Game Design

Hollow Knight bosses from best to worst

written 2023-08-11, updated 2023-09-18

My Hollow Knight review

Tier lists seem popular these days, and gushing about what you like and complaining about what you dislike is always fun. So, I'm getting in on it: this is all Hollow Knight bosses ranked based on how well-designed they are.

First, I'll discuss some general considerations of boss design.

Diversity of attacks: in general, 3 distinct attacks is the minimum for a decent boss. Great bosses usually have more. While raw number of distinct attacks doesn't guarantee a good boss, it correlates strongly. The numbers I list after each boss's name are how many attacks it has by my count. I conflate attacks that are too similar, like The Radiance's radial swords and radial beams, and don't generally count movement unless it aims at or has a significant chance of hitting the player (for example, Broken Vessel's jump is an attack, but Crystal Guardian's is not).

Its attacks should also be diversified by their context and combinations. Watcher Knights is a great example of this. Each knight is a simple boss with only 3 attacks, but because there's 2 of them attacking independently, there's so much more variety in the situations they can generate; the way you want to respond to each attack depends on where the other knight is and what it's doing.

On the other hand, Mantis Lords is not as interesting as it could be because they disappear and reappear after each attack. There's no state. You'll react to each attack the same way every time. Also, when there's two of them they never have one throw while the other melees.

A good boss should minimize trial and error. Its hitboxes should be what they look like, and telegraphs should intuitively suggest what's going to happen. The player shouldn't have to get hit by an attack 5 times just to figure these things out.

Trial and error gameplay

Finally, a good boss should not be tedious. It shouldn't take a long time to kill if you're skilled and appropriately upgraded. It shouldn't have long periods where you're just waiting for an opportunity to attack.

Because lettered tier systems are cringe (especially ones with "S", and especially ones with "SS" or "S+"), I'm going to use a more elegant tier system. The tiers are ++, +, =, -, and --. This list *is* ordered within tier, though ordering bosses that are close together is iffy so don't put too much weight on it.

Tier ++

The Radiance / Absolute Radiance: 5

What I love about The Radiance is how much variety there is. It doesn't have as many distinct attacks as Broken Vessel, but the attacks exercise different skills. There's horizontal, vertical, radial, and seeking projectiles, and area denial, and the attacks can overlap with each other! You fight not just on a flat surface like most bosses but also on platforms. This boss has it all. It's great.

Grey Prince Zote: 6

Counting the different types of minions he summons as separate attacks because they're meaningfully different. This boss has a lot of misleading telegraphs, which would be bad, except that it's a joke boss, and I think it's funny in exactly the intended way. It's not a problem that he's used as a serious boss in Godhome because the misleading telegraphs are only a problem the first time.

It might seem weird to rank a joke boss this high, but this ranking is strictly about gameplay. What puts Zote above Broken Vessel is that his summons matter more because they don't all die in one hit and have more complex movement patterns.

Broken Vessel: 7 (but 2 pairs are similar)

Broken Vessel has the highest number of distinct attacks by my count (ground dash, air dash, summon, sword flail, targeted jump, infection ball jump, infection spout). 2 pairs of those are pretty similar, but still. The summons also add a lot to the fight by making you track the movement of more than one enemy.

Lost Kin: 6 (but 2 pairs are similar)

I actually didn't know this for the longest time, but Lost Kin apparently never does the infection spout attack. I don't know why, that's a bit sad and is the reason I put Lost Kin below Broken Vessel.

Pure Vessel: 6

The focus attack is not very interesting because it's too trivial to dodge.

Tier +

The Hollow Knight: 6

The infection smash attack sucks. It's completely trivial if you know that changing direction thwarts its tracking, but very hard or impossible to dodge if you don't know that. And it's not at all obvious, even after you've been hit a few times.

Nightmare King Grimm: 6

Not as interesting as he could be because he disappears and reappears inbetween attacks, and because the pufferfish attack makes you wait.

Also, I was confused for a long time on the fine points of the firebats attack. Sometimes it looks like if I'm close enough they phase through me, other times it looks like I'm right in his face but they don't. Also couldn't figure out what determines whether he teleports away if you get too close during this attack.

Troupe Master Grimm: 5

Nailmasters Oro and Mato: 4

Watcher Knights: 3

Sisters of Battle: 4+

I like how chaotic and fluid the battle is with all 3 of them attacking somewhat independently. And you're almost always getting to attack, which feels good.

