An underground hit.
Nicklas Nygren, more famously known as Nifflas, might be one of the newer names to show up console world in recent years, but for us PC veterans, he’s pretty much old hat. Say his name and the trademarks of his games instantly come to mind: unique ideas, simple art and a subtle tone of melancholy bubbling just beneath the surface. His Knytt games in particular generated considerable interest in the indie scene with their relaxed gameplay and wonderful simplicity. Fortunately, he was able to keep the Knytt name in good standing with Knytt Underground, which was by far his most ambitious offering and the thrusting of the brand into the commercial realm.
Knytt Underground casts players as a mute sprite named Mi Sprocket. As the titular character, you must navigate a vast, sprawling, subterranean landscape in order to ring the so-called Bells of Fate, which, if left unchecked, will bring about a cataclysm of decidedly apocalyptic proportions. And we all know how cataclysms can ruin anybody’s day. Scattered around the world are interactive NPCs who will talk to the player and offer advice or simply bombard you with nonsensical ramblings. They frequently break the fourth wall, and even Nifflas himself makes an appearance: he offers a prophetic tidbit about a journey being more important than the story (a bit more on that later).
Thrill me, chill me, fulfill me, creature of the Knytt
The game is a concrete Metroidvania affair, with tons of forks in the players path, non-linear play, and plenty (and I mean plenty) of backtracking. The game doesn’t scroll, but is instead made up of a series of one-screen rooms, much like the original Zelda game for the NES. Each room will present a series of platforming requirements, puzzles, multiple forks to other rooms, or will merely function as a flat surface that connects one game room to another. There’s well over a thousand of these rooms, so be prepared for a rather and drawn-out haul. Exploring is a fun-yet-relaxing endeavor, mainly because the game’s backgrounds and music have an almost dream-like quality that nullify any frustration or annoyance. Unfortunately, the excellent design is broken by occasional long stretches of empty rooms where nothing happens, leading to boredom and a mild feeling of stagnation.
Aiding the player in exploration is a small but immeasurably-useful skill set. For example, Mi Sprocket can briefly turn into a flying sphere of light in order to traverse otherwise unreachable platforms. As a nod to one of Nifflas’ previous games, Within A Deep Forest, there are sections where Mi Sprocket transforms into a ball and has to perform accurately-timed bounces to avoid enemies and overcome obstacles. Speaking of enemies, they are a relatively rare-yet-omnipresent occurrence; players have to dodge them rather than defeat them, and it slows down the game somewhat when you have to backtrack through a series of hostile rooms and employ the same move set over and over. Fortunately, the enemy count is rather small, so its not too detracting. Much of challenge lies in navigating the landscape, rather than dealing with hostiles.
A Knytt in Shining Armor
The controls are perfectly responsive and within minutes you’ll be climbing walls like a crazed, neurotic gecko on Redbull and twenty cups of espresso. As for the presentation, the graphic style is a mix of photo-realistic backgrounds juxtaposed with mspaint-quality character sprites, along with a silhouetted surface reminiscent of Limbo. While I do most certainly love the backgrounds, this combination of styles seems incoherent and gives the game an odd, almost amateurish look, reminiscent of a series of undeveloped paintings. Fortunately, the simplistic ambient music more than makes up for any graphical slights, and works remarkably well in setting the game’s introspective tone.
For all the game’s atmosphere, it ultimately doesn’t amount to much. Players are kept keenly interested in seeing the story’s resolution, but it comes as a massive disappointment, echoing Nifflas’ earlier sentiments about journeys and endings. Is a story important in a game? Not necessarily, but it’s a poor design choice to falsely build up a player’s expectations. Play Knytt Underground without expecting a memorable story and you’ll be fine.
Knytt Underground is a flawed-yet-unique platforming experience that relies more on a calm atmosphere rather than frantic, twitchy run-and-gun gameplay. If you’ve had your fill of gimmicky platformers, or you’re up for another Metroidvania-style challenge, or are a long-time of the Knytt series in general, this game is well worth a look. The style and relaxed tone might not appeal to everybody, but I loved it and would eagerly recommend it to anyone with the patience to see it through to its conclusion. Explore this corner of Steam’s vast library in order to acquire a copy of your very own.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Ripstone ; Developer: Nifflas’ Games ; Players: single-player ; Released: 25th of October, 2013.
Full disclosure: this review is based on a retail copy of Knytt Underground purchased by the reviewer.