Hollow Knight Review
Hollow Knight’s rich world and incredible depth of content will make you want to explore its caves for dozens of hours.
It’s not hard to get lost in the deep, subterranean world of Hollow Knight – and I mean that in more ways than one. The expansive catacombs of Hallownest have countless paths to explore and secrets to find. But more than that, it’s rich with lore, history, and purpose that drew me into a 2D Metroidvania kingdom I wanted to uncover every inch of.
The deeper I went into Hollow Knight, the more I was surprised at just how much content and freedom it has to offer. I could wander in basically any direction and find bosses to fight, upgrades to collect, and secrets to uncover. But what’s truly captivating about the exploring this long-dead kingdom is its atmosphere. Art, music, color tone, sound, and a million other little details combine to give each area of the map a distinct sense of place, and those areas jigsaw together in a way that feels intentional and alive.
World Wide Web
There are far more of these distinct biomes than I ever expected to discover, and the edges of each one blend together with the next in ways that help them make sense in the world. For example, walls on the border of the Fungal Wastes, even impassable ones in other areas, will be dotted with its telltale mushrooms. The lush environment of an area called Greenpath feels bustling and humid, a stark difference to the cold, dark caves of the Forgotten Crossroads. The bubble-filled region of Fog Canyon isn’t technically underwater, but the muffled filter over all of its audio goes hand-in-hand with jellyfish enemies and a brighter blue tone.
Hallownest’s capital city, the City of Tears, is a metropolis in a huge cave where it’s always raining. But it wasn’t until 10 hours after I first discovered this place that I stumbled across the Blue Lake, a massive body of serene water positioned just above the underground city. Hollow Knight doesn’t shove this connection in your face, it just lets you explore its world and piece together the story for yourself as you sit down and enjoy a moment of quiet.
Hollow Knight’s larger story is told in a subtle way, but its lore is so deep that I feel like I could write a book on it.
In fact, Hollow Knight tells you very little about what’s going on, and instead sends you into a world full of monumental events that all happened long before you arrived: wars and heroes, love and culture, disease and destruction. The aftermath of Hallownest’s troubled past is left for you to discover and comes through loud and clear, but only if you take the time to listen. It’s told in a very subtle way, but teaches you so much about Hallownest in the process that I feel like I could practically write a book on it.
It’s a tragic tale, one full of fallen heroes and terrible decisions, but it still manages to make time for beautiful, calm, and hopeful moments throughout. And it’s easy to enjoy those moments, because Hollow Knight’s hand-drawn art is simply beautiful. It’s a world that manages to feel cohesive despite its citizens being adorable bug-people in a dying cave.
The story (and your place in it) is picked up as you go. Some of it through dialogue with the adorable and quirky characters who still reside in this decrepit kingdom, some through important story events, and some just by observing your surroundings and the clues strewn about it. After my second playthrough, I have a fairly clear picture of Hallownest’s history, but it’s a picture I assembled myself.
As much as I genuinely loved being pushed out of the boat and told to start kicking, Hollow Knights’ first few hours can be a predictably sink-or-swim experience as a result. It’s an unashamedly challenging game that does a great job of silently teaching you how to play, but it still felt a little bit daunting to start — especially when death means having to fight your way back to your corpse to reclaim your money, called Geo.
You have to find a map seller named Cornifer in each area before you can start keeping track of where you’ve been, and even then you have to equip a specific charm to see where you are on it in real time. That, coupled with fact that getting good at the combat takes practice, means I spent my first couple hours just trying to figure Hollow Knight out.
But once I picked up the rhythm of its combat and the pattern of exploring its initially restrictive cave systems, Hollow Knight clicked in a way that made me never want to put it down. After Greenpath, the second major area, you reach a point where there’s no clear “correct” direction anymore. Like any Metroidvania, your path options are gated behind things like ledges too high to reach or gaps too far to jump until you find the necessary upgrades, but there are enough options that don’t result in dead ends to keep to you exploring for quite a while.
Hidden around the Kingdom of Hallownest are traditional Metroidvania abilities like a dash and a wall climb to help you better navigate its caves and reach new places. These new movement abilities also allow you to move through new paths in familiar terrain faster and more efficiently, giving the obligatory need to retread old ground (which does happen a fair amount) fresh life. Suddenly your wall climb turns that small gap between platforms into a shortcut instead of a hazard.
New movement abilities allow you to move through new paths in familiar terrain, giving the obligatory need to retread old ground fresh life.
Thankfully, there is also a flavor-filled quick-travel system called the Stagways. Stag stations can be found and unlocked across Hallownest, allowing you to call The Last Stag to take you between them. What could just be a jump between points instead becomes a quest in itself, and I almost always spoke to The Stag after unlocking a station not to travel, but to hear his gruff but optimistic take on whatever new stop I brought him to.
Hollow Knight’s world also undergoes more concrete changes as you progress. Railways and elevators will unlock permanently, opening shortcuts that loop back to earlier sections and easing the burden of backtracking. One early area eventually even morphs into a much harder late-game section in a way that makes it feel like your actions in Hallownest have real weight.
