As I get older, I’m starting to realize that maybe I’m not a true Metroidvania fan. In fact, I think that the games I like in this sub-genre must end in “vania” for me to want to see them through to the end. There are exceptions, but for the most part I find Castlevanias with big maps with easy traveling, lots of secrets, and power-ups aplenty are my vibe. Hollow Knight, as it turns out, is not one of the exceptions. It’s yet another game I’ve seen nothing but critical acclaim for, and a game I was really excited to finally try. So, maybe the I’m the one missing something?
In Hollow Knight, you play as an adorable masked figure that wanders into the town of Hallownest. The town and the caverns beneath it are dealing with an encroaching, otherworldly plasma substance. With the promise of adventure, riches, and the feeling of doing the right thing, your hero heads below to solve the mystery of this icky goo. That’s what I gathered from the game’s introduction, the instruction manual, and my playtime. Similar to something like Dark Souls or Blasphemous, Hollow Knight wants the player to put everything together to weave a concrete tale. The multitude of characters, locations, and collectibles offer snippets of lore that make traceability like a puzzle. That’s fine, but the problem is that even after looking at outside resources, I still couldn’t figure out what the heck half of it all meant. I didn’t really care to, either.
That’s partially because the gameplay in Hollow Knight feels more tedious than it does in other games like it. Beneath Hallownest lies a massive, cavernous world filled with enemies and traps. The word “massive” might excite some, but there are some problems with it. The first is the actual map. Your knight needs to purchase maps for each area. And, he needs to purchase a compass that shows his location. And then, the map won’t fill in as he explores. Once he finds a bench, which serve as the game’s safe havens/checkpoints to replenish energy, the map (if purchased) will fill in. The bench is the only place where you can change your knight’s equipment, too. Your knight can equip charms that provide neat effects, but the downside to this is that there never seems to be enough slots to cater to your playstyle. To add, there are also too few warp points. It’s just one bizarre design choice after another; none of them are fun. Ultimately, there’s just too much wandering and backtracking and too little guidance and flexibility.
Combat controls are airtight. That doesn’t necessarily equate to fun. At first, combat gets the job done. Your knight’s weapon of choice is a nail that can attack left, right, and up. There’s also a downward slash when he’s falling. Overtime, the nail can be upgraded and the knight will gain access to new abilities that help both in combat and exploration, such as an air dash and wall jump. He also has access to magic which can be used to heal or attack. To restore his MP, simply strike a foe a good number of times. It’s a basic but functional gameplay loop that is never too demanding unless the screen gets super crowded or you encounter one of the many difficult bosses. Otherwise, just whack enemies, maybe take a hit, restore HP when the time is right, and get back to the action. Sadly, your knight can’t take too many hits. His tiny size makes him easy to throw and combo; meaning his life can drain while you watch helplessly. Bosses are especially egregious. Naturally, dying means you lose all your currency. It also means having to fight a specter of your character to regain what you lost in the place you perished. What else? Along with the difficulty spikes, there are regular spikes (by which I mean the sharp pointy things protruding EVERY WHERE) and pits filled with lava. Platforming is another constant in Hollow Knight. Due to the maps large size, it gets to a point where nothing about the game is fun.
While I mostly played it in handheld mode on my Switch, Hollow Knight is a looker. Everything moves with silky smooth animation: your knight, NPCs, enemies, the backgrounds, the particle effects, the bosses, and anything I might have missed moves and flows like a dream. The knight’s nail attacks have a satisfying “thwack” which each hit. There’s a lot of stuff that he can break apart. It doesn’t do anything other than look and sound pretty. The music ranges from serene to haunting. At times, it’s easy to forget that this game has an E rating because there are many eerie moments. The voice acting is bizarre, but that choice is fitting given the game’s theme.
Another issue with Hollow Knight is its length. It takes a while to finish a game that has you doing, essentially, the same motions constantly. One could argue that this is how it is in other Metroidvanias. Perhaps, but they either don’t outstay their welcome or they offer just enough variety in some capacity to keep each moment interesting. Or maybe, they just don’t have the same design choices that Hollow Knight has. I don’t know, every game and gamer are different. All I know is that Hollow Knight was not for me. I see high praise and critical acclaim for it everywhere I look. I just don’t get it. But, maybe others will? If Metroidvania style gameplay, a ton of game time, a high challenge, and different approaches to filling in the map sound like fun to you, then Hollow Knight will be as good as others say. As for me…
Overall, 5/10: Hollow Knight isn’t hollow, but it’s far from being filled in. There are other Metroidvanias out there.