I feel like Hollow Knight sits somewhere at the intersection of an older style of game and a newer style of game. Older in that many enemies have contact damage, and simple geometric movement patterns and newer in that the main character and enemies have a significant number of animations, which don’t necessarily have instantaneous startup, and have varied effects across their play time. It leans way more heavily towards the older style however.
The health system is interesting. You have a limited number of hits you can take, and attacking enemies lets you gain souls, used to heal, so only by attacking and killing enemies can you gain a source of healing, which is cool. Feels a bit like what Joseph Anderson suggested BloodBorne was trying to do, and a bit like Doom. The amount of enemies you need to kill to fill it up and the amount of health pips it will heal are not the same, you need to kill more enemies to fill it up than it will heal in pips. Killing enemies when it’s full is a waste, so if you’re down a pip, it’s more efficient to heal first, then kill them, but it take a while to heal, so there’s risk inherent in trying this. Versus stronger enemies you can have a loop of attacking them and pulling back to heal. In boss battles where they have a lot of health, you can go through loops of attacking them and healing when you find opportunities, or shooting them for extra damage. The heal animation is so long that few enemies give you opportunities to heal however.
Using single pips for health lets them keep enemies consistently challenging throughout the game instead of needing to scale damage and health numbers as the game progresses. You start with 5 pips only, can only take 1 or 2 pips in damage each time you’re hit, usually only 1, and are invincible for a bit after taking damage. Across the game you’ll probably only gain maybe 2 extra pips of health (to a maximum of 4 extra pips for 9 health total). This makes a lot of sense for a metroidvania style game that’s trying to avoid much of the grinding elements of other metroidvanias, while still having some elements of progression. Enemies later in the game will threaten your health more by being harder to avoid, instead of having buffed numbers.
Interestingly, you have another ability which requires souls to use, a ranged blast, making the meter a tradeoff between powerful ranged attacks and healing. However if you know you won’t be using a ranged blast, then you can always heal when your meter is full and not suffer much penalty, making it optimal to heal whenever the meter is full, since you’ll fill it up again soon anyway.
Seems like it’s taking the approach of save stations being scattered relatively frequently and teleport stations being few and far between, meaning you need to do some leg-work to get between places. I like this format a lot in metroidvania games. It means you need to plan routes to hit multiple points as you go across the map instead of just planning everything as a trip to and from teleport stations.
It’s interesting how you don’t start with a map immediately, and need to buy the map, the ability to locate yourself on it, and even the ability to update it automatically. You also need to buy the ability to mark it with each type of point of interest you encounter. Kind of interesting, rewards players who are good at keeping a map in their head and steadily lets players build up a map as they die. The map only updates when you sit down at a rest point or die. This is probably to separate it from other games where the map is combined with the marker of your current position, so it’s not just an auto-map showing you where you’ve been with perfect accuracy. Also means before you get to another save point, you need to remember the lay of the land. Since it updates on death, this makes navigating back to your Shade easier.
Your attack has a large, completely disjointed, hitbox, and does not slow you down at all to use. It cannot be canceled on landing like a slash in symphony of the night. The hitbox slightly covers the area above your head, though it doesn’t look it, which is helpful against enemies which may attack there. When you hit, both you and the enemy are pushed back slightly, guaranteeing that you generally won’t trade hits with contact damage enemies, and that enemy patterns will be offset a little, which can significantly change how they move relative to the environment, though this isn’t a big deal for most enemies except the flies that only move diagonally near the start of the game, since most enemies don’t have a lot of environmental interaction. Since your attack has a little cooldown before you can attack again, some enemies can move in on you before this cooldown ends, making it dangerous to keep attacking them. It took me until there were blockades directly above and below me before I noticed you could attack upwards and downwards. Sensible. You can also hit enemies through thin walls and platforms, but notably you can’t cut vines or trigger switches this way.
