Lately I’ve been playing a slew of games. I got a Playstation Vita on the cheap side to play Ys: Memories of Celceta and Ys Seven. I got a New Nintendo 3DS to replace my old one (it’s an American 3DS and I’m living in Europe and it has some battery issues) and I’ve started a Bravely Second playthrough. Then there’s Xenoblade Chronicles X, which I had to restart and have been playing on TheLawfulGeek Stream.
But the one game that’s gotten most of my attention in the past few days, one that I continue to play at every given chance is the most amazing blend of genres: Hollow Knight.
When I say it blends genres, I mean Hollow Knight does so specifically with the Souls-like and Metroidvania genres, taking the best of both and creating something that feels refreshing and new.
Let’s break the genres down before I go into why Hollow Knight is so good.
The Metroidvania genre, named after Metroid and Castlevania—though it should really be the Metroid genre, since Castlevania only came into it around Symphony of the Night, but I won’t complain on this point, since I kinda like the term Metroidvania—is a platforming action genre with a strong emphasis on exploration and character upgrades. To be specific, these are the general tropes of the genre:
- Multiple Paths to explore.
- New abilities and weapons available and generally open new paths.
- Nonlinear at times.
- Upgrades are in place for limited resources, such as health and ammo, often found in secret places.
- Environment design helps tell the story.
- Areas have unique visual design to easily tell them apart.
- High skill cap.
- Interconnected maps.
- Challenging boss battles.
Now the Souls-like genre has its origin in From Software’s Souls series, beginning with Demons’ Souls and going through the Dark Souls game and their Victorian-esque murder-fest, Bloodborne. The genre’s tropes are as follows:
- Unforgiving difficulty. Mistakes are heavily punished.
- Tough but fair. Everyone follows the same rules.
- Currency lost upon death, but you can recollect your lost resources upon reviving.
- High skill cap.
- Bleak worlds.
- Heavy focus on exploration.
- Nonlinear and interconnected zones.
- Challenging boss battles.
- Learn by failing, learn patterns.
- Narrative and story up to the player to discover.
I could go on with the lists and I’m oversimplifying these genres, but it’s clear there’s some overlap between them, so a game that combines them is not crazy.
Hollow Knight takes Metroidvania, its exploration, multitude of abilities and environments where everything wants to kill you and where reaching new areas requires a combination of tools and skill, and adds the Souls-style difficulty, the loss of all currency upon death with a chance of recovering it and the need for strategy in fights, never getting too greedy and learning by getting your butt kicked.
The different zones and the world itself have that bleak tones of the Souls series, that concept of a dying world holding by a thread, where no one is safe and where monsters and maddened people roam about, bereft of all humanity.
But it then has that Metroidvania style of making each zone interesting by giving them unique visual designs, some of them adding some much-needed colour to the world.
Where Souls games can be one-trick ponies in environmental design (medieval settlements), Hollow Knight’s Metroidvania heritage brings you decrepit crypts, broken down towns, aqueducts, overgrown areas, zones with abundant fungal growth and even a place filled with spider webs, all which are visually distinct.
Hollow Knight is truly nonlinear and when I’ve gone and checked for clues online on things I was desperate to know even if it might spoil something, I’ve found that because you can explore wherever and however you want and with so many areas open to you from the start, everyone has a different path, which influences their advice and in a weird way prevents any spoilers.
I love discovering new zones in Hollow Knight, and it has that Metroidvania joy of finally reaching that ledge you couldn’t before, but now that you’ve gone to that one area you put off exploring, you have the resources needed to open new paths.
Once you acquire the necessary upgrades, such as the Super Dash and Double Jump, you can really explore some of the most dangerous areas and I mention the high skill cap because to reach these areas and get to the end, you need to combine all your skills.
Hell, to escape one of them I had to jump on an invulnerable enemy and strike below me to hit its face as it rose across the screen, using the strike’s recoil and careful timing to keep striking until we reached a ledge above, where the exit lay. It’s not easy, it’s frankly hardcore, and I love it.
Every upgrade you get makes you feel like a complete badass, with the Super Dash being my absolute favourite by far. Your knight charges energy, and crystals appear at his feet. You then release and his blasts forward at break-neck speeds. It’s fantastic. It’s like doing a Shine-Spark in Metroid or using the Bat in Symphony of the Night.
ia and Souls, has an overabundance of things that want to kill you, though some areas lean more towards the Metroid-style deadly fauna, where the creatures you fight are just chilling in their own environment and you look like fresh food.
Sometimes the bosses are incredibly difficult but in many more cases I’ve found that getting to them is the real difficulty, which is something I experienced a lot in the Souls-like genre. It never reaches the level where the boss is a pushover, but there are places where getting to the boss is an ordeal, and when you see those gates lock and notice you have only 2 units of health left, you know the party just started and you’re in for either a desperate fight, or a very short one.
Storytelling comes in pieces, and character interactions are almost always cryptic or cut in places, leaving often more holes and more questions than the answers you seek. Between these short interactions, the murals with short blocks of text, the psychic messages you draw when using the Dream Nail and other bits of information, some of them purely visual from the background art, you start to piece together the story of the world, but only if you put the time and the effort to do so. Otherwise you’re just jumping from boss to boss and zone to zone, with very little exposition given to you.
One thing I never like in Souls-like games are the characters, as I always find them infuriating or generally dislikeable. I have never felt that from any character in Hollow Knight as the little bugs have plenty of personality, with my favourites being the useless knight Zote, the Map-maker and his wife. They’re fantastic, particularly the map maker, as he tends to find the most remote corners of each map to hide away, commenting on the dangers found outside but never deterring from his quest as a cartographer.
I don’t need to review Hollow Knight (though I might when I finish it, just to make it official), it’s already getting a 6/5 for me. It’s wonderful, a brilliant combination of genres that creates a unique experience, something you can’t get in any other Metroidvania or Souls-like game. It’s a different beast altogether and it’s phenomenal!