At this point, a gamer writing about Hollow Knight is about as played out as a movie critic writing about The Godfather or something. I don't plan to get deep into the lore or anything, there are videos upon videos for that. If you are interested in that stuff, my personal recommendation would be to watch 8-Bit Music Theory's 3-part musical analysis of the game, which is an exploration of storytelling and character work as expressed through music, and really drives home how beautiful and complete this package is.
This game was recommended to me by just about everyone who knows me. I love Metroidvanias, and my friends were tauting this as the best the genre has had to offer in the back half of the 2010's, a 5-year span where you couldn't sneeze without some of the germs landing on a Metroidvania even if you properly covered your mouth in your elbow pitt. I acknowledge the fact that I should have played this game by now in my Should Have Been In My Top 100 article a few months back. I even followed through on my promise! (if you ignore the "finishing FFVII" part.)
And you know what? I actually tried this game a few times. I've owned it on Steam for a while, I believe by way of a free Humble Bundle gift from our own Iamnobody. I then re-bought it on sale for Switch, because I was pretty sure that would inspire me to play it more. After starting twice, I just fell off quickly. For one, the art style didn't exactly grab me. This is not original criticism I'm about to say, but it really did kinda look like a Newgrounds Flash game at first. Getting deeper in, I see that this criticism is wholly unfair, but it doesn't exactly put its best foot forward. I know most Metroidvanias have a slow burn, but even having completed the game now, I think that HK's start is markedly slow in both art direction and gameplay. But finally, I set my mind to get past the first area. Predictably, once I got the dash, the game opened up like I knew it would.
The Metroidvania aspects of the game are on point. The world is well-designed, the combat is tight, the movement is crisp, all that good stuff. My one criticism in the mechanics is that I dislike how the map only updates at benches. That was clearly a deliberate choice to make you fly blind for a while, but it led to some really frustrating situations where I'd die in an unexplored, mapless area and get hopelessly lost trying to get back to it because I was deep enough to not be familiar with my surroundings yet. I like to play these games with my map open at basically every opportunity, so being forced to regularly go mapless was just uncomfortable for me. Then again, I think it was supposed to be.
Like Celeste, the thing that really shocked me with this game was how much I ended up enjoying the story without expecting to. I'd have a hard time articulating the story to you if you asked me too, but the game just sets up this undeniable mood and hits you emotionally even if you only have a tenuous grasp on what's going on. The thing I appreciate about the story is how it's told in a way that only video games can tell it: through exploration and interaction. No two people will have the story revealed to them in the same order. There is dialogue, but most of the story is revealed through the environment itself. Discovering the City of Tears was one of the most impactful environment reveals I've ever experienced in games, rivaling the discovery of the Kingdom of Zeal in Chrono Trigger. (I could probably write a whole separate blog post comparing those two moments and how brilliant they are. )
Suffice to say, I love this game. And as I've started to look things up about the plot, music, and development history, I think this is a game that I will only continue to love more and more as I reflect on it in the days to come. For now, I want to close with an anecdote that encapsulates what I think makes this game so special in how it tells its story. It's a minor spoiler, for fair warning.
The first time you enter Crystal Peak, you meet a bug named Myla. She's diggin' away, happy as a clam, mining for something that even she doesn't fully understand. She sings a happy tune, though it seems like she's having a hard time remembering the lyrics. You continue into the mines and find normal enemies...miners that look suspiciously like Myla.
When you come back later, she's still plugging away. By this time you've probably acquired the Dream Nail, which allows you to read people's thoughts. Myla's are occupied with digging into the crystals, because she hears voices telling her to do so. The crystals are telling her to.
You progress through the game and, through exploration and combat, become more familiar with The Infection. Something isn't right in this world. You return near the surface and see visible signs of the Infection all over the place. Weak early-game enemies are now much stronger and even explosive. You head back to Crystal Peak, and Myla is clearly showing signs. The lyrics to her song are broken. She's repeating certain words ominously. When you read her mind, you hear foreign interjections. The voices weren't in the crystals. They were in Myla.
Finally, when you come through later, Myla is no longer interactable. She is fully infected. She attacks you as the Infection commands her to. If you kill her, she has a unique scream unlike any other enemy. If you Dream Nail her corpse, you hear once more the lyrics of her song.