As you know, I am a big fan of the Nintendo Switch. I like to find games I can play on it and, as it happens, most of the highly rated games on the Switch are platformers. As I’ve said before, I love platformers and metroidvanias in particular, which means I’ve had my eye on Hallow Knight since before it came out. I’ve had it on my Steam wishlist for well over a year and, when it looked like the internet was going to be out for a while, I downloaded it during the brief periods when the internet was working. That was the best decision I’ve made this month.
Hallow Knight is basically just another metroidvania. You start out in a basic world with a jump, an attack, and the ability to heal yourself. After that, you slowly unlock abilities that let you progress through the game until you reach an end determined by a couple of factors. You move about in a two-dimensional plane, avoid stage hazards, and fight off enemies using a combination of your basic attacks and unlocked abilities to get around the special qualities of the enemies. When it comes to gameplay, its nothing super special. It’s fun, but there are better examples of gameplay innovation and quality. While it is fairly standard in those terms, it makes it’s mark because every other quality of the game is extraordinary.
The plot is fairly simple, you’re a knight who was called to complete some kind of quest. You don’t really know what, but you find yourself drawn to the ancient, ruined city of Hallownest. There, you find a cadre of characters, all of whom adhere to the “bug” theme your character starts, who make their lives supporting the numerous people who feel called to explore the dungeon or call it their home. One of the first I met was a map-maker who quickly set the tone for there being something a little off about the world and the people in it. As you defeat enemies and rescue these little worm guys, you start to notice blobs coming out of some of the enemies you defeated and then encounter enemies who had giant sacks of the stuff which they fire at you like little orange bombs. While exploring, you meet a few more characters who subtly work in references to a wonderful world lost and the eventual corruption of everyone who stays in the city for too long or who goes too deep. There’s more to the plot, of course, all of which is revealed through little hints or statements by the more peaceful denizens of the dungeon. I don’t want to spoil it, since I was more interested in digging up little nuggets of the plot, themes, and history as I played than I’ve felt while playing any game since Celeste.
While you’re working through the world, you’re making your way through a world of black, white, and grey tones that manage to brightly portray a world of gloom in a way I’d never thought possible. Occasionally, a splash of color shows up as some enemies explode into orange blobs or shoot little orange spheres at you. Occasionally other color shows up in the environment, like when you find a giant blue crystal that, when shattered, gives you temporary hit points. Other times, it’s something like a mine with light purple crystals scattered throughout or the worm creatures you rescue. Each time you see color, your eyes and attention are instantly drawn to it as it shatters the beautiful gloom of the greyscale environment you get used to between blooms of color. Setting color aside, every visual in Hallow Knight is absolutely incredible. The characters feel so alive and even the background stands out in its incredible variety as you try to find your way through the various rooms. Even though everything is notable enough that you never really feel lost or like you’ve just walked through the same room twice, it still all blends together incredibly so you know that the mine and the courtyard with the small palace in it are definitely a part of the same place. The game also makes incredible use of the foreground, having your character walk behind a whole range of things as you move from one place to another, but never in a way that you lose sight of your character.
Despite the fact they fit into the grey-scale, gloomy environment so well, none of the enemies are hard to spot or difficult to figure out. Occasionally a boss throws a new move into the mix as you chip their health down or their attacks start having secondary effects, but they mostly have pretty clear modes of attack and methods of movement that are nevertheless a challenge to work through without injury. Because of the way your character gets bounced back when it attacks an enemy, it can be difficult to avoid falling in the pit full of spikes and avoid running into the enemy as it is charging toward you. You have to push forward, toward the enemy, just enough that your bounce doesn’t send you off the ledge to your death but not so much that you run into them and get hurt. Throw in the variety of enemies and the way they mix them up, it gets to be a challenge to make sure you’re fighting each enemy the right way.
While you’re fighting them, the somber music in the background doesn’t change, though it somewhat fades to silence. When it comes in, it starts slowly, changing from simple environmental sounds accompanied by the wind to a rather simple but sad music that does an amazing job of representing the area you’re currently in. As time goes on, the music adds more, interjecting small sections of brighter notes to contrast with the quieter, more morose ones. It never changes abruptly and, even when I went to listen specifically to the music for this section, it was so subtly and perfect that I almost didn’t notice the change.
If you like metroidvanias and you haven’t played Hallow Knight, you’re missing out on incredible artistic masterpiece of a game. I recommend you pick it up and let yourself experience it at a comfortable pace. This game begs for a slow, methodical play-through and I recommend you play it in a dim room with little other noise so you can fully immerse yourself in the experience.