Why? Why do so many absolutely fantastic indie titles go largely unnoticed by the gaming community? Even when available on multiple platforms it seems the curse of low budget titles is just too powerful. Metroidvania puzzle-platformer Knytt Underground, brainchild of Swedish developer Nicklas Nygren and his development studio Nifflas’ Games, is one of these hidden masterpieces. Here’s hoping we can do something about that.
Knytt Underground takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where the surface has been made toxic and all the humans have disappeared. Left are little beings called Sprites who have dug elaborate tunnels and great halls underground. You play as Mi, a mute Sprite with a talent for climbing. Mi has been chosen by the religious Myriadists to ring the six bells of fate, because if she doesn’t the world will end…or so were told.
The world of Knytt Underground is breathtaking. While the cavern walls themselves are pitch black, the backgrounds come to life with vibrant colors and interesting, albeit silly at times, motifs. The sound design is equally great, with a plethora of memorable and calming melodies playing over the ambient sound of the ocean shifting, machines churning, or lava flowing. Combined it creates a serene experience that makes exploring the entirety of the underground network a worthy game in itself.
The game takes place over three chapters, the first two are basically tutorial levels. Once you reach the third chapter the game opens up and becomes a huge open world, or at least as open as a 2D platformer can be. At this point you’ll also have unlocked the ability to morph Mi into a bouncing ball, something that while a bit silly, provides for some of the best platforming gameplay we’ve seen in a long time, supported by excellent controls and perfectly weighted physics.
The dynamic of switching forms mid air to propel Mi past great chasms and deadly obstacles is supported by a very interesting power-up system. Often when out exploring, you’ll come across glowing flowers of different colors. These flowers all have various traits, some allowing you to fly around for a short amount of time, while others will do things like push you forward in a set direction, turn you invisible, or fire a bolt of energy. There are also floating robots which can give you a boost using a bungee-like attractor beam, and color-coded time-delayed platforms which appear or disappear by the press of a button, some requiring expert timing and agility. All this combined makes for an incredibly varied and rewarding experience.
Given that Knytt Underground is an open world platformer, not every area you visit is going to offer up new challenges, largely because the layout has to accommodate for complex puzzles that take up multiple screens. Despite this, the game features more heavy platforming segments then we can count, some of considerable difficulty. None of the puzzles are insurmountable at any point in the game, but more than once we were stumped and had to return later after having discovered the right technique in some other, slightly less challenging puzzle. Even more rewarding was the moment when we finally started thinking the way the game wanted us to, and flew through the challenges with grace and technique we didn’t know we had.
Knytt Underground’s strongest feature is its storytelling. Since Mi is a mute, she eventually gets two fairy companions who follow her around and do all the talking for her. Dora is the believer of the two and approaches most things with merriment and wonder. While Cilia is more of a skeptic and delights in sarcasm and crude conversation. These personality traits become important, because every so often you’ll encounter various creatures that will want to speak with you. In these cases you’re given the opportunity to chose which of the two fairies will speak for you, which can sometimes result in dramatically different outcomes. No matter which fairy you choose, they usually have something clever or funny to say with more than a few subtle and not so subtle references to literature, game design, religion, technology and popular culture.
The different creatures you meet will usually want a favor in return for some item you desperately need to pay the toll of various locked doors around the world. These quests are all optional, and on more than one occasion you’ll be presented with the opportunity to do something purely out of the goodness of your heart (in other words no reward), OR to screw someone over and take something rightfully theirs. Inversely, quest givers can do the same thing to you. This has proven to be a great feature, as for every new person you meet you’ll have to determine whether trusting them is a good idea.
While the plot of the game is centered around the encroaching doomsday and the need to prevent it, the real story in Knytt Underground is one where religion and superstition is pitted against logic, science and critical thinking. While in our playthrough it eventually became very clear which side was in the right, we’re not sure if that was because of the choices we made or because of personal bias–something that just makes us love the game even more. However, the game also tackles themes of guilt, violence, infidelity, betrayal, sexuality, altruism and more. If that wasn’t enough, the world and backstory of the game is also very enthralling, and at times deliciously tongue-in-cheek. We can’t do much but applaud Nifflas’ Games for taking on such important and mature subjects in what would otherwise be a simple, albeit great puzzle-platformer.
Of course, few games are perfect, and Knytt Underground is no exception. While we like the considerable length of the game, the pacing is slightly off, as some areas feel a bit stretched and empty. Also, while the first two chapters do a good job of teaching you the mechanics of the game, they criminally misrepresent the quality and depth of the full experience, something that might dissuade first-time players from continuing. Lastly, while the story is second to none, the writing itself does at times fall a bit short. It’s not bad by any stretch, but the dialogue can feel a little forced.
In summation don’t let our nit-picking fool you, Knytt Underground is a fantastic game. In fact it’s so great that we’re awarding it 2013’s first Elders Choice Award for its excellent platforming gameplay, intriguing world and daring storytelling. Right now it’s available for PS3 and PS Vita, along with several digital PC retailers. It’s also on Steam Greenlight, where we urge you to visit and show your support. No doubt there are things we didn’t get to talk about in this review, but trust us when we say it’s all good. Very rarely does a game like Knytt Underground come along and surprise and impress us this much. Worth buying.
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- Name: Knytt Underground
- Reviewed on: PC
- Available on: PC, PS3, PS Vita, Mac, Linux
- Developed by: Nifflas’ Games
- Release Date: December 22nd 2012
- Price: $12.99
- Elder-Geek Score: 5 out of 5 / Worth Buying
- Elder’s Choice Award Winner