Hollow Knight – A Modern Metroidvania Masterclass
Metroid and Castlevania both defined the Metroidvania sub-genre decades ago, though in the recent years the prevalence of the genre has waned. Many a game has pulled on traits of the genre to complement their design, though few have attempted to design a game in the Metroidvania that is as brutal and challenging as the games that inspired them. Hollow Knight, from Team Cherry in South Australia, is one such example, and it nails the genre to a level that few have achieved in recent years.
You’re the knight, and you arrive in the small settlement of Dirtmouth, a town that lies above the ruins of Hallownest, a long-abandoned kingdom that houses many mysteries. Your journey takes you toward Hallownest, but many obstacles lay in your road, including most notably, the kingdoms protector ‘Hornet’, and each obstacle throws up new threats to defeat and mountains to climb. One of the great strengths of Hollow Knight is the way in which it tells you its story. The narrative is rarely forced upon you, with a deft hand shown by Team Cherry, ensuring that you only learn as much as you’re prepared to uncover.
As with many MetroidVanias, exploration is key, and as well as unlocking new skills or using previously learned skills to enter previously inaccessible locations, the great benefit of exploration is narrative expansion. By exploring the world further, you’ll learn much more about Hallownest, its previous inhabitants as well as the many occupants of the world you’re playing in. The constantly dangled narrative carrot on top of the layering of established Metroidvania customs serve as more than enough to entice players to retrace their steps and make new discoveries, both narratively and in ways that will enhance their Knight.
Of course, the act of exploring the world and uncovering all it has within it is one of the key pillars of any Metroidvania title, and in this space, Hollow Knight excels. As with most games of this type, you’ll be retracing your steps often, and with the new skills that you acquire in your journey, have the ability to access previously inaccessible regions of the map. The map and how it fills is also smartly designed. As opposed to the tried-and-true approach that sees the map fill the moment you enter a new room, the map in Hollow Knight only populates if you can firstly buy the means to map the region and then only if you can find your way to a bench, sit and fill in the gaps.
For those who like to take risks, and attempt to explore regions of the world well before the game had intended it run the risk of losing (in many ways of the word) all their hard-earned Geo. Hollow Knight takes a very Souls-esque approach to death, if you die, you lose your currency, and should you die again without retrieving it first then it’s gone for good. It’s not just as simple as returning to the place where you died either, the ghost of your former self-remains to protect that lost Geo and only upon defeating your former self, do you receive those riches back. For those looking to dive deeper, this situation is further complicated by a potential lack of map and aimless wandering that might be required to happen upon the scene of your last death. There is, of course, a risk/reward to this whole situation and whilst the risks are plentiful, you may also stumble onto someone who can upgrade your nail (the Knights sword) or new upgrades to your soul gauge or mask as well as a new charm which might imbue you with an awesome new buff. These benefits may give you a slight edge over new enemies you may encounter or enable you to access areas that you weren’t otherwise supposed to reach had you continued down the critical path.
You can’t discuss Hollow Knight without talking about the way the game both looks and feels to play. The way you traverse the world is superbly weighed, with everything feeling as it should, right down to the slight kickback you get from striking an enemy (something you’ll want to monitor in tighter enclosures). As you begin to add more strings to the Knights bow, these skills all begin to fit seamlessly together creating some wonderfully satisfying experiences. In the audio/visual space, Hollow Knight is equally as striking, despite a muted colour palette and musical score. It’s the refined simplicity of both that makes the game an eye-popping and auditory delight to behold. With every action there are miniature, but still quite detailed explosions of life and colour that stand out against the dark backdrop while the subtlety of the soundtrack is quite moving, and on more than a few occasions I caught myself out just standing there and taking it all in.
Hollow Knight is a gem, one that needs to be celebrated for all that is achieves. It dusts off a much beloved, but under-represented genre and buffs it to a high sheen. Difficulty and accessibility come together to make this a game that all can appreciate, no matter their level of expertise with the genre, and on top of this, Hollow Knight makes some small inclusions that every new game in the genre should look at implementing. Team Cherry, you’ve achieved something extraordinary and I cannot wait to see where the journey leads you next.