You Might Have Missed: Hollow Knight

My favorite moment in Hollow Knight came about a quarter of the way through my forty hour playthrough, when I descended through the Fungal Wastes and found myself in a giant pit at the center of a hidden village. Three mantises—for Hollow Knight’s kingdom of Hallownest is a land of insects and bugs—sat on tall wooden thrones in the distance, watching. My character—Hollow Knight’s tiny, white-masked protagonist—held out its weapon, and the fight began.

While excellent boss fights are a staple of Hollow Knight’s long campaign, the battle with the Mantis Lords remains for me its crowning scene. It struck a perfect balance between the game’s various difficulty levels, demanding constant focus from the player without ever feeling insurmountable. It tested everything I’d learned up to that point—every technique and upgrade my first ten hours in Hallownest had taught me—and forced me to combine them in creative ways. Even its halfway point, when I finally defeated the first Mantis Lord only to discover that now I had to fight two at once, evoked resolve rather than frustration. But even more importantly, it was just that—not a mere boss fight, but a scene. Every time the knight dropped into the arena and pulled out his nail—challenging the otherwise-aloof Mantis Lords to a duel—it came with a sense of purpose and weight, with an escalation of the game’s characteristic sense of grit and the belief, however foolish on my part, that this would be the time.

In other words, this isn’t just a boss fight; it’s a masterful piece of storytelling. And if any single moment could embody everything I love about Hollow Knight, it’s that split second of silence—a challenge presented, waiting for the music to kick in and the fight to start, for the first Mantis Lord to strike at the ground and begin a dance of dashes, dodges, and strikes. For Hollow Knight is a game of moments—of realization and discovery, euphoria and rage. It takes the best of Metroidvania-style exploration and combines that with a precise, measured combat system born equally of Dark Souls-style pattern recognition and Shovel Knight-esque aerial acrobatics, yet it never rests on the laurels of that genealogy. Instead, it elevates that gameplay core with a dedication to atmosphere, to world-building, and to characters—a dedication that takes it far beyond the realm of engagingly difficult platformers and into a world of full, cohesive narrative.

At first, Hollow Knight‘s world and characters felt intensely reminiscent of Hyper Light Drifter—a silent protagonist drifting through a decayed landscape, fighting off crazed remnants of a once-vibrant society. Yet as the game progressed, that feeling shifted; not everyone in this world had succumbed to its plague, the “infection” that turned all of Hallownest’s once-peaceful bugs into mindless kill-machiens. The Mantis tribe follows a code of honor; after you defeat the Lords, who return to their thrones and bow with respect, its soldiers and guards will halt as you approach and bow as well. The few remaining bugs of Dirtmouth, the lone aboveground town, will make short yet pleasant conversation whenever you swing by. Solitary NPCs appear throughout the game’s many environs to teach you new spells or combat skills, and many others carry on their own sidequests and stories. These characters span the moral spectrum—some are upstanding, some a bit less so, and some will ruthlessly break your fragile trust in Hallownest’s remaining good (dammit Millibelle). And that leads to a feeling of realism, of weight and completeness to this world’s impending doom.

I realized, nearly at the close of Hollow Knight’s story, that despite its complex genealogy and the many games from which it took its inspiration, its world reminded me most of Termina, and its inhabits of the doomed characters and creatures of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. It came closer than any game I’ve ever played to capturing that other masterpiece’s atmosphere of fragile hope in a world of dread, of a decaying land and an approaching end and of one last, possibly futile attempt to save it. Hollow Knight’s NPCs had that so very Majora’s Mask vibe of being utterly sane in an insane world—of trying (and, in some heartbreaking moments, failing) to survive in a land covered in the empty husks of the dead. And its beautiful, 2D, hand-drawn art style is dripping with that same specter of ruin.

Still, while I’ve invoked about thirty other games in trying to pinpoint why Hollow Knight is worth its long, fulfilling playthrough, it’s still an utterly unique experience. Its plot takes turn after turn, drip-feeding information about the kingdom’s past and its slow decline, slowly expanding from a mysterious encounter with a strange enemy who calls you “Ghost,” to a full-blown quest across the game’s expansive map. As the protagonist works its way upward through Hallownest’s mines and the downward through its ruined waterways, hints at its true nature begin to appear. Then, in the Ancient Basin, it begins to encounter these strange, dark creatures that look very much like itself—or at least, like itself when it dies, a shadow that’s lost its mask.

Hollow Knight is, in the relative sense, a fairly long game. It’s nowhere near the hundred-hour standard of full-fledged RPGs, but it’s far beyond the fifteen-or-so hours of Hyper Light Drifter or the seven-to-eight of Shovel Knight. Yet its pacing is one of its biggest strengths; I always had several things that I could be doing, multiple places begging to be explored, and even before the main story opened its gates (which hinges upon a certain discovery that can happen anywhere from ten to fifteen to twenty hours in), I was having a wonderful time mapping out this world and meeting the characters that call it home. There’s so much sheer content in this game that my eventual playtime—forty-two hours to full 100% completion—felt nowhere near as long; reaching new areas was a welcome challenge, finding their respective maps was an engaging explorative hunt, and new upgrades appeared close enough together that the gameplay never stagnated yet far enough apart that they still felt special and exciting. And the use of both a limited yet sufficient fast-travel system and benches as sparse yet mindfully-placed checkpoints gave the game an excellent sense of flow. All in all, it justifies its length by always presenting something new to find—something fresh to explore.

And while I may have fixated on the Mantis Lords, the game has no shortage of excellent boss fights. The first against False Knight is a perfect introduction—challenging enough to set you up for the tests to come yet forgiving enough to not intimidate players away. Hornet’s fights are free-flowing exercises in pattern recognition, and fights like the Soul Master and Broken Vessel demand the knowledge of when to dodge, when to heal, and when to strike. Moreover, the general combat is tuned to perfection in both its simplest, unmodified form and with the thirty-six unlockable charms that provide various combinable loadouts and advantages.

Still, while its combat and pacing and gameplay make Hollow Knight a top-tier game, its narrative really is what catapults it into the ranks of games like Hyper Light Drifter and Majora’s Mask—respectively 4 and 2 on my all-time favorites list. Hollow Knight is never as simple as it appears; each new area deepens its narrative, each ability and boss fight adding to its lore. What begins as a wanderer landing in a fallen kingdom becomes a story of eldritch forces—of a forgotten god, a disappeared King, and a Hollow Knight sealed in a temple behind three mysterious yet familiar masks. It inverts traditional apocalyptic tropes—darkness and light remain oppositional yet lose their usual, tired connotations as infected bugs rave of a blinding, overpowering LIGHT and others call you “little shadow.” Your spells and upgrades begin with bright visual effects, yet their more powerful upgrades become tinged with an abyssal blackness. But that symbolism remains largely secondary to its characters—all of whom come across as conflicted, flawed, and longing for a time when their Pale King still ruled Hallownest, before the light refused to leave their dreams.

And ultimately, nothing encapsulates the conflict at the core of Hollow Knight as well as its final boss fight, which I’ll save for another time in the hope that you—having (maybe) missed it—might now give this little game a shot. Suffice it to say that that final opponent tells and moving and powerful story imprisonment, failure, conflict, and regret, and it does so through only the mechanics and motions of combat.

That’s video game storytelling at its finest, and a moment that should never be missed.

[Header image by Team Cherry.]

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