Hollow Knight begins as inauspiciously as any other game of its ilk. Dropped into an unfamiliar grey wasteland, your mite-sized knight hops and slashes his way through caverns packed with scuttling and flying insects. Eventually these caves peel away to reveal ornate gothic lamps, and then a morose village — abandoned, save a single bearded bug. It tells you that this sorry place is called Dirtmouth, a shadowy remnant of a great kingdom, but the only points of interest are a wrought iron bench, a set of locked doors, and a well that leads who-knows-where.
Through this inviting aperture lie a warren of tunnels that lead to ancient ruins, forgotten cities, and lush sunken gardens. Hollow Knight is, from the off, a Metroid-style exploration game. Nintendo’s explorathons are a huge influence but, unlike Samus’s adventures, this starts with a much more restrictive set of traversal options that curtail your initial options. There are tantalising glimpses of temples and areas that imply a greater depth beyond the linear path you begin with, but no colour-coded doors or gates indicating the fixed progression. In the classic fashion your incomplete toolset eventually sees certain elements of the environment, too high or too far at first, become new paths.
Despite the sense that something familiar is going on, there's something else under the surface. Your early steps in Hollow Knight feel hazardous, as death boots you back to the last bench rested at, much like Dark Souls and its bonfires. Similarly, the currency you have collected remains at the point you died, carried by an aggressive ethereal spectre that must be killed to reclaim the goods. The synthesis of this death retrieval mechanic with an environment that, over time, reveals itself to be both original and coherent suddenly has you thinking about Fromsoft rather than Nintendo.
If we take a step back from Team Cherry’s restrained game, this mix of influences isn't so surprising. There’s a clear thread from the Metroid games through to the Souls series. Both feature worlds made up of discrete but interconnected areas that you criss-cross enough to map out in your mind’s eye, full of sequence skips and secrets for the most fastidious of cartographers to uncover. The move from the 2D network of Zebes to the 3D environs of Metroid Prime’s Tallon IV also prompted a more coherent sense of environment and space. Whereas Zebes feels like a world restricted by its 2D limitations, Tallon doesn’t suffer from that sense of artifice. The environments interlock in three planes, and something like magma-filled caverns hiding under abandoned wastelands make so much more sense than 2D areas slotted next to each other.
Prime’s scanning mechanic also allowed for much richer world building. Enemies and landmarks could be interrogated for morsels of information, and so Samus becomes an archaeologist on a dead world as much as she is a bounty hunter. The Souls series is arguably the current champion of this approach, with its tangled lore and hand-me-down snippets of history.
Lordran goes even further in creating a sense of verisimilitude through the blindingly simple tactic of dropping the 3D map, forcing the player to carry a mental image of the world with them at all times. The lack of a scan function turned players into narrative historians, inferring and speculating on the world's history through item descriptions and the location of those same items. Hollow Knight is building on the perfect vision of 2D exploration that Super Metroid presented, but it's also retro-fitting some of what that game has subsequently inspired. The feeling of working down into winding catacombs, or scaling intimidating heights, is more compelling in a world that somehow feels real.
The unspoken truth being, of course, that talking about such design is easy — but very few developers can pull it off. Most games that try to copy Metroid end up as little more than empty, glorified mazes with obvious ability gates. As for the burgeoning 'Soulslike' genre, the less said the better. But Hollow Knight is brilliant, if you'll excuse the pun, at cherrypicking. It uses the example of Dark Souls' oblique lore and history to imbue its own world with a more meaningful sense of place, adapting the game's narrative ideas rather than simply copying them. So too does that little twist with the death mechanic — making your 'corpse' an enemy — result in the mechanic feeling a little more like Hollow Knight's own thing.
Unlike Metroid, progress is not tracked automatically on the map; players must first seek out the ambitious map writer Cornifer in each section before the surrounding area is even recordable. If the studious bug isn't found, then maps are not made. Moving forwards into new areas, hoping to find the discarded pages that signify the cartographer's presence, gives the player tasks fraught with drama and tension. Additionally, if the player does not purchase a charm to function as their compass, they are unable to locate themselves on the map. This combination of strange mechanics is all about adding friction to exploration, but also making each foray more memorable — something severely lacking from many 2D exploration games. Just like Dark Souls the onus is on the player to map their surroundings mentally but, given the 2D tunnel system is easy to get confused by, the crutch of an imperfect map is available too.
The reason it works at all, of course, is that beneath this unforgiving exploration is a world that feels like it should exist. The deepest and most isolated points of the map feel inaccessible and ineffable: from a mountain topped with the carcasses of titanic worms, to an abyss black as a spider's quivering eyes.
All roads lead back to Rome. Hollow Knight’s Dirtmouth is much like Firelink or Majula, a small settlement built atop a cavern that acts as a buffer to a deeper kingdom. The idea that an empty space acts as a bulwark against ancient evil even manifests itself later on in a story-driven palette-swap of an early area. Without spoiling what happens, Hollow Knight’s entire story is built on the foundations of its world. The heady heights of the Hallownest are as futile and arrogant as the tallest peaks of Anor Londo, and its deepest pits are secreted away beneath arcane locks, closed to all but the most persistent travellers.
Much like the Souls series, Hollow Knight’s dangerous surroundings are peppered with tranquil shrines, benches in secluded corners that offer respite, and a cast of mysterious characters that orbit around Dirtmouth. Some of them, like Quirrel, are wandering scholar knights, musing over the state of the world and the meaning behind the mysterious Black Egg Temple that festers just under Dirtmouth. The impetuous imp Zote is reminiscent of the more zealous NPCs in the Souls series, admonishing the player for freeing him from various predicaments. These colourful additions, all brought to life with unique insect masks, give this forbidding place a much-needed vibrancy.
Hollow Knight stands out from the enormous crowd of Metroid-Vania-Souls-likes, because it understands that copying some mechanics and giving players a big place to explore just isn't enough. Games like Ori and Guacamelee focus more on precise platforming to carry them, but Hollow Knight follows the more subtle elements of this lineage by bringing elements of the Souls series 'back' to 2D. Worlds this beautiful and interesting are unusual, but one so thought-through and coherent is rare indeed.