Developer - Team Cherry
Publisher - Team Cherry
Platform - Windows, macOS, Linux, Nintendo Switch [version tested]
Price - £Various
Genre - Metroidvania
In Hollow Knight you take control of an anonymous bug (I will call it 'Holly' during this review). Your quest is initially ill-defined but it definitely involves slicing up enemy insects with a short-range sword called a 'nail', progressing around the game's world, and adding abilities to your arsenal. Initially quite pathetic, Holly's power set will expand until you feel practically invincible, as in many a great Metroidvania - before the game lets you know, brutally, that you really, really aren't.
To be fair, there's a lie in the opening paragraph. "Your quest is initially ill-defined," I claimed, as if there is a point at which things become well-defined. If there is one, I didn't find it. There's oodles of lore out there, if you want it, but piecing the plot together was not my goal. As the song says, "I guess I'll leave that up to you." Anything else I could say on the matter would be a spoiler, so we will leave it there. Let's talk about the game instead.
Holly's shadowy quest may be slow to pick up but once the first few hours have passed, it absorbs. A good Metroidvania does that: there should always be something to strive for, just out of reach, so that you need a new power to collect it that's bound to be just around the corner. Hollow Knight plays on this desire very well: Holly powers up slowly and the enormous map opens up like a delicate flower. As well as levelling up your sword, health, map-making and mobility (Holly gets one of the sexiest double jumps in gaming), you can find and equip charms. These give you extra powers, like marking your position on the map, or collecting the game's currency as it scatters from the bodies of your enemies. There are many more besides, and finding a useful new one is always a highlight.
It looks beautiful, despite the dominant colour in any area being black. The hand drawn sprites move wonderfully and everything looks very fine. The music is a real highlight, with one of the late-game areas boasting a theme that's gone into my top three gaming tunes ever. The sound effects are suitably meaty, squishy or resounding, as necessary. And playing it! To play Hollow Knight is to appreciate real craft throughout. The design, the thought, the planning that's gone into creating the game has to be admired. I had begun to be wary of Kickstarter games following the semi-disappointments of Shantae: Half Genie Hero and Yooka-Laylee (to say nothing of the total disappointment of Mighty No. 9), but HK has restored my faith.
Well, that sounds pretty good, right? What could possibly be wrong with this masterpiece? It can be pretty aimless, with your goal so poorly explained. Sometimes the opposite is true and there's too much to do: it feels like you pick up a new and lengthy side-quest in every other area. Some of the bosses are ludicrously hard, even with your best fighting charms equipped. Also, the downward slash is occasionally sketchy.
On the whole, though, it's a fabulous thing. Every time you get hit the sound dials down for a second, as if your ears are ringing. It's unsettling the first time it happens... but it won't be the only time the game throws you for a loop. It's occasionally terrifying, thoroughly bloodthirsty, but ethereally, awfully beautiful, powerfully rewarding and wonderfully satisfying - a bit like me.
Final Verdict: Hollow Knight isn't full to bursting - it's already burst, scattering secrets, lore and abilities all over its bleak and ragged landscape. Dark, challenging, beautifully realised and brilliantly constructed: the greatest compliment I can think of for Hollow Knight is that it reminded me of a Metroid game. Essential.