Nintendo Switch Review
This is my first review on this site of a game that I have played before, so take that as you will, I probably would not have picked up the game again except for the fact I recently bought a Switch again and this was one of the few games I had already purchased and could download for free. Felt like a good opportunity to give it a review as it is a very popular game and on Game Pass.
I’ll recap some of my thoughts I wrote down after my initial pass which lasted only a few hours.
(One year ago) I was frustrated my first time through by the lack of a map, making me explore new areas blind, and the souls-like death system that I was unfamiliar with and did not figure out until losing all my souls (Geo) multiple times. I was also mad at the lack of a narrative and the fact that the game relied on my sense of discovery to push forward when that wasn’t motivating enough for me. I did enjoy the crisp combat and movement, though.
(Now) It felt better jumping into the game for the second time, actually knowing this time how the souls-like system worked and having an idea of where to go from the start. Having a little knowledge really helped my enjoyment of the game. This time through I was thinking of how much I would enjoy having a physical game guide to supplement my journey. Not only did I find more enjoyment when I had a map and when I knew where to go but having something explain the story and the lore a little more clearly would have added a lot to my experience. (RIP paper game guides)
This is definitely a great-looking game, and the sound and music is also amazing, which I missed on my first pass though playing mostly on mute on Switch. A big problem that I had remains, though, which is that the game is literally dark, meaning I can’t see what’s at each end of the screen, and I don’t enjoy that as much as I would having clear sightlines. I already have to go though without a map, the dark corners of the screen make navigation even more frustrating for no reason.
This Metroidvania’s semi-open world seems to follow a familiar structure within the genre, with the ability to roam the 2D map and having certain areas gated until certain abilities are obtained. This structure works well and is well executed here, but what sets Hollow Knight apart is how nonlinear the world is. There are always multiple paths to take and no single main line through the game. My two routes have been different so far and it seems there are endless options for what order to explore the different areas of the world or which areas to skip over. There many abilities to be unlocked and in some cased multiple abilities could open up the next area, and the level design that goes into this brilliant interwoven system is something to be commended.
This nonlinearity is not always a plus, though, as I remember times in my first playthrough working for hours though a new section only to feel like what I had just accomplished was meaningless because I didn’t unlock the next area that I thought I would. The fact that there is no one true linear path made the game a little frustrating for me as well since I always felt lost as to which direction I should/can go.
The fact that the map for each area is locked initially does not help with this feeling of no direction, and again I would have preferred having a little more guidance from the start here, but it does lead to a sense of venturing into the unknown, which I can appreciate even if it weren’t for me. It takes a considerable time commitment to learning the maps and areas in this expansive 2D world.
Combat and Traversal
From the start our hero only has the ability to jump and swing their needle, but as the game progresses and more abilities are gained, traversal and combat both become deeper. New abilities allow players to explore new areas but also open up the possibilities for new platforming puzzles based around those skills. These abilities also allow players to fight new enemies and kill others in new ways.
Another thing that stands out in Hollow Knight is how well the combat blends with the platforming. Traversal skills that open up new areas are also satisfying and necessary to use in combat. And combat abilities such as striking down at an enemy is also a skill necessary in traversal. The lines were blurred between platforming sections and challenging enemies, but no matter what the skills all were useful and blended together becoming second nature.
Again, abilities are unlocked as players progress though new areas and defeat bosses, but progress can also be made by spending the geo that is obtained from defeating enemies. This geo can be spent on new “charms” which can be chosen to create a certain “build” or “loadout” that makes The Knight feel unique to each player. Geo also buys map icons and pins early on to help with navigation and maps when the right character is located in each region.
Players can also find collectibles throughout the world that will help to increase overall health, increase the number of notches available to equip more charms, or more.
The customizability of The Knight is great, though I will note again that the souls-like element of losing all geo upon death is not very player-friendly and turned me off from the game initially as it was yet another way that my progress felt useless after hours of play. I get that the game was meant to be challenging, but it could have done so without being punishing with this element, even if having a lot of geo was never a requirement for moving forward and grinding was therefore never necessary. I didn’t know that from the start, though, so I found myself grinding a bit which really is not a good way to enjoy this game.
There is not much of a narrative in Hollow Knight, instead the story and lore are drip-fed through the environment and sparse interactions with the bugs int e world. There are no cutscenes or big story moments, instead the mystery of the world slowly unfolds, though much of it is still a mystery to me. Again, I would have preferred to have a game guide walk me through the lore and why everything was the way it was. I also prefer a narrative in my game as the story typically is what drives me forward to finish a game. Without that strong narrative, payers are left with only their sense of discovery to drive the game forward, which wasn’t enough for me to reach the end.
Hollow Knight is a special game with truly inspired level design, deep lore, fluid combat, tight platforming, and rewarding customization. It has so many innovating ideas and cements itself as an instant classic. However, its dark visuals, minimal narrative, souls-like punishing gameplay, difficult navigation, and moments of aimless wandering left me with headaches.
This is a much deeper game than I was expecting, and players should only be willing to jump in if they are willing to commit the time and they possess the necessary sense of exploration. For those players, Hollow Knight may land as one of the greatest indies of all time and a new gold standard for metroidvanias. I see its incredible merits, but its frustrating aspects keep me from recommending it to all audiences.
Fluid combat and traversal
Amazing level design
Difficult to jump into
Frustrating navigation and dark visuals
Hard to follow narrative