I already knew Hollow Knight was good, because I’ve already played it. In fact, I’d already rolled credits on it last year after a joyful playthrough on Nintendo Switch. But I did leave a lot on the table – many corners left unexplored, only one ending seen, terrifying bosses awaiting. Now that it has arrived on to Xbox Game Pass I decided to give it another go.
In the exploration heavy action platformer you play as the titular Hollow Knight, roaming the ruined Kingdom of Hallownest. Why are you there? What are you doing? What the hell have these damn bugs been up to? Nothing is immediately apparent, but something is calling to you – the Knight, and the player – and so you slowly move on from the starting area of the fading border town of Dirtmouth into the ancient realm to fill in the corners of your map and find your way to whatever truth lies at the heart of the necropolis. The combat and platforming starts simple enough, but you gradually unlock and develop an arsenal of skills and bonuses to form your play style around, which becomes essential as the game reveals itself to be really, really tough.
Death comes with a Dark Souls flavour, and boss fights are suitably punishing as a result. When you die you leave an imprint behind: a ghostly shadow apparition who holds whatever currency you had when you were defeated. Make your way from your last resting spot (benches here, not bonfires or lanterns) to the apparition and defeat it and receive your treasures. This is made more difficult by the fact that when one of your apparitions is roaming the world you are slightly…incomplete. To heal in the game you can focus your ‘soul’ – a meter which is filled by striking enemies. This meter is broken and limited until you defeat your imprint. This healing mechanic entices players into being more aggressive, even when low on health, and so creates an interesting balancing act which ensures every encounter feels worthy – even lowly enemies can be worth fighting, even if you have progressed beyond them, as they will help fill your soul meter and so may help you heal against a stronger enemy around the corner or if you find yourself failing on platforming sections (falls into pits, acid etc. aren’t instant death, just a loss of health and positional reset).
When it comes right down to it though what I love about this game is that it creates…a feeling, a mystery, a melancholia, a whatever you want to call it, a…vibe. Whatever it is it’s hard to pin down, but it is the result of all the things Team Cherry have done right in developing Hollow Knight: the music, the visuals, the tricky but simple combat which makes you feel consistently challenged, but always capable and only on rare occasion absolutely overwhelmed. It’s the sense of grandeur in the labyrinthine architecture of the 2D world, and it is the occasional bout of absolute horror created by the art and sound design.
But let’s just backtrack for a second to the music. The soundtrack by Christopher Larkin is top drawer, and just as on this second playthrough I have become confident that Hollow Knight is one of my favourite games of this generation, I am now confident that this score is one of the best videogame soundtracks, possibly ever. It is rare for me to want to listen to a video game score, even for some of my favourite games, outside of the context of the game, but Hollow Knight’s soundtrack is available on Spotify and I’ve been diving back in between play sessions with glee. For the most part Larkin keeps things kicked back with atmospheric, ambient tunes which help emphasise the creepy, dilapidated beauty of the land, but on occasion he is allowed to come front and centre with something like Mantis Lords, which drives a terrific boss battle with motivating, epic strings as you battle the honourable creatures who share the tracks name.
Much of the joy of Hollow Knight is discovering it for yourself, so I implore you to give it a go without reading too much beforehand or getting yourself involved with a guide too early on. It is tough, so I can certainly understand being drawn to walkthroughs and tutorial videos and I will almost certainly be needing some outside assistance as I attempt to fully complete this deep and dense game. Just try not to spoil yourself too much before you go in.
I’m thrilled a sequel is on the way, but until then I plan on diving deep into this layered game and finding all that I definitely missed first time around.