Navigating intricate spaces is one of the purest pleasures of videogames, and Hollow Knight offers one of the most intriguing labyrinths I can think of. As an intrepid bug explorer, you descend into the dark passageways and caverns of a lost insect kingdom. Having learnt more than a few design lessons from Dark Souls, Hollow Knight drops you into this sprawling world with only the most cryptic of explanations. After 25 hours with this game, I don’t know whether these dispersed textual and environmental hints add up to a compelling or coherent backstory, but they certainly succeed in imbuing this buried microcosm with a tantalising sense of mystery and hidden depths.
Leaving the comfortable above-ground village and taking the first steps in the shallow parts of the labyrinth is already a bit daunting. Despite the spatial simplicity that comes with 2D games and the way the game hides its true scale and deviousness in these early areas, feeling lost is part of Hollow Knight from the very beginning. Pick any direction and it will be a long time until you hit a brick wall that keeps you from progressing. Sometimes, these obstacles, in traditional Metroidvania fashion, require a specific unlockable ability or key item, but more often than not, they can be overcome with navigational skills, stubborn curiosity or dexterity. This means that the labyrinth doesn’t open up bit by bit in a linear fashion, but in huge chunks that offer many unexplored paths at any given moment.
Many parts of the labyrinth, some entire regions even, are completely optional. Even after beating the game, there remained quite a few unopened doors. In my last two hours of play, I accidentally discovered an entrance to one of the most enormous (and optional) levels in the whole game in what I assumed was the edge of the labyrinth. It was a dizzying, disorienting revelation. I just sat there, bug-eyed, wondering: is this the result of a pact with the devil, a game that reveals another level every time I think I’ve finally seen it all? It was almost too much of a good thing.
Hollow Knight is a big and generous game in other areas as well. There are unlockable abilities, collectables to strengthen health and magic, upgrades and charms to modify your hero in meaningful and interesting ways. There are platforming challenges (by far the game’s weakest link), dozens of enemy types with extremely diverse behaviours and attack patterns, and Dark Souls-like boss fights that are as memorable as they are challenging. All of these things, however, feel secondary to the actual spatial navigation, so I want to focus on a different thing entirely: its ingenious map system.
Every time you enter a new area (and they are substantial), you don’t have access to its map. To unlock it, you first must find the wandering cartographer hidden in every area. If you hear cheerful humming, follow it. A paper trail will also guide you to the hiding spot of this adventurous bug scholar. Once you’ve bought his map for a modest fee, you’ll have access to a very rudimentary map that leaves out many details and even entire rooms. To fill in the blanks, you first must visit individual rooms, then return to one of the checkpoint benches (think Dark Souls bonfires). Only then will you have a (relatively) detailed picture of the rooms you already discovered and explored. Furthermore, the map will not mark your position unless you equip a specific charm. Since every charm uses up a limited number of valuable slots and other charms may offer you substantial benefits in combat, you may think twice before sacrificing a slot for a map marker.
This means that entering a new region is a tense and exhilarating affair. Completing the game’s stupendously enormous map one room at a time is a compelling, deeply satisfying task, but beware: it’s easy to get lost, and there have been quite a few times when I died before getting a chance to buy the new map. As in Dark Souls, you have to find your way back to the place you died (and fight a dark spirit version of yourself!) in order to reclaim your resources, and finding this specific location without a map can be a stressful test of your spatial memory and navigational skills.
Dark Souls is an obvious and major influence of Hollow Knight, but it would be reductive to call it a 2D Dark Souls clone. The main difference is this: if Dark Souls is a fighting game enriched by complex spaces, Hollow Knight is a game about navigation enriched by fighting (as well as platforming). You’ll still die plenty of times in Hollow Knight, but the main purpose of enemies isn’t to kill you, but to disrupt your focus on navigational matters, to spin you around until you’re not sure where you came from and where to go next. Exploring the world of Hollow Knight feels like the work of an archaeologist or cartographer, rather than a warrior.
Still, it must be said that Hollow Knight doesn’t do difficulty as well as Dark Souls. Repeatedly dying in a boss battle can feel like quite the slog since the way back from the checkpoint will likely pose no real threat. And since you’ll know your way after a few repeats, there’s little tension left. It doesn’t help that some of the late-game platforming challenges are obnoxious rather than challenging.
But these are minor complaints. The labyrinth of Hollow Knight is perhaps one of the most memorable game worlds ever created, brought to live through stunning art and sound design. It’s an intricately crafted space that lures you deep into its winding bowels, swallowing you whole.