“Focus your soul and you shall achieve feats of which others can only dream.”
Hollow Knight falls from a cliff. The only bug left in the village at the base warns against entering the well and the sprawling caverns below.
“Creatures turn mad and are robbed of their memories,” he says.
Hollow Knight still descends.
The world of Hollownest below first felt like a whimsical handful of rooms but seemingly never stopped expanding, with each area increasingly unsettling and late ones downright disturbing. I got lost immediately. Hollow Knight’s slow walking speed and basic jump begged me to find movement upgrades. After about an hour, I had a partial map and found a boss. The boss was so incredibly difficult that I was immediately filled with regret over having asked to review this game. I died so many times I thought he was a gate requiring a new item to pass, but I kept trying. When I finally beat him, I didn’t find a way forward. No, he was guarding a collectible. I’d see him again soon as a normal enemy. Oh boy.
Finding anything easy or friendly in Hollow Knight’s world proved difficult. Most of the adorable hand-drawn bugs shone an orange gleam from their eyes, a telltale sign of the infection spreading throughout the Hollownest. The heart-pounding tension between checkpoints kept me on my toes. Even basic enemies posed a threat while platforming, and repeating large sections between checkpoints and bosses demanded mastery. Falling in battle breaks the Hollow Knight in two, leaving its money and part of its magic meter behind. Dying on the repeat trip forfeits your hard-earned cash, an unthinkable option.
While at first the grueling distance between checkpoints and the painful punishment for perishing seemed unfair, it eventually clicked. I lived for the tension. I became hardcore. Hollow Knight is not about exploration, I discovered, but about persevering. With enough persistence, I uncovered equippable charms to compliment my playstyle; new moves and health upgrades to get me just a bit farther; and enough practice to overcome (almost) anything in my way.
Hollow Knight starts its journey with a jump, a basic swing of a nail sword, and a slow healing spell. Dashes, double jumps, nail maneuvers and attack spells hide everywhere, usually behind one of the almost three dozen unique bosses. Charms offer a huge variety of upgrades, but extra slots are hard to come by, so I often switched between an exploration build and a boss battle build. Some charms, like the ones that show your location on the map and gather money dropped by enemies, were so essential that removing them felt like trading a part of myself for a better chance at an upcoming battle.
Bosses require focus at that point between frustration and fun: The Zone. Getting into the zone after a few (dozen) failed boss fights may be the hardest part of Hollow Knight, but nothing can match the sense of accomplishment after clearing a particularly devastating battle. Each boss has its tells, and each move can be outmaneuvered. I declared small victories if I survived a bit longer than the try before or attacked twice in an opening in which I had previously landed just one. Some bosses did get to me, though: I have “so frustratingly hard that I cannot recommend this game” angrily scrawled in my notes, and the quest for the true ending remains locked behind a stupid, cheap, BS fight with a giant mantis whom I hate so, so much.
Fortunately, stepping away to fill in gaps in your map is the perfect way to unwind from difficult bosses. Hollownest is huge, and a stag-beetle subway system can zip Hollow Knight across the map in seconds. Tight platforming and an ever-expanding arsenal of abilities kept me finding new areas hidden behind tall walls or long gaps. Platforming challenges reminiscent of Mario’s red-coin sections acted as stand-out therapeutic sessions. The beautiful diversity of Hollownest’s areas kept things from getting as bland as the underground setting may imply.
Hollow Knight’s cryptic lore doled out in pieces leads me to believe I saved Hollownest in my ending, but an after-credits screen shows a 73% completion in 27 hours of play. I may have finished, but I’m far from done. I still have tons of upgrades, optional bosses, a true ending and a mantis to overcome. And I’m itching to jump back in.