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Fragments of life are dotted around Hallownest, burrowed into hidden nooks and secret passages throughout this kingdom of bugs. A mushroom mumbles to itself in a small fungal cave. Two gossiping beetles share a hot spring bath in a secret cavern, their cosy chattering stopping awkwardly once you take a dip. Hollow Knight, the debut from Australian indie developers Team Cherry, is a masterful 2-D Metroidvania a platformer sub-genre heavily focused on exploration.
It takes guts from developers to make quality secrets, taking countless hours of hard work and locking them into an obscure corner that only a tiny percentage of players will ever see. By consistently leaving entire areas with unique bosses, biomes, music and characters behind cracked walls in empty rooms, Hollow Knight’s developers Ari Gibson, William Pellen, Jack Vine and composer Christopher Larkin craft the magical feeling that secrets lie around every corner.
You explore Hallownest as a small, mysterious creature wielding a nail as a weapon, looking to solve the mystery of a spreading infection turning bugs into monsters. Wonderful hand drawn art contrasts intricate towns, where spiraling shell patterns adorn insect husks used as houses, with immersive jungle areas fizzing with acidic water and covered in mossy growths.
As you explore, you constantly encounter areas designed to be tackled later, creating a tactile aura of mystery; walls and platforms just out of reach, mysterious noises coming from somewhere just off screen. The player first enters a new area blind, without a map to guide them, until they can track down the literal paper trail of the lovable cartographer Cornifer. This acts as a gentle hand that shoves you into the intended experience of Hollow Knight: stumbling around, looking for the right way and accidentally finding a fascinating insect or hidden object instead.
Hollow Knight motivates you to explore interesting lore details with impactful abilities and upgrades. In a lovely touch, charms – passive abilities – are often the embodiment of a bug that has passed away with effects that cleverly mirror their previous owners. For example, an ornate sarcophagus for a snail shaman holds a spell casting upgrade, an increase for your attack speed lies with the corpse of a hulking beetle warrior and a charm to enhance your movement abilities is fixed onto the base of the magnificent Dashmaster statue.
This all really hit home for me after my journey up the mountain looming above the dusty hub town Dirtmouth. The peak is ominously foreshadowed in conversations during the first half of the game and eventually becomes an optional challenge. The climb feels designed with one late-game upgrade in mind, but Team Cherry included a loophole to tackle it much earlier on.
*Spoilers ahead for a few paragraphs.*
I managed to bait a flying enemy across two screens, smacking it with my nail to hop high in the air, think of Shovel Knight’s downwards bouncing, before dashing over to a narrow ledge. It’s clearly intended, but the difficulty of pulling it off made it feel ‘out-of-bounds’ somehow and all the more exciting for it. Dozens of hairy runs later, I got to the summit, the wind howling through mysterious sculptures.
The upgrade item up there was a significant boost for a mid-level character, well worth the pain of the journey. To cap it off, an elevator connected the mountain peak to another area in a jaw-dropping moment of world inter-connectivity. This felt like a truly personal journey; you really feel that the developers went the extra mile to craft something special.
Admittedly it takes a while for all of this to really sink in.
At the beginning, Hollow Knight strips the action platformer down to the basics: running, jumping, attacking. It’s deliberate and slow-paced, taking hours to even unlock wall-jumping or dashing. However, stellar level design makes new abilities feel properly significant in a way few games achieve. With just a jump ability, the first area is an exercise in zoning, feeling out every enemy’s attacks for counter-attack windows or opportunities to jump past them and any obstacles in-between.
Nail jumping is rarely vital but encourages the player to go off the beaten path, weaving through challenging gauntlets to crack open treasure chests. Later, new areas introduce tricky ranged enemies above dangerous environmental hazards, demanding that you become comfortable chaining wall jumps, dashes and aerial attacks.
Composer Christopher Larkin brings Hallownest to life with strong, memorable melodies resting on dense layers of strings and woodwinds. His use of harp and piano give the music a distinctively whimsical, almost magical atmosphere, dynamically growing in richness and intensity as you delve deeper into levels. Larkin’s sound design is also perfectly judged; every bug you meet has an endearing and unique stream of gibberish that accompanies their short but sharply written dialogue snippets.
The bugs themselves, including a wizened stag beetle used for transport or a family of grubs, are equal parts menacing and endearing thanks to imaginative character designs and bouncy animation. It helps that Hollow Knight is an unusually gentle post-apocalypse. Much of the kingdom is in decay, and one character has a heart-breaking slide into madness, but for the most part those you meet are happy hermits.
The stakes are high in Hollow Knight but never oppressively so, leaving you in the nice middle ground where you feel comfortable poking around and taking your time without losing focus on the main quest. It gets bloody hard though. Every hit from every enemy, down to the smallest grub, will always take off at least one full chunk of your limited health.
The mid-to-late game throws groups of enemies at you, mixing ranged homing attacks with bullet-spread projectiles, flurries of melee attacks and exploding corpses. Enemies are deliberately placed to trip you up as you explore, like ghoulish parasites that infests corpses and runs across spike traps, making you constantly aware the surrounding environment.
Ultimately, the variety of encounters keeps combat engaging for the entire run time, bolstered by Hollow Knight’s energy and death mechanics. A shared energy pool for healing and spell casting is generated by hitting enemies, similar to Hyper Light Drifter and Lucah: Born of a Dream.
It works particularly well in a Metroidvania though; no matter how out of your depth you feel, you always have a way to get energy back to heal up and push onward. The intensity of this risk-reward system is ratcheted up with some clever rogue-like elements.
After a death, any money or “geo” you’re carrying is dropped and your energy pool gets shattered, leaving you with less resources to heal up and cast spells. Best or worst of all is what happens to your corpse. A ghostly specter is generated where you died, forcing you to track it down and defeat it to get your money and resources back.
By itself, the specter is easy to beat, but it might be hovering just above that gigantic magma spider that destroyed you last time you stumbled into its lair. The resource penalty in Hollow Knight is just harsh enough to consistently motivate you to track your specter down, a feeling that always tapers off in From Software’s games, without properly derailing you.
Boss fights are highlights, multi-layered encounters varying from intricate one-on-one dances, like the graceful Hornet, to multi-tasking brawls against enemies like the Mantis Lords, who weave a deadly web of synchronised attacks.
The final few tasks, tracking down significant figures dotted around the map, vary in the depth and quality of their boss encounters and associated levels, making the ending oddly rushed and a bit anti-climactic. However, it’s the encounters in between that make Hollow Knight. The butterfly-winged performer in an empty tower who sings a haunting melody for you. The ‘Mighty’ Zote, a disheveled warrior that dreams bigger than his boots, who you keep rescuing from dodgy spots.
It all clicks when you get to the City of Tears at the heart of Hallownest, drenched in constant ‘rainfall’ from the cavern roof overhead. A choir bleeds into a soft piano melody as you drop down. You find a bench, taking a moment to rest while rain patters on a glass window latticed with the kingdom seal. You’re viewing a society boiled down into a bell jar, a grand world on a charmingly tiny stage.