One of the great things about a stand-alone sequel is that you can release it everywhere and not worry about whether a player is familiar with the series. That's certainly the case with Knytt Underground, a game whose predecessors were unconnected indie cult hits on the PC that aren't as widely known due to their absence on the Steam platform. Almost a year after making its console debut on the PlayStation 3 and Vita via Sony's Cross-Buy program, Nifflas' game comes to the Wii U, a platform that's finally starting to see some indie titles. Like some of the other indie games on the system, Knytt Underground goes for a specific style and vibe in presentation and gameplay, and for the most part, it works.
Knytt Underground is set far in the future. A great war has made humans extinct, and all other sentient creatures live underground due to the toxicity of the surface. You play Mi Sprocket, a mute sprite with a love of adventure that worries her mother to no end. After seeking out some fairies to grant her wish, she gets involved in a freak phenomenon that gives her the ability to transform into a sentient bouncing ball. She is then sent on a quest to ring six bells to summon the gods and stop a machine that is set to bring about the events that ruined the world — again.
The story doesn't start off quite so seriously. The first instance of story is the creator falsely labeling Mi as an amnesiac who is trying to find her identity. The first half of the game is filled with fourth wall-breaking jokes that are aimed at standard adventure tropes, giving you the sense that the game is going to be full of laughs. The latter half of the game, however, goes for something more dour. There are still hints of humor scattered about, as long as you don't mind the foul language of one of your companions, but the game begins to deal with serious topics like conspiracies, religion, sexism, and violence. It isn't preachy, and it doesn't seem to advocate one thing over the other, but the topics are there, and analytical people could derive something from them.
The gameplay follows a similar trajectory. The first two chapters act more like tutorials but are done in a way that don't explicitly feel like tutorials. The first chapter has you controlling Mi, and it's here that you discover how versatile she can be. Her running speed is rather fast, as is her climbing speed. Her jumping isn't variable in terms of height or distance, but the skills let her traverse just about any obstacle. Along the way, she can also obtain glowing orbs that give her one-time boosts, with the caveat that the boosts must be used in a timely manner or the power goes away. Depending on the color of the orb, Mi can travel in a straight line horizontally or vertically until she hits an obstacle, get a rocket-assisted jump, or turn into a controllable ball of energy that lasts for a short amount of time or until an object is hit. She can also obtain an orb that lets her destroy the enemy in one shot.
That last bit is important because it's the only way she can destroy enemies. Though enemy encounters aren't constant, you need to avoid robot drones that electrify themselves or water, or shoot lasers. They are extra environmental hazards, similar to how the lava and green slime act as instant death mechanisms. Lives are infinite, so death isn't a big annoyance.
The second chapter focuses on the sentient ball, who is dubbed "Bob" by a companion. Unlike Mi, he can't use the power orbs in the game, though he can collect them. He can't climb walls, and his only means of motion is bouncing, which can't be used as an attack. What he can do is change his bouncing speed, which determines whether he bounces higher or lower. He can also create an electric tether to latch on to specific drones and swing to other land masses.
The first two chapters feel like prologue once you reach the final chapter and realize that everything has changed in scope. The world is much larger, and while you can revisit areas from the first two chapters, the number of new things you'll see easily outnumbers familiar screens. There are more miniquests to engage, not all of them mandatory, and more characters to talk to. They flesh out with the world with their beliefs or explanations of the game world. Most importantly, the bells needed to stop the impending catastrophe can be tackled in any order — with the exception of the last one — so the journey is quite open, unlike the more linear paths of the first two chapters.
The only new ability gained in the final chapter is the opportunity to change between Mi and Bob at will, and the game world takes advantage of this. While you can go through a number of screens playing as one character, some of the trickier pieces require using Bob's ability to bounce off slanted surfaces for long-distance jumps and then switching to Mi to grab the wall and proceed. Other sections have you using all of those abilities in conjunction with the orbs to pass seemingly impossible obstacles. Platforming junkies can get their fix here, since figuring out the solutions is immediately satisfying. Coupled with the amount of secrets peppered in this chapter, Knytt Underground transforms from a short jaunt to an experience that lasts about as long as some AAA games.
Of course, the final chapter, comprising the bulk of the game, uncovers things that might turn off players who aren't fans of certain mechanics. To keep the player motivated, the game relies on fetch quests in lieu of combat. All of the paths leading to the bells have doors and doorkeepers that require a fee before they open the passageways. You can take a chance on trying to find the shortcuts via a void in the level, but considering the limited amount of time you have in the void and how difficult it is to navigate, most players will choose to backtrack through screens to find the items required for passage. While it does hearken back to games like Metroid, the only challenge here is that you sometimes have to cross difficult platforming sections multiple times. Should you find a section you absolutely hate, the backtracking mechanic will make you loathe it even more.
The other element that can increase this frustration is the size of the world. There are a number of screens that only exist to build atmosphere and present no obstacles at all. They do their job well the first time you see the areas, but when backtracking, these screens can sometimes make the world feel too large. Other games also have this issue, but combat helps disguise that a bit. Here, if the world were reduced in size but everything else remained the same, the game would've been a much tighter experience.
Unlike most titles that arrive to the Wii U later than other platforms, Knytt Underground strives to take advantage of the time delay and features of the console. Aside from off-TV play, the screen on the GamePad is used to constantly display a map of the world, a much more useful option compared to the screen's other function of displaying collected objects. Even though switching between map and gameplay on other platforms only requires a button press, it is convenient and a good use of the system's built-in screen. As far as content is concerned, this iteration comes with the Infinity Hype update from the PC build. While it does nothing to change the main quest, it adds a significant number of secrets to the game in addition to the demo originally used to sell the game on PC. It's a significant gesture that Wii U fans will remember at a time when others are removing content from the platform.
Like the overall design, the sound is a bit beguiling. When the game starts, music is rarely heard. There are small snippets of music that provide a somewhat enchanting theme, but you're mostly greeted with the sound of Mi's rapid footsteps or the constant bounces of the ball. By the time the game properly starts, you get an eclectic mix of the same whimsical tunes — but with more pieces of dread. It complements the tonal shifts of the game and makes up for the lack of other notable effects in a game that contains no voice work whatsoever.
As far as the graphics go, it takes a minimalist approach but remains beautiful. Taking a page from the developer's other game, NightSky, every level is black, and the only color comes from the backdrop. Those backdrops are alive with a wide range of color and detail, from the beautiful flora and fauna growing in the caves to the network of gears powering up the machinery. There's movement in these backdrops, some overt and some with subtle hints of motion, but they bring each scene to life. Though all of the characters are rather small, they're still visible enough to not get lost in everything happening on-screen. This remains true when you use the GamePad screen for off-TV play. The animations look rather abrupt, but at the given scale, it seems forgivable. What could throw you off are the models, which are magnified during dialogue. Some might take issue with the overly simple style or the resemblance to papercraft .
Knytt Underground is for gamers who value exploration over combat. It is for those who enjoy small bouts of platforming and platforming puzzles that don't involve too many switches. It isn't for those who enjoy profound messages or meaning in their games. Unless you need to take out your aggression on digital foes while conquering seemingly impossible platforming obstacles, I'd recommend Knytt Underground.
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