I didn’t beat Hollow Knight on my first playthrough in 2018. I didn’t even come close. I never attempted to fight the Dreamers and barely scraped through a few of the Warrior Dream fights, much less the Dream Nail variants of slain bosses. I noped out of Deepnest, thanks to an abiding fear of spiders that kept making me shriek and drop my Switch like a hot potato. I got completely lost (and utterly disgusted) while fighting the Flukemarm, the enormous, grunt-spewing Royal Waterways boss, eventually bouncing off of the game altogether.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about my time in Hallownest — the sad little bugs and their decrepit kingdom, Myla’s haunting mining song, or Bretta’s sweet blush. With 30 hours under my belt, I declared Hollow Knight one of my favorite games, and became that person who won’t shut up about it. (Writing this is my penance.) I could return to it anytime, I told myself. But I didn’t. Instead, I set the game aside for four years — until Elden Ring, and its extensive online community, finally inspired me to pick it back up again.
I’m typically an exploration, puzzling, and platforming video game enjoyer. Whereas other Metroidvanias might make a player double back often, Hollow Knight’s interwoven regions create the impression of constant forward, if circuitous, movement. I became obsessed with the various hidden entryways. Bosses were a thrill; beating them came with excellent rewards, like accessing new areas or adding a new charm to my collection. But they also intimidated me, so I tended to leave optional bosses behind. I didn’t feel like I could actually defeat them, given the game’s intimidating reputation — I was content to simply enjoy the elegant dance of the Mantis Lords’ attacks, while accepting that I was outclassed.
I mostly dashed and slashed through regions, listened for the calls of grubs, and haphazardly updated my growing map. I’d dodge through sections, whenever possible, avoiding the need to heal rather than gathering Soul (the game’s version of mana, used for healing or spellcasting). A typical battle attempt looked like this: returning to the Soul Sanctum to awaken the Soul Master with my trusty Dream Nail. Having a really cruddy go of the fight. Making treks to the nearest bench to try another charm loadout, held back by my relatively limited collection. Moving on. This is also how I initially played Elden Ring. Exploration first, fighting later. I missed Stormveil Castle because I ran around the perimeter, straight to Liurnia of the Lakes, through a rain of projectiles from a giant lobster, and into the loving hands of death.
All the while, the game’s enemies exerted a curious pull on me. Of course, I needed to fight them in order to gain runes and level up — but I also noticed how these creatures fit into the game’s storytelling. Engaging with bosses revealed even more of the world’s dense, otherwise inscrutable lore. And the Reddit community made me feel like I could beat them (though maybe not Malenia) if only I found the right weapons and fiddled with the right build. In the subreddit, players discussed bleed builds and rune farming. I expanded my horizons beyond Glintstone Pebble and upgraded my Spirit Ashes.
Finally beating Margit was the ultimate boost: I could do it, and I would do it again with the next boss. Each consecutive foe rewarded me with tasty tidbits of lore and storytelling, and I grew to love Elden Ring’s large cast of terrifying oddballs. It took research and elbow grease, but it was possible. So I reflected on other games with bosses I had summarily avoided — and one immediately rose to the top of the stack. I decided it was time to consider returning to my favorite Metroidvania for a second shot. Seeing fans on Reddit describe Hollow Knight as a “Soulslike” only strengthened my resolve.
I lept nail-first back into Hallownest. Hearing Iselda’s first hmmm, bapanada felt like a warm blanket. I decided, then and there, that I wasn’t simply going to poke around every corner of the game’s map — I was going to murder every single boss (respectfully, of course). To pull it off, I would need to vary my approach, with different charms and nail upgrades. I optimistically decided I would try for a 100% run (though perhaps not 106% or 112%, as is possible by playing to a certain ending, as well as DLCs) just to have a concrete goal.
I don’t know whether Elden Ring improved my skills. If anything, years of platforming had helped me hone the sharp knife of observation and pattern recognition. Mostly, the game gave me the bullheaded stubbornness and sheer rage to keep trying, death after death. How many times was I going to have to watch this guy rip a dragon’s head off just to put it on his arm? I’ve heard people say FromSoftware games helped them build patience, but that wasn’t precisely the case for me. Mostly, Elden Ring turned me into a person that could find humor in horror, however gruesome — lest I despair from being repeatedly gored by birds with knife-feet.
Elden Ring taught me to play Hollow Knight more strategically. It started with small things, like sticking to my color-coded system of scarab markers, poking around every inch of the map for charms and upgrades, and really adapting to various boss fights. This time, I knew to anticipate Deepnest’s creepy crawlies. And after 80 hours of Elden Ring, I was able to find campy humor in the region’s hidden boss, with its disarming skitters and jumps.
I also refused to be intimidated — I’d lost thousands of runes in Elden Ring, and Hollow Knight’s Geo “currency” felt like far lower stakes. I went after every Dream Nail boss variant and made my way to the White Palace. I gave Geo to Millibelle the Banker (if you know, you know), learned Sly’s backstory, fought the Collector, and found the Stag Nest. I stumbled on the Watcher Knights accidentally — I would not recommend this — and spent half a day just trying to take them out. Each of these characters opened up more of the world’s lore. And scouring the game’s map helped me uncover even more of its secrets. I’d barely explored the Abyss or Queen’s Gardens in my first playthrough — this time, I witnessed my own origin story as well as the close of Cloth’s story.
Playing these games side by side has given me a new appreciation for the richness of their worlds, and the twisted elegance of their boss designs. I may always be primarily motivated by exploration, but I now look forward to boss fights instead of dreading them — the victory pays off in satisfaction and storytelling. I scour tiered rankings of boss difficulties on the subreddit, and giggle when I see Primal Aspids in the “Primal ASSpid” column and Zote in his own “Zote” tier. I’m trying to let this excitement buoy me through my remaining tasks: the Colosseum’s Trial of the Fool, the Path of Pain — and maybe, one day, Godhome and The Grimm Troupe. I don’t know if I’ll beat them, but that won’t stop me from trying.