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This page includes some jargon that hasn't been added to the site's glossary yet. I'll be around to fix this later, but sorry for the inconvenience in the meantime.

Review: Hollow Knight

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: E10 - Everyone (Ages 10 and up)
My Rating: Ages 10 and up
Genre: Metroidvania
License: Commercial
Release Year: 2017
Reviewed Version: 1.4.3.2
Review Published On: February 7th, 2020
Played on: Thaddeus

Available from:

Humble Store, Steam

Save System:

You have your choice of four save slots. From there, the game automatically saves your progress at various points, and you can manually trigger the autosave feature by resting at any bench.

To pause the game, view your inventory or press ESC to bring up the pause menu.

Summary of
Major Issues:

While the majority of the violence seen in this game isn't anything to write home about, there are a few exceptions. The player will also encounter a range of ghosts and spirits in their travels, and magic of some form is fairly omnipresent.

Screenshots

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Braving the crystal lasers

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Not having a good day

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And now we bring the Metroid back into Metroidvanias



Game Overview

Hollow Knight is a game that constantly surprises. There's a lot of things going on under the surface, which makes a lot of sense when you realize that this is a game about a bunch of bugs. I don't want to explain things too much, as one of the things that makes exploring the ruins of Hallownest so rewarding is the sheer amount of lore hidden away for the player to discover. That said, there are some things that are taken for granted by the playerbase, and any discussion of this game will need to be upfront about them.

As mentioned, this is a game about a kingdom of bugs. This has several implications, most of which revolve around scaling down a sword-and-shield fantasy setting so that everything fits our cast. For example, instead of using a sword, most combatants use sharpened nails -- the sort of nail you'd hit with a hammer, not nails like you have on your finger. Different species of bugs also live as unique tribes: woodlice make up most of the population, the Mantis tribe lives in the Fungal Wastes, bees have created their own small society in the west, flukeworms inhabit the waterways, and much to the chagrin of arachnophobes, a LOT of spiders reside in Deepnest.

This large world is more or less open for you to explore however you want. This game is a Metroidvania, so you'll need to find key items or learn new abilities in order to open new routes and areas. The world also changes as the story progresses, and not for the better.

You see, you're not playing as the Hollow Knight. That title belongs to the entity locked away in the Black Egg by a powerful magic seal. Long ago, a dangerous infection began threatening Hallownest, and to combat it, the Pale King found a worthy candidate and used him as a living container. For a long time, the infection has been trapped within the Hollow Knight, and he in turn, has been sealed away. Thus the threat was contained and the inhabitants were protected.

Or they were. The seal is slowly weakening, and the infection is starting to seep out again. And thus we have your ultimate goal: you'll need to open the Black Egg, and then either contain the infection or destroy it.

And that's the summary of Hollow Knight's story. Gameplay wise, this is a very combat oriented game. Your character wields both magic and a nail, and you'll need to become very skilled in their use to safely travel around the world. Fortunately, the combat mechanics are a lot of fun, and there's a large selection of elaborate boss fights to keep you busy. On the downside, some of the platforming challenges can be much less fun or even outright rage inducing (an optional area known as the Path of Pain was very accurately labeled for example).

All in all, with a huge world, lots of unique challenges, many hidden secrets, tons of lore weaving the world together, and even multiple possible endings, this is really a masterpiece of a video game. In fact, the main thing that disappoints me about Hollow Knight is that I waited so long to give it a try!

Points of Interest

Large cast of eclectic characters
There's a ton of NPCs to interact with, and they are actually shown living their own lives. As you play the game, they move around to different areas, have different things on their mind, and generally go about their own business. Each character also has a distinct design and personality of their own, so it's not surprising that many players have fallen in love with the residents of Hallownest.

On a side note, everyone speaks using a pretty, sing-song like language. It sounds like a real (if unidentified) language, but unfortunately it's been revealed by the developers to just be pleasant sounding gibberish. Well bapanada...
Two game modes
In the normal mode, death is mostly a slap on the wrist. You'll lose any money you're carrying, any fragile equipment you're using will break, a Warrior Shade will appear near where you died, and you'll be teleported back to the last bench you used. Then, you can return to where you died so that you can fight the Warrior Shade and reclaim the money you dropped. Alternatively, if you died someplace especially dangerous, you can visit an NPC in Dirtmouth who can bring the Shade to you.

