When it comes to the knight department in the indie club, Shovel Knight sits at the big boy table with his mates Shield, Specter, Plague, and King Knight, all basking in their alluring nostalgia and quirky humour, but another modest warrior on the guest list is Hollow Knight which doesn't so much bathe in the 8-bit waters of yesteryear for too long, but instead uses the past as more of a thematic inspiration than a visual one.
Team Cherry's game is similar to a lot of retro-inspired Metroidvanias - of which this is most certainly one of them - in that it's less about who you are than what you're doing, so don't worry your pretty little head about who you are; all you need to know is that there's a quaint town called Dirtmouth and under it is an entire kingdom. Down into the darkness we go.
It's best to get the Dark Souls comparisons out of the way early because as much as it pains us to keep making the comparisons (as everyone on the Internet seems wont to do these days) there's actually some relevance here. For starters, you collect currency as you go along which can then be spent on items to use in the world and when you die you lose all of these, except if you go back to where you lost them. There's a twist here though because you need to defeat an older spirit of yourself to reclaim them, so it's not like it's exactly the same. What it does do is regularly draw out the conundrum of 'I want to go further, but I really don't want to lose all my progress', so it separates the greedy from the wise.
But more than that we were reminded of Dark Souls because the world is bleak, desolate, and arguably hopeless, just like Lordran. This underground kingdom has claimed many before it looking to discover treasure and secrets, and you encounter these inhabitants who talk to you in a concerningly calm tone, you know, the kind of disarming calmness that shouldn't really be there when everything is so messed up in the world around them. Their garbled worlds lead you further into the abyss, and it's only by staying careful can you survive the very difficult terrain, because within the darkness lurks tricky monsters that can easily make your journey very uncomfortable very quickly.
As you might have guessed by the Dark Souls comparison, the game is challenging, but it's not obstinate in its challenge. As well as the currency in the game, you also fill a gauge (called Soul, can you believe) at the top left as you kill enemies, and by simply holding A you can use this to recover health points. By making sure you're careful when progressing and attacking baddies, you can use this to make sure you're always kept topped up, and can even use this later for some extra naughty abilities...
The first part of this underground network you explore gives a nice little introduction to the depths in the sense that you have your first encounter with Cornifer, the helpful fellow who provides you with maps of the areas as you progress. There are also a handful of bosses and fast-travel stations too, but those are the less attractive tourist destinations on your journey down underground.
What it also does is introduces the Metroidvania-esque approach to the world very gently, essentially giving you a pretty fixed way to go but stopping you at times as if to say "see that up there? You'll need to come back to unlock that". Yes, here it's all about exploring the various avenues at your disposal and returning to some of them later when you have the means to progress even further, hence why purchasing a map at every opportunity is so incredibly important for your sanity... we mean, progression.
Speaking of progression, there are charms you can unlock during your saunter through the murky depths, but what a palaver - you have limited charm slots. One charm we'd always recommended having equipped is that which pinpoints your current location when you open the map, but there are plenty of others like one that helps you gather more Soul for your gauge from the world around you. This choice of upgrades and which to swap in and out - especially since this can only be done resting at a bench (essentially a bonfire) - adds yet another layer of challenge to Hollow Knight's trifle.
It's a 2D platformer as much as it is a Metroidvania, and so one half of the challenge is navigating your environment, avoiding such classic hits as pits of spikes, and the other half is defeating all enemies great and small that are getting up in your business. Your attacks start quite basic, and we found ourselves loudly mashing the Y button on a quiet flight when we played (on Switch, by the way, which is the version that has just been released last week), but as you go on you'll get more powerful techniques to spice things up a little bit.
It must also be said that while there's obviously a gloom about the world that sort of has to come with an underground deathtrap that lures people to their demise, there's a beauty in it as well, as within the darkness there's plenty of variety and boatloads of detail. Whether you're brushing through the overgrown foliage or simply getting bashed against the stones by a giant brute, it's all lovely to watch, and benefits from moving into the modern era rather than reproducing older-style graphics.
If it wasn't clear by now, then we should make extra clear: Hollow Knight is a fantastic experience, both in your hands on the Switch or on the TV screen. It provides the timeless fun and exploration of a Metroidvania you can spend hours getting lost in, trying each avenue to see what rewards lurk off the beaten path, while at the same time giving it a lick of paint to bring the genre into the modern day. With things to do, people to see, and places to go, Hollow Knight is a triumph of indie gaming, both for those unacquainted with Metroidvanias and the veterans looking for another fix.