You unlock additional attacks over the course of the game, in the form of charge attacks for your nail, and additional spells, like an upwards magic blast, and a ground pound (as well as stronger versions of each of these). The charged melee attacks are nice, dealing considerably more damage than a normal strike, but there’s the issue that it plays the “successful hit” sound whenever it’s used, not just on a successful hit, so you can’t really tell if it hit or not, except by the enemy turning orange, which can be hard to see sometimes if there’s a lot on-screen, or if the game decides to lag at that moment. There’s 3 types of charge stabs, one is just a huge hitbox with a bunch of damage on one hit, another is a spinning attack that can multihit, and the last is an extended range charge slash, with a thinner, but longer hitbox, which is useful for reaching far off, but priority, enemies. The upward magic blast hits up to 3 times based on how close you are, dealing a lot of damage with no charge time, but costs magic of course, so it has a unique utility, but I didn’t get much use out of it except in the true final boss fight.
You can use the down stab’s knockback to bounce off enemies or some terrain. This could have been put to better use, giving you more things to optionally bounce off of across the game. It’s used to cross a few pits, which is cool. It’s also useful versus many enemies that attack straight ahead of them, and is a mini timing challenge in of itself to keep your height consistent above the enemy. You can pogo off enemies in the air to great effect, and it resets your air options, which is cool. It’s used in the mushroom area for platforms that can be bounced high off of before you get other movement abilities. This pogo downstab is one of the most dynamic things in the game, considering you need to be mindful of the enemy’s movement below you, both horizontally and vertically, so you can move to stay above them, and stab at the right times to avoid hitting them.
Elevators are always at your current level when you enter a room and will automatically move to your level or the bottommost level if they are out of place.
Getting hit has a considerable hitstop and sound effect in the moment, and you’re pushed back a fair distance too, but in that moment you have way more air control. If you hold forward, you won’t fall off whatever platform you may be pushed off of.
The giant club enemies are kind of interesting. They have 2 attacks, slamming the club in front of them (2 damage) and butt slamming, producing a shockwave (1 damage). The most common attack is the club slam, creating a rhythm of needing to move in, attack, then move out before he hits you, which is already fairly interesting, but then the shockwave needs to be avoided by jumping, working as a reactionary mix-up. Also cool is the club moves him forward, while the shockwave moves him back, so you need to adjust your distance each time relative to where he’s moving. The shockwave moving him back is especially interesting since he’s moving back while threatening you at a range. This enemy is really clever design all by himself, definitely a pattern worth copying. This also means that they can hold their ground instead of cornering you or being driven into a corner.
Minor issue is the animations on enemy attacks aren’t the best, would be nice if they built more with the typical ADSR envelope you might expect. It’s not that hard to learn the timings and hitboxes aren’t attached directly to the position of weapons during swings, so this isn’t jank-inducing, but it’s worth nothing. Similar issue for Focus, it can be a little hard to tell how close focus is to finishing because there’s a lack of visual signals.
The difficulty at the start feels REALLY tame. I didn’t die to any of the early bosses or enemies. Certainly seems to come from the SOTN school of design in that regard. There isn’t very considerate enemy placement of most common enemies.
Most enemies aren’t designed to let you get multiple hits in with good timing or positioning, you usually only get 1 hit per cycle, which is kind of unfortunate.
There’s a separate pause menu and general game function menu, not totally sure why they decided to separate these, as there’s nothing you’d really want to examine or change on the game menu when you’re in a precarious situation, especially since badges cannot be changed except at benches. I think this is just copying dark souls for the sake of copying dark souls, not for an explicit design purpose. Also you can’t unpause with the pause button. Why?
You will respawn to the closest of a few invisible checkpoints placed throughout rooms if you touch a spike or land in hazardous water, sometimes this can be far away, or once I even got to the other side of a pit because of this. I think this is to prevent you from killing yourself on spikes, and to prevent sequence breaks from damage boosting through spikes. This ends up working rather well most of the time, serving as kind of a built in punishment for landing on spikes, placing you back at the start of the spiked area, as is especially obvious in longer walljumping sections in the white palace.