But there's another mode that's unlocked after completing the game's story for the first time. Known as Steel Soul Mode, this introduces permadeath mechanics. In other words, if you die in this mode, your saved game is erased. This has an interesting side effect: fragile equipment is powerful, but breaks when your character is defeated and can't be repaired easily. Since your game ends the first time you die, it doesn't matter if they're fragile or not anymore.
Engaging combat
There's a healthy thirty five unique bosses for you to find and challenge. Twelve of these bosses also come in an enhanced form with new and stronger attacks. Perhaps the best part is that there is a hidden location called Godhome where you can challenge these warriors to your heart's content. Even better: losing a battle in one of Godhome's arenas doesn't count as an actual defeat, so you don't suffer any of the penalties that death would normally bring, even in Steel Soul Mode.
Tons of things to collect and find
And how. There's a ton of stuff hidden away for you to collect. Many of these items are trinkets that can be sold for extra money or traded to certain NPCs in exchange for bits of optional lore about Hallownest and its inhabitants. You can also find charms in your travels. These are items that grant the wearer special abilities or buffs. Some can be purchased from vendors, but several must be discovered through exploration. Additionally, there are other things to find, such as the Stag Stations (which act as fast travel hubs), mask shards that increase your total health, and vessel fragments that increase the amount of SOUL you can store.

Not every collectible is an item either. All 46 of the Grubfather's children have been captured, placed in glass jars, and secreted away. While that can be viewed as a rescue operation, the Hunter's Journal works in the opposite manner. It holds lore about every creature in the game, but in order to unlock the log entries, you must first slay at least one of each creature. Finding and killing a member of each type of enemy is a big task, but it's still doable.
Alternative stories
In addition to the main game, there are at least two other stories waiting to be told. I've already hinted at the first of these; once you find the Godseeker in the Royal Waterways, you can enter Godhome and begin a journey to become the greatest combatant in all the land. The second story involves the Grimm Troupe; a circus led by what is essentially a vampire king. Unlocking that story requires lighting a special torch in a hidden cave. Neither of these need to be completed in order for you to earn the best ending; they are separate adventures for you to play and enjoy.
Steam community features
A good, challenging game needs to reward players for their effort, and this one is no exception. There are 63 achievements up for grabs, though about a third of them are awards for defeating specific bosses. Some are rewarded upon unlocking a specific ending or choosing a specific path in the storyline, but most are earned by finding every collectible of a specific type.
Moderate to high difficulty
As much fun as Hollow Knight is, this isn't an easy game, and it's probably a really good thing that Steel Soul Mode isn't available from the start. Simply put, your skills will be tested at some point, and even veteran players have trouble with certain areas of the game. The White Palace, for example, is an insane platforming challenge and must be navigated in order for you to finish the game.

And then there's the primal aspids, a type of enemy that has become infamous for the sheer amount of frustration they've caused.

Concerns and Issues

Lightly graphic
Being a game heavily based around swordfighting, it's kind of obvious that there's a lot of violent content. The majority of it is family friendly, though there are at least three points where things cross the line. More about those in the spoiler section below. Regardless, you won't see any hemolymph (insect blood) getting spilled or much in the way of gore. Instead, when a character is hit you'll see a splash of infection, Void, or Essence, depending on who was injured. Some of the more heavily infected enemies have bright orange pustules or boils on them, but that's about it.
SOUL Magic
The majority of magic in Hollow Knight is based around SOUL. Without going too much into the lore behind SOUL and its dark counterpart Void, the basic idea is that you have a reserve of SOUL power, and can cast various spells using it. To regain expended SOUL, you need to rest in a hot spring or at a bench, or you strike an enemy with your nail. The latter option basically means that you steal life force from other creatures. The spells you cast aren't anything that special; they're mostly special attacks that use SOUL like a fuel source -- see the glossary entry for mana for more about how games typically handle this sort of thing.

However, stuff gets dark pretty quickly once you start looking into the lore about SOUL and Void. So while the player's actions aren't particularly questionable, the same cannot be said for everybody in Hallownest.
Many "gods"
The Godseeker is of the opinion that powerful creatures should be worshiped, and calls them gods. The reality is that every "god" in Hallownest is simply a powerful creature, and definitely mortal like everybody else. There is some room for arguing that the Pale King and the creature behind the infection are deities of some sort (for example, both were worshiped as such in the past), but considering that they're both capable of dying, I'd say neither was worthy of such a title.
Magical creatures
Throughout the game, you'll encounter a number of different magical creatures. This includes a few different types of ghost (some of which you'll need to fight in order to proceed), the Warrior Shade spawned when you are killed, and (arguably) the creature that's behind the infection.

