metroidvania style action platformer from the developer Team Cherry, an indie based in South Australia. You take on the role of Hollow Knight, an interesting looking chap who looks part beetle, part skeleton and maybe a little bit Frank from Donnie Darko. You start your adventure knowing very little, other than there are strange creatures in the caverns below your feet and all who descend in Hallownest tend to forget who they are.
What I like about Hollow Knight is that there is no quest log or objectives list. You must brave the eerie darkness below and find your own way. In the last few years, I have felt there is too much hand holding going on in gaming without trusting the player to figure things out. Much of the game is technically open to you from the off but as you uncover more obstacles, it will become clear you will need some new tricks to progress. You gain abilities from defeating the many bosses or by finding new equipment. Like any true Metroidvania title, this will then open up new sections of the cave system previously blocked. Within each zone, there is a map maker who will sell you a piece of map for a small fee. Before finding this NPC you must stumble around trying to remember your way. Every time you rest, the places you have visited will be scrawled to your map, allowing you to keep track of roughly where you are. This map is detailed enough to help you but also omits too much detail; so you still need to keep your wits about you.
You start out with a small sword referred to as a ‘nail’ and the ability to jump. I must admit, at first I wasn't too keen on how the main character moved because it felt a little clunky. After playing other platform games with more organic controls like Rain World or Ori and the Blind Forest; this takes some getting used to. However, this feeling almost disappeared once I’d picked up the wall jump and dash, which gives you far more agility. In this respect, Hollow Knight doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before but follows conventions with quality and grace. There is also a charm system, which lets you gain subtle enhancements to your skill set and only being able to slot a few, means you need to be savvy about your choices.
As it turns out I have an ability I never knew I had: if I miss a jump in Hollow Knight I can then miss every other platform below me until hitting rock bottom. I swear the developers are moving them every time I fall! This is a platformer that will punish you for mistakes and sometimes the penalty for death is devastating. This isn’t a roguelike, but on death, you are taken to the last place you rested. Unfortunately, this is can be miles away from where you took a dirt nap. If you do manage to reach your place of death, you must beat your own soul to death (wait what?..) to get your Geo (money) back: if you die before this you lose the lot. At one point I lost a considerable fortune due to a silly mistake and it was two days before I could return to playing. This is Hollow Knights favourite way of punishing you and can lead to some very frustrating moments. I have sometimes been battling for over an hour, only to ripped back to where I started: this game will be too tough for some.
As mentioned, deep in the underworld you will come across boss characters that present a significant challenge. These fights are well designed, tough and each has its own unique attack pattern. Once you nail down the sequence of attacks you should be able to defeat these brutes, but having to retrace your steps every time you fall can be soul destroying (sorry). This, however, is the game and while these encounters can be cripplingly difficult, the sense of achievement when you smite them is one of the best feelings in gaming. I did also appreciate the fact that most of the time your soul is left outside the boss chamber, giving you the chance to diminish until another day.
Ink me pretty
In case the screenshots hadn't given it away yet: Hollow Knight is stunning. Each area has its own hand drawn personality and art style. When you first start out its mainly cool blues and shades of grey, but soon you will be seeing lush greens and bright yellows. The way the art team have used light and dark to envelope the player in dread is sublime. The creatures and characters you meet are all themed around bugs and are exquisitely designed: it’s like a beautiful pen and ink drawing brought to life in front of your eyes. One effect in particular that stood out is where you first unlock a huge underground beetle that will ferry you between zones: the animation on show here blew me away.
The use of Parallax is also amazing, maybe even the best I’ve ever seen. Parallax is where you see various layers of foreground and background moving at different speeds to your plain. This makes the two-dimensional world of Hollow Knight look surprisingly three dimensional. In the distance, you will see sights that make stop in awe and shiver in horror. This, of course, is a well used technique but only games the likes of Ori come close to this quality.
The sound work here complements the visuals perfectly: it's not so much about quality but more the right choices for each situation. Music also plays a huge part in creating the atmosphere and I love how these pieces also fade between more elemental sources.
The Bottom Line
Hollow Knight is one of the best games I’ve played this year and certainly the best action platformer I’ve come across for a while. This statement is made more impressive when you consider we've also had games like Dead Cells and Rainworld. When I first started out I had my own idea how big the game would be but just when you think you've seen it all, you break through into the next area. The thing that makes this game stand out more than anything, is how well each element is connected and how much care has been taken regarding the way you progress. People have asked me. ‘Is it better than Ori?’ Well, I do think Ori is better in most respects but then for me, Ori is an almost a perfect game. If you love this genre, why would you not play another of similar excellence? It’s like saying that you’ve had one good blowjob this year so another isn't really required thank you very much.
After spending so much time making my way through this beautiful game, I feel like each hard won step was a real adventure and not just another exercise in following the breadcrumbs. Unless you despise hard but rewarding games, Hollow Knight is an essential purchase.
Thank you for reading my review for Hollow Knight on PC. If you enjoyed my review please follow me on Twitter @riggedforepic and come back soon for more PC gaming content