It’s 11 p.m. on a Friday night and like the cool kid that I am, I find myself mired in my 15th or so attempt at Hollow Knight‘s final boss. What started with meeting my unceremonious doom quicker than I could blink, has evolved over the course of an hour or so of battles and pattern memorization/recognition into a test of will against the toughest boss I have encountered yet. In one final glorious run, everything clicks. I dodge the Radiance’s varied attacks, find the perfect milliseconds to heal, and deliver rapid masterful blows before retreating to safety. By bringing together everything I had learned in the past 35 hours of gameplay, I scale the final platform and deliver the ultimate strike. At long last, I breathe a sigh of relief as the Radiance is vanquished freeing Hallownest and myself from its grasp.
As the credits rolled, I realized I had come a long way from the start. Back in July, I made a very stupid decision and took a break from Hollow Knight to spend 60 hours immersed in the fun but frustrating world of Octopath Traveler. While I was enjoying playing Hollow Knight, the first 10 hours or so didn’t suck me in as much as I had hoped. My skill at the game was pretty abysmal, and I found myself constantly in fear of dying repeatedly and losing all of my geo, the in-game currency.
While the beginning of the game required some time for me to get my footing, hours 10-25 might have been some of my most enjoyable ever in a game. Despite my lengthy sabbatical in JRPG land, I felt like I was able to immediately jump back into the rhythm of the game, and my growing skill gave me the courage to venture further and further out each time. I was no longer afraid of dying, and the thrill of learning each boss’s patterns and how to counter them took over my life. I found myself constantly thinking about how best to tackle each new obstacle throughout my entire day. I would plan my next 3-4 objectives knowing full well that I would find something new and amazing along that way that would get me lost down another rabbit hole. Those middle 15 hours were a time of seemingly never-ending discovery where new abilities were unlocked at every turn allowing the map to expand into the largest tiny world ever. As my proficiency as a bug knight grew, so did my love for this game.
The game excels so much because it somehow has managed to combine all the elements of the greatest recent games into one cohesive package. Similar to the 2017 standout Steamworld Dig 2, you’re not merely finding new areas, you’re practically excavating them as you travel deeper and deeper into the depths of Hallownest. Combine that with the crushing difficulty and dash-mastering platforming challenges of Celeste and the high stakes deaths of Dark Souls and you have the best Metroidvania since the OG Super Metroid.
Part of the brilliance of the game is that the adventure is entirely for you to discover. Team Cherry’s amazingly talented and tiny (3 full-time employees) creative team doesn’t hold your hand and tell you where to go or hit you over the head with story. Rather, it’s your job to search every nook and cranny and uncover the secrets of the Void, the Radiance, and more. There’s no set order to do anything in, so I had great fun texting back and forth with my friend Trey who was having a completely different adventure than I was despite having about the same amount of gameplay hours. Maybe you feel like exploring greater depths, finding all the adorable grubs, or maybe you just want to take on the hardest bosses in the game. You have the power to decide your knight’s quest.
Every aspect of the game is meticulously curated from the level design of the tunnel systems that make up Hallownest to the amazing score and thoroughly amusing sounds of the different creatures, which clearly came from the mouth of someone who was having an absolute blast. The world, while dark and dreary, remains incredibly inviting and magical throughout (well aside from the scary-ass but spectacular Deepnest). Whether platforming or fighting, in handheld mode or with the pro-controller, the intuitive and responsive controls make traversing through the many dangers a joy. It was by far the most I have ever felt I wasn’t playing a game so much as exercising precise muscle memory.
Adaptability is the key to success in Hollow Knight. What really sets this platformer apart is the charm system. As you progress in the game, you find 45 unique charms and unlock additional notches that allow you to utilize more at a time. You really have to think about the challenge you’re up against at the time to determine your ideal charm layout. Are you facing a tough boss that requires speed or are you staring down a lengthy platforming area that demands an emphasis on healing? By the end of the game, I found myself nearly constantly switching out my charms and play style to suit the task at hand.
It is rare to feel that you have mastered a game and have it still remain demanding. By the end of my journey, I knew I could tackle anything thrown before me but that it, like everything that had come before, would require time and patience. I may be fluent in the language, but there were still many intricacies to learn. Failing repeatedly only to succeed in one brilliant moment of insect glory proved infinitely rewarding, and will make me always cherish my time in Hallownest’s ruins. While I may be stepping away from it for a while, fortunately, there remains DLC and untold challenges to be had.
Continue reading below for some spoilery thoughts on a few of the game’s biggest challenges.
The Colosseum of Fools
These 3 trials are a test of stamina more than anything else. Wave after wave of unrelating enemies serve as a great way to test your progress in the game by seeing how easy or hard a particular gauntlet is. When the God Tamer showed up after the insane never-ending chaos engine that was round 3, I was certain the game was playing a cruel joke on me. Of all the numerous excruciating feats to accomplish, I spent the most time trying to conquer the Colosseum by far. If you do decide to go all-in for the glory, the key to earning the title of “Fool” is upgrading your nail to minimize the number of attacks you have to do and knowing when it’s safe to heal. This often means figuring out which enemies to kill first based on which remaining ones are the easiest to run away from so you can recover some precious and dwindling health.
The Path of Pain
The insane platforming sections of the White Palace appear to be the most divisive aspect of the game for Hollow Knight fans. After 30 or so hours of combat-heavy hardships, you’re suddenly faced with a lengthy unforgiving platform section that must be completed if you want to unlock the “Good” ending. While some argue that this is too great of a change of pace from the rest of the game, I think it fits perfectly. The game wants you to prove you have mastered all aspects of controlling the knight. You have already proven your worth many times over in combat, so it’s simply time to show that you’re a master of maneuverability as well. In all, this took me somewhere around 75 minutes or so to complete. Mercifully there are several resting points and no real danger from enemies. Simply equip the Grubsong Charm along with the Hiveblood Charm to guarantee yourself a near endless supply of health so long as you have patience, and you will eventually ascend to the throne room victorious.
I was so happy to discover that there was another hidden boss after finding the Hollow Knight to be a little too easy (I only died 4 or 5 times). The Radiance more than made up for the lack of difficulty by combining the overpowering combat challenges of other bosses with the precision platforming of the Path of Pain. Thanks to attacks that deal double damage and five brutal phases, there is almost zero margin for error in your fight against the Radiance. Amusingly enough, the Radiance helps emphasize how much of a joke the Hollow Knight boss is by forcing you to beat him prior to challenging the Radiance after each death. What initially was somewhat of a chore, quickly became a breeze, as I could down the Hollow Knight in about a minute by my 10th try or so. From a charm equipping perspective, I went with my standard boss load-out of Grubsong, Quick Slash, Quick Focus, and the nail extending Mark of Pride to eventually find success.
Got any stories about your struggles/triumphs in Hollow Knight? Leave them in the comments. I would love to hear them.