Opinion: Hollow Knight is the pinnacle of Souls-likes
When I first heard of Hollow Knight the day it was to be released, I was impressed by it’s art style and music. Touting itself as a Metroid-vania (an often contested genre that is still being argued online to this day) the game seemed like a super dark and depressing A Bug’s Life, with your main character being an adorable stag beetle-looking creature running around slashing at other bugs with a sword. It was only once I got my hands on the game and immersed myself in it’s moody, utterly gorgeous atmosphere that it hit me: This game is Dark Souls.
Ever since Dark Souls’ release in 2011, there have been a slew of games released trying to capture that Souls feel. The brutal and punishing but fair gameplay and the somber, dark atmosphere. For a long period of years, any game released with the slightest bit of a challenge was referred to as ‘The Dark Souls of x’ both ironically and unironically (A recent statement being that Crash Bandicoot is actually the Dark Souls of 3D platformers.) Games like Lords of the Fallen and The Surge were admirable attempts at recreating a brutal 3D action game in line with the Souls titles, while in the 2D realm, Salt & Sanctuary has been lauded as Dark Souls made 2D. However, while these games certainly wear their inspirations on their sleeves, I think that the humble Hollow Knight got the closest to achieving the tone and atmosphere of the Souls games.
Now to clarify, there are many differences between the two games that one could point out. Dark Souls is a 3D Action Roleplaying Game, while Hollow Knight is a 2D Action Platformer. Dark Souls requires you to slay foes to collect their souls, which is used as a resource to level up, as well as a currency to buy things with. Hollow Knight’s character progression is strictly item-based, you find upgrade fragments to increase your health or Soul meter which allows you to cast spells more often. Hollow Knight also has it’s own seperate currency, Geo which is used to purchase special talismans, upgrades and supplies. Dark Souls also lets you swap your equipment out on the fly, letting you play with different weapons with their own unique move-sets and different armour with values. Hollow Knight only lets you to equip or slot out charms which grant special abilities at a bench.
So mechanically, the two games are quite different, but it’s in it’s somber atmosphere, moody setting and a plot that really makes you work for it to figure out just what happened that really ticked the ‘Dark Souls’ boxes for me while on my first playthrough of the game. The world of Hollow Knight, known as Hallownest is described as a ‘corpse’ of a kingdom. A world once inhabited by the living, now filled with nothing but beasts and mindless husks infected with a strange plague. Your mission is to seek 3 slumbering Dreamers to break the seal in an ominous Black Egg that has been used to house a great evil in order to slay it. In Dark Souls, you are named the Chosen Undead, and must travel through the corpse of the kingdom of Lordran, once inhabited but now filled with beasts and mindless husks afflicted with a strange curse. You must ring two Bells of Awakening to gain access to the land of the gods. In Dark Souls, the term ‘hollow’ is used to describe the Undead who have lost their minds and their humanity, turning into undying husks that just stand around waiting for anyone to come and kill.
Death is not a fail state in both of these games. Dark Souls’ PC release had the now-infamous subtitle ‘Prepare to Die Edition’, and players new to the series would be faced with the ‘YOU DIED’ message on screen very, very often. But in Dark Souls, death is a means to learn from your mistakes, to persevere and overcome them. One of the truly genius aspects of Dark Souls is that the game is quite fair in it’s brutality. If you march into a new area and are perceptive, you can spot hints of an ambush or a trap before you trigger it, giving you the opportunity to engage in an encounter knowing what is to come. The only real fail state in Dark Souls is when you, the player decide to put the game down after a frustrating death. That is what it means to go hollow in a meta-context.
Hollow Knight has a similar death mechanic to Dark Souls; when you die, you leave behind a black phantom, known as your Regrets in place of a blood stain. When you revive, your soul gauge is cracked and all your Geo is gone, so you’ll need to find your Regret and destroy it, effectively restoring yourself back to your original state. It bears mentioning that this mechanic, known in the industry as a Corpse-run is not unique to the Souls games. Diablo 2, released in 2000 had a corpse-run where you respawn in that Act’s town, without your gear or minions. You would need to run the gauntlet through whatever it was that killed you to retrieve your gear, similar to how you have to retrieve your souls in Dark Souls without dying, or else all the souls you had on that bloodstain gets lost forever.
Dark Souls and Hollow Knight both feature boss battles that may involve a lot of trial and error to figure out. Bosses hit hard and are true tests of skill (or a test of how much armour you can stack on while still being able to move) and death usually means having to run the gauntlet through a map from your last checkpoint to collect your souls/Regret and start the fight over. In both cases this can be a source of frustration to many, as an argument often leveled towards these games is that players just want to be able to re-attempt a boss fight immediately, rather than having to run all the way back to the boss (the term ‘Run-back’ has been used for this over the years.) However frustrating it can be, I believe this is a good way that these two games utilize to raise the stakes in combat. If you could simply retry a boss fight on the spot, it would remove a lot of the tension in knowing that dying has no stakes.
The last comparison i’d like to make about the two games is how their story and lore are delivered to the player. The Souls games have been criticized for having an impenetrable plot or a story that is hard to figure out. This is due to the fact that the games very rarely spell things out for the player. You are meant to find items, read the descriptions on everything, talk to NPCs and infer meanings and connections between all little bits of information being given to you. This is why to this day, the Souls communities are still discussing the game’s lore on forums. It also frankly feels a lot better putting things together than having all the information spoon-fed to you. Similarly, Hollow Knight’s lore is scattered across the now-dead kingdom, and it is up to the player to find out what happened, if they were so inclined.
To wrap this up, Hollow Knight and Dark Souls are two very different games, but I personally felt like fundamentally, down to it’s core, Hollow Knight gave me those same vibes I absolutely adored from my first playthrough of Dark Souls. It’s the way it combines a dark, oppressive atmosphere with scant moments of hope and majesty, how even in the darkest of places one can find beauty and comfort. It’s in the way boss fights can make your blood rush, and how each victory makes you feel like you earned it.
It’s the feeling of knowing that despite things being difficult, through perseverance you can make it through to the end.