Game: Knytt Underground
Developer: Green Hill Studios
Available on: PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita
Reviewed on: PlayStation Vita
It was almost inevitable that Niklas Nygren, the Swedish indie game creator, and Nicalis – the plucky US publisher – would someday cross paths. Not only do their names kinda sound a bit similar (Nygren is better knows as Nifflas), but both have been involved in creating or publishing excellent, quirky platform games. Nicalis put out the beautiful Nintendo versions of Cave Story, and followed those up by publishing the excellent VVVVVV. Nifflas is now in cahoots with them, producing games under their watchful eye. NightFall was the first to make it to consoles – the Wii receiving a download of this fun physics-based affair. And now the Swede has decided to enter the console market again, serving up a PS Vita version of the latest in his successful Knytt series – and while Nicalis are not part of this release, the shadow of Cave Story looms large over it, and you can see that the pair clearly make fine bedfellows.
For the uninitiated, Nifflas created his Knytt series of games taking inspiration from the works of legendary author Tove Jannson, better known as the creator of the Moomins, and the subject of the excellent recent BBC4 documentary Moominland Tales: The Life of Tove Jannson, which comes thoroughly recommended. Old school, well-crafted platforming is very much the order of the day where Nifflas is concerned, and this is no exception – combining elements of the first two PC-only Knytt titles with bits from his previous Freeware hit Within A Deep Forest – to create his most expansive adventure yet, perfectly playable whether you have delved into his oeuvre previously or not.
Knytt Underground is an exploratory, Metroidvania-style platform affair, set in a distant future where humans are long gone and have been replaced by all manner of kooky fairies, monsters and animals who live in an intricate series of underground caves. The game is split into three distinct sections. In the first you take control of a tiny Elvin creature called Mi, who can run and jump and cling onto walls and platforms. The second sees you employ anthropomorphic ball Bob and his fairy pal Rob, with a final section giving you full control over all of the characters, allowing you to switch between them in real time. Essentially, the first two sections are there to give you a feel for how each character plays, before the final act which gathers everything you have learned together into one satisfying whole.
Whether you are bouncing a ball around or clinging onto platforms for dear life, there is plenty to do and the game represents a huge challenge. The two distinct play styles break things up nicely and the two different characters are wildly different. Mi provides more straightforward platforming thrills, whereas Bob is more difficult to control and requires careful consideration when angling his jumps and bounces so as to avoid certain death. There are thousands of rooms, and a number of puzzles and missions to solve based around the fairly cryptic “save the world”storyline. You meet the usual platforming clichés – laser beams, electricity, pitfalls – yet, handily, when you die you simply respawn on the same screen. Most of the time you are asked to retrieve objects in order to unlock the next area, but this mechanic works fine and it is fun seeking out and reaching new places – particularly given that you’re drip fed with new abilities and physics-based shenanigans along the way. Clouds of coloured smoke are strategically placed around the landscape, and once passed through will give you a temporary special ability – such as being able to travel a huge distance in a straight horizontal line, leap vertically or even fly. You will need to employ each and every one of these to conquer the absolutely enormous map.
Graphically the game is very pretty, with a mixture of monochrome Limbo-esque shadows in the foreground and bright, colourful backgrounds. These underground caves are far from dull and dreary, and feature an incredible array of flora and fauna that really do look rather beautiful. Sound is used sparingly but excellently – particularly the fine instrumental incidental music which used at key moments to terrific effect.
VERDICT: Knytt Underground is another entry in a seemingly endless succession of excellent indie platformers. It lacks the full atmospheric clout of a Limbo or the stellar rotation gimmick of a Fez, and may seem a little bit lifeless to some given the very cryptic plot and minimalistic nature of the gameplay. There are no bells and whistles (and please pardon the pun – those who have played the game will know what I mean) and although structurally it fits the lazy Metroidvania tag, in practise the gameplay has more in common with a classic 1980′s platformer like Jet Set Willy than it does with anything starring Samus or a Belmont. If you want a bit more meat on your platforming bones and love this style of game, then I would suggest you start with Cave Story; however, given the very reasonable price and cross platform PS3/Vita capabilities, you could certainly find worse ways to spend both your scrilla and a few hours of your time.