Our reporter Chase thought he’d mastered Team Cherry’s atmospheric Metrovania adventure. Then an unsuspecting sidequest put all his skills to the test.
This piece contains spoilers for Hollow Knight
I recently finished Hollow Knight, Team Cherry’s breakout game officially released in 2017 (but finding new critical and commercial success thanks to a Switch port), to a point where I feel comfortable putting it down and digesting my thoughts. One thing I keep chewing, more than the stellar atmosphere or boss battles that often left me apoplectic, is my experience with two specific sections that forced me to reckon with everything I had learned so far.
A secret path in a endgame area allowed access to the game’s most unforgiving gauntlet of platforming challenges that can only be overcome by a combination of determination, exhaustive use of abilities, and raw time. Such was the Path of Pain, tucked away behind a hidden wall in Hollow Knight’s White Palace. The home of the fallen kingdom’s monarch was already festooned with spikes and saws and deadly foes, but the Path of Pain took things to a sadistic level by thrusting the player through a nightmarish stretch of tunnels and passages rarely bookended by safe ledges where the player could breath, relax, and shake out their white-knuckle grip on the controller.
This is typical fare for the Metroidvania genre: Ori and the Blind Forest had the Ginsu Tree and Mount Horu. Guacamelee had the Tul Tree. While not always optional, these sections can test the limits of players’ ability and patience. Completing them might reward a cool cutscene, bit of lore, or the simple satisfaction of knowing you surmounted the worst a game could throw your direction. The rest of of the game pales in comparison to the wringer you just went through, and your confidence couldn’t be higher.
These challenges are important landmarks on the road to mastery – raw checks of skill and endurance that can be discovered, attempted and left for later if players find their mettle can’t yet withstand the pounding. Think of it like a tower on the horizon. You know your path will eventually lead you to the ever present reminder of what lies ahead. Sure, your current trials are tough, but you know it’s in service to something greater.
A Deceptively Simple Request
But Hollow Knight had another kind of challenge, less assuming at first. Inside a darkened structure behind the crumbling walls of Hallownest’s Resting Grounds, the Grey Mourner held vigil. Draped in what must have once been brilliant white robes, she bent low beneath the weight of a love long lost. When the Knight approached her, she saw a chance for hope. Deliver this flower to the grave of my love, she said. The daughter to a traitor king who was cast out and exiled to the verdant wilds far beyond civilization, their romance died before taking root.
Easy, I thought. At this point I had mapped the majority of Hallownest and its surrounds, which included access to numerous Stag Stations (think living taxi services) and a derelict but still serviceable tram. Combined, methods for traversing the underground kingdom were always relatively accessible. I even had a general idea of where this daughter’s grave was.
No, said the Grey Mourner. This flower is beyond precious and very delicate. Attempting to travel via “those jolting transit beasts” or trams will destroy it, as will taking damage. So, it was a test of avoidance? No problem. I’d completed the Path of Pain by this point in my playthrough and was riding on a sizable proud cloud.
In the very next room, I dashed into a disease-riddled enemy who had been lurking in the darkness of the catacombs. The flower was immediately ruined.
Okay, no problem. I trotted back to the Grey Mourner, who was obviously upset her messenger failed so utterly and immediately. She handed me another of these alleged rare blooms, muttered something about having hope, if not confidence, and urged me onward.
The next time, I was ready for the shifting monster but not the spiky wall beyond. It was on my third trek back that I started to wonder if that earlier bravado was dooming me. I set out for a fourth time stridently watching the shadows and picking every leap with care. In fact, I was so focused on my feet that I didn’t realize how far off course I was, or if I was even taking the right course. So, I opened my map and was almost immediately blindsided by a vengefly, little screeching fliers that infest the shallow ruin levels. It’s one of the weakest creatures players encounter, and it had just sent me packing back to the Resting Grounds to start all over again.
A Slow Learner
For some reason, I kept throwing myself at this quest with… well, not reckless abandon but a stubborn assurance that I should be able to do this. I had traveled so far and conquered so much! I took a break, grabbed a snack and let one of my cats settle into the crook of my lap while I pondered strategy. Then, I had an epiphany.
It became obvious I needed to drop any pretense of winning purely through accrued skill and seriously strategize how I wanted to approach this sidequest. That meant scouting locations for problematic elements – not only are Hollow Knight’s enemies aggressive and varied, but the land itself can prove deadly, whether through thorny walls, acidic pools, or stealthy stalagmites plummeting down on unsuspecting heads. Damage is an ever-present and ever-immediate threat in Hollow Knight, so requiring I avoid it altogether transformed the trivial into a daunting task.
I also needed to consider my charm loadout. Hollow Knight’s titular protagonist can collect and equip badge-like charms that augment abilities or grant access to exclusive powers. Obviously, I dropped any that offered quicker healing or more overall health – success meant a clean run from the Grounds to the grave. Instead, I focused on charms that increased the speed and recharge rate of my dash, which would let me outmaneuver potential threats. I also opted for one that lengthened the reach of my Nail, the Knight’s only tool for dealing with Hallownest’s violent denizens. If it came to blows, I wanted to keep them at maximum distance from my delicate charge.
With space for one more charm I chose Weaversong, which spawned three little spiders that scurried around me and attacked any threats in the area. The thought was that these sentries would alert me to hidden threats and offer a bit more offensive might if cornered.
Things went smooth enough until I detoured through Fog Canyon, a plunging ravine swarming with stinging jelly creatures. My spiderlings went absolute bananas, tearing through smaller foes with ease. Then, from out of nowhere a sizzling orange projectile rocketed from below the screen and exploded into my chest. A moment of utter confusion settled into resigned realization.
The larger jelly foes hold a deadly charge at their center that propels from their body upon death like some sort of death curse. I learned during my first trip here that ignoring them was the smarter option since they seemed content to float in a predictable vertical pattern.
Back at the Grey Mourner’s house, I sidelined the spiders in favor of more baseline movement speed. I pored over my map, trying to recall every enemy in every room and what sort of threat they offered up. I chose to cut a longer path through a mushroom-laden cave because picking my way up and down the walls there wouldn’t be quite so dangerous. Finally, I shook out my hands, took a steadying breath, and once again descended.
In all fairness, I failed once more to a simple timing miscalculation, but eventually arrived at the grave of the Traitor’s Daughter. After laying the white bloom at the foot of her stone tomb marker, a ghostly mantis appeared above me. She bowed once before disappearing. For my trouble, the Grey Mourner rewarded me with a precious Mask Fragment that upgraded my maximum health. A nice ending that paled in comparison to the lesson learned.
Success required me to dredge up and re-examine skills Hollow Knight had been teaching me from the outset. Sure, I was retreading old ground, but the sidequest’s recontextualization threw a vital wrench into the works. It allowed me to remember the constant thrill I felt entering a new room before I could dash, double jump, cling to walls and throw deadly spells from afar. Players often back travel through older areas in Metroidvanias, and it can feel like a chore. Hollow’s Knight’s Delicate Flower sidequest spun the trend in a satisfying way while humbling me deeply in the process.
It wasn’t the Path of Pain’s dire gauntlet of hellish jumps and dashes, and Hollow Knight is a better game for its inclusion.