Hollow Knight is in a strange place for me right now because I have more or less finished the game but have the Godmaster DLC content that I haven’t been able to beat and I imagine my predicament is where most people who play this game are in. As of this writing I’m stuck at the Pure Vessel and haven’t even managed to get to Absolute Radiance’s pantheon but these are the only remaining things left to do in the game for me, aside from Steel Soul mode.
Before really having the chance to play Hollow Knight, I had only heard about it and most of them were usually praising the game. I really didn’t know too many specifics as to why but it never really struck me to try it out anytime sooner. Coincidentally, after I had talked about wanting to take a break from Yakuza with a much “smaller” game, Hollow Knight went for free on the PS+ monthly games and I saw no reason not to try it out.
And after playing it as much as I did with around 80+ hours sunk in, all I can say is
I wish I actually paid for it.
Hollow Knight begins with a rather enigmatic way as you start your adventure as The Knight, entering the remains of the ruined kingdom of insects known as Hallownest. You are not told as to why you’re here and what you intend to accomplish but you enter a well in the old town of Dirtmouth as the only means of entering Hallownest’s closed off gates. The story is something people have made literal hour long videos on so I won’t bother you with my own interpretation but suffice it to say, you learn of what has more or less destroyed the once glorious kingdom and explains why so many bugs are out to kill you. Some mysterious “Infection” from deep within the land has been invading the minds of the surviving bugs left in the kingdom and even animating the dead ones and have them lash out against anyone they see. The Pale King, the grand figure who had established Hallownest after his mysterious and sudden arrival a long time ago, has disappeared during the chaos. This was after his attempts to combat the “infection” by utilizing a being known as the Hollow Knight, a warrior who currently lies sealed away in the Temple of the Black Egg. The Hollow Knight was apparently the means to stop the Infection but so far as we know, it hasn’t worked as intended as the Infection is clearly still present in the dilapidated kingdom. The Knight is given the purpose of learning more about the Pale King, the Hollow Knight, the Infection, and is given the choice to replace the Hollow Knight as the vessel to contain the Infection once more. To gain access to the Hollow Knight however, you must first locate the Three Dreamers who sealed the gate to the Hollow Knight and destroy their physical bodies. Their locations are properly hidden away in the deeper corners of the kingdom and once you destroy them, you are given another option in stopping the Infection, which takes you toward another long path of meeting certain conditions. The game has a multitude of endings and all can be considered canon according to the devs.
Now, what I managed to summarize comes from reading over a lot of lore in my periods of breaks between playing the game in large bursts of time and admittedly, not a lot of it is explained to you in the first half of the game where you’re mostly wandering around. I haven’t even mentioned places like Greenpath having their own little god, the Mushroom people, the Mantis Village, Deepnest, the fucking Abyss, and other places that add to the plot and some that don’t but are incredibly interesting locales to learn about.
Hollow Knight’s gameplay is often derided as being incredibly simple as you only have two primary means of offense. Your blade, known as a Nail, and Soul Arts that function as magic. The Nail can attack directly in front of you, above you, and when you jump you can also attack below you. Getting hit and landing attacks accumulate souls which you can spend to heal and utilize offensive spells that you can unlock by progressing further into the game. Your nail can also be upgraded to increase its damage and encountering Nail Masters around the map can impart special techniques to use as well. Besides combat, your movement is limited at the start and you unlock abilities such as wall-clinging, double jumping, swimming through acid pools, and similar movement techniques that are staples in this metroid-vania style of game. Your max health and soul can be upgraded through finding either four mask shards to increase your health and three vessel shards to have up to one extra meter for soul storage. Currency in the game is called Geo and you accumulate them from killing enemies and striking at deposits of them scattered across the landscape. Dying has a shade that appears where you died and you have to kill it to regain your money, which is the only real thing that’s lost upon death, aside from progress.
So if the Dark Souls vibes from collecting from your own corpse and exploring a long-dead kingdom in ruin hasn’t tipped you off yet, your equivalent of Bonfires are nice little benches that you rest on to save your progress, fully heal yourself, and respawn enemies. You also get to switch up your charms, which are the x-factor in your combat and exploration skills as they confer particular power-ups ranging from extending your nail’s range, increasing the power of your soul techniques, gaining more soul on hit, gaining more soul on damage, being able to move while healing, etc. The charm system gives you the choice of play in both the exploration front and combat front of the game so it is the specialization that makes your style of play special. Some of them even combo with each other but I personally stayed with whacking things to death with the nail.
One of the big immersive points for me was slowly filling out the map of each area I visited. Whereas in most games purchasing the map immediately reveals the entire area to you, Hollow Knight has it so that you need to rest at a bench for you to properly draw out the map. Maps are bought from an NPC who hums loudly so you have an audio cue to know that he’s in the area, as well as a bunch of stray pages of maps littered around his location. Another was the fact that there were not one but two fast-travel systems in the game in the form of Stagways and Trams. Running into the first Stagway really sold me onto this game as a concept as you could have gotten away with the usual teleport into loading screen fast-travel as many RPGs do but they want the extra mile to justify and create a believable insect-based travel system of a formerly functioning kingdom and that’s the type of world-building I love. Environmental story-telling is also something I love here as the attention to detail on the backdrops and backgrounds for certain areas such as in the Ancient Basin, Kingdom’s Edge, Greenpath, City of Tears, and Fungal Wastes were particularly memorable for me. Specifically the large King’s idol, the Wyrm corpse and Ancient Nailsmith corpse, Unn’s lake, Soul Sanctum, and the Mantis Village respectively. I also forgot to mention how any rooms associated with lifeblood are always beautiful to look at. I started paying more attention to the music after stepping into the Soul Sanctum for the first time. The different species of insects and other “bugs” also kept me engaged with the multitude of inhabitants in the game.
These types of games wouldn’t be so memorable without boss fights or NPCs either, another similar point to Souls as most NPCs can die depending on how you handle their quests. The NPCs aren’t too involved but some do technically “travel” with you and spawn in different locations. Like in Souls, you can deliberately not interact with them to keep some of them from moving on to the next part of their quests/encounters. I think my favorite boss fight were the Mantis Lords and Grimm and I haven’t really talked about the DLC stuff but they add some new additions to the experience but the most prominent ones were Grimm Troupe and the Godmaster DLC, the latter of which is the aforementioned boss rush mode.
Despite its whole thing being about bugs, Hollow Knight has so much packed into its tiny world be it environmental porn for the eyes, customization options, an incredibly detailed world to explore, fun characters to interact with, and all the mysterious happenings that destroyed the kingdom to uncover and learn about. The music is very well fitted and the journey has enough roadblocks to encourage backtracking and exploration, it’s honestly one of the most solid things I’ve played from PS+ free games lineup. Silksong isn’t ever coming out is it?