The Greatest Games: Hollow Knight (2017)

Hollow Knight (2017)
Developed by Team Cherry

Hollow Knight merges two subgenres which regularly prove hard yet popular to imitate. Instead of having a proper title, both of these are named after the games which started it all. This is not a unique trait – the first-person shooter genre was commonly referred to as Doom clones. FPS became the popular term once other games improved upon its foundation. This suggests that other entries in these subgenres have failed to differentiate themselves enough to force us to collectively determine another name. Looking at my own top 100, this appears to be largely true – Hollow Knight is the only game here belonging to the Metroidvania and Soulsborne subgenres outside of, well, Metroid, Castlevania, and From Software’s variously titled games. The fact it manages both would seem an extraordinary feat, but the truth is that these two genres share many common elements. Hollow Knight exploits this to massive success.

A Metroidvania game does not necessarily need a map, but lacking one tends to be a frustrating feature. Hollow Knight manages to maximize its tension by delaying this element. Each new area requires finding a cartographer who sells a basic map, forcing you to stumble around blind until you pick up his literal paper trail. Even once you find the map, it does not automatically update with each step – the knight must rest at a bench first. This little change makes a massive atmospheric difference, which is key to selling the Soulsborne experience.

Another key element of Metroidvanias is a world where each area needs to be revisited, and Hollow Knight is loaded with hidden rooms. A lot of paths are blocked by requiring upgrades, but many of these locations have alternative entrances. Hollow Knight feels very open compared to others in the genre, which can sometimes feel like linear games with the illusion of limitless direction. Large swaths of Hollow Knight can be taken in any order. There are also dozens of side areas I passed over repeatedly before finally noticing an entrance – once you think you’ve seen everything, you’ll suddenly discover an entire sub-area with its own boss. There was even an early game boss I failed to stumble across until I neared the end. Most Metroidvania games will have a few hiccups where there’s only one rather obtuse path forward. Hollow Knight simply has so many paths and such an open structure that you’ll never run out of places to explore.

Hollow Knight features many of the surface-level Soulsborne elements, such as the need to recover resources from wherever you died and the bench-to-boss runs. But what really sells these games are their foreboding atmospheres. Many developers confuse this for brutal difficulty despite the Souls series employing an unusual system for mitigating the challenge if desired. Hollow Knight is just challenging enough. Bosses like the Watcher Knights will absolutely roll you over in the first few attempts, but it never feels unmanageable. The patterns are clear enough to show why you failed; the challenge is less about overwhelming the player and more about understanding the exact moments to attack. The gameplay is effortlessly smooth, ensuring that these numerous attempts are actually enjoyable.

But, again, these games aren’t hard purely for the sake of difficulty. They make each new and sprawling location feel like a reward, giving a sense of trespassing within places which needed utmost protection. At least from my perspective, the true joy of this genre is not the boss fights but seeing the massive world unfurl. By giving only the slightest direct information, these games largely rely on environmental storytelling. A lot can be gathered just be seeing which bosses are protecting which area, and the lack of explanation makes some locations truly terrifying despite the cartoonish art style.

The lack of RPG elements actually feels essential here. Instead of simply levelling to gain power, improvements are scattered across the world. In the rare case you do come across a boss which seems too hard to manage, that’s all the more reason to turn around and explore another corridor. With dozens of charms to equip, mask fragments which increase health, and pale ore to improve your weapon, there’s always something around the corner which might give the right advantage. You may end up grinding to be able to buy a few great charms, but the most charming element of this game is the way it rewards constant progression.

Hollow Knight is all about the sensation of being lost. In fact, this might just be the biggest Metroidvania out there, and the whole experience is dizzying. From the first descent into the Forgotten Crossroads to the absolutely nightmarish run through the White Palace, every area leaves its mark. Maintaining the perfect difficulty to be challenging but never hard enough to outright block progression, Hollow Knight captures the spirit of Dark Souls while remaining surprisingly accessible.

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