I usually do not play indie games all that often. I don’t have anything against them particularly, but I rarely find them worth playing for more than a few minutes, let alone sinking hours of my time into them. I’ve made exceptions, here and there – Fez, Rouge Legacy and This War of Mine to name a few, and Knytt Underground joins their ranks.
Knytt Underground is a 2D open world platforming game, and the fourth game in the Knytt series (though it is the second full game) It follows a mute sprite (aka Human) called Mi, who is destined to ring 6 bells to prevent the end of the world. Tagging along with her are two fairies called Dora and Cillia – the former a cheerful sun fairy, the latter a bitter and sarcastic moon fairy. Mi can also turn into a ball named Bob after an accident combined the two (not that this is ever mentioned in game).
The game’s story is split into three chapters and an interval, although there are some bonus stories scattered around. The above synopsis is actually only the story of the third, longest chapter, whilst the first two are introductions to the characters and the games controls and platforming challenges. In all honesty, the first two chapters aren’t particularly relevant beyond the tutorial, as they do very little to actually build the world or characters beyond their basic personalities.
The gameplay is a twist on basic platforming. You can run and jump, as expected, but you can also climb objects and use your height and surroundings to gain more height, or clear more distance, by transforming into a ball. You can also get a variety of temporary upgrades that will boost jumping or help against enemies, though these can only be used once. This all makes for a surprisingly interesting puzzle-platformer as you spend time working out the correct path to get into new areas, or find new ways of getting into older ones.
These mechanics are also combined with some basic enemies, block puzzles and death traps to create gradually harder puzzles, which usually hide rewards and items necessary to enter new areas. Since Mi can only survive one hit, you have to carefully make your way through these rooms and plan your strategy accordingly, especially if a fall will result in a lot of backtracking.
Thankfully, the game is often rather lenient on checkpoints, often restarting you in the last safe place you were standing, and usually on the same screen where you died. This isn’t always a bonus, as it also resets enemies and puzzles, so one false move can lead to having to redo a difficult puzzle, causing some frustration.
There are also bonus areas where this check point system is removed, which are incredibly frustrating as you will fail every time you enter a new room, only to be thrown back to the beginning of the gauntlet. These rooms test not only your platforming skills, but also your patience.
For the most part, though, the game is never particularly challenging if you’re just playing through the main story. It is only whilst hunting the hidden items and paths that the game becomes difficult, and it’s very possible that you’ll never see most of those. In fact, I routinely walked past a great many hidden areas and items during my play through, and resorted to using a guide to working out what to do for a lot of the bonus areas.
A big problem with Knytt is that it is a game where you will struggle to find a lot of the content unless you’re looking for it and have help. This is especially true of the games trophies, which are all very cryptic at best, with a great many hidden from view. Almost all of the games bonus areas require more exploration and time to find than most people would be willing to give, or even have, and some are downright diabolical in nature (although it will never be as aggravating as Fez was).
The games graphics are a mixed bag. The environments of the game are often very minimalist but incredibly beautiful, with a lot of the art assets being actual real-world objects combined with lighting effects or photo manipulation. The results are incredibly pleasing to the eye. The character art, on the other hand, is very lacklustre. All the character have unnaturally large, dead eyes, and all the graphics are poorly drawn. I understand this is an indie game, but the art looks atrocious at times.
The games sound and music, on the other hand, more than make up for it. With the exception of the repetitive footsteps, the games sound and music is almost on par with that of major studio releases, and even better than some major titles (such as Assassin’s Creed). The lack of any voice acting, whilst mostly a practical choice (actors are expensive) lends to the games SNES era charm, and actually helps the game.
Speaking of which, the games character writing is actually incredibly high. I had very little faith in the writers ability after the first two chapters (where dialogue is serviceable), but the quality in the third chapter took me by surprise. The main characters are actually quite well layered and likable, with Mi coming up slightly short in this regard (due to her inability to talk). Whilst a lot of the dialogue is hidden behind certain prerequisites, it is well worth hunting out a lot of it, as the game touches upon matters of religion, race, sexuality and equality, to mention a few. There are moments where the dialogue doesn’t quite match the overall tone (seeing exceptionally cartoony characters harshly swear is a little jarring), but the overall quality is very high. There are even moments where the game flat out addresses the games issues (such as the story and some character moments), and even mocks tropes that are overused in the industry.
There is one last thing I would like to address and that is the games occasionally odd mechanics. Whilst the platforming works well enough most of the time, there were plenty of times where the controls seemed either unresponsive, over-responsive or flat out confused. Trying to jump from one wall to another, for example, does not require the jump button. Instead you push diagonally in the direction you want to go (so up/ right or up/left). Except, occasionally, just pushing left or right will make you jump. Over times it’ll make you fall. And the down button just makes you drop, unless you press down on the d-pad where you drop slightly rather than just let go. It’s all a little odd and inconsistent.
There were also several occasions where the games collision detection glitches. There were several moments where I would entire a tunnel, only to find that I was caught in the ceiling or floor, and could not continue unless I progressed as the ball in a tunnel designed for Mi to walk through. There were times where I would land on a slope and be unable to move up the slope, only down, or I just got stuck and couldn’t move at all. This was fine in general exploration, but in sections where precision platforming is required and the game glitches preventing that precision, and a death sends you back through an insanely hard obstacle course, then this becomes a large problem.
But, overall, I actually really enjoyed Knytt. It was a charming and interesting game, and the platforming was incredibly fun, and there was a real sense of achievement when I succeeded at something. The games writing and sense of humour made it a truly charming experience. However, I would say that, after seeing everything in the game, I would not go back.