I have a confession to make. For as much as I love video games, I’m kinda bad at them. My reflexes are shite, I get buttons wrong, and I get motion sickness playing first-person shooters. That always made Hollow Knight, Team Cherry’s indie hit with Dark Souls-level difficulty, seem too impenetrable for a casual like me. But after years of recommendations from friends and the Internet, I finally took the deep dive into Hallownest. What I found was a creepy, yet captivating adventure about a little bug in a big, dangerous world.
Hollow Knight‘s story is simple, but still feels unique. It takes place in an underground bug kingdom, decimated by infection. You, as the stoic Knight, venture into Hallownest to discover its mysteries and stop the infection at its source. In classic Metroidvania fashion, the lore is cryptic as hell and you have to to a ton of digging to make sense of everything. I normally dislike this kind of storytelling, but the gorgeous hand-drawn art style and charming cast of characters made me want to uncover every secret I could, just to make this cold and unforgiving world livable again.
Despite how gross it is, Hallownest is a joy to explore. Every area has a unique aesthetic, and Christopher Larkin’s minimalistic soundtrack adds some mesmerizing ambiance. The open-ended nature lets you chart your own path, whether you’re climbing atop the Crystal Peaks or heading deep into the Abyss. Navigation is annoying at first, as you have to buy a map and then fill it out yourself from exploring. But even this works to the game’s strengths, as it encourages you to comb hidden areas and return a bench when you need a breather.
Combat is fast and smooth, drawing on the genre’s Castlevania roots while still being its own beast… erm, bug. Your main weapon is your nail, which you can swing in any direction. Damaging enemies charges your Soul gauge, which is used for magic attacks – as well as your only source of healing. The basic mobs aren’t too tough, but the 40+ bosses are brutal! Defeating them requires skillful dodging, countering, and strategic use of the game’s many unlockable Charm accessories. Some of these jerks took me hours to beat, but the fights were such an adrenaline rush that I kept coming back for more.
Hollow Knight is soul-crushingly hard. It ramps up early and punishes your mistakes. And when you die, you lose all your money! But once the game opens up, you’ll find it has a remarkable balance of difficulty and fun. The fluid controls put me into a Zen-like state of concentration, as if I was slowly turning into the Knight as the hours flew by. But just when I got a little too confident, I fell into Deepnest: a dark, enormous cavern full of spikes and traps and SPIDERS EVERYWHERE!!!
A throwback to the classic action-adventure games of the 90’s, Hollow Knight’s unique style and presentation make it fresh and inspired. It’s one of the most difficult games I’ve played, but the challenge almost never felt unfair or insurmountable. And for a game developed by just three people, it’s more ambitious, creative, and epic than many AAA blockbusters – at a fraction of the price. Hollow Knight is creepy, depressing and frustrating, but it’s also heartfelt, weirdly adorable, and achingly beautiful when it needs to be. It’s definitely not a game for everyone, but who knows? You might just love getting lost in those deadly, eerily beautiful bug caverns.