Posted at May 20, 2020

Hollow Knight, A Daunting World Filled with Beauty (Part 1)

Hollow Knight is an indie 2D action-adventure in the classic style of other metroidvania games (blend between Metroid and Castlevania) yet it carries itself on its own merits and hits some highs that can be held up to the best of its genre. The mechanics are tight, the levels are diverse and vast, the bosses are challenging, and the overall atmosphere is truly an amazement that encapsulates the rest into a true masterpiece of a game. I just happened to stumble upon this game, I had never heard of it and generally never played much metroidvania type games; yet this game captured me in the first five minutes. From the start, just with its art style, which is simple and cartoonish yet able to define such complex landscapes it was beautiful, and  with music which brings in the atmosphere so tightly that I’d recommend to listen to the OST while reading this.

Team Cherry, the creators behind Hollow Knight, began development of the game in 2014, but the concept of Hollow Knight first came to fruition back in 2013. At a game jam, Ludum Dare 2013, Ari Gibson and William Pellen made Hungry Knight. The game was simple, the designers in the competition were only given 72 hours to complete the game and with the added caveat of it had to incorporate 10 seconds of “anything” to qualify. The two designed a basic gameplay loop around the titular Hungry Knight, who will bear a striking resemblance to the vessel in Hollow Knight, in that the character must feed every ten seconds. While the game was poorly received at the competition, the two quickly fell in love with the character they had created and set out to create an expansive world to explore with this character at the helm.

In November 2014, the game was revealed on Kickstarter and their own site and asked for $35,000 in backing. Little did they know that the game would quickly explode, being highlighted on the frontpage of Kickstarter and with 2,158 backers the game raised more than $57,000. This added attention and income helped the game move over from Stencyl to Unity and hire David Kazi as technical director and composer Christopher Larkin (who had previously worked with the others in creating short animated movies). Also, along the way Mathew Griffin was brought into the fold and helped bring in the publicity for the game. Hollow Knight was released in 2017 for PC and 2018 for Xbox One, PS4, and the Nintendo Switch to critical and consumer’s high praise. Receiving nominations for “Best PC Game” in Destructoid’s Game of the Year Awards 2017 and “Best Platformer” in IGN’s best of 2017 Awards. It also won “Best Platformer” in PC Gamer’s 2017 Game of the Year Awards and Polygon listed the game as one of the best of the decade.

It’s absolutely amazing how this project was made with a development team that at the max was just a team of five. The passion put into this is apparent, the arduous journey of four years that led to this love letter to games of old and gave many a new classic was well worth the wait.

With all that out of the way I’d like to discuss the art and music in this game. What I think is the greatest pillar of the game with hand-drawn sketches by Gibson brought to life through Unity and Larkin’s orchestral masterpiece that follows you throughout the game it is easy to just get lost in it all and truly immerse yourself in such a fully realized world. While the art is simple and cartoonish, it lends itself so well to the game that having such simple character designs adds charm to the game. Each boss’s design is unique, with a unique theme as well for many, and are both alluring and haunting. Stumbling upon Nosk, who disguises itself in the form of your character into tricking you into a false sense of safety, only to reveal his multiple tendrils and begin an excruciating boss fight in where it crawls toward you and spits corrupted orange ooze is terrifying. Yet in the same game we have a boss fight with Hornet, an sort of companion to the player character, in which you fight in an arena filled with lush vegetation covering ruined architecture that lends itself to her fluid and sharp movements.

Along with the amazing design of the bosses, the levels are so diverse and distinct from one another that each could be from an entirely separate world yet are all linked in Hallownest. From the City of Tears being this left behind city with it’s gothic architecture and empty atmosphere conveying how this world is empty; to Deepnest which is riddled with cobwebs and spiders that will crawl around your screen as you explore it’s deep and dark caverns. Even the starting area of Dirtmouth, a small village with few residents, helps to flesh out the world and the amazing design of the game. With each area being linked, like Zelda or more recently the Soulsborne series, Hollow Knight gives you a great sense of exploration and mystery. At one point you may stumble upon a secret tunnel that may lead you to a mine full of vibrant pink crystals or a sewer grate leading to an underground system of filth and nasty bugs. The world of Hallownest is vast and easy to get lost within, yet your trusty bench (which acts as a save point and a way to change our charms) is always around. Just the little details of your character sitting down, and if you’ve discovered new locations jotting it down on it’s map, add to the charm and atmosphere of the game…And there is a lot of atmosphere to this game. While character designs are simple, the levels are filled with detail and hidden story.

Kingdom’s Edge is great at exemplifying this. From the falling corpses of fallen gladiators from the coliseum above, to the small platforms used to traverse most of the level, Kingdom’s Edge is fantastic in telling a story without any words. Finding the skeleton of an ancient creature and picking up an item with little description lights up the mind in possibilities and what exactly is happening, and if you pay enough attention throughout the game you will be able to piece it together one by one. With fifteen named locations littered around the subterranean world of Hallownest, there is just about every spice of life for the gothic setting. The Abyss littered with failed knights and ghostly apparitions that will claw at you and try and drag you down into the depths with them. Or the White Palace filled with buzz saws and spiked thorns, that will test the best at platforming. Each area is truly astounding and excellent to explore and journey through.

Another aspect that is genuinely great is the sound design, the sound of your nail clashing up against metal, or the hard or soft shells of the husked denizens of Hallownest is great. The various abilities you earn throughout all have their own audio cues and the world around you is filled with ambient sounds that help with immersion. But most importantly, and what I always come back to with this game is the soundtrack. Christopher Larkin created a masterpiece in music with this soundtrack. The orchestral strings that play to sooth you while adventuring contrasted by the fast and loud music of a boss scene to heighten your concentration and anxiety is a masterclass. I love the main theme of the game, with its soft piano strokes livening up this world past its prime is just so beautiful and sorrowful. Contrast that to the swelling orchestra as you further go along your journey, a full expression of instruments leading you ahead to your fateful conclusion. Even writing this I get lost in the soundtrack and I hold it up as one of the best in gaming.


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