There were a ton of cool games that came out in 2017. I wasn’t anywhere close to playing everything that I wanted to play. Around November of last year, I sat down and wrote a list of games from the year that I wanted to complete or at least try, and Hollow Knight ended up getting the priority because I thought I could knock it out quickly. My expectation turned out to be totally wrong. Hollow Knight ended up being an epic experience that drove me deep into unraveling its secrets. It’s one of the best games that I’ve played in a long time, so much so that it actually took me a few months before I decided I was satisfied enough to move on.
Hollow Knight is the story of the fallen, subterranean kingdom of Hallownest, whose citizenry was composed of a wide range of sentient arthropods, principally a beetle-like race that are simply called bugs, but also spiders, mantises, moths, and maggots. In the distant past, Hallownest was a utopic nation that was beset by a strange infection that drove many of its inhabitants into violent insanity. Life has seemingly continued on at the fringe of the once great civilization, but the infection continues to slowly spread into this periphery. Upon this desolation enters the quiet, wandering Knight, who is drawn to the surface city of Dirtmouth, which serves as the entrance to Hallownest. From there, the player journeys as the Knight down into the kingdom’s ruins to discover and thwart the source of the infection.
Hollow Knight joins the huge pile of games that take their inspiration from Metroid’s large contiguous side-scrolling worlds. In the past few years, there’s been so many games coming out that use the Metroid formula that you would think Hollow Knight would have a hard time standing out, but I think its been fairly popular. Part of the reason for that is that its other big inspiration is Dark Souls. Mostly this is seen in how it takes place in a world built on the ruins of a once great civilization that fell to decay and madness and relates the ancient history of this culture through purposefully cryptic means. Fortunately, while the games that influenced Hollow Knight are clear, I found that this game managed to create its own identity and introduced enough of its own ideas that it didn’t feel like a cheap attempt to recapture the nostalgia of its inspirations.
For the most part, Hollow Knight is a fairly straightforward hack and slash game. Most of the game’s challenge comes from studying the enemies and bosses and then building a strategy around their strengths and weaknesses, very similar to how you would approach a Dark Souls game. It has an ethos that I describe as the best offense is a good defense. You must learn and understand enemy attack patterns so that you can identify when you have an open window to attack safely. If you attack carelessly, you will get utterly steamrolled.
While the Knight’s moves are fairly standard (slash left, slash right, dodge, charge attack, etc.), there were two aspects of his abilities that I particularly liked. The first was the way healing works. The Knight heals by casting a spell that must be charged first. He is immobile while charging the spell, and if he takes damage, the spell gets interrupted. This adds an additional layer of strategic depth to the game, since its important to understand when and where its ok to heal. The player needs to understand the enemy attack patterns well enough to know when they have an opportunity to safely heal and where to position themselves so they’re unlikely to get hit. The other thing that I really enjoyed is that the Knight can slash downwards while in the middle of a jump. This can be used to attack enemies beneath the jump, and the Knight gets a little bounce when he does this. Bouncing from enemy to enemy like this is a lot of fun, and the air time can be used to evade certain complicated attacks. Sometimes, it also allows the Knight to reach some hard to get to places that hold secrets. I love games like Duck Tales and Shovel Knight that have bouncy pogo moves like this.
The world of Hallownest was fun and interesting to explore and is dense with secrets to uncover. The exploration aspect of the game is probably what resonated with me most about Hollow Knight. Each area of the map feels visually distinctive and presents challenges and enemies that mostly feel very unique. Around the same time I was playing Hollow Knight, I was also playing Metroid: Samus Returns on the 3DS. While I kinda like that game, I have to say that everything in it just sort of blurs together. The levels and bosses I’ve played feel rather same-y and don’t leave much of a distinctive impression.
Meanwhile, I can easily recall most of Hallownest, because Hollow Knight does such a good job of creating a varied world with unique places to explore. My favorite area is Deepnest, the dark and deeply terrifying caves on the border of the kingdom that are overrun with a race of hostile spiders. Second would probably be the mysterious Ancient Basin, where the secrets of Hallownest’s godlike ruler can be discovered. I also have to mention that the White Palace has my favorite music track in the game, a somber melody that conveys the weight of the tragedy that struck the kingdom, and the area is also intensely and satisfyingly challenging.
Hollow Knight has a few different endings, but essentially there are just two. It has a few “normal” endings that are quite similar, and then a secret “true” ending that requires a great deal more effort and secret hunting to unlock. I went into Hollow Knight knowing this, but I expected that I would only bother to get the normal ending. As it turned out, I was so enamored by the game that I committed myself to unlocking the secret true ending. This was a bit fortunate as there is a significant amount of content in the game that you would only see if you went out of your way to get this ending. I’m talking about huge areas that you would never find if you only followed the path that the main story directs you through. But I have to be honest, I had to consult a guide to figure out the requirements to reveal the secret ending. There really is not a whole lot of explicit hints in the game that would give you strong suggestions as to how to unlock it. It took me roughly 30 hours to complete the game, but if I hadn’t used a guide, I could easily see it taking double that time to find the items needed to see the complete finale.
That said, it was totally worth it. Not only are the secret areas really great parts of the game, but I found the “normal” ending to be a bit anticlimactic. I felt it didn’t really do justice to the epic quest that preceded it. The secret ending, on the other hand, has a new final boss fight that takes place after the original final boss. I felt that the secret final boss was way more exciting and formidable and easily a major highlight of the game for me. In addition to revealing the true final boss, I just felt that the secret ending gave a bit better closure to the story. The normal ending would have felt rather abrupt and confusing without the extra context of the lore found in the secret areas. I really wish that they would have made the normal ending a little more worthwhile, seeing as that’s the only ending most players are likely to see.
Hollow Knight was a game that I was excited to play due to the strong word of mouth I had heard. There’s lots of popular games that I’m pumped to try, but sometimes I end up being let down by my high expectations for them. Often when this happens, I question whether gaming is still something I’m passionate about. But sometimes a game totally surpasses any expectations I had and reinforces the affection I have for gaming as a hobby. Hollow Knight is definitely that type of game. I had started out hoping to complete it quickly, but realized that I couldn’t do anything less than master it.