The game is a metroid-vania, which is a term that is used to describe games that heavily feature exploration and combat, with a focus on acquiring new gear and skills in order to reach new areas.
Throughout the game, you explore every nook and cranny of the great kingdom of Hallownest. You explore the kingdom proper, its waterways, its mines, its very foundations, and much, much, MUCH more. I cannot emphasize just how massive this world is. But it’s not massive in the Just Cause 2 sort of way, where it’s just way too big and becomes meaningless; it’s massive in the sense that even after you beat the game, you have several hours of exploring to do. Each time you explore a new section, which happens consistently throughout the entire game, there are a dozen rooms to explore, many of which contain secrets like hidden rooms or hidden items you can find. Most of the time, you’ll end up finding new sections before you finish the current one you’re in, or find new ways back to old sections you’ve already explored, revealing new ways to get back and forth.
The inter-connectivity of the sections synergies very well with the lack of objectives or clear goals in this game. When you first start playing the game, and even well into the mid to late game, you don’t know what it is you’re fighting for, why you’re here, or what you’re trying to achieve. It seems like the Knight you play as is also unaware of why he does the things he does, so both you and your character do the only thing that those who are lost do: you wander. You explore the environment with no objectives or goals in mind. You take in the scenery and try to piece together the history of the place, what each of the NPCs you encounter say about the world, and ultimately what the Knight’s purpose is in this world. In this way, the game is almost entirely driven by your curiosity, both of the world and its lore, and the inter-connectivity allows you to never run out of things to explore. You will almost never have a “what do I do now” moment, because if you look at your partially filled out map, you can clearly see sections you have yet to explore. Whenever you hit a dead-end or become stuck along a certain path, you simply explore another unexplored area and get lost in the world for several hours at a time. Getting lost in the world is a very fitting phrase for this game, because you are exploring and discovering a lost world – Hallownest has been in ruin for a long time, and most are not strong or brave enough to explore it; indeed, the Elderbug (the first NPC you meet) seems to think it safer to let Hallownest be lost to time. But the Knight? The Knight is brave and far stronger than he looks, and so he will explore, for he must… for some reason you’ll learn later.
The game very much embraces the metroid element of metroid-vania. I must admit the only Castlevania game I played was the original on the NES, so I’m not sure how much exploring using newly acquired skills and items happens in Castlevania games, but that play style is the bread and butter of metroid games. Throughout the game, you learn to dash, wall jump, double jump and even straight up fly (emphasis on the straight part), opening up unreachable sections, as well as allowing you to breeze through previous sections with ease. It’s amazing how quickly you can get around in this game, despite its size, because the interconnected rooms as well as the Knight’s dexterity and small size makes you very hard to physically stop.
As I mentioned earlier, exploration isn’t limited to filling out rooms on the map. The two other main aspects of the game to explore are the enemies and the upgrades. For enemies, there are 151 enemies in the game the last time I played, and you must fully discover most of them to 100% the game (I think 2 of the 151 are considered easter eggs so they don’t count for completion). What I mean by “fully discover” is that not only do you have to find them, you also have to kill a certain amount of them in order to get the full lore about them. This actually produces an interesting moral system that affects the player directly: some of the enemies, like the Mantis, become passive and salute you after you defeat their lords. If you don’t kill enough Mantis before defeating their lords, and you want to 100% the game, you must do the grotesque thing of striking down creatures that mean you no harm. A similar thing happens later in the game, when you revisit an old boss you had to fight: you see a bunch of harmless creatures mourning their dead friend, and they run away screaming from you as you approach. In order to 100% complete the game, you must strike down these defenseless mourners. They do not respawn.
The last aspect I’ll touch on is the upgrades. The primary source of upgrades are in badges, which modifies the Knight like increasing the length of their sword or allowing him to heal more quickly. The badges are spread all over the place, some of which are guarded by special enemies, so just getting all the badges means you’ll explore the vast majority of the game. Additionally, you can also upgrade your nail (basically your sword) four times, and the last three upgrades require you to find rare metal, which again encourages you to explore every centimeter of the world.
