Hollow Knight is a modern classic in my mind, but I didn’t understand the hype it got when it came out. I watched gameplay of it and it just looked like a standard Metroidvania. It wasn’t until I played Hollow Knight that it clicked. I understood what made the game great: the polish and game feel.
The game is polished to a gem. The hand drawn art is smooth and expressive, making different areas of the labyrinthine cave system convey a wide range of tones and emotions. Small things like the wet patter of the character’s feet in the City of Tears and cutting foreground vines in Greenpath being indicated by clean, white lines make the world feel reactive to the player. The world of Dirtmouth envelopes the character and the player together, surrounds them. The character becomes more than a sprite on the screen, the player becomes a living part of the world, and it’s a part of the world they fight to keep.
The combat in Hollow Knight is a double-edged nail. It is fast and floaty, but each strike feel weighty and precise. On the other hand, each hit the player takes is sudden and stressful. Each time the player is hit, the musics cuts out and the action slows for just a second. The enemy and player freeze mid action and the damaging blow is highlighted by a flash and effect around the enemy’s hit. This forces the player to stop and focus on the hit and the damage taken. The wonderful world of Dirtmouth fading into the background makes the player feel uncomfortable and learn from the mistake that they just made.
The other aspect of the combat’s weightiness is the knockback. Each time the player hits an enemy, both the character and the enemy get pushed back slightly. This knockback adds so much to the combat of Hollow Knight that it’s the smartest thing about the game.
When every strike moves your character back, the combat gains a much deeper sense of strategy. All of a sudden, you need to know how far you’ll get pushed with each attack and you need to internalize a way to make up for that lost ground quickly and effectively. This helps you engage with the movement system during combat more than just jumping over enemies or getting a certain distance away from them. I know when I play Hollow Knight that there is a sweet spot to tap the joystick forward. Too much and I’ll run into the enemy, too little and I’ll miss the next attack. Fighting on a small platform becomes extremely stressful with this knockback mechanic. Any careless attack can send you over the edge into the spikes below.
Internalizing is really the best term to describe the knockback in Hollow Knight. After countless mistakes missing crucial attacks or walking into enemies, you learn how much compensation is needed for each blow you make. This is why I used the Steady Body charm that eliminates the knockback received when striking enemies. At the point of the game when I bought the charm, I had already learned the knockback system in the game. After hours of learning how to make up space lost from the knockback, taking it away felt foreign and difficult to relearn.
In Hollow Knight, it becomes second nature to adjust for the knockback in the middle of a fight and you stop actively thinking about it. But just because you stop thinking of it doesn’t mean the knockback in Hollow Knight is not a genius addition to the game.