She who wears many hats
This is a really interesting time for games. It was a few years ago that it seemed like every game developer was hopping on this hot new Kickstarter thing, from the DoubleFine project that would eventually become Broken Age to the less favorably-fated Mighty No. 9. On came A Hat in Time. This game with plenty of development chronicled before its Kickstarter campaign, but got the boost of its life there and then. Now the game is out at last, and thankfully, it’s everything the donors had hoped for. It’s no secret whatsoever that A Hat in Time draws huge inspiration from the likes of Banjo-Kazooie and Psychonauts. The result is a world-by-world adventure that mixes platforming, imaginative design, and wickedly funny writing into quite the handsome cap of a package.
Losing a little time
A Hat in Time is simple at its outset. You play as a young girl, affectionately referred to as Hat Kid. Hat Kid is making a long journey back home to Earth, aboard an oblong spaceship powered by magical hourglasses. As is often the case with games like these, don’t try and suss out any logic to it. Just go with the flow. With a humorous interception from a nearby planet (literally a mafia goon floating up into space and knocking a bit too hard on your window), the vault of hourglasses needed to get Hat Kid home are knocked out of containment and scattered to the world below. With the (maybe) help of whomever she can befriend along the way, it’s up to Hat Kid to get her time-warping fuel back so she can make her way home.
The different story chapters and their resulting scenarios are the main event in A Hat in Time. From the first time Hat Kid sets adorable foot in Mafia Town to the snowy fingers of Alpine Skyline and beyond, each of A Hat in Time’s worlds is unique and full of charm. When a game really succeeds at consistent variety, it makes you crave more of it constantly. My all-time favorite 3D platformers are the Super Mario Galaxy games, and largely because of the constant hunger those games instilled in me to always want to see the next planet. See the next spark of inspiration. That same craving comes up in A Hat in Time, and whether it’s the next level or the next entire chapter in Hat Kid’s great adventure, it’s always surprising and joyful.
Spinning a yarn
Speaking of strengths, A Hat in Time’s control scheme isn’t insanely difficult, nor should it be. Hat Kid can jump, double-jump, and hit stuff with her umbrella. A plethora of different yarn types are scattered across the world, with a couple hidden in each level. As you go and collect, you’ll be able to stitch Hat Kid together some new caps, with new abilities to boot. Need an extra bit of scamper in your step? There’s a hat for that. Need to see the unseen? Yeah, we can help you there, too.
The hat skills are all varied enough to find their place, although a couple are a bit unwieldy. In particular, there’s a witch’s hat that bestows upon its wearer the ability to hurl magical grenades. The problem is that there’s very little solid sense of aim to the things. You have to hold the image in your mind of where the thing’s going to fly. Just an extra thing to keep in mind.
The one other chink in the gameplay’s armor is the camera. Like in a lot of games of its kind, A Hat in Time is a 3D platformer that plays a risky game. It tries to figure out how to make the player’s point of view work in tandem smoothly with what the environment has in store. The game often does this well, but there were absolutely points where I found the camera knocking into a wall in disagreement with the way I was trying to look at the world. It seems like, for all the development time poured into the game, this is one small corner of the experience where a bit more attention could have been warranted.
Simple gameplay is accentuated by truly impressive variety in terms of objective-to-objective gameplay. Throughout my entire time with A Hat in Time, only rarely did I look at a level and go “oh, it’s another one of these.” That’s because, whether you’re fighting off baddies or stealthily making your way through an environment, everything is fresh and laced with humor. Every single level in this game, be it exploring a haunted mansion or playing a part in a murder mystery on board a train piloted by birds, is like it’s own little vignette. You know what to expect without actually knowing what to expect. One open world is a segment of Mafia Town’s chiseled streets, another involves a press tour where you have get a bunch of penguins to be your fans.
This game is weird.
Humor, she wrote
A Hat in Time is at its best when it’s letting you laugh and explore at the same time. It doesn’t really try to innovate in terms of gameplay, but throwing a bunch of scenarios at the player and saying “get on with it, then” is actually a wonderfully successful tactic. It’s ironic that the game’s worlds are called chapters, because each one is its own book.
The game’s cast of characters is huge as well. Magical foxes, competing hollywood moguls, a goofy ghost with a contract to sign; this thing’s got ’em all. And they’re all fully voiced, which is great…for the ones who have good voice actors. It’s honestly not consistent enough to affect a ton, but there’s some voice work in A Hat in Time that feels like the actors only got one take to really figure out how they wanted to deliver their lines.
The art style, oh man the art style. Visual design is another place where this thing shines. It never quite hits the level of smooth, cell-shaded polish of HD remasters of Wind Waker or Okami. But A Hat in Time is one of the most vibrant jumbles of hues I’ve played this year.
To use another Nintendo comparison, it reminds me a lot of how the big N approaches spinoff games like Mario Kart. To them, everyone from Luigi to Donkey Kong is all part of a big ensemble cast, and so the sets for their crossovers are huge jumbles of different ideas. That’s what A Hat in Time is like. It actually and truly does capture some of that Nintendo magic. Not a lot of games can say that. There are more worlds and features coming post-launch, too, as well as a full co-op mode, meaning no end in sight for those who want more.
Man, what a strange month. A Hat in Time isn’t the only hat-based 3D platformer to come out this month. But it’s certainly something to hold players over while they wait for Super Mario Odyssey. It’s more than that, though. In fact, it’s every bit as worth players’ time. A Hat in Time doesn’t try to innovate mechanically, but it does through the places its adventure takes players. Sometimes, that’s enough. Here, it’s more than enough. If you were one of those a bit disappointed by Yooka-Laylee earlier this year, look no further. If you want another homage to the classics on which a lot of us grew up, A Hat in Time is one adventure in space and time that shouldn’t be passed up.
Final verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Playstation 4, Xbox One; Publisher: Humble Bundle ; Developer: Gears for Breakfast ; Players: 1 ; Released: October 5th, 2017
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.