“Hollow Knight” is an Evergreen Miracle


Calling “Hollow Knight” a “great” game, even a “masterpiece,” is so played out that it’s become an inside joke to call the indie darling a “hidden gem.” Yet despite the endless praise and unimaginably lofty expectations, “Hollow Knight” lives up to all of them.

“Hollow Knight” is a 2017 2D action-adventure platformer developed by Team Cherry — Ari Gibson, William Pellen, and David Kazi, based in Adelaide, Australia. What started in 2013 as a relatively simple endeavor to make a three-room game based on an Adobe Flash game ballooned as the trio added idea after idea. After months of delays, $57,000 in crowdfunding, near-bankruptcy, a loan to finish the game, and infinite iteration, “Hollow Knight” released in early 2017 to middling fanfare. Over the next six years, though, the game would sell over three million copies and win endless adoration over its music, art style, worldbuilding, atmosphere, combat, and difficulty.

“Hollow Knight” is a massive game: 15 areas, each with dozens of rooms, over 150 enemies, 47 bosses, and dozens of little secrets. A new player could easily sink 50 hours into the game on their first playthrough and dozens more if they want to complete it or explore its expansions fully. I finished the main game to 112% in 80 hours, plus an additional 20 for the Godmaster expansion, but I could easily sink another 50 if I wanted to complete all the optional challenges.

Of course, many games can lay claim to a long playtime, but what makes “Hollow Knight” impressive is the sheer amount of it that is fully enjoyable.

Platforming being one of the core parts of a Metroidvania, “Hollow Knight” provides ample excellence. None of what it does is new to the sub-genre, but its combinations and implementations lead to a delightful experience. The game starts with nothing but a walk and jump, but has you gather abilities: a dash, wall cling, and double jump, plus a super dash and the existing ability to pogo off of enemies and spikes. Add in intelligent obstacle design, areas accessible only with specific unlocks, a map system, recurring enemies, and offensive upgrades, and simply traversing the world becomes almost as enjoyable as the bosses. Nothing quite beats the feeling of returning to an area that earlier gave you trouble, fully kitted out, and completely styling on it. 

Where I can find some holes to poke in the gameplay, I honestly can’t say anything about the art and writing.

The combat isn’t revolutionary, but it is clever: the player character, the Knight, is a tiny bug wielding a short-range nail. Hitting enemies deals damage and gathers Soul, allowing the Knight to heal, and later offers access to spells that give you range, wide-range damage with invincibility frames, or massive aerial damage. Add in the mobility unlocks and sprinkle in damage options like Nail Arts, and you have an easily understood but infinitely flexible combat system that dozens of enemies and bosses can push to the limit.

This view of combat and traversal doesn’t even consider the charm system, which allows the player to mix and match modifications as simple as a nail damage or range increase to ones as esoteric as Shape of Unn, which turns the Knight into a slug when healing.

Encounters, from common enemies to the highest bosses, are (mostly) excellent in design. The ones that stand out most are late-game bosses, where Team Cherry could design enemies that test as many of your skills as possible, like the infamous Nightmare King Grimm’s frenetic dance or the Radiance’s awe-inspiring gauntlet of attacks. It’s a testament to game design that the fight against Soul Tyrant took me around six hours of trying and dying, yet it was fun the entire time. There’s always something for someone and room for player improvement, even when it’s not fun at first. I used to hate Pure Vessel, but now it’s one of my favorite fights, the only one I’ve beaten (dozens of times) on the “Radiant” difficulty level where you die to any damage.

I add “mostly” because this is where the game is most flawed. Sure, some areas are lackluster (the Hive), some are overused (Fungal Wastes), and some charms are objectively bad (Dreamshield will harm you more than it helps). However, there are more mediocre to bad bosses than “bad” aspects elsewhere; a few are too dependent on random number generation or are simply unfair (Markoth nearly made me throw my computer against a wall). Still, these are exceptions to the overall transcendent fights.

A great deal of the praise surrounding “Hollow Knight,” though, goes beyond its mechanics to its artistry. Where I can find some holes to poke in the gameplay, I honestly can’t say anything about the art and writing.

Christopher Larkin’s score for this game speaks for itself, a classical tour de force centered around piano and viola, projecting a dark elegance and ruination that pervades the game. It’s a fascinating score to dissect, with plenty of thematically-appropriate leitmotifs and instrumentation. The songs are implemented elegantly, adapting to the player’s actions and events around them, like how the Greenpath area music subtracts instruments when you get close to a resting area until all you hear is the ambiance of waterfalls. The soundtrack was a favorite of mine even before I played the game, and these tracks elevate the experience even further.

Many a game can lay claim to a long playtime, but what makes “Hollow Knight” impressive is the sheer amount of it that is fully enjoyable.

The world of Hallownest is impeccably portrayed, each area delightfully different from the other yet fitting together seamlessly. The characters that populate them are all memorably designed and written, all with such loving flair and stunning animation that makes this world feel completely continuous and lived in. Enemies are easy to read for attacks, each with incredible looks, and the NPCs’ wonderful dialogue, passionate voice acting, and character design make them all stand out. Despite its scope, no part of the game feels artistically worse off than others.

In this beautiful world, the story of “Hollow Knight” is subtly told, one of a desperate king and gods fighting to be remembered, of the infection and decay of a once-great kingdom. It’s one you unravel slowly by venturing through the world and interacting with its inhabitants, and when examined, it’s surprisingly affecting. It serves as an impetus by which the player is motivated to explore and fill out holes in their knowledge, pushing them forward as much as the desire to uncover the beautiful landscapes of Hallownest and leaving them hungry and hunting for more. And for a Metroidvania such as “Hollow Knight,” that’s precisely what it needs.

“Hollow Knight” can be a pain, but it’s endlessly enjoyable, infinitely variable, majestic, beautiful, heartbreaking, and artistically transcendent. It’s a miracle in terms of quality, it’s a miracle it even got made, and at an absolute steal of $15, it’s a miracle for your wallet. I can’t sing its praises enough; play it at any chance you get.

(And I can’t wait for “Silksong”! The sequel that’s definitely coming out soon! Please!)