The combat is very straight forward. It is composed of three parts: nail, spells, and movement. Hollow Knight has great combat because you will need to blend all three together in order to succeed in the later boss fights, as well as get through the gauntlet of enemies during your long journey. My play style relied on the nail doing most of the damage and filling my spell meter, which I would then use to heal myself of damage while using various abilities to avoid damage. This playstyle was very fast paced, since your tiny nail has short reach, requiring you to always be in your enemies reach. However, combat has a great degree of adjustability, which is primarily modified by what badge you equip. For example, a badge rewards players for having less health, resulting in greater risk and reward. Another play style is focusing on spells as much as possible – this means that the Knight will be able to strike foes at a distance more frequently and with greater firepower, reducing risk but requiring patience from the player.
The boss fights in Hollow Knight do a very good job of challenging and engaging the player. The bosses all have very cool designs, and have a predictable, though still difficult to avoid, attack patterns. Most boss fights progress as follows: you decipher their attack patterns, you figure out how to inflict damage, you learn when it’s safe to heal; rinse and repeat until you get to the next phase of the boss. Because my playstyle required me to be very close to the boss, sometimes tanking was a viable option: when you upgrade your nail to do more damage, you can equip badges that increase your swing speed as well as your invulnerability time when you get injured, meaning that each hit you take allows you to dish out massive amounts of damage to the boss before you retreat and heal up. This resulted in very exciting fights, where I would try my best to dodge all attacks while standing very near my enemy, and then punishing them if they succeed in inflicting damage. Lots of adrenaline! This tactic is a blast when you fight the final-ish boss (the one in chains).
I must confess that the offensive spell approach is not my cup of tea; I felt that the spell upgrades were almost pointless, since I never used the base spells anyway, except for healing. However, I can see the relying on spells as a much more valid tactic in Steel Soul mode, in which you have one life to defeat the entire game. I’m probably never going to try this mode; way too much stress, if you ask me.
One last thing I want to touch on is how great the inclusion of the heal spell is. It creates very tense moments in boss fights, where you have to judge when and where is safe to heal yourself in a split second. If you’re wrong, you will end up losing health rather than gaining it, since healing takes a long time. But if you’re right, you can often heal more than one unit of health at a time, which really turns the tide of battle as you are more confident with your increased health. But outside of boss fights as well, healing is a boon to exploration. You can go on very long treks through Hallownest and not need to return to a safe spot to rest since you just heal as you go along. Healing significantly improves the pacing of the game, since you rarely have to backtrack to or from a save point.
The best way I can explain this game is the gameplay of Metroid crossed with the story telling and atmosphere of Dark Souls and the visual aesthetics of Studio Ghibli. I’ve already touched on the first two points in the preceding sections, but I just cannot emphasize enough just how beautiful this game is. My god, when you meet the White Lady, the room is just so beautiful; and then you get to experience a lot more of it when you go to the White Palace. When you’re in the gardens, the backgrounds as well as a lot of the hidden rooms you find are absolutely stunning. The beauty of the game also stands out because, in the end, this is a very bleak story. You learn about the days gone by, a kingdom that has been brought low and destroyed, how the former inhabitants are essentially rotting and waiting to die. Death is omnipresent in this game, as evidenced by the fact that most of the notable NPCs die in some form – either you find their corpse, you watch them get killed, or they disappear forever after making peace with the world.
Speaking of contrast, one section of the game is absolutely horrifying to me. You enter a region called Deepnest, which is behind a secure door and surrounded by guards. When you break through, you have to fight off what look like cannibalistic pill-bugs that are way bigger than you are, which can burrow and pop-out anywhere, in the pitch dark. They also move very quickly, can climb walls, and have a fair amount of health, and you may have to fight off multiple at a time. Until you upgrade your nail to dish out more damage, these guys are stuff of nightmare. What’s even worse is that these guys are canon-fodder in Deepnest: there is so much god damn weird and creepy and outright terrifying stuff in Deepnest, none of which I’m willing to spoil. But trust me when I say: the game becomes a horror game whenever your in Deepnest, even in the late game. I’ll leave you with this screenshot:
One last thing super quick: anyone else think the White Palace is just Super Meatboy out of nowhere? Not that I’m complaining; I had a lot of fun; just thought it was funny:
Hollow Knight, along with Cup Head and Shovel Knight, is an indie game with extremely high production value. Every single aspect of the game is polished to beyond mirror shine – the controls, the music, the visuals, the story, the lore… all of it are absolutely top notch. It treads familiar territory, being a metroid-vania, but executes it with perfection. I cannot recommend this game enough; I have 42 hours of game time for my first play-through, and will play again soon since they just released a bunch of new content. It’s only $15 on Steam! Get it!!!