Imagine Dark Souls, then imagine it with the gameplay of a Metroid-Vania game, finally imagine all the characters replaced by ghost/bug people and you have a basic summary of Hollow Knight.
The comparison to dark souls comes in several forms, the first of which being the incredibly ambiguous nature of the story, with nothing being revealed directly about the player character, implying they’re just a small thing wandering around the remnants a huge world that has been left behind for a long time. What lore there is in this world is entirely optional and can be entirely skipped if you only care about the gameplay. The only exception I’ve found from this is a small story involving a character who shows up periodically through the game with whom you have at least one fight and reveals further snippets of lore surrounding the current state of the game world through unskippable dialogue. This is, to me at least, not an issue as I find the world fascinating, with its large and wildly differing areas providing so much intrigue that any scrap of information regarding its areas is welcomed. Whether it’s the almost abandoned town on the surface, the dense jungle area, or the underground town, empty and covered in perpetual rain, I am astounded by the rich variety of scenery from area to area that gives the impression of a crumbling world, its inhabitants consumed by some dark force and leaving only the buildings behind.
Speaking of those inhabitants, the world is in fact covered in a wide variety of enemies, all of which have a unique entry in a bestiary acquired fairly early on, with each entry being expanded by killing a certain number of the corresponding enemy. Some of these enemies were previously residents of the world, their corpses re-animated into husks of their former selves, charging blindly at any living thing that comes across them – namely you – because they don’t know anything else anymore, they have no other purpose. This is most evident when you are not in their sights, the husks that were once sentient now just walk sluggishly on set patrols with no purpose and no sign of intelligence, their bodies hunched as if morose until they spot you where they spring to life as if finally given a reason to exist. This helps build on the atmosphere the world itself creates that you are exploring a dying world, although in this case, it’s a slightly more on the nose about that. Other enemies seem more like creatures just trying to do their own thing and survive, many of which don’t even try and attack you and are purely obstacles or will only attack in self-defence, you almost pity these enemies as they really did nothing to deserve your attacks, but you needed to get them out the way or the things they drop. Others attack you because you look like prey to them, most of these being various types of flying gnat or a kamikaze bird that I hate with a passion.
The Dark Souls parity doesn’t end with the world/aesthetics. Health is restored at benches which act as checkpoints, enemies respawn after resting and there is a fast travel system, however it is separate from benches and done in “stag stations” (often containing a bench) which are unlocked for money. The game is very difficult, with you only having five hit points, which can be upgraded with collectables, and each enemy doing one damage per hit and explosions – like those from the kamikaze birds – doing two damage, meaning you can die in as little as 3 hits. You have a short invincibility period after being hit which can be extended through a buffing item which I’ll come to later meaning you aren’t completely stun locked into a corner and can back off to try and recover health. Finally, when you die a part of you – a shade in this instance – is left behind and defeating/collecting it when you come back gives you back all the money you had at the time of your death, however if you die before getting that shade, that money is lost forever and there have been several instances where I’ve lost several hundred “Geo” thanks to a run of bad luck or incompetence (I suspect the latter). This last point is especially important and a key part of good game design. 99% of the deaths I’ve experienced were entirely down to a fault on my part rather than any bit of poorly balanced design. The 1% goes to one particular enemy who teleports around almost every time you get close to him and who fires long-range projectiles that are very difficult to dodge in the areas in which they spawn. (Dickheads)
Enough of the Dark Souls comparisons now, we shall move on to the combat. You begin the game with your only weapon being a small sword called a Needle, considering the setting of this game, the name may be surprisingly accurate. Most standard enemies will take three to five hits to kill – this can be upgraded through a merchant later on – and each hit will knock you back slightly, meaning you need to have a fair handle on your surroundings as you could easily hit an enemy then knock yourself into some spikes or similar hazard. These aren’t, gratifyingly, a one hit kill but take a health point and plant you back on the last bit of solid ground stood on and may leave you vulnerable to incoming enemies as you get your bearings back. You are soon given a dash move that, while not giving you temporary invulnerability, can be used in combination with a high jump to get clear of most enemies in the game. It is also something you will need to get used to using for boss battles, of which there a quite a few, some mini, some optional but all difficult when first encountered. Later on, you are introduced to spells which can be used both as an attack or a way to unlock new areas – I have so far unlocked a sidewards blast and a downwards punch – and drain your soul points. Soul is acquired by hitting enemies or certain pillars that light up once approached, soul is also used to heal, with the standard soul meter being able to do 3 of any combination of the aforementioned uses and probably more as the game progresses. This, like the health points can be upgraded at least once through a different set of collectables but getting hit whilst healing – which takes around 2 seconds per point – will cause you to loose a point, not get the one you were trying to heal and lose the soul you had already used before getting hit which strikes me as slightly cruel.
One way around the issue raised above (other than getting out of the bloody way) is to use one of a set of passive buffs collected throughout the game in the form of badges. These badges have a variety of effects, from the longer invulnerable period mentioned 2 paragraphs ago, one that creates a shield around you whilst healing that takes one hit and the list goes on. You can apply these buffs at a bench but each has a slot cost for applying and you start with only 3 slots (more can be bought/found later). My current line up with 4 slots consists of the shield, one that stops me recoiling when hitting an enemy and one that marks my location on the map.
Now, I find the map to be a particular sticking point for me, when entering a new area, the map is unavailable to you, meaning you need to search blindly for the map merchant who is hiding somewhere in the darkness and pay him to give you a partial map of the area which you can then fill out by travelling through the area. The map doesn’t, however, fill in as you go and instead leaves unexplored areas blank until resting at a bench. This to me is the opposite to how it should be done, the map should be filled in as the player progresses, but inexpertly, leaving out particular details and just the rough shape of the path you’ve taken. Then when you find the map man, payment should be given for a more precise version of the map, marking benches, shops and other things in areas you’ve already explored (at least that’s my idea, it may be worse). In reality, this is not the case and the shops and benches are not marked on the map at all initially, and must instead be unlocked by paying the map merchant’s wife – who lives in the surface town – for pins to mark each different type of friendly location. The cost of this is not huge per set but at the start of the game, it is a good hour or two of saving your money up if you want them all. Also, I think the location on the map shouldn’t be a slot consuming badge, that is being unnecessarily tight fisted on a mechanic with an already severe limit.
Overall, Hollow Knight is a well designed, beautiful looking game with a couple of issues that really aren’t negative enough for me to not recommend, I’m certainly enjoying my time with it and while I get salty at dying, it just makes me go back for more to show the thing that killed me what for.