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Hollow Knight: Metroidvania marries Demon Souls

I hope they get divorced.

That’s my review, condensed into a single sentence. As much as I loved my deep dive into the world of Hallownest, as the end came near, I tried stopping playing three times. And I’m not alone. Here are a few fun Reddit threads:

Trolls love to answer these questions with the two words “GIT GUD”. They’re completely missing the point. By now you should have noticed that the game is incredibly difficult—yes, much more so than The Messenger, albeit in a different way. The game is all about pattern recognition, very precise timing, and patience—much like the Demon Souls series. I am only good at the first one. As Blake Andrea prophetically ends his tirade:

Everything I keep reading and writing about whether games should have difficulty options anchors itself back to the question of Hollow Knight’s benches: if you’re going to make your game difficult, at least don’t make it discouraging for the player. Game design should continually nudge, “Keep playing.” All it would have taken is some encouraging benches and I would still be in Hallownest.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum. Only, I just couldn’t stop playing—it’s that captivating.

So… Why waste your time with it?

Because, apart from the atrocious difficulty, the game is one of the best metroidvanias I’ve ever played.

The NPC encounters grow on you.
The NPC encounters grow on you.

Why? In essence, it has everything a great metroidvania game has: a superior sense of progression, atmosphere, items and upgrades, and a living, breathing (and very unique!) world. The first few hours, you’re left wondering what the heck is going on. Every new section of the “castle” (the underground fallen kingdom of Hallownest) leaves you wondering where to go to. Initially, there is no map, until you come across a humming cartographer that is friendly enough to sell you a new part.

But the map itself is useless: sights have to be added by buying pins. Money, or Geo, is initially hard to come by, although this gets easier as you progress in the game. Even your own location depends on the equipment of a charm—which, to be honest, is quite ridiculous in a game about exploration: it forces the player to give up a charm notch, making equipping battle-related charms to soften the difficulty more cumbersome. I did find the not-immediate availability of a map to be refreshing as wandering, exploring, and adventuring is part of the core gameplay of Hollow Knight. Sadly enough, every single moving–or immobile–part in the game can kill you. Hallownest is a very dangerous place. Too eager explorers will die again and again. And as Blake mentioned, like Castlevania’s save rooms, you are revived on benches.

Be on the lookout for this lovely Cartographer!
Be on the lookout for this lovely Cartographer!

That is, if you manage to find one.

Hollow Knight even includes (too) tricky platforming sections, in the same vein as Celeste and The Messenger. To my personal view, this does not belong in a metroidvania game. After more than ten tries, I gave up trying to visit a certain optional nailmaster NPC just because of that. The problem is, again, a lack of benches: dying means having to traverse too many rooms in order to get to the part where you died in the first place. Many a time I died trying to reach it—again and again.

Insert ragequit gif here…

The last part of the game, the White Palace, is one big platforming test, almost exactly like intermediate Celeste levels, where not only precise jumps are needed, but also needle “pogo jumps” and perfectly timed dashes. To be honest, at first, I was discouraged to continue—yet again. But in the end, after pressing on and successfully completing that part (it took me a good hour or so), I was not only proud but it also admittedly was quite a bit of fun.

Have I talked about the punishing boss battles yet? Yes, everything is punishing in this game. But some boss battles… Well, they are borderline insane. After reading the 10 hardest Hollow Knight bosses, I was convinced that I would never ever finish the game with the true ending. To make matters worse, after a few patches, Team Cherry “rebalanced” the gameplay by making a few must-needed charms less usable and by making a few bosses even more insane by having them do two damage instead of one and up the attack frequency. Good job, guys. I had to dig through YouTube to find cheesy strategies to overcome most bosses. That’s a bug, not a feature.

Taking down this optional 'easy' boss took me 12 tries... I was too angry to press the screenshot button on the harder ones!
Taking down this optional 'easy' boss took me 12 tries... I was too angry to press the screenshot button on the harder ones!

