Typically when I share my first impressions of a game, I’m in a little bit deeper than perhaps is normal for “impressions.” Six hours of “impressions” is a pretty generous chunk of most games. This time, none of that nonsense. I’ve played roughly one hour of highly-recommended Metroidvania title Hollow Knight. It’s a game I’ve never been 100% sure would be for me. I have very little experience with Metroidvanias – the ridiculous name for the genre of games with focus on exploring a complex environment where you revisit areas with new tools to expand where you can go. I’ve only played the Metroid Prime series and Samus Returns, and the latter wasn’t of particular interest to me. However, what I’ve heard frequently from others is that Hollow Knight executes at a very high level on what this genre strives to be. With that in mind I decided to give it a try.
So what is Hollow Knight? My ability to answer that question is still somewhat limited. For now I can say for sure that you play as some kind of bug-sized creature with a mask, a cape, and an old nail that functions as a sword for you. After stumbling upon a mostly abandoned village, you are able to traverse down into a series of catacombs full of hostile bugs, collapsing structures, and strange mechanisms. The reason why you are doing so is not particularly clear to me at this time, but strange devices inscribed with prophecies in glowing text suggest that there is plenty to discover within the depths.
Mechanically you begin with a relatively limited set of abilities. You can move, jump, and swing your weapon. Jump height varies based on how long you hold the button – a quick press barely gets you off the ground while a longer press clears a healthy distance. Your attack swings in front of you by default but directional presses as you attack can change the swing to an overhead slash or even a downward slash when you are in midair. There is some evidence early on that new movement abilities will open up in the future, at the very least a forward dash (based on a narrow gap between two rows of spikes just long enough that the momentum of a jump wouldn’t carry you through, as well as some places that are *just* out of reach when jumping at full distance).
Attacks are used to break obstacles in the environment but naturally there are enemies to battle as well. Combat in this game is weighty; when you strike an enemy with your blade you feel the resistance and the force of the impact pushes you back a bit. This makes landing a blow satisfying, but it also means blows against you hurt. The music stops, the colors fade, and you as the player flinch as if someone in real life actually just struck you across the face (okay that last part may just be me). It’s a powerful presentation of combat that makes the experience feel harrowing and brutal.
The brutality of combat comes through more than just the presentation, though. Your little knight has only five health to start out, and the primary method of restoring that health is to absorb the souls of enemies. Beside your health gauge is a glass orb that fills with a white liquid when enemies are defeated. These are souls, and by stopping for a moment you can absorb a soul to restore a point of health, one for one. Your orb only holds three souls, so at any given time you can only restore a little over half your health (assuming your stock is maxed out). Since killing enemies gives souls, this makes health a relatively renewable resource when you are exploring regularly as long as you are defeating your foes. Against bosses, though, you have to play carefully or find yourself empty of your one resource for healing.
Not that exploring is much safer. The caverns of Hollow Knight are gorgeous places, largely dark but with splashes of beautiful colors and excellent use of lighting and contrast to create compelling visuals. Their beauty should not be mistaken for safety, though. Falling segments of stalactites, floors or platforms lined with damaging spikes – these sources of danger can be just as deadly as enemies if not approached carefully. The bigger the challenge, though, the greater the promise of a reward. The most common thing you’ll find is the geo, a coin that serves as the currency of the setting and that you collect in plentiful numbers. Geos are earned by defeating enemies, breaking valuable deposits, or by rescuing caterpillars trapped in precarious situations and then returning to their home. It feels good to have a pocket full of geos after exploring for awhile but it’s also a risk – dying costs you all of your collected coins in addition to a more insidious price – a broken piece of your soul orb reducing the total number of times you can heal when exploring.
That punishment, to me, felt like a harsh one, particularly when I discovered what I believe to be the remedy for this and it came in at a significant cost of geos (at least at this point in the game). However, I think the idea behind this punishment is to urge you to be more measured in your approach. My first dive, I headed underground and just kept going as deep as I could. I quickly lost track of my position on the map and was essentially counting on stumbling into some kind of checkpoint or fast travel or something rather than making sure I knew my way back to the surface. This is a reckless approach during the early game and Hollow Knight made that crystal clear by putting me in my place. The ability to heal less and the threat of losing significant amounts of money is a clear admonition to slow down. Enter the underground with a specific exploration goal, pay attention to the map and your surroundings and know your path back to the surface, and keep your early expeditions short so you can return frequently enough to build your initial toolkit for deeper dives. Money that actually makes it back to the surface can be spent on things like a compass, a quill pen that automatically expands your map when finding new rooms, and markers of interest that allow you to create your own useful labels for easier navigation.
Bosses and other tough enemy types require a similarly careful approach. As described earlier, enemy attacks are brutal and it doesn’t take a lot of hits for you to find yourself in dire straits. This is particularly true because of how surprisingly fast some attacks can come – there’s one enemy type in the early game that has a huge club but swings it with a speed that caught me off guard the first time I dared to fight one. I was ultimately able to win that fight because I took some time to watch those attacks and figure out how to dodge them reliably. Play defensively until you understand the enemy’s patterns, learn where their openings are, and jump in to strike during those weak moments. Take a measured approach to both combat and exploration and Hollow Knight’s challenges begin to feel surmountable.
I’ve only just begun my journey with the game and I’m sure there will still be plenty to learn along the way. I’m particularly interested as I move forward to see if the game handles exploration in a way that feels satisfying for me as someone who is not inherently drawn to that style of gameplay. I’m also curious to see more about the lore of this world, and what exactly my little knight’s role might be in the story that is unfolding. So far I’m impressed with what the game is bringing to the table – the weighty combat and stunning visuals are enough to keep me engaged for now as I wait to learn about what else the game will have to offer as I get deeper. I’m excited to continue my time with Hollow Knight and hope that I too will be able to see the magic that has drawn so many of my friends to this title. At the current moment, at least, I can certainly see a promising spark.