Having limited money to spend on games, the two main times when my gaming library is allowed to grow is my birthday and Christmas. And so, by the time these special dates arrive, I have a selection of games already on my wish list. I’ve been able to largely keep up with my gaming wants in this manner, but boy, does it make holidays pretty unsurprising. Last Christmas, however, I found myself in a very special circumstance indeed. I had no must-have games on my wish list. For the first time in years, I actually got to visit the game store and just…browse.
And so I slowly perused the shelves reserved for the PS4 and Switch, determined to find something good and unexpected. Reluctant to miss a thing. I saw Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair and thought, eh, I wasn’t a big fan of the first game, but I guess I’ll give it another try. Oh, and what’s this, people have been saying A Hat in Time is good. Why not pick that up, too. And then one game caught my attention, calling to me like none before…Hollow Knight.
Undertale had introduced me to an amazing gaming website called Fangamer that sells really cool merchandise, especially for less well-known titles. (This post is not sponsored or anything like that. I just really love Fangamer.) I mean, they have a few items for Mario or Zelda, but their main focus is on games with less of a massive following. And again and again, I would see merchandise for Hollow Knight, and I would think, that looks like a cool game. Then continue on with my day.
So when I found myself standing in the game store, staring down at a copy of Hollow Knight, I knew the time had come that I needed to try it out for myself. Not too long later, I managed to get a few more games for really cheap thanks to a sale on the Switch eShop. Amassing seven brand new games that I had never before played, it was still an easy choice indeed to decide which one I would start with.
It is rare for me to begin a game with expectations that are through the roof, only to still find myself speechless at how amazing the experience turned out to be. Undertale was one of those games. And Hollow Knight is the newest. Now, you may already have read Hatm0nster’s post on the game over on Virtual Bastion. If you haven’t, I suggest you check it out, as he is also a passionate Hollow Knight fan. And while I’ll summarize a little bit of what he said, I’d like to spend most of this post building upon his thoughts with my some of my own insights into the game.
The gameplay is pretty straightforward. In classic Metroidvania style, you spend the game exploring a massive network of tunnels, fighting enemies and gaining new abilities along the way that allow you to progress to even more new locations. You learn to dash, wall jump, double jump. You learn new spells. As Hatm0nster already talked about, you collect Soul from attacking enemies, which you use for spells or healing. This game does not hold your hand, and it can be really HARD. To put things into perspective, how many games let you heal nearly constantly, but you still find yourself dying ALL THE TIME? Oh, and whenever you die, you have to revisit the spot where you died and kill your shade to get your money and full Soul capacity back. (This once caused me to lose 8000 Geo, the game’s currency, because I was careless around some big bees when attempting to return to my shade. This…made me a little angry…but I recovered…eventually.)
Gameplay is pretty simple, but incredibly deep thanks to 40 charms that give you various benefits, like more Soul, stronger attacks, more money from enemies, or a cloud of stench that damages nearby foes (no joke, who knew a “heroic odor” could be so lethal?). And you can combine these charms for near infinite combinations, some of which interact with each other, meaning pretty much everyone is going to play the game a bit differently.
While Hollow Knight is a really fun game, so fun, in fact, that I became seriously sleep-deprived because I would stay up until late into the night, exploring and discovering new places, it’s not quite the gameplay that makes this game special. This kind of stuff has been done before. What made this game such an amazing experience for me was just…the world, the characters, the story…the overall package, if you will. Sure, Hollow Knight doesn’t have some crazy story with unexpected twists and turns. It doesn’t have the best, most memorable characters. Really, the game is actually quite…sad. And I bonded with it because of its ability to connect with me and create an emotional experience that I didn’t want to ever end.
You see, Hollownest is a long-dead kingdom of bugs whose inhabitants have been overcome by some sort of infection. When you start the game, you’re not quite sure yet what your goal is, but you learn the story as you explore via interacting with characters, lore, and some exploring and putting the pieces together (a form of storytelling that I just love and which can also be found in games like Metroid Prime and Portal 2). I don’t want to spoil anything because this game is best played blind, but there were a lot of emotional moments, a lot of times where I made some new discovery or happened upon some new location and had to just pause and…let it all sink in. This game is dark, literally and figuratively. There are times you’ll want to cry. There was one encounter with a character that I had met in the mines that was one of the most heartbreaking moments of the game…and it was with a random NPC that I could have easily missed and never known existed!
Hollow Knight is a beautiful, amazing experience, and if you ever choose to play it for yourself (which I highly recommend), you need to explore every nook and cranny, interact with every character, no matter how insignificant they may seem, if you want to get the most out of it. Even the music and art style is absolutely amazing, and I love how the graphics are almost…I kind of want to say monotone? Locations are usually comprised of black and white, with probably one overall color. Greenpath is…green, obviously. City of Tears is blue. Crystal Peak is purple. And the infection, a bright orange color that can be seen in the eyes of every infected creature, just stands out in sharp contrast. It was such a brilliant artistic choice and one that did not go unnoticed.
And don’t let the game’s high difficulty level scare you off. I mean, sure, there are some really challenging boss fights and some intimidating platforming, as well. But beating the game is really not that tough. It’s the extra challenges that make the game feel impossible sometimes (for me, I couldn’t beat the Trial of the Fool, the Path of Pain, and the Godmaster DLC). But I wouldn’t say the simple act of completing the game to be an insurmountable obstacle by any means. It just takes practice…and learning a tough boss’s attack patterns can make a previously impossible boss suddenly easy.
This game is a prime argument for the idea that video games can be art and a wonderful example for why indie games are some of the best out there. Now that big developers churn out the same, tired stuff over and over again, I find myself and plenty of other gamers turning to indie developers more and more for fresh and new experiences. It really is a great time to be a gamer!
This post was originally published on Virtual Bastion on February 25, 2020.