The leader of the Grimm Troupe also strongly resembles a vampire, though it's unclear if he actually is one or just looks the part. Personally, I think it's more of a style choice than anything, since he does have you raise his baby, and vampires don't normally have biological offspring. After all, Troupe Master Grimm is the ringleader of a creepy circus, so a vampire theme would fit in nicely.
Familiarity breeds sorrow
One of the biggest downsides of having an ensemble cast that everyone loves is that some character's stories don't have happy endings. A few characters succumb to the maddening infection, others sought glory and were tossed aside as refuse. Then there are characters who had neither hope nor chance in the gambit that the Pale King was playing.
Cannibalism
In the real world, insects eat one another all the time. Now that you have many different races of sentient insects, the distinction between friend and food gets a little blurry sometimes. This is especially the case between two characters who fall in love, as pretty much everybody knows what happens when mantids make love.
Magicial shenanigans
Above I commented on the use of SOUL, how it's acquired, and how the player's character uses it. Since this part of the review is hidden behind the spoiler warning, I'll go into some more detail about how magic has been used in Hollow Knight now.

Firstly, you have the Snail Shamans. Like the other groups in Hallownest, their civilization is comprised by most of the resident snails. They are notable for the ability to create magical charms and spells using SOUL. The only real issue with them is their choice of decor -- they tend to decorate with the remains of other bugs.

Secondly, there's the Soul Sanctum and the beings that live there. Led by the Soul Master, they believed the infection could be thwarted by using SOUL. However, the Soul Master was already losing himself to the infection, and the experiments that were conducted there only resulted in Mistakes and Follys -- distorted, ghost-like apparitions of what used to be the Kingdom's wiser scholars. Obviously, the main issues with this group are the implications of gathering large amounts of SOUL and the concept of experimenting on people. The fact that their experiments led to their corruption and downfall is just icing on the cake.

Lastly, you have the Pale King's experiments with Void. Now, while fictional magic systems usually have a "good" light magic and an "evil" dark magic, SOUL and Void don't really seem to be counterparts like that. Both seem morally neutral. SOUL and Void do oppose each other, to the point of Void creatures being actively hostile to beings animated by SOUL (ie, normal bugs), but this seems to stem from a light/dark relationship rather than a good/evil one.

This is also why Void seems like the best option for fighting the infection. Unlike normal diseases, the infection is not caused by germs. It's more of a metaphysical corruption that eventually manifests as physical decay once it has consumed the victim's mind. Pointedly, victims in the infection's early stages describe it like a light in their mind. Thus, since the Void is naturally opposed to SOUL like darkness is opposed to light, the Void is also in direct opposition to the infection. The deity-like being driving the infection reinforces this theme, as it's a moth-like being called the Radiance.

Now what does all of that have to do with questionable magic? It's rather simple: the Pale King started experimenting with Void, using it to create new creatures. The most important of these creatures are the many Vessels, beings that could theoretically capture the Radiance in their dark and empty minds. However, most of these creatures ended up becoming tarnished in some way -- the lore suggests that they developed attachments to something or someone, and that would give the Radiance a way to manipulate them. When a Vessel failed to make the cut, it was unceremoniously thrown into the Abyss and left for dead. The first, and only, Vessel that the Pale King was satisfied with became the Hollow Knight, and was used to trap the Radiance and seal her infection away.

Unfortunately, the Hollow Knight was not as pure as the King thought, and was slowly consumed by the infection. And that's where you come in. You're playing as one of the Vessels that was thrown away for being imperfect. Unlike the others, your character managed to crawl out of the Abyss and continue their journey. By seeking answers, they'll eventually complete the task that they had originally been created to do.
Family-unfriendly violence
The vast majority of the violence in Hollow Knight is family friendly, though there are about three situations where it can cross a line.

There is a comic relief character called Zote the Mighty. He fancies himself to be this great warrior on a noble quest, but he's really just a belligerent idiot. Most of the comedy produced by this character comes from his ineptitude, and while it can be amusing, it can easily become grating. Twice in the storyline, you'll find him in distress and need to rescue him. If you choose not to (or simply fail to notice him as you go about your business) then he'll be killed off-screen. Some people prefer to let his overconfidence do him in like this, as that means they won't have to put up with his attitude for the rest of that playthrough. In fact, there's an achievement for allowing Zote to die, and the only real penalty for doing so is that you lose access to a hidden bonus boss. Since you need to play the game through several times to get all of the achievements, this isn't much of an issue.

Another instance where things get dicey involves the weaponsmith. Once your nail has been fully upgraded, he feels that his life has no purpose, and asks you to kill him with the nail he fashioned. You can do so, but if you spare him instead, he'll eventually find another purpose in life alongside one of the swordmaster brothers, and live to have a happy ending.

And lastly, there's the Hollow Knight himself. During the final battle, he'll sometimes repeatedly run himself through with his own nail. It's not clear if he's trying to hack the infection out of his body or kill himself, but it does strongly resemble an attempt at seppuku -- a form of ritual suicide where someone disembowels themselves with a sword.