For those who like to enjoy the game’s immersiveness without having to go into a heart rate overdrive, you’re out of luck. Yoshi’s Crafted World includes a “Mellow” difficulty option my wife likes to use to just wander around and enjoy the game. Yoshi’s given wings; if you manage to fall off a cliff, no big deal. I’m not advocating for something like that to be enabled by default—it can be hidden away in a few submenu options—but at least give casual players a chance to explore your game. I don’t even consider myself a casual player and had to really push myself to take on a boss for the nth time in order to progress. The Traitor Lord in Queen’s Gardens (the one that got buffed up with the patch) was the reason almost I quit again: simply reaching him from the nearest bench is a pain, and the two damage is ridiculous1.

The atmosphere

Now that we know the biggest flaw of Hollow Knight, let’s talk about the biggest selling point: the atmosphere. Hollow Knight is simply put, beautiful to behold. Every section (Forgotten Crossroads, Queen’s Gardens, Deepnest, Kingdom’s Edge, …) is a feast for the eye and completely different. In-between both sections, you can slowly see the world changing: mushrooms and spores gathering at the edges where you can access the Fungal Wastes, desolate darkness creeping in where Deepnest tunnels begins.

The game's hand-drawn art is simply stunning.
The game's hand-drawn art is simply stunning.

Not only that, the NPCs are lovely too: they are funny and implicitly provide multiple subquests that are very naturally intertwined into the core gameplay, unlike the stark contrast made by Bloodstained' item fetch quests in the town, for instance. Furthermore, as you rescue people or come across new bugs to talk to, the town evolves. The world also changes as you make progress and I love that. It is truly a unique game, and a very long one, clocking in at about 30 hours, compared to the usual 12 for an average metroidvania game. Multiple hidden branches take you to loot, or more often than not, lore. I’ve read people on Reddit to be disappointed by this, but I personally loved that. Discovering a secret chamber to find a petrified version of an enemy with a line of background info—what’s not to like? The effort Team Cherry put in to make Hallownest a living, but sometimes dark and creepy place, is astonishing. Not every nook and cranny has to be filled with items or double jump upgrades.

That being said, sometimes the game does drag on a little bit. The map design is good, but not as great as classics such as Aria of Sorrow: the game requires you to backtrack too often, possibly further increasing the death count. Later in the game, to be able to access the true ending, you have to redo a couple of boss battles and fetch “Essence” with your Dream Nail. To me, it felt like an arbitrary way to prolong the game and could easily be cut for the better. Especially the beefed up rehashes of earlier bosses were more annoying to deal with than fun.

Prepare for a deep dive: the world is huge.
Prepare for a deep dive: the world is huge.

Another reason to me the game does not quite stack up to classic GBA Metroidvania’s is the musical score. It is excellent and very fitting, perfectly accompanying the atmosphere of each part of Hallownest. But it is not as memorable: when I turn my Switch off, I don’t whistle Vampire Killer-esque notes all day. As soon as I think about Aria of Sorrow, I hear Castle Corridor and can’t think of anything else all day. Hollow Knight hasn’t had that kind of effect on me.

The best of all time?

That is up for debate, although a lot of fanboys at ResetERA would love to see Hollow Knight as the best metroidvania of all time. To me, that’s quite a stretch: it is pretending that Super Metroid, Castlevania Aria and Dawn of Sorrow, and Symphony of the Night do not exist. It is certainly one of the best indie metroidvania’s out there, and I would love to see its successor, Hollow Knight Silk Song, to include an adjustable difficulty setting (and benches next to boss battles, please). Is it better than Bloodstained? Absolutely. Is it better than the classics? No.

It’s just too bad that because of this marriage with Demon Souls-style gameplay, I’d rather do another castle run than a Hallownest run.

The End Boss (besides the secret one), just to prove I got there!
The End Boss (besides the secret one), just to prove I got there!

  1. Addendum, 2nd June: Great, I just beat the Traitor Lord in “one last try”. Now I have to press on… ↩︎

Verdict: 5/5 —Amazing.

Categorized under: hollow knight metroidvania


I'm Jefklak, a high-level Retro Gamer, and I love the sight of experience points on old and forgotten hardware. I sometimes convince others to join in on the nostalgic grind. Read more about The Codex here.

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