It’s shocking at times how pitch-perfect the atmosphere in Team Cherry’s 2017 platformer, Hollow Knight, actually is.
Taking place in the ancient kingdom of Hallownest, an underground site of dark tunnels, sentient insects, and mystical lore, Hollow Knight is a game that makes every moment in motion feel tense, and gives every moment spent standing still a quiet, haunting peace.
The drip of water in an ancient cavern, the rustle of leaves before an enemy lunges out of hiding – this is a game where small environmental details accumulate into a living, breathing ecosystem. One where even the steps of your feet, or the clang of your minute weapon – a rusted nail – have a quiet magnitude befitting the shrunk down scale of the world around you. (You play as a bug, after all.)
It is, however, a world on life support. As you move methodically through Hallownest, you’ll encounter countless characters scrabbling for survival, musing on their misfortune, or simply watching the world go by.
The kingdom was once beset by a plague that saw it fall into ruin, and the evil forces behind it – sealed away by the Pale King – are returning yet again.
It’s this contrast that elevates Hollow Knight above other platformers: this clash of grandiose quest with crumbled civilization, of heroics with recurring defeat (you will die, but get used to it).
Once sane insects have lost their minds. Means of transportation have lain unused for generations. It’s fitting that when you are slain, returning to the same area sees you face a ‘Shade’ in your likeness – a shadow of your former self.
The result? A meticulously crafted 2D platformer, and one of the best games of its kind.
Don't let it bug you
Releasing originally on PC, before making a move to Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One, Hollow Knight has charmed millions of players. That’s in spite of its widely accepted difficulty, veering on the edge between fairness and frustration (depending on who you ask).
While the game is hard, and requires skill to advance to its later stages (I’m working on it, all right?), the slow pace of its world does provide its own kind of patience, rewarding a methodical approach to trying, failing, and trying again – maybe with a new strategy or pick of ability-enhancing ‘charms’ the next time around.
Waking up on a checkpoint bench is a chance for rumination, or even re-assessing which area you want to explore, and this is a game that requires you to think carefully about how best to proceed.
But Hollow Knight also gives you space for this reflection. The simple white/twilight blue coloring of most of the world, the small and careful audio details – this is a world muted by ruin, and you’ll often feel like an unwanted interruption, disturbing the silence of NPCs or a slumbering monster.
You can’t help but feel small, a bug moving through underground caverns, fighting enemies often several times your size – so that jumping around them, using your size as an advantage is usually smarter than attacking head-on.
The simplicity of its 2D art style, though, does much to make even the most imposing enemies – or your own stoic little bug warrior – easier to take in. There is a lightness here, even in the dark things.
A Metroidvania legacy
The trademarks of the Metroidvania genre are now decades old, of course – games in the vein of Metroid or Castlevania, where players move through a sprawling maze of interconnected areas, slowly unlocking new sections as they gain new powers or means of navigation.
Hollow Knight is a masterclass in the genre, though. Each area requires you to find an insect cartographer to map out the area for you, matching the slow and creeping familiarity you’ll gain with the game’s continuous tunnels and shafts.
The occasional upgrade to movement, like the jump ability of the Monarch Wings, make every area ripe for retreading, too, as you find crevices, platforms, and gateway that were closed off to you before. From Dirtmouth to Deepnest, Forgotten Crossroads to the Fungal Wastes, it's a journey worth savoring step by step as you piece it all together.
The ‘charm’ accessories you can equip for ability boosts or gameplay enhancements (like seeing where you are on the map, for one) are never game-changing, merely adding piecemeal to that gradual mastery of Hallownest’s environments.
With a Hollow Knight sequel, Silk Song, on the way – even if the release date is uncertain – it’s clearly a world we’re not done exploring either.