When you die, all your currency sits at the point where you died in the form of a shade resembling yourself. This shade only takes two hits to kill at first, but it scales as you reinforce your weapon. Reminds me of Bloodborne a little and how it would place your souls in the last thing that killed you. It’s half and half as merciful as bloodborne, because now you need to fight the thing that killed you and the shade in tandem, which can be tough, but it also won’t put the currency directly inside the thing that killed you forcing you to overcome something strong enough to kill you, and it doesn’t have bloodborne’s special exception, leaving it as a bloodstain when the enemy is marked as unique, so in some circumstances it can be left next to a really tough enemy. Anyway, this is a unique take on the idea. The enemy itself starts off really weak and is killed with a single blast or two regular attacks, then growing to take 3 or 4 hits to kill. It even learns the same abilities you do, like blast, or ground pound.
Hollow Knight follows the dark souls pattern of one-way unlockable paths back to earlier areas. These can be destructible walls, switch activated gates, crumbling floors, and false walls only destructible from one side. As these are unlocked, the map becomes more interconnected and nonlinear over time.
The moss knights are another standout enemy, but here the animation issue gets a little worse. To beat them you need to whiff punish their attacks, by hitting their shield to trigger an attack that you walk away from and then whiff punish. The trouble is, it can be hard to tell that they’re performing this attack since the windup stance is similar to their blocking stance. Also the windup stance is 1 frame, so you need to measure the length of time in your head for when it comes out instead of seeing it. Fortunately you have enough time to whiff punish on reaction, it’s just that if you try to be efficient you can get the timing wrong and go early. They have a ranged attack, but it’s not very effective. They steadily advance on you, but will occasionally dodge backwards, usually preventing you from getting cornered, though it is entirely possible to get cornered if you don’t fight them according to the pattern above. Though it is possible to fight them in a slightly more interesting way by alternating between attacking them from the front and jumping on top of their heads to attack, which is faster, since it can get around their guard, and slightly more dynamic.
A lot of the more advanced enemies seem to be designed with very discrete timing challenges. This is where the intersection of new-style design and old-style design shows most clearly. The more advanced enemies are essentially about following their pattern to deal damage at specific intervals. You have to do something, they do something, you stand in the right place, move in, get damage. This is very new-style since it’s dependent on the animations of the enemies, but slightly old-style in that they’re asking you to move back and forth between specific positions and attacking at specific times.
They have a tendency to reuse enemy patterns, like reskinning the same geemer enemy for multiple areas. Many enemies will walk slowly, then dash at you, a few different enemies will fire homing projectiles that explode, a few enemies will explode after playing an animation. A few enemies will swing a sword that needs to be whiff punished. A few enemies will float through the air towards you. All the enemies feel like they’re a combination or slight twist on a small group of pre-existing attack styles. They’re not really built to block your way, so you can run past a great deal of them, but you need to attack them to gain currency. They remade like 6 versions of the basic wallcrawler enemy, even a mushroom and bush version.
The game is really long. Like surprisingly long. I got the first ending at 19 hours with 66% completion. Like, I kept expecting to be close to the end or middle and it just had more and more. Pleasantly surprising in this regard. I’m amazed they were able to produce so much unique content, but sad that so much of it is barely differentiated mechanically from other content. Then the post game can be like another 10 hours or so. The economy kind of falls out at this point. I’m running around with 12K geo and 4.5K in the bank. By the time you get access to the ancient eggs, you won’t have anything to spend the geo on.
I normally wouldn’t note this, but the game occasionally has lag spikes when a lot of particles are generated or just when it feels like it, and it can be slow to load some of the larger areas. These problems are not very consistent, but occur more frequently as the game is left running for longer, indicating that there may be a memory leak of some type.