I write "4+" because I think they have the same basic 4 behaviors individually as Mantis Lords, but they combine them into more combinations. They still aren't fully independent, though.

Hornet Sentinel: 5

Hornet Protector: 4

White Defender: 5

The addition of the sideways-advancing spikes is definitely enough to move this fight into tier +.

Paintmaster Sheo: 4

Hive Knight: 4

Great Nailsage Sly: 5

Despite his high number of distinct attacks, there's not much variety in the counterplay. You pretty much just want to stay away from him until the spin attack, and dash over the dash slash and great slash.

Surprise second phases are bullshit! There's no reason to make it a surprise except to bait the player into thinking they've won and then disappoint them.

Also the second phase is lame because it's just 1 attack repeating.

Tier =

Dung Defender: 3

I have a bit of a soft spot for this boss. I like his music, I had a great experience the first time, and I think the balls are more interesting than most "stuff falling from the sky" attacks beacuse of their parabolic trajectories. But I don't feel like I can put it in tier + because the fight is too much about this one kind of dodging, and yet often it doesn't really matter because you can just ignore the bouncing threats and usually they won't happen to hit you.

It's cool and fun that you can hit him while he's bouncing in ball form or when he comes up during the wavy burrows attack, and even juggle him or follow him across the arena and hit him every time he comes up.

Mantis Lords: 4

Traitor Lord: 4

Similar to Sly, not much variety in the counterplay. Shadow dash is almost all you'll use.

Soul Warrior: 3

False Knight: 3

Brooding Mawlek: 4

Despite having 4 attacks I feel the fight is still monotonous. I think it's because 3 of those attacks are things falling on you. 2 of them even have the same counterplay, and its melee attack is pathetic and easy to dodge the same way every time.

Failed Champion: 3

While I don't count the falling rings as one of his attacks (they're more like an environmental hazard), having them at the same time as his other attacks definitely makes things more interesting.

The reason I ranked this boss lower than False Knight is because you can cheese him for full health refill in every stagger by dream nailing him, then hitting his armor to reset the timer. This doesn't make the fight worse if you don't know about it (in which case I'd say it's a bit more interesting than False Knight), but once you do, the fight is really uninteresting and becomes more of a time sink.

Gruz Mother: 2

As False Knight shows, tutorial bosses don't have to be *this* simple. a 3rd attack would be nice. But I don't put Gruz Mother in tier -, because she can be defeated *very* quickly if you know what you're doing, since she has low health and is almost always in range. When I first fought her I just ran under the zig-zag-bounce attack and waited for it to finish, but as an experienced player I realize you can easily hit her on each floor bounce (twice if you have quick slash! useful in Godhome). This makes the boss's lameness less annoying for experienced players because she takes up less time. Also, killing bosses quickly is always satisfying.

Massive Moss Charger: 2

Q: yujiri how can you put massive moss charger in tier = when it's so lame?

A: Massive moss charger isn't a real boss. It doesn't have a name flash or a locked arena. It was Godhome's mistake to treat it as one. In the context it appears, it's funny and fun and short, so it's okay that it's shallow. And even in the Pantheons, it's inoffensive because it's so easy and *fast* (unlike Vengefly King).

Tier -

God Tamer: 3

The optimal strategy is monotonous. You just hide on the top of the walls until the beast rolls, then dash to the other side of it, hit and retreat to the other wall.

It's also lame that attacking the tamer is pointless, and that there's no way to know that.

Nosk: 4

Like God Tamer, this fight is monotonous. In the Deepnest arena, you pretty much just hide on the corner of the raised area, hit Nosk while it runs over your head and then go to the other side. In the Godhome arena, you just pogo it every time it passes. Since Nosk moves so fast and has such a big hitbox, it's very dangerous to attack at any other time.

Another thing I dislike about Nosk is a rules clarity issue. So, in the Godhome arena you're forced to pogo - except that's not safe because Nosk can suddenly stand up, hugely expanding its hitbox vertically with no telegraph. So what are you supposed to do?

Actually, Nosk only ever does that in the center or edges of the arena, not in the "2/5 and 4/5 zones". So it's safe if you do it only in those spots. But this is rule is so complex that it's not reasonable to expect the player to figure it out. I can't think of any other boss in the game that has an attack it's only allowed to use in certain spots, but there's *more than 1* such spot.

