Beneath the adorably gothic façade of Hollow Knight lies a game that all but refuses to compromise or hold your hand. The cute insect enemies and near chibi hero may give the impression that Hollow Knight is a game for a younger audience, but first impressions can be deceiving, and here, expecting anything but a tough Metroidvania style platformer with an undeniable hint of Dark Souls would definitely be a mistake. The enemies may be bugs and other things that crawl in the dirt, but they’re just as deadly as any skeleton, zombie or black knight. Wielding a blade called nail, players delve into the depths of Hallownest, an old kingdom buried under the town of Dirtmouth. Long dormant, the denizens of Hallownest are stirring, and it’s up to those brave or foolish enough to brave the soil and find out what’s going on.
While the platforming and exploration based gameplay will feel pleasantly familiar to anyone who has played a Metroidvania style platformer, one of the real defining characteristics of the game, and something that really makes it stand out from the pack is the granular combat and the give and take nature of the abilities of the knight. Combat is finely tuned and nuanced thanks to directional attacks, challenging attack and defence sequences, and a plethora of enemies and bosses to face. The keyboard controls for Hollow Knight are well implemented, but, as with many platformers, playing with a controller is a wholly more satisfying experience. Outside of regular attacks, each of which knock the knight back a small way, adding an interesting rhythm to fights and all but eliminating attack spamming, the player also has access to some special powers, either a powerful attack or a self-heal. These abilities use a resource gathered through hitting enemies rather than killing them, adding an interesting dynamic to fights, especially against bosses. You need to get up close to gain some meter, but is it better to lash out with a big attack, or should you back off and try to heal any damage accumulated while gaining power?
Aside from the approach to combat, there are a few other mechanics that feels Souls inspired. Rather than saving at bonfire, the knight instead rests on a bench, and when you die you must run from the last bench you sat on to the location of your death to reclaim any currency you were carrying. In an interesting twist, the knight also has to fight his own ghost to reclaim any dropped money.
As enjoyable as Hollow Knight is, there is one major frustration that holds the game back a little. To find a map of a level, players must find the cartographer of that level, and finding them can easily fall into repetitive backtracking and frustrating exploration that relies solely on memory rather than any in game clues. That may appeal to some gamers, but given the complexity of the game already, having to cast about all but blind feels a little more like a roadblock than a satisfying gameplay decision.