Wednesday, 16 January 2013

REVIEW - Knytt Underground (PC / PS3)

Stepping into the Darkness

In 2007 an indie game called Knytt Stories was released, itself a follow up to the original Knytt, released the previous year. Both were lovely 2D platform games with the emphasis on exploration. Indeed, there were no enemies to kill, or game over screens. You were tasked with exploring the large open world, finding special abilities to reach new areas in the classic Metroidvania style. Knytt Stories was the more polished game, and soon build up a large fan base which led to a plethora of user made levels. The core Knytt Stories levels, made by the game's developer, Nicklas 'Nifflas' Nygren, involved a small girl named Juri, searching for a machine that is draining the colour from the world she inhabits. Later user levels had their own storylines and were often very unique, almost feeling like completely different games. Nygren has released other 2D platformers, also heavily based around exploration. Within a Deep Forest had you playing as a bouncing ball, and NightSky was a physics based puzzle platformer. Saira was another Metroidvania, this time set on a distant planet, with some new abilities thrown in such as being able to briefly transform into a ball of light that could be controlled to reach previously inaccessible areas. All these games were enjoyable, and oozing atmosphere, so it was with a sense of excitement that I came to play the new Knytt game, Knytt Underground.

Whereas the previous Knytt games told the story in static screens at the start, this new entry is more focused on in-game story telling. You meet many characters along the way who are conversed with in order to tell the narrative. This is shown in text next to a cartoony avatar of the speaking character. Unfortunately I found the characters' appearances quite childish and ill suited to the atmospheric world the game resides in. Nygren himself appears several times as an in-game character, which I'm sure seemed like an amusing idea on paper, but in reality it makes you less able to become immersed in the world presented to you. After many of these conversations with the fairy folk of Knytt Underground, you begin to wish for the silent protagonist of the earlier games.

The game has an incredible atmosphere right from the start, the title screen is, itself, a kind of level. You move your character around the screen, finding the correct paths for the three available chapters, or for other things such as achievements or the game's credits. Once starting properly you realise the game is a lot darker than its predecessors. The entire game is black, much like that of Limbo, with only the backgrounds offering any colour. Many of the backdrops are photo realistic images taken by Negren himself. These range from mountains to close up shots of fungi. They fit the mood of the game perfectly and give it a real organic feeling. The problem is that after a while the constant gloominess of your surroundings starts to become monotonous. Knytt Stories, as well as other Nifflas games, usually have bright, colourful levels featuring a wide variety of backdrops, from traditional Japanese villages with cherry blossom trees and tiny villages in the sky, to sunsets and lush forests. Here everything is black, black, and more black. The organic backdrops slightly resemble desktop wallpapers too. This repetitive visual style is Knytt Underground's main failing. It becomes a drag to play as everywhere looks so similar you lose interest in exploring the world, something of vital importance to a game based so heavily on this aspect of gameplay.

Musically the game cannot be faulted, it is excellent. The music and sound design is of an extremely high standard. Down-tempo electronic tracks sit comfortably alongside trip-hop style tracks and traditional Eastern offerings. All are wonderful pieces in their own right, but here give the game a vast portion of its atmosphere. The sounds of dripping water and rushing wind are crystal clear and make the world seem alive.

Gameplay wise Knytt Underground plays like a mixture of all of Nifflas's previous games. There is the same 2D platform exploration you will be used to from Knytt and Knytt Stories, only this time instead of earning new abilities as you progress you find glowing orbs that give you a one-use power. Upon collecting one you have a short amount of time to use it. There are different coloured orbs, each of which has a different use. Yellow fires you straight upwards for as long as you hold down the button, while blue fires you straight ahead. There is also one which is taken straight from Saira which gives you control over the ball of light you become, manoeuvring around bends to reach hard to access areas. Chapter 2 of the game stars you as the ball last seen in Within A Deep Forest, and comes with all the irritating factors that made that game my least enjoyable Nifflas game. You bounce around the stage trying to fit down small gaps and avoid the statue-like 'enemies' that kill you on impact. Controlling the ball is quite fiddly and just getting through a small opening can prove a chore. Luckily this chapter, like the first, is fairly short and it won't be long before you are on the third and final chapter. This one is much larger than the first two and allows you the ability to switch between the female character and the ball. It has some very tricky screens to navigate and will require the use of the coloured orb abilities in quick succession.

Knytt Stories also features side quests, obtained by talking to certain NPCs you see on your travels. These are fairly pointless in nature and offer nothing to the story or indeed gameplay. Indeed, most of the objectives in the game are basically fetch quests, getting from A to B to retrieve an object. As the story then removes the item from you (usually as some form of payment for passageway) it makes obtaining them an unsatisfying task. I found the story actually got in the way of the platforming, and spoilt the atmosphere the game has. The silly fairy characters are quite annoying, both visually and in the pointless dialogue they spout upon meeting them. The game would have been much better with less of this banter and more rewards for exploration.

The game throws in some minor puzzles involving switches and doors, but they are quite basic and underused. The majority of the game just involves running from A to B, with the orbs used to reach platforms inaccessible by mere wall-climbing. As the orbs are always right next to where you need to use them it removes any challenge from this area of gameplay.

Strangely, in between the second and third chapter there is an 'interlude'. This consists of a short level set in a sun soaked sky, tasking you with merely reaching the end by means of some skillful platforming navigation and use of many of the coloured orbs. This was actually my favourite part of the whole game and made me wish that Knytt Underground had stuck more closely to Knytt Stories, or at least just made the visual side of things more varied and colourful. I am the first person to argue that graphics don't make a game, gameplay does, but in this case the constant miserable gloominess of everything really wears you down and leaves you bored by the experience.

In a market filled with 2D platformers, games need to stand out and sadly Knytt Underground fails to do so. It is also a commercial product selling at a, not wallet busting but hardly small change, price of £10. When compared to the similarly priced Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams, or the wonderful Thomas Was Alone (selling at half that), Knytt Underground feels decidedly light on content, innovation, and most importantly, fun. I suggest skipping this and sticking to the wonderful Knytt Stories, downloading some of the hundreds of excellent user made stories when you finish the core game. It is a more pleasing gameplay experience and is completely free.

The Good

  • Atmospheric and organic visual style
  • Excellent music and sound design
  • Is enjoyable to play for a while

The Bad

  • Gloomy, and dark visuals become monotonous
  • Not particularity challenging
  • Orbs and puzzle elements are underdeveloped
  • Becomes boring after extended play

Developer : Nifflas
System Reviewed : PC
Also available on : Mac, PSN, PS Vita
Price : £9.99