Game Review : Hollow Knight – An Unforgiving Yet Beautiful Journey

Traegan Soto, Writer

Hollow Knight has been viewed by many players as one of the most difficult and unforgiving indie games of all time. If you get discouraged easily or don’t want to spend hours upon hours even stuck on a single section of the game like I have, I highly recommend you look elsewhere. However, if it’s a challenge you’re looking for, this is the game for you.

Hollow Knight is an indie side-scrolling metroidvania. A metroidvania is a game where the player explores an area until they find an ability or upgrade, usually hidden behind a puzzle or boss battle. This upgrade then allows the player to progress on to the next area and repeat the process much like the games Metroid and Castlevania; hence the name metroidvania.

You begin as a weak vessel in the once prominent and bustling kingdom of bugs known as Hollownest. The kingdom has been overrun by a seemingly endless plague that traps the victims in their dreams and turns their lifeless husks left behind in the real world into violent and hostile creatures. You, a lone knight created with the intention of having no mind or will to think, must explore the kingdom in order to attempt to find out your purpose and how the kingdom collapsed. 

The game succeeds at making you feel weak and powerless at first, like anyone and anything could come along and crush you in a matter of seconds, the astonishing environment and ambience doesn’t make surviving any easier either. Sometimes you feel like you’re in a nice, lush, peaceful area, but just around the corner is a boss battle you weren’t ready for and before you know it, you’re back at the last bench you sat down at. But every mistake is a learning opportunity and you get to decide whether you’re going to give it another shot or if you’re going to take a breather and try to find some upgrades before trying it again. 

Mastering gimmicks and learning fighting techniques quickly becomes something you’ll need to accomplish in order to get an edge over the tougher enemies and bosses. The most popular of these techniques is referred to by the community as “pogo-ing”. “Pogo-ing” is when you can get over the enemy and attack downwards onto them repeatedly. Learning these skills becomes a necessity as it is also used in the games platforming sections, which are seen as some of the hardest parts of the game as they typically require precision timing and you can only try so many times before you run out of health.

Another important mechanic that is used throughout the entire game is soul. Soul can be gained from hitting enemies with your nail, it can be used to either heal yourself  or to cast powerful spells. Throughout the game you can unlock upgrades such as different spells and extra abilities like the shade cloak, which grants you a dash that can be used to dodge attacks. Or descending dark which sends a large shockwave flying in multiple directions, dealing heavy area damage to nearby foes. Major abilities such as these are unlocked from defeating bosses. For easier and quicker upgrades you can explore the map for charms. Charms are used to upgrade the knight’s stats and abilities, like the Mark of Pride giving you extra melee reach, or Hiveblood allowing health to regenerate passively over time. Some charms also synergize with each other, granting even stronger effects, making build crafting an important thing late game.

Dying also has its own neat mechanic, when you die you leave behind a shade. It is a dark shadowy version of yourself that is able to use any of the attacks and abilities you have to fight you. When you die you lose all your money (a currency called geo) and your maximum soul capacity is reduced by a third. To recover this you need to go back to where you die, and fight the shade. If you die in the fight, or even on the journey then all of the geo held by the shade is lost permanently. However, if you don’t feel like trekking back to where your shade is you can head into the Town of Dirtmouth and talk to a sage who is able to summon your shade for a reasonable fee.

Hollow Knight also has a generous amount of side content such as the Colosseum of Fools, where you can fight waves of new enemies and bosses for great rewards, or for the glory of being a fool. You can light the Scarlet Torch and summon the Grimm Troupe, a ritual that will take you across the entirety of Hollownest and will grant you some insanely powerful upgrades for extremely high prices. Or you can try your hand at the grueling delicate flower quest, where you must carefully plan a route across Hollownest without taking a scratch, worst part? Fast travel isn’t allowed. Once everything’s said and done you can ascend to the Realm of the Gods, and fight your strongest foes once more, and even some new ones to try and take your place at the top of the pantheon of Hollownest. These little side questlines are some of my favorite parts of the game, they’re fun, rewarding, and you get to meet new characters along the way, some being friends, other being foes.

If that’s not hard enough, you could also try Steel Soul mode: a mode unlocked after beating the original game at least once. If you die while in steel soul mode, your save file will be erased and you’ll have to restart the game from scratch. Playing this mode really amplifies the fear and feeling of weakness this game is able to give you, and I love it for just that reason.

One criticism I have for the game is that early on in the game it can be extremely difficult for new players to figure out what they need to do, and this can put many new players off from playing the game, that exact thing happened to me as well, but I decided to comeback and give it another try, and I was so glad I did. Another thing is how checkpoints work, to save your progress you need to find and sit at a bench. If you die you’ll re-spawn at the last bench you sat at. However, there are rarely any benches placed near the room before a bossfight, meaning if you lose to a boss you just might end up having to trek five minutes just to try again.

I’ve played this game now for much longer than I believe I should have, but for good reason. The game is great, it tells a story that only gets better over time, and the game is always able to give you a good challenge. No matter what point of the game you’re at there’s always going to be something just a little bit stronger than you that you know you want to beat. Indie games aren’t always the greatest when it comes to sheer amounts of content, but with over 40 hours of gameplay this game is definitely one of my favorite games of all time, and with a sequel on the horizon the $15; the game costs on almost any console seems pretty worthwhile to me.

For a rating, I would give this game a 7/10 due to its large amount of content, challenging gameplay, and low price, but I can’t give it a higher score because the game can be extremely hard to progress in without use of an online tutorial, especially towards the beginning. Unless getting lost for hours on end only to have to do it again not long after sounds like a fun possibility.