Review: Knytt Underground

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If you’ve never played a Knytt game before, stop reading right now, head over here, and play Knytt and/or Knytt Stories for free. These games, created by a lone developer called Nifflas (also of NightSky and Saira fame), are some of the finest exploration-based platformers I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. Knytt Underground is the most recent in the series, and while it might be the most ambitious, it makes some unexpected departures from the previous games.

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You know you’re in for something special when the game loads straight to a tutorial that turns out to be the main menu. There are three chapters in Knytt Underground, though the first two are essentially introductions to the massive third. You play both as Mi Sprocket, a mute little sprite, and Bob, a sentient bouncing ball from another early Nifflas game, Within a Deep Forest. Together they embark on a grand journey through the underground of a post-apocalyptic Earth far more mysterious and colorful than anything you’ve seen in Fallout. The surfaces you traverse are all shown in silhouette but the backgrounds are vibrant, animated collages of Photoshopped worlds. Every alien landscape you can imagine is represented here, with enormous gardens, crystal caves, blasted deserts, crumbling temples, ominous graveyards, and sinister machinery among them.

While you have a massive, massive map to explore, don’t confuse this with a metroidvania. Mi and Bob never gain new abilities to navigate with, though their own basic skills provide a wealth of options. Mi can climb walls and Bob can bounce, and switching freely between the two allow you to pull of some surprising maneuvers. There are also colored seeds that grant Mi a one-time power like flying in a straight line, and robots that Bob can tether to. Creative use of these resources can indeed get you anywhere you need to go, no matter how impossible the passage seems. The result is almost like a puzzle game, where you’ll find rooms that look like they need special powers to traverse, but eventually you’ll have that eureka moment and puzzle it out yourself.

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You’ll have tons of items to find as well, and the denizens of the underground give quests that’ll reward you with what you need or point you in the right direction. These items are used to pass the gates barring your ultimate objective, but there’s some welcome flexibility to the collecting. One gate might require 5 items out of a possible set of 8, and if you find some of the game’s well-hidden coins you can substitute them as well. This means you’ll never get stuck on a particular puzzle for a single item, and exploration will always reward you with something you can use.

Previous Knytt games had stark pixel graphics and a distinct sense of isolation to them. Nifflas often populates his strange and alien worlds with little harmless critters but not sentient creatures, usually leaving you alone to explore the vast spaces in solitude. Knytt Underground is a sharp departure here, adding not only loads of characters to talk and deal with, but also giving them incredibly unexpected personalities. Everyone speaks with modern sensibilities, almost like irreverent sitcom characters. They’ll call out their own foibles and contrivances, and denigrate a lot of your quests as pointless busywork. One of your two pixie companions is also as foul-mouthed as you can imagine, frequently telling people to go fuck themselves and eat glass and such. It’s such a weird departure in tone from the previous games, even moreso in how their hideous, blobby portraits clash with the clean lines of the rest of the game.

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The NPCs are the only major knock against an otherwise atmospheric experience, and to be fair, seeing their character arcs through redeems the worst offenders. Even on top of the 10+ hours of exploration the game offers, there are a host of secrets to find. Some are tied up in the game’s unique and challenging fast travel system which I won’t spoil, but be aware there’s no easy teleporting around the enormous map until you master it. Just like the rest of the game, though, it’s worth putting the time into to experience. Knytt Underground is a marvelous journey from start to finish, one that’s easy to immerse in and immensely rewarding to play.

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