Three and Out: Hollow Knight
There was an intense moment of relief for me when I found my first character buried beneath the levels of soil, mystery and labyrinth of Hollownest, the beautifully quiet setting for Hollow Knight. Cornifer the Cartographer was his name, and I was only alerted to him because of an optimistic hum that emitted from his location. He agreed to sell me a map, and with it, I was able to begin my journey with a little bit direction. Hollow Knight is filled with these kinds of moments – the kind that serve as a gentle reminder that even in periods of darkness, you are not alone and neither is your plight.
Hollow Knight’s first real distinction comes from the hand-drawn animations and clean glow of our beetle-shaped protagonist, “Knight”. I have little doubt that no game has ever looked quite like this, and most impressively, it’s not the kind of art design that feels purposefully divergent. This is what Hollow Nest looks like and the consistency between the enemy design, run-down architecture and ominous plant life serves as a constant source of immersion. Matched with an equally gorgeous OST, the game’s ambient score captures all of the thrills of exploration and horrors of survival. Some of my favorite moments came from watching The Knight slouched across a bench (the game’s only checkpoints), rain pouring atop his head and the elegant piano painting a picture of our journey thus far. Hollow Knight’s narrative is served up in bits and pieces, with only a loose thread connecting things from Point A to Point B. Instead, the game puts a spotlight on its unique cast of characters – all of which have interesting, sometimes nostalgic, things to say about Hollownest and its current state. Perhaps my favorite little quirk about the game is that each character has a “listen” prompt above their head. You don’t talk with these characters, you listen to them. Hollow Knight cared more about getting me invested in its world than it did in any particular narrative arc. Whether it be via saving the overtly masculine Zote the Mighty from one of his many failed attempts at heroism, or delivering a Grub (a green, child-like centipede) back to their grateful father, Hollow Knight delivers a meaningful story through small moments of interaction in an otherwise lonely world.
The singular weapon used throughout the game, “Nail”, delivers the most satisfying 2D combat since Castlevania: Symphony of the Knight. It’s swings are precise and deliberate, quick and satisfying. Paired with rewarding sound design in the form of a clink (when the Nail hits armor or shield) or squish (when the Nail lands a blow to an enemy), there is an immediate feedback loop that makes fighting the game’s many strange enemies a joy. This feeling was only amplified against the game’s more distinct foes and boss fights, all of which have their own set of special abilities and movements that make Hollow Knight deeply difficult. If I were pressed, I’d be able to accurately detail all 13 bosses that I faced on my journey. These fights are memorable, and despite the high rate of encounter, manage to feel unique from one another. Hollow Knight‘s wonderfully designed combat is extenuated by its charm and notch systems. While there are a series of movement upgrades – most of which will look awfully familiar to any fan of the genre – the charms are what really reward exploration. Charms provide meaning bumps to the Knight’s limited arsenal. Each of these charms takes up at least a single notch on his belt (by end game, I had eight available notches), with more powerful ones taking upwards of four. Mixing and matching these charms can be the difference between hundreds of tries against a specific boss versus just one or two. This extra layer of strategy gives Hollow Knight its greatest source of complexity to an otherwise thin, yet refined, combat system.