I fear that if I don’t mention Team Cherry’s weird new title, Hollow Knight, it might slip through the cracks. Just like a bug.
Hollow Knight, like many indie games these days, was a KickStarter success story. With an initial goal of $35,000 Australian dollars, Team Cherry surpassed this amount to $57,138, covering roughly half of their stretch goals. And yet, this was more than enough for a shockingly vast game in the spirit of Castlevania and Metroid.
The player takes control of the Hollow Knight, a silent protagonist who inexplicably arrives in the town of Dirtmouth. Charged with discovering and destroying the origin of a strange infection, he ventures into the Hallownest to fight possessed husks and open paths on his journey.
Within two seconds of starting the game, I had nothing but praise for the incredibly tight controls. The Hollow Knight movements are twitch, and many foes and challenges can only be conquered through careful timing and impressive dexterity. Dashing to avoid last millisecond blows, carefully timed sword-pogoing… all reflexive lessons that must be mastered. The challenge made this thirty-something gamer feel young again, as my fingers repeatedly proved my anxious brain wrong.
Gameplay wise, Hollow Knight doesn’t really bother to create anything new. Rather, they just dig up the best ideas from various game series and carefully recycle them. In death, your soul breaks free and must be violently reclaimed lest your magic remain damaged. Many paths remain inaccessible until classic platformer maneuvers (double-jump, dash or wall-jump) become unlocked. There is no experienced-based leveling, but exploration and money earning allow the purchase of upgrades and unlocking new abilities.
The magic system is simple: dealing damage gains soul, spent to cast a handful of spells. One unusual detail is that the Hollow Knight begins with a healing spell, Focus. With prudent application, the Hollow Knight can self-perpetuate even in dire circumstances. The problem is risk-vs-reward. While focusing, the Hollow Knight is vulnerable. And if struck, the spell stops and the expended soul is not returned, thus leaving the player in a worse position.
But the real goal of a veteran player is simply never to be struck in the first place. Harkening back to gaming classics like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, each foe and boss strikes in patterns that are slightly telegraphed. With practice and patience, it is technically possible to go the entire game without once being struck. There are no cheap shots.
The story also has an unusual mechanism. Most of it is handled by talking to… well, non-hostile strangers. The rest from old ruins and visual hints. Yet after about a third into the game the Hollow Knight meets the Moth Seer. She bestows upon him the “Dream Nail,” a physically harmless weapon that steals souls. When struck however, the screen flashes with messages from the victim’s mind. This can provide insight into friends and foes alike, and provide more backstory than normally accessible.
Hollow Knight shines, however, in its remarkably bizarre aesthetic. This is a world of insects. Moths, mantises, beetles. The backgrounds are often filled with the husks of long dead insects. Later levels left my skin shivering as harmless crawlers skittered about the screen. Guile and treachery are constant themes: foes can hide, transform, teleport, explode or even resurrect. Nerve-wracking boss battles that will leave one’s palms sweaty.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to explain how and why the game is so peculiar and special. By rights, it’s nothing new. But between the hand-drawn animations, the heavy emphasis on exploration and the beautiful music by Christopher Larkin, Hollow Knight is one of KickStarter’s best kept promises.
Hollow Knight. Available this year for Windows, Mac, Linux, and Nintendo Switch.