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Tips For Playing Hollow Knight

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Hollow Knight is finally out for Nintendo Switch, which means a lot more people are playing it than when it hit PC last year. People like me! I’ve put almost 40 hours into the game, and I have some tips for anyone starting out.

For the most part, Hollow Knight is straightforward. Explore the buried civilization of Hallownest. Try to reach every corner of the map. Don’t jump onto spikes. Hit enemies until they’re dead. Don’t let the boss touch you. Watch out for lakes of acid. However, there are still some bits of advice that I would like to impart on anyone starting out. Here goes.


Stick with it through the early hours.

This is not a gameplay tip so much as a “how to best appreciate Hollow Knight” tip. For the first hour or two, I wasn’t nearly as enraptured with the game as I became once it opened up a bit. Hollow Knight’s opening area, the Forgotten Crossroads, is also one of its dullest. The Knight starts out with a limited move-set. The game is immediately challenging, and it’s difficult to simply get from one side of the map to the other alive. Stick with it.


Beat the first boss. Keep playing through the second area, Greenpath, and beat the second boss you’ll meet there. Shortly after that you’ll have unlocked the first two traversal mechanics, and the game will finally begin to open up. It takes a little while, but if you get over that initial hump, you’re in for a hell of a ride. Those opening hours aren’t a bad time, exactly, they’re just not as engrossing as the remaining 90% of the game.

Talk to everyone.

The backstory of Hallownest is a lot more interesting than I expected, so I recommend talking with every non-player character you can, at every opportunity. Many characters move through mini-narratives as you progress through the game, and their stories add an unexpected degree of richness.


Don’t be disheartened by the big, tough enemy to the right.

If you drop into the opening area and head right, you’ll soon come up against a huge dude with a huge club. He seems impossible to beat. I’m sure if you’re good enough at this kind of game you can beat him right away, but don’t worry too much about taking him on until you’ve gotten some upgrades. That guy is meant as an optional challenge and isn’t indicative of how tough the rest of the enemies in the area are. Though do keep in mind that you can just take a hit, then run past him, if you want.


In combat, stay in the air and attack down.

The Knight can attack in four directions, and their down-stroke is easily the most effective tool. Lots of bosses in the game are huge, and just touching them will cost you a hitpoint. It’s good to begin practicing jumping above something and attacking down repeatedly, pogoing on top of them to get in multiple hits safely. That move is also useful on a number of the game’s most hardcore (optional, thankfully) platforming challenges. It may seem intimidating—I’m a scrub at platformers, and was not looking forward to mastering such a reflex-oriented move—but with a little practice you’ll get it.


Use custom map pins.

Hollow Knight’s map is unusually sprawling, and full of locked areas and secrets. It’s worth it to grind the 100 Geo (Hollow Knight money) that you need to buy a set of custom map pins from the map store, which will let you mark locked areas for future reference. I waited a long time to buy pins, and as a result found that I couldn’t remember where some barriers were located, once I finally had the upgrade needed to bypass them.


Take notes.

Your notes don’t have to be super detailed, but it can be helpful to keep a short list of things you’ve seen, areas you’ve visited, and what each of your custom pins means. Trust me when I say that this game is really big, and while you could just fake your way around and do a lot more backtracking (not necessarily a bad approach!) you’ll save yourself some time by keeping notes.


Play with headphones, or turn the volume up.

I get the feeling some people play Switch games in handheld mode with no audio, or with the built-in audio turned down. I recommend playing Hollow Knight with headphones or with the sound turned up, and not just because the music and sound design are fantastic. (They are, though.) The real reason to play with headphones is that audio cues play a huge part in the game’s design. You’ll hear little grubs crying for help, enemies pacing around, items glowing in the dark, and boss attack-cues, all of which you’d miss if you turn the volume down. There are a lot of destructible walls and secret passages strewn around Hallownest, and if you hear an enemy in an area but can’t see them, chances are the game is telling you to look for a breakable wall.


Find the mapmaker in each new area.

Each time you enter a new region, your first priority should be getting a map. Cornifer the cartographer runs a map shop with his wife up in Dirtmouth, and he can be found sitting in every area merrily writing down maps. You can tell he’s near if you start to see bits of paper strewn on the ground, and you’ll hear him humming. Track him down and buy his map. If you unlock a new area without first buying a map from him in the preceding area, you can buy any maps you missed from the shop in Dirtmouth. (He leaves a note to this effect in each area he’s visited, which can be a little bit confusing, since he leaves it whether or not you’ve already bought the region’s map from him.)


Rescue the grubs.

