The Nintendo Switch has quickly become the best place to play 2D side-scrolling adventure games. That’s partly because this genre doesn’t require the latest in high computing power, but also due to the hybrid nature of the system – these games look and play equally well on the handheld’s screen as they do on the TV. With successes like SteamWorld Dig 2, Celeste, and Yoku’s Island Express, Team Cherry’s Hollow Knight has some tough competition. With its unique art style, somber mood, and creative level design, players are sure to fall in love with this one.
You play as a small bug-like knight that must explore a dark mysterious world to find out what has caused many of the inhabitants of Hallownest to go mad. The kingdom has fallen into ruin, but there are still a few inhabitants with their wits about them. They will gladly help you on your quest, for a fee of course. There’s a shopkeeper that sells mysterious talismans and other knick-knacks that you really won’t know what they do until you pony up the money (Geo) and purchase them. There’s a certain NES game level of mystery at play here, except this time you don’t even have an instruction book guiding you along the way.
The game plays much like Metroid, where you can go off in different directions, some with dead ends and others locked off until you find a specific item or power to gain access. You can buy a map for the areas you’re currently exploring, but in this greedy civilization you also have to buy a special item that will allow you to add your location on the map, and even more money to track secret rooms and areas you explore that lie on the outskirts of the map’s area. So, yes you’ll want to constantly collect as much money as you can to upgrade your character. That’s why I suggest saving up for the item that automatically sucks in the Geo that enemies drop when you kill them. That’s because many times the coins go flying about the screen and they’re annoying to go and collect each one. With this power equipped they come flying back to you!
However, just collecting money doesn’t guarantee success. That’s because if you die on your journey you lose every cent in your pocket. Yep, it seems Dark Souls has infested every game these days! If you die (and you will), you’ll have one chance to make it back to your corpse, slay your shadow, and regain your money. If you die before doing this, your hard-earned Geo is gone forever. Luckily most of the enemies reappear every time you leave and reenter a room, so you can easily farm them for more money – if grinding is your thing.
Your main weapon is a needle, but basically it’s like a sword. This is upgradable throughout the adventure, but one of the most difficult things to come to grips with is the recoil that occurs every single time you hit an enemy. If you’ve ever played an older Castlevania game you’ll remember how your character gets pushed back if hit. Well, this same thing happens here every single time you hit an enemy. Granted, it’s not quite as severe, but it can really be a pain in the ass until you become used to it. Each time you successfully land a hit, you’ll earn a little essence that you can then use for special abilities. At the beginning of the game you have the ability to replenish your health by holding down a button. Later on you’ll earn other powers that can attack enemies from afar.
One thing that immediately becomes clear as you begin your quest is that this game is not easy. Learning the patterns and timing is essential here, especially when going up against larger enemies. There are some mid-sized enemies that can be difficult to take down in the beginning, but the bosses can be very difficult beasts to slay. The game relies on old-school pattern learning, something akin to a Mega Man boss battle. The problem here is that if you die, you lose all of your money and are sent back to the last bench you saved at. Most of the time, assuming you’ve adequately explored the surrounding areas, you won’t have to traverse too far to try the fight again, but the game doesn’t plop you right outside the boss room. It’s a very unforgiving system that will undoubtedly frustrate some players, especially if you accidentally enter a boss fight without knowing ahead of time.
Losing a couple thousand Geo unexpectedly can really be a blow, and I know I quit on one occasion because that exact thing happened and somehow I died before getting my treasure back. I understand how some love this type of risk/reward scenario in games, but when it manages to erase hours of hard work (saving money), it can be devastating. As such, I often played the game conservatively and made sure to spend my money as soon as I had enough to purchase something. That being said, the adrenaline does kick in when there’s actually something to lose, so that same rush wouldn’t be present without the risk of losing your money. Thankfully the game isn’t a full on roguelike, so you get to keep all of the items you’ve purchased and your map progress is intact.
Hollow Knight is definitely a sight to behold. It somehow mixes a sort of cartoony look with something out of a Tim Burton movie. On more than one occasion I thought the game resembled something of a nightmare version of Rayman Origins. The bright colors have been stripped to a more muted affair, with plenty of dark corridors, and cold backgrounds hued in purples and blues. There are a variety of environments to explore, so it’s not like the entire game is dark and hopeless, but the game definitely has a somber mood to it. The characters are mostly whites and grays, giving them a sort of ghostly appearance. The enemies are insect-based so they’re already creepy enough. The world is mysterious and fun to explore, but a sense of dread permeates every screen and you never know how dangerous the next room will be until you enter it.
Accentuating the dark and stylized graphics is the soundtrack, which adds another layer of dreariness to the world. The music fits the mood perfectly and some of the characters you encounter have amusing sounds. The clanks of your needle against a shield or the bubbling hot springs underfoot really bring the game to life. However, there’s nothing here that I’ll be humming later down the road.
Hollow Knight really does a ton of things right, and there’s nothing quite like it on the Switch. One thing that absolutely must be mentioned is that the game is long and the world is huge. For the game to only be $15 on the eShop is quite a bargain, especially when it will take some players upward of 35 hours to complete. I know some people won’t immediately take to Hollow Knight, but if you stick with the game for a while the world really opens up with access to new powers and fun exploration. If you like your games challenging and aren’t tired of the Metroidvania genre, then this one is a perfect fit.
Hollow Knight was reviewed using a final retail Nintendo Switch download code provided by the publisher.