If I were to describe Knytt Underground in one word, it would be \”contradictory.\” In some ways, it’s everything I could hope for in a metroidvania-style game: it’s beautiful, intuitive, clever, and most importantly, fun. For large portions of the game, you are pulled into an almost dreamlike state, exploring the massive world and marveling at the eerie ambiance. It’s then that the game truly shines. But then, it turns around to have horribly unfitting dialogue and characters that pull you out of the experience that the developers work so hard to involve you in while the game simultaneously grows more and more tedious.
Perhaps I should start at the beginning. The game is technically split up into three chapters, each accessible from the menu; however, the first two serve only to introduce you to the gameplay mechanics, world, and story. Though they offer up a fair amount of time and satisfaction to complete, in reality, they are just the prologue to the meat of the game.
The core gameplay is deceptively simple. You can transform into two different forms throughout the game. The first is the main form, a sprite, who can run, