Hollow Knight review

written 2023-12-03

Hollow Knight is a Dark Souls-inspired metroidvania. By "Dark Souls-inspired" I mean almost everything besides its core gameplay: its world, its themes, its characters, its dialogue system, its death system, and some general disrespect toward the player. However unlike Dark Souls I have a favorable view of this game.

Dark Souls review

Core gameplay

The core gameplay is that of an action platformer. You mostly use melee attacks and dodge (there's no blocking), against enemies who largely attack with contact damage. It starts out pretty shallow but gets very deep later in the game as you unlock more movement abilities like horizontal dash, wall jump, double jump, and more offensive abilities like a penetrating projectile and a ground pound that doubles as a defensive move.

In fact, I think that late-game Hollow Knight combat is one of the deepest action games I've seen, and awakened my intense love for the action platformer genre. Let me try to articulate some specific things that put it above other games:

It also has much less emphasis on stats and numerical upgrades than other RPGs. Your health comes in discrete hits, 5 at the start up to only 9 with a fully upgraded character. Late game enemies still usually only deal 1 per hit. Instead of increasing damage, they increase the complexity and speed of their attacks.

There's very little trial and error. Enemy telegraphs and hitboxes are mostly intuitive, and there aren't many confusing rules about your own abilities like in Sekiro.

Trial and error

Sadly, it's mostly only the bosses that really reap the depth of the combat system. The normal enemies are really underwhelming. Far too many of them do nothing other than walk toward you and deal contact damage, even in late-game areas. Even the interesting ones are almost never a threat to your survival while exploring, because of the way the soul economy is balanced: it costs 33 soul to heal 1 hp, and you get 11 soul each time you hit an enemy. Your invulerability-on-hit is almost long enough to land 3 hits, so you can basically just tank every enemy you encounter and heal the damage you took after you kill them. The only times normal enemies are really a threat are "arena rooms" that lock when you enter and send several waves of enemies without giving you long breaks to heal.

For arena rooms and boss fights, I think the soul economy is balanced just fine, since usually the limiting factor on how much you can heal is the availability of long enough safe spots in their attack pattern, rather than the amount of soul you have. Excess soul gets spent on damage spells. There are some bosses that do give you plenty of healing opportunities, but those are the bosses that are difficult to hit and can hit you from range, so they're also well-balanced.

Pretty much my only issue with the boss fights is that you can't see their health. This can make it frustrating to fight bosses that take you a lot of tries since you can't tell how close you're getting.


Most of the game is pretty easy (there are no difficulty settings). On my first playthrough, I beat most of the bosses I faced on my first try; only 1 took more than 3. But there's plenty of optional late-game and bonus challenges, especially the stuff in the Godmaster expansion, which is super hard and can keep you occupied for weeks after you've finished the main game.

There's also a great modding community which has produced tons of high-quality difficult challenges, upgraded versions of bosses and even brand new ones! Plus some quality of life mods that alleviate some of the things I complain about here, like the enemy HP bar mod.

Character progression

Thank god, there's no experience/level system! You don't gradually become stronger from killing mobs. You do get money, and some combat upgrades are for sale, but most of the really important ones are rewards for exploration or bosses instead.

Another thing that's really cool about this game is the prevalence of non-vertical upgrades. A lot of upgrades come in the form of "charms" which you can equip a limited number of at once, and there's plenty of interesting decisions there. Different charms are better for different situations or different playstyles, and they balance different power levels by occupying different numbers of slots. Sometimes the best solution to a hard challenge is an unlikely charm combination. Even the ones you normally think of as bad turn out to have their uses!

No quantitative information

Are we surprised? For an RPG? I don't think so, but goddamnit.

Charms don't show you the quantitative information about what they do, so you can't make informed choices except by trying them both out. But this isn't as big a deal as it is in many other games since most charms are rewards for exploration rather than purchase, so no committal is involved. Also, the fan wiki (hollowknight.wiki) is really thorough and helpful.

Death and saving

As I mentioned, it basically clones the Dark Souls death system: when you die you return to the last bench you rested at, with all of your money gone, and also your soul (mana) meter is cracked and its capacity is reduced. In the place you died is your "shade", a weak enemy that looks like you and killing it recovers your money and repairs your soul meter. If you die again before killing the shade, the money is gone forever. Luckily that never happened to me.

The Dark Souls bloodstain system SUCKS

A major improvement over Dark Souls though is that when you die in a boss fight, the shade usually spawns in such a position that you can lure it out and kill it without triggering the boss.

It is still annoying that many bosses don't have benches nearby so you have to redo a long trek back to the arena for each try, but less problematic than in Dark Souls because you're much more mobile than most enemies so you can easily run past the ones on the way to the boss.

Also, there are no consumables to lose!

Player disrespect


I never expected much from the story because I knew it's a Dark Souls game, and as such it has a silent protagonist. But I was a little surprised by just how closely the whole thing is cloned from Dark Souls. It's almost pathetic: it takes place in the ruins of a great kingdom that was ruled by god-like beings until it was destroyed by a supernatural force turning people into mindless aggressive husks. There was a character who sacrificed themself to that force to contain it, but was eventually consumed by it and the containment broke. And the protagonist's mission is to succeed that character. And this all has a light versus dark theme, and there's an alternate ending where you instead embrace the darkness. And the devs *really* like the word *knight*: tons of characters and groups of characters are referred to as knights.

Also... like... erm, Dark Souls, no attempt is made to really explain the story in-game, not even at its end. I learned the story from the fan wiki.

There's also a significant story thread that's foreshadowed and just dropped: multiple references to the king being ruthless and it being hopeless to stand against him, setting up the expectation that the player will eventually do just that, but nothing like that happens in any ending.


Can't end the review without mentioning this. The game has a mandatory spider dungeon which was very problematic for me with my phobia of webs. I managed to get through it by attaching an external keyboard to my laptop so I could sit farther away from the screen, but it was still very uncomfortable and I was lucky there are no mandatory bosses in that area. So consider yourself warned if you're arachnophobic.

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