Hollow Knight is a two-dimensional action platformer. It features occasionally quite challinging jumping puzzles interspersed with mostly melee combat with a vast array of different enemies, most of which inhabit specific biomes. As the game progresses you gain a diverse array of movement and magic abilities, which besides improving the way you can express yourself in the gameplay also makes more and more areas of the game accessible. This type of gradual unlocking with frequent backtracking is also known as Metroidvania, after the Metroid and Castlevania series that popularised this style of game.
You play as a little bug knight with a tattered cloak, white mask/helmet (horned similar to a stag beetle) and simplistic sword. You wake up and traverse some dark tunnels to reach a little mostly-shuttered town with a bench to rest on, and an ancient bug to give you vague background and guidance. This little settlement turns out to be built on top of the fabled bug kingdom of Hallownest, which can allegedly be reached by descending down the village’s well and braving the dangers of the extensive tunnel system found there. As you do so, occasionally you meet other friendly bugs, some of which may take up residence in the abandoned buildings, and provide services or conversation.
One of the games Hollow Knight is inevitably compared to is Demon’s Souls and its various offspring. The main reason seems clear: when you die, as in those games, you lose any currency you were carrying, and have to go retrieve it from your corpse. A twist on this is that your corpse actually turns into a hostile shade, making the retrieval more fraught. As always, this mechanic enables a fairly unique tension, where traversing even a relatively well-known path to your place of death is far more tense than it would otherwise be: if you die again on the way, you’ve lost your cash for good.
However, beyond its superficial similarities to the Souls games, Hollow Knight also manages to transpose into its 2D action platforming several core aspects of what makes that series so succesful. The feeling of starting out in a small, relatively safe place and poking into ever-new, ever-suprising and occasionally extremely lethal new places. Running into NPCs that are all distinct and are clearly on errands of their own, getting glimpses at the progress of their stories. Piecing together the story of a fallen place from oblique hints in dialogues, item descriptions and context. An interconnected world that rewards exploration both materially (interesting loot) and by yielding shortcuts or little nuggets of story. A tight movement and combat system. Again, key to me is that the developers did all this in a way that is clearly their own, and is applied very well to the game’s mechanics and background.
I played this on the Switch, and I think the platform ended up greatly enhancing the experience. There’s something special to me about exploring a completely unknown world while detached from the desk and big screen. I have very fond memories of playing through Gargoyle’s Quest on the Game boy when I was about 14 years old, utterly lost a lot of the time and dying to every enemy, trap and bottomless pit I could find. Hollow Knight pushes a lot of the same buttons for me, like the Souls series does.