Hammer Meets Nail
The combat in Hollow Knight is relatively straightforward, but starts out tricky as you learn to time quick directional sword slashes with jumps and dashes. It rewards patience and skill massively — killing enemies is a matter of sharp timing, learning attack patterns, and having quick reflexes more than just the upgrades you earn along the way. You can find upgrades to your weapon damage, increase your max health, and equip charms with a variety of abilities, but more importantly, I just got better as I went. A boss that gave me tons of trouble at the start of the game was a pushover when I returned for a second playthrough.
And while your timing requires precision, the combat itself is somewhat forgiving. Hitting enemies lets you collect a resource called Soul which you can stop and channel at any time to heal, as long as you don’t get hit. So while the all-or-nothing nature of dropping your Geo on death gives exploration a sweaty-palmed tension, Hollow Knight also gives you the tools to take a breath, gather Soul, and get your health back up.
There are a decent amount of smaller enemies scattered around each level as well, acting as weaker baddies that let you recover Soul and collect Geo in relative safety. But there are just as many scary opponents too, and dying far from a checkpoint is a real risk. The enemy variety is impressive to say the least, with nearly 100 different types to fight, and even ones with similar behaviors looking dramatically different depending on what area of the map you find them in.
A charm system allows you to customize your own methods for killing those enemies as well. Each charm takes up a set number of notches (which you can earn more of along the way) and range from small effects, like extending your attack distance or gathering more Soul on hits, to large trade-off changes, like doubling your health but preventing you from healing at all, which can dramatically change how you play.
Thankfully, you can freely swap them out whenever you sit at a bench, which also serve as Hollow Knight’s save points and healing stations. That meant I could come up with specific combinations to counter different scenarios on the fly. I had my favorite loadout for general use, a loadout that upped the amount of Geo I got and collected it automatically, and a loadout for moving more quickly. If you prefer using Hollow Knight’s Soul-consuming damage abilities instead of swinging your sword (called a Nail) you could equip charms that increase Soul damage and even change your attacks entirely.
For some harder boss fights that didn’t give me an opportunity to heal, my loadout even shifted to maximizing my temporary health at the cost of unequipping charms I had grown to rely on. Through all that experimentation, it never felt like there was a wrong choice. All the charms are good, and they all work, and it’s up to you to determine which you like the most and which work best for the scenario in front of you.
And if any situation will push you to test those choices out, it will likely be one of Hollow Knight’s copious amount of boss fights. Seriously: there are dozens of different bosses, ranging from small and quick enemies to large, deadly brutes. These contained challenges are some of the best thrills available because they force you to find a strategy, learn when it’s safe to attack or heal, and get better each time you get crushed
Because believe me, you will get crushed. Those hard losses occasionally slowed my momentum, but there is almost always some other path to explore. If I was having trouble pushing through in one direction, I’d just wander down another until I got stronger (or just better) and decided to face that tough fight again.
Soul-Searching For Secrets
In fact, a staggering amount of Hollow Knight’s best content is entirely optional. You could probably beat the campaign without seeing two-thirds of what it has to offer, though the quest to get an alternate (and much better) ending will pull you in front of significantly more. Bosses, thoughtful story, and whole sections of the map can remain hidden, which adds to that feeling of actually exploring this world when you do stumble upon them.
None of Hollow Knight’s optional content feels like filler.
The key here is that none of this optional content feels like filler. I actively wanted to find every secret I possibly could and learn what was actually going on in the story. It all felt unique, significant, and wonderfully put together. Even after the 30+ hours it took me to truly beat Hollow Knight, I was excited to go back for more.
Having so much to do at any given time can admittedly be overwhelming at points. There can be so many open paths on your map that the burden of deciding which to explore next can make you doubt which is the “right” way. But the beauty of Hallownest is that there is very rarely a right or wrong choice, and it’s unlikely two players will explore these caves in the same order.
Hollow Knight has also been getting free post-launch content updates since its launch on PC last year, all of which are included on Switch (and more updates are on the way, according to developer Team Cherry). Those patches have added new areas and new bosses, and one even added the ability to add custom markers to your map. The simple act of being able to visually track when I need to revisit an area or which paths I’ve yet to go down is a godsend. It has helped me take stock of what needs to be done alongside the other late-game amenities Hollow Knight makes available for completionists, like maps that will eventually track certain collectibles.
But so much of what’s worth finding past the point where you can “beat” Hollow Knight is pure, concentrated lore. To really get a picture of what you’re doing (and to properly inform an important choice you have to make) you need to explore. I love that those key moments in the story tie into some of the best gameplay challenges it has to offer as well.
For example, one of the final secret areas basically transforms Hollow Knight into a Super Meat Boy-style platformer with very little combat. Platforming challenges exist all throughout the world, with some of the most thrilling requiring you to use your Nail as a pogo stick while you bounce across spikes, Duck Tales-style — but this area is something else entirely, and tells you about the history of that location with its themes.
And, as I mentioned before, the music adds to that setting and art one thousand times over. While each location has its own theme and boss fight music, individual melodies and instruments will shift in and out as you move from screen to screen. The mood and tension of a scene are often driven by that music, and the soundtrack has quickly become one of my favorites.