The Sole Eyes on Hollow Knight

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Hollow Knight. I got a demo of it. That feels somewhat clandestine. See, I had no idea I would be receiving a demo of it. It was one of the mystery things slipped into January’s Humble Monthly deal. Nobody who got the demo knew it was coming. It just snuck its way into my possession, delivered by a faceless and mysterious person with no word or forewarning. And yet, to my knowledge, the previous Humble Monthly was the only way to get your hands on it. You don’t get to play this demo. Most people don’t get to play this demo. It was only provided to a select few, through a single point of distribution, that nobody knew about.

And yet, nobody’s talking about this demo. And that’s a darn shame. I played it. It was good. I thought it was lovely. Let’s talk about why.

Hollow Knight is a Kickstarter game yet in development, as most Kickstarter games are. I could give the overview, but let’s let the developers do the work for me. From their Kickstarter page:

Channeling the styles of classic games like Metroid, Zelda 2 and Faxanadu, Hollow Knight is a 2D action adventure set in a sprawling, interconnected world.

As the enigmatic Hollow Knight, players will journey through the depths of Hallownest, a vast and ancient kingdom buried deep underground. Though long fallen to ruin after a dimly-remembered catastrophe, explorers and thieves still brave its dark roads, its caverns and towers, searching for riches and wonders.”

That… sounds completely and utterly standard, doesn’t that? A whole bunch of words that deliver little context and with descriptors that nearly any game in its genre can claim. Yeah. I’m pretty sure if you’re colorful enough, you could describe my dinner using much the same terms. Team Cherry, the developer, is a three man group, and it doesn’t seem any of them have much marketing acumen. Luckily, the demo speaks to a game beyond that weak description, so allow me to see if I can do better.

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In spite of the developer’s claim, gameplay in Hollow Knight feels nothing like Zelda 2, only a bit like Metroid, and… I’ve barely heard of Faxanadu, so what the hell, it feels exactly like Faxanadu. It plays like nothing so much as the Igavania games, though, taking clear inspiration from the likes of Symphony of the Night. Gameplay relies on a lot of the same things that Iga’s Castlevania titles did, so expect lots of interconnected platforming, zoning, and angle management.

On top of that, the game carries an atmosphere that harkens back to Dark Souls. The whole feel of the game is deliberately dour. The art is one of the best things about the experience, and it is implemented beautifully and masterfully to create that tone. It’s no coincidence that most things in the games comes in shades of grays, blacks, and muted blues, with only the rare splashes of color highlighting important things. Nor that shadows envelop almost everything aside from yourself in this game. The demo doesn’t give you much of an idea of what the world you find yourself in is like, but it is clear enough that it is at or near its end, and it has a very depressed spirit, because of it. It carries a lot of subtleties that it weaves together quite well, and the visuals and overall mood of the game are incredibly striking.

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So yeah. Gameplay of Castlevania, atmosphere of Dark Souls, all wrapped up in a cute cartoon bug shell.

Combat here feels wonderfully kinetic. I mentioned before that zoning was a big part of gameplay, and the impact of successful attacks plays a big part of it. They get everything on point there, from the brief pause upon impact, the sounds and sights of it, and the knockback achieved. It all goes together to just feel good. Not nearly as good as getting hit feels, though. Yes, I realize how strange that sounds. I can’t think of the last time I played a game where getting hit has such impact. Not that I would know, never having gotten hit by a single thing, after all. This is just what I heard. Large cracks appear from where you’re struck, the music grows mute, and the screen grows darker in response to a successful enemy attack. It adds a lot of weight to the moment, and seemed to draw me in a lot closer to what was going on with my little bug dude.

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Another thing I would have absolutely no idea about due to never ever needing it and anyone who tells you differently is a filthy liar, the game has a pretty unique method of healing. Attacking enemies fills up an healing reservoir, which you can later use to recover health after an impact. You can. Not me. You can heal yourself in the middle of a fight, but it takes some time spent motionless or defenseless, so you really have to pick and choose your moments.

The game is obviously built to be upgrading your character overall. That’s part and partial with the whole Igavania/Metroid inspired deal, after all. The demo didn’t give you the chance, but there are areas that are obviously calling for abilities that aren’t available at the start. Double jumping is the big, obvious one, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see dashing, some limited flight, and the rest of the standard offerings there. Judging from the way you open up more map abilities, I’d imagine that it’s a lot of minute unlocks that you’ll be hitting frequently. I get a certain satisfaction from unlocking things, so it’s good to me to have a ton of small ones, but I know that’s going to grate on many.

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The game is good. This is a really early version, showing a very limited area, but it does showcase solidly competent gameplay coupled with excellent visuals and atmosphere and a lot of promise. The gameworld is gorgeous and intriguing. I’d love to see more. If you could play the demo, you might to. Keep your eye out for it. I’m sure it won’t be exclusive to me and only me for long.