by Jed Pressgrove
With gorgeous art, an exquisite score, and an array of places to discover, Hollow Knight resembles a masterpiece. Indeed, the game is very good at resembling things, whether because of its focus on ruin, souls, and hollowness (Dark Souls); its level structure, wherein players can travel new pathways via newly acquired techniques (Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night); its curt swordplay (Ninja Gaiden); and its wall-jumping and dashing mechanics (Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man X). Look beyond its great looks and great sounds, and Hollow Knight more than lives up to to the first word of its title.
In a world of bugs, you play as a warrior on a vague quest in which you have many sorrowful run-ins with destitute and hostile creatures. As such, Hollow Knight is indebted to the storytelling approach of Dark Souls, but it says nothing specific about the human condition. In Dark Souls, a sense of real-world ennui pervades the proceedings as your character goes through the motions of killing, leveling up, and collecting currency, and the game is never shy about showing the deleterious effects of a decaying habitat on the mental states of the characters that you meet. In contrast, Hollow Knight’s friendly nonplayable characters, distinct in their audiovisual quirks, often display a strange level of enthusiasm considering the wretched state of their environments, yet there doesn’t seem to be any philosophy that inspires their general positivity. Worse, the protagonist is but a silent and nameless shell who moves with a ruthless type of efficiency; he’s a cold product of decades of video-game logic with no emotional meaning.
Controlling this brutal killer is pleasurable once you gain enough abilities after combing the game’s interconnected locations several times. You can double-jump to swing your sword up at an aerial enemy, then dash away toward a wall, kick off the wall, slash the foe from the side to eliminate it, dash again in midair, and use your final jump to land safely on a modest platform. You can bounce on adversaries by swinging your weapon downward at them from above. You can perform a few special moves, including a fireball of sorts and a dive-bomb, if you have enough Soul, which also allows you to heal if there’s enough distance between you and an active threat. But looking back at it all, I can’t name a single thing in Hollow Knight that I haven’t done in other games — a realization that creates a feeling of profound emptiness, especially considering the length of the experience.
It’s almost like developer Team Cherry bases Hollow Knight on a disturbingly patronizing pitch: “This time, it’s with bugs!” If all you want is to admire how intricately detailed animation and audio can make you feel as if you are among a wide variety of creepy crawlies (the game’s Deepnest region ingeniously epitomizes this sensation), Hollow Knight is the greatest platformer of all time. Outside of that, it’s simply another title, like Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge, that echoes the past with the vain hope that it too will go down in history.