Many areas are constructed of loops, and the connections between the various areas themselves form loops, however the use of one-way gates and powers actually keeps a fairly tight hold on where you’re allowed to go at any point in the game. Around the mid-game when you get walljumping and air dashing and ground pounding you have a fair number of areas you can go to at any given time. In the late game it becomes extremely nonlinear. You have 3 major objectives and far as I can tell, they can be completed in any order, though there are some pre-requisite powers to accessing them. These powers are not found in the same area as the objectives, so you need to search across the world to get access to all of it. They REALLY took their notes on non-linear progression, but also take a really long time to get around to showing it off. By the end of the game the platforming and combat challenges get a lot harder and most are constructed to be difficult from both directions instead of one-way. It uses the structure of shortcut-opening to force you through areas from a certain angle, then opens them up for general two-way use in the late-game. The game itself is really long though, so though it takes a while to get warmed up, there’s a sizable chunk of the game dedicated to pathfinding across the world. This game probably has the actual best nonlinear structure of any game I’ve ever played. Minor complaint is that there’s no way to drop custom map markers a la breath of the wild, to remember spots for later.
The airdash power is, at first, really boring. It reminds me of the teleport from axiom verge. It travels in a perfectly straight line at a higher speed than normal movement. It has some utility for keeping you in the air longer, but it’s a very one-note power without much flexibility. It’s more interesting than the axiom verge version of the power because there’s walljumping in this game, so you can do things like jump off a platform in the air, airdash into its wall, then jump back up onto the platform, and a few collectibles are placed to explicitly encourage this behavior. As the game goes on the airdash gets much more interesting in tandem with the other powers, even if it’s boring by itself. Even the way it’s perfectly straight is really useful for many of the late-game platforming challenges they set up.
There’s a TON of blind drops across the game. From the early areas all the way up to the late areas. You fall too fast to really react and frequently they place hazards below. Many parts of the game just have sheer drops into pits of spikes or hazardous liquid. Having wall jumping lets you slide down more slowly to react, but if you don’t have that, I think they placed those there purely so you’d take damage from not knowing where you were going. Sometimes you need to fall onto platforms above such a pit, but you can’t see far down enough to where they are, and just need to memorize the platform locations. Doesn’t seem very well considered. … Now I feel like an idiot. I discovered much later in the game that holding down or up for about a second will cause the camera to move up or down. It only stays that way until you move though, but I guess it sorta works. Still not so happy about the volume of blind drops.
At the beginning of the game you’ll notice that many enemies do not respawn after being killed and leaving the room, only respawning after multiple rooms have been passed through. As the game progresses, more and more enemies respawn more quickly, with the harder types of enemies usually set to respawn less often. There’s a lot of attention to detail here in how quickly enemies respawn and how many and which types. Additionally, after a certain event in the mid-to-late game, the starting area will change and all the enemies there will become harder. Some paths even start getting blocked off, so now you need to rely on some of the endgame routes you’ve opened up to get from place to place.
They hold out on the double jump for a REALLY long time. Sensible, because of how much double jumps break games like these, but damn.
Late-game combat actually starts getting really crazy, because you can walljump, airdash, and double jump, and there’s flying enemies that maintain their distance from you, so you need to jump out to attack them, and you need to attack directionally in the air, so it can actually get fairly interesting once you have these abilities unlocked, jumping out from platforms to attack enemies, then airdashing back. Dashes and jumps can cancel slashes, so you can use all these abilities in rapid succession. The double jump is actually a bit slower than the walljump, because there’s a slight dip before using it, which helps differentiate it from the airdash and walljump. You can even do things in the late game like be riding a wall, avoiding attacks with walljumps, then jump out to hit an enemy, double jump to get another hit in, then airdash back to the wall.
There’s a larger knight enemy in the late game that shares a bait and slash pattern with earlier enemies, but it can also slash and shield above its head, but you can kill it quickly by alternating attacks from above and the sides.
Enemies with slash type attacks can have their attacks clash with your own if both are used at once. This nullifies their attack, but not yours. This is a timing-intensive tactic that can be used to damage some enemies quickly, but it’s also so tight that it’s very risky. It loses to enemies that slash twice quickly because your sword has a cooldown time.