I think the designers didn't think Nosk's sudden stand-up needed to be telegraphed because they didn't think of it as an attack. But in a game with contact damage, *enemy movement is an attack*. It needs to either be slow enough to react to or be telegraphed.

Markoth: 2

More interesting than the other warrior dreams (the platforms especially make it deeper), but still less so than most normal bosses.

The Collector: 2

The minions don't add much depth because you can easily kill them all as soon as they spawn.

Flukemarm: 1

I honestly think Flukemarm is more interesting than Crystal Guardian even though it only has 1 attack, because at least the spawns have tricky movement patterns instead of just requiring the same dodge every time.

Crystal Guardian / Enraged Guardian: 2

Crystal Guardian technically has 2 attacks, but feels like it has only 1 and it's super easy to avoid by just jumping every time.

Soul Master / Soul Tyrant: 4

Soul Master's constant teleporting is awful. He teleports so often that you'll spend most of the time just chasing him only for him to disappear just before you can hit him. It makes the fight exhausting and tedious.

Also, this is only an issue the first time, but it's really offensive that the game baits you into thinking you've won before hitting you with a surprise extra phase. It's even worse than Sly because not only does the enemy look defeated and the music stop, there's even a pickup for you!

It's also a problem that the hitbox of his shockwaves in the surprise phase is super unclear. After killing this guy dozens of times, I'm still confused. Sometimes it seems like dashing always avoids it, sometimes not, sometimes you have to jump and dash. Other times i can just avoid it by walking? what's going on?!?

Finally, most of his attacks aren't affected by state, like Mantis Lords.

As for Soul Tyrant, I'm not even sure if it's really different or not, but it *seems* to me like Soul Tyrant's dive shockwaves in the surprise phase are bigger than Soul Master's, but I'm not sure how. The first time I fought him I got there with like 8 health and died because the shockwaves always still hit me if I dashed and I didn't know what the fuck I was supposed to do. It seems to always work if i jump *and* dash, and ever since then seems to usually work with just a dash. It's so bad. Heck, I'm not even sure what the *shape* of this hitbox is, let alone its size or intended counterplay.

Oblobbles: 1

Galien: 1

At least galien's 1 attack requires you track multiple hitboxes (even if the smaller ones barely ever matter), making it slightly more interesting than the other 1-attack warrior dreams.

Marmu: 1

Ranked above Xero because she isn't constantly floating away from you as you try to get in range, making her less irritating.

Xero: 1

I rank him just barely above Gorb because his 1 attack has a return strike which goes toward Xero's current position instead of where it launched from, making it slightly more interesting.

Gorb: 1

No Eyes: 1

Only 1 attack and teleporting. Lame. At least she doesn't teleport as often as Soul Master.

Winged Nosk: 4

This fight is literally "what if Nosk was Vengefly King". It doesn't have the rules clarity issue that Nosk has, but it is more boring because it takes longer and you just repeat the same motion again and again and again. I only rank it higher than Vengefly King because the greater variety and difficulty of its attacks that make you wait helps distract from how boring it is.

Tier --

Uumuu: 2

Uumuu is designed like a CrossCode boss, having cleanly separated attack and defense phases. The boss is invulnerable while it's attacking, you just have to wait for Quirrel, and it doesn't attack while it's vulnerable. The waiting is boring especially because Uumuu only has 2 attacks to occupy you. At least most CrossCode bosses let the player do the something to trigger the vulnerable phases. (The Godhome version is more up to the standards of CrossCode, but still in Tier - or --.)

Mind you, CrossCode is a great game, but boss design isn't its strongsuit.


Elder Hu: 2

Elder Hu is boring for the much same reason as Vengefly King: he's invulnerable during one of his attacks, and he sometimes makes you wait while he does it more than once in a row. The reason he outranks Vengefly King is that you can attack Elder Hu more than once per phase, so the fight takes less time.

He would be much better if only he was vulnerable during the second attack.

Vengefly King: 2

Vengefly King makes me salty every time I play the first Pantheon, because it's sooo tedious. You can only easily attack when it dives, and only once, and sometimes it just makes you wait while it summons those worthless dipshits 3 times in a row. The fight is ridiculously simple and easy, so you don't even have a modicum of challenge to distract you from how boring the design is. You can't even easily hit it with fireballs, because if you jump, it flies even higher!

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