It’s not every day you get assigned to write an article about how your boss is completely wrong, but this morning during one of our many discussions about the fantastic game Hollow Knight, Kotaku editor-in-chief Stephen Totilo told me to write [Editor’s note: suggested you write] about how wrong he is about the nails-tough platforming sections. Because they’re actually great.
Hollow Knight, which came out last year but only arrived on Switch in June, when many of us discovered it, is a game about a little bug doing big things.
It’s a Metroidvania full of secrets, with meticulous design, satisfying movement mechanics and brilliant boss battles. There are also some tough platforming sections that require you to use those movement mechanics — like a forward dash and a double jump — to navigate spikes and pits.
And then there’s the White Palace.
The White Palace is a dream world that’s optional to complete the game but required if you want to see the true ending and it’s one of the toughest things Hollow Knight has to offer. Most of the game’s jumps have the difficulty level of your average Super Mario Bros. level, but the White Palace goes full Super Meat Boy.
There are menacing saw blades and pixel-perfect jumps and moving spikes that require you to stand exactly in the right place if you don’t want to die. Hollow Knight is a punishing game, but usually that’s because of bosses, whose patterns you’ll have to gradually learn and master. This is something else entirely.
I’m a little different, though. I live for tough platforming. I cut my teeth on NES platformers and spent many, many hours grinding through the PC Jumper games (made by Matt Thorson, who is now best known for the 2018 platformer Celeste). When Hollow Knight suddenly transformed into a punishing platformer, it cemented its status as one of my favourite games of this generation.
I see Stephen’s point, of course — the rest of Hollow Knight doesn’t quite prepare you for the obstacle course that is the White Palace and it’s a jarring request from a game that never asks you to do anything else like it — but it’s brilliantly designed, with enough variety to never feel repetitive and enough leeway to never feel like it’s impossible to pull off.
It feels like a good, fair use of traversal mechanics that you’ve been using for less complicated movement in other sections of the game. It’s like a test to see how much practice you’ve gotten.
After I spent a few hours completing the White Palace, I went back in to take on a completely optional area called the Path of Pain. This one you don’t even need to finish for the true ending. If you’re curious, I recommend you skim through this YouTuber’s hitless run at the Path of Pain. Your reaction may be “This looks amazing” or “I will never, ever do this”. If you’re anything like me, it’ll be the former.
What’s smart about the Path of Pain is that — like Celeste — it limits your friction. There are plenty of checkpoints as you go, so you’ll never have to replay more than 20-30 seconds worth of jumping and dashing.
At each checkpoint, there’s a statue that gives you an unlimited well of Soul (this game’s version of magic), which means you can heal yourself infinitely and never worry about dying, losing all the progress you’ve made so far. Each section of the Path of Pain requires precise, perfect skill, but never luck. When you screw up, you know it’s your own fault, not because the game threw some cheap obstacle or random attack at you.
And when you beat the Path of Pain — as I did on Wednesday night — it’s more satisfying than anything else in what is already an incredibly satisfying game.