This year is Metroid's 35th anniversary, a series which helped define its own genre of exploratory action games. My first experience was with Super Metroid, which still remains one of the finest games of this type. It creates an unparalleled sense of isolation and vulnerability, rewards exploration and curiosity with a appreciable and satisfying progression for the player as Samus delves deeper into the bowels of the alien planet.
But Super Metroid was 27 years ago and many developers have turned their hands to Metroidvanias in the meantime (notably Konami who have managed to append their own influence with Castlevania to the genre). They are largely dominated by indie developers with few large big budget games daring to dip their toes in the water. The Switch in particular has an extensive selection available, but I think it can be safely argued that Hollow Knight stands out as the best.
If you have not played Hollow Knight then I implore you to just put this down, buy the game and play it without any foreknowledge. The game is at its best when you don't know what's coming and the sense of discovery is retained. Just be assured you'll have a wonderful, atmospheric, challenging and rewarding experience. Although truthfully, you might be a bit befuddled in the early stages of the game while you're still learning the ropes, but once it clicks it's hard to put down. If you don't mind spoilers or have already played the game then come take a trip through Hallownest with me.
In the same way Super Metroid establishes a feeling of isolation on Zebes, Hollow Knight sets out its stall early with you approaching a small outcrop of dwellings called Dirtmouth leaving the desolate Howling Cliffs behind you. The route is sparsely populated with easily dispatched enemies and enough jumping from ledge to ledge to give a proper feel for The Knight, your small, mask wearing character. Once in the town, there's little to see, an elderbug to give you someone to talk to and a bench to rest at. But Dirtmouth is not a place to stay in, it's a launching point for your descent into the maze of Hallownest below. Plunging down a well you start your adventure.
This initial part of Hollow Knight can be quite off putting. It does not give a lot of guidance for what you should do, stumbling around the areas available you might find a temple that looks important but you can't do anything in it, you may find a mapmaker but the map he sells you is poorly defined and has no sign of where you are in it, you'll probably find several dead ends. The Forgotten Crossroads can be bewildering to new players and I can only imagine how many might have bounced off the game at this point. But it is also designed to inculcate a desire to explore.
Hollow Knight wants you to feel lost, it wants you to feel uncertain in new areas, to be cautious and intimidated and feel small within a larger world. The various regions of Hallownest all have things that want to kill you and you'd be wise to step carefully until you know what you're facing. You may get a seemingly useless map, but you'll soon come to love the sound of Cornifer the mapmaker's humming when you enter a new area. He's one of a handful of characters who'll help you on your way and adding his little hand drawn sketches for new areas gives you a much needed anchor in these hostile lands.
Of course, the game doesn't leave you with a mostly useless map, returning to Dirtmouth you'll find a shop run by Cornifer's wife Iselda. She sells upgrades that mean resting at a bench will flesh out your map to accurately reflect where you've been and a charm which shows your location when equipped. Additional pins mark important locations and slowly you have a better guide to the world. This gives the player a sense of agency, your map isn't filled out automatically, you gain it through effort and exploration and you are rewarded handsomely for your efforts.
Your place in the world isn't just conveyed by the map in your pocket, Hollow Knight makes each of the regions Hallownest is split into distinct and memorable. The stony blues of the Forgotten Crossroads give way to the verdant hues of Greenpath, the vibrant pinks of the Crystal Peaks contrast with the murky Royal Waterways. The edges of the locations within this kingdom bleed in to each other, so tendrils of greenery or mushrooms will act as visual cues for your exploration, zooming out on the map shows the regions coloured coded to reflect their aesthetic.
Progression comes through many new abilities, some of which can be upgraded further. Hollow Knight is quite generous in giving you multiple routes through Hallownest, ensuring you'll rarely find yourself frustrated by a lack of progress. Dotted across the kingdom are stag stations where a stag beetle acts as a fast travel service cutting down on the leg work when you want to revisit early places once you've gained a new ability.
Layered on top of the individual new abilities are charms. These can only be equipped when resting at benches and you have limited notches that determine how many you can manage at once. They offer a wide variety buffs and benefits to The Knight, from making healing quicker to a longer reach for your attacks. Some charms work together to give additional bonuses giving the player an incentive to find more charms and experiment with their combinations.
The stag is just one of many interesting characters you meet on your journey. The stag has a certain pathos about him, being the last of his kind and remembering how Hallownest was in its prime. I have a bit of a soft spot for Cloth, an enthusiastic cicada warrior looking for an epic fight but unsure of her abilities. The bugs you meet have their own reasons for being in Hallownest, eking out a living with a shop, exploring the myths surrounding the kingdom or simply hiding away from the madness outside.
The Knight you play is not the titular Hollow Knight, rather that is your end goal. Hallownest faces an infection from a mysterious entity, efforts were made to seal this away with the Hollow Knight, but its influence still creeps out. Between you and the Hollow Knight lies a surprising number of boss battles, including a number of entirely optional ones. The game offers several endings depending on what route you take to the final boss. Hollow Knight seems indifferent to players missing huge swathes of the game, similar to how people playing Breath Of The Wild may have entirely different experiences based on where they decide to explore.
Hollow Knight has been compared to Dark Souls, possibly because it is quite difficult at times and when you die you have to go and recover a shade of your former self to regain your currency. But it also tells its story through lore scattered throughout the world, rewarding players who piece together the scraps of information, fleshing out how this kingdom fell to ruin.
A special mention needs to go to the music and sound design. Christopher Larkin's score is at times mournful, thrilling and tranquil, their refrains lingering long after you finish the game. The sounds of the creatures around you are superb, the chittering of the denizens of Deep Nest being a suitably unsettling highlight.
Hollow Knight is a challenging game, its unwillingness to hold your hand at the start can be a difficult barrier for entry. But once you have a grasp of its world it'll slowly unravel to reveal wonder after wonder. Horror is balanced by humour, frantic action with quiet moments of reflection. It conveys depth of character in the smallest of bugs and has a compellingly rich backstory. Just like Super Metroid, Hollow Knight creates a haunting atmosphere of a lone adventurer in a hostile world, slowly uncovering the terrible events which brought them to that place. It is one of the finest examples of a Metroidvania game, a masterpiece that shows just how good indie games can be.
Article Written by John Edwards
Banner Image Created by Paul L. Russell.