Right from the outset you’ll start to find these little grubs trapped in jars, calling out for help. There are a ton of them in the game, some out in plain sight, others hidden behind diabolical platforming challenges. You get rewards for freeing them, and you should rescue as many as you can. (You’ll have to figure out how to get the rewards on your own. Just keep exploring.) Sometimes your reward will just be some Geo, but every now and then you’ll get some other borderline essential charms and upgrade materials. Whenever you hear a grub crying out, make a point of tracking them down and freeing them.


There’s a controller shortcut to check the full map.

Holding down the left shoulder button opens up a map of your immediate vicinity. If you want to view the game’s full map, you can access that in the pause menu. However, if you double-tap the left shoulder button, you’ll go straight to the full map without having to page through your inventory menus. It took me a while to realize this, though it might just be that I missed an early tutorial pop-up. It’s definitely a good time-saver as the game opens up and you regularly want to get a sense of what other areas might be nearby.


Charms are more versatile than you might think.

The more you play, the more charms you’ll unlock. You’ll also begin to find and purchase charm notches, which allow you to equip more at once. At first I figured charms were small, passive upgrades and that I’d wind up with the same charms equipped throughout the game. Turns out the charm system is deeper and more interesting. Some charms give you potent advantages, and others will dramatically affect your playstyle. I’ve got a few loadouts depending on what I’m doing, and I recommend taking time to find what works for you. Here are my loadouts, at the moment:

Exploration: Grubsong, Wayward Compass, Gathering Swarm, Longnail/Mark of Pride, Soul Eater/Soul Catcher


Boss Fights: Grubsong, Soul Catcher, Stalwart Shell, Quick Focus, Thorns of Agony

Those are pretty standard loadouts, but don’t be afraid to experiment with some of the weirder charms, too, since many have specific applications. Hiveblood can be great when you’re doing tough platforming challenges, for example.


Those loadouts require 10 charm notches, but you obviously won’t have that many to begin with. I recommend prioritizing ways to increase soul gains, then speeding up healing, then everything else. The more notches you unlock, the more inessential but fun charms you can equip. One charm to always have equipped during boss fights, however...

Quick Focus is a really good charm.

Quick Focus is probably the most useful charm in Hollow Knight. It lets you recharge your health significantly faster, which is crucial during boss fights. If you pair it with Stalwart Shell, you can often complete your healing while still invincible from the hit you took. That combo is the closest thing Hollow Knight has to letting players brute-force boss fights, and if you’re not a super-skilled player (raises hand), it is a godsend.


There’s a big, hidden DLC questline.

When I bought Hollow Knight on Switch, I didn’t realize that I was getting a bunch of the free DLC that developers Team Cherry previously released for the PC version. Some of that stuff will turn up seamlessly; there are just some bosses and items you’ll find that weren’t in the game at launch. However, there’s a significant story DLC called The Grimm Troupe that adds new characters, vendors, charms, and quests. It doesn’t passively add those things, though; you’ll have to go and track it down and actively start it. (You’ll need a few mid-game upgrades to start it, so don’t worry about accidentally starting it or anything.) Far be it from me to spoil the challenge of locating it if you’re the sort of player who likes tracking down secrets, but I will offer a hint and a link. Hint: It begins near where the game began. Link: Here’s a Steam thread explaining where to go and what to do.


Follow these tips when fighting the tougher bosses. 

I recently wrote a list of generalized tips for fighting tough video game bosses, and Hollow Knight has its share of tough bosses. So, read that post and follow those tips. Take breaks. Watch replays. Make lists. Go do something else, either in the game or real life. Come back once you’ve upgraded your gear. In particular, you can upgrade your nail’s damage output multiple times over the course of the game, and some bosses are much easier once you don’t have to land as many hits to kill them.


If you’re not sure what to do next, don’t look it up!

This is my last tip: avoid using online guides and walkthroughs! Hollow Knight is a surprising and rewarding game, and I’ve regretted the couple of times I’ve looked up where to find a charm notch, or an upgrade material. A couple of times, I would’ve discovered the upgrade if I had just kept playing normally, and looking it up spoiled the delight of the reward.


If you’re not sure what to do next, just look at your map and try to spot doorways you haven’t gone through. There’s no hurry. In this game more than most, a single breakable wall can unlock a vast new area, full of challenges to overcome and secrets to unearth. There’s no better feeling than braving a difficult challenge and being rewarded with the exact item you needed or wanted, or better, with a wild upgrade you didn’t even know existed. Don’t spoil those moments for yourself by looking them up and seeking them out.

I hope those tips are helpful to you as you venture forth into Hallownest. If you’ve got more tips of your own, I hope you’ll share them below.