The watcher knights are really fun. Probably the best boss fight in the game, harder than the hollow knight himself in my opinion. They actually have you fight two of them at once, and you can attack them with whiff punishes, early strikes, or from above, and they can roll out into the air, to counter your aerial attacks.
The lost kin refight is really good, really hard. The startup times on his attacks are short, though not the best telegraphed. He has a bunch of different attacks (dash, airdash, jump, jump then downstab which creates projectiles, swing wildly in place), and the assist from the orange ghosts, which in tandem can be rather dynamic.
Soul Tyrant isn’t much different from the first fight with Soul Master, it just applies the harder patterns slightly more consistently, and attacks slightly faster.
The arena of fools in the late-game has a ton of enemies all thrown at you at once in differing combinations with effective arena design and enemy placement. It’s like a shining beacon of what a lot of the other combat in this game could have been like. The final challenge, Trial of Fools, is really tough and well considered throughout.
The hollow knight has an assortment of attacks and depending on your timing and spacing, you can get varying levels of damage off against him, which makes the fight pretty fun, but probably most notably has no counter option to you down-stabbing him from above. His slashing attacks can be clashed with, adding just a bit more dynamism to the fight, and he makes good use of projectiles and a downwards stab that makes pillar lasers. Once you get shade cloak, he can be free as hell though, because you can just stand in front of him and spam slash, and whenever he does a move, just dash through him.
The Radiance is the true final boss, he’s really cool, does 2 damage on every attack, making him significantly harder than most enemies and bosses. He has a variety of attacks that force you to move and attack intermittently, from walls of spears coming from off the top or side of the screen with smaller and wider gaps to fit through, to spawning homing projectiles, to rays of light in a wheelspoke formation, to spikes on the ground that will alternate between covering one half of the platform and the other, to giant rays of light that must be shade cloak dodged through. He even overlays some of these at the same time, but never certain combinations, so you always have a way to dodge and can’t get checkmated. Since he’s hovering in the air, and occasionally teleports at fixed intervals, you need to move around to hit him, and you need to jump in the air to do so, surrendering some control over your ability to avoid obstacles. Another neat thing is the spacing of the spears. They have obvious gaps to get through, but they’re also just wide apart enough that with more careful spacing, you can fit between any two of them. Once I even did this against the spears coming from the sides using the upwards magic blast. The second phase of the fight repeats these patterns, except on interspersed platforms in the air, so you need to platform while evading the various projectiles, which is a simple change that adds to the complexity of the fight considerably. The final phase is more of a platforming challenge victory lap, but it’s pretty intense from a presentation standpoint, and slightly challenging too.
Though the game really disappointed me in the early phase, in the late phase of the game it impressed me enough to earn a 7/10, where I originally thought I was going to give it a 6/10. The game demonstrates a strong design sense all around in designing enemies that have you perform little positional movements against them and has a low initial difficulty with a slow ramp up to a medium-hard level of challenge. I never died to any boss, except the endgame bosses such as the 3 refights and The Radiance, more than 3 times. My final time was 31 hours with 88% completion. Probably the biggest failing of the game is the enemies are not very dynamic or deep. The game doesn’t like to throw multiple enemies at you in tandem, only occasionally makes use of level design for dynamic challenges with enemies, and the enemy designs themselves usually only have 2-3 attacks, which tend not to vary much based on the enemy’s position in the level, or their position relative to you. This is made worse by the tendency to reuse attacks across the game’s wide array of enemies. However there’s still a lot that can be learned from this game in terms of the overall structure of the world, the gating of progression and how each gate as well as powerup is placed relative to the entire map, the placement of both save and warp points, many components of different enemy’s designs, the map system that is set up to encourage memorization of areas and good spatial reasoning as you’re forced to trek into the unknown, and the way all of the different movement and attack abilities can work in tandem. Hollow Knight is damn clever in a lot of respects, but most of the actual challenging gameplay is only par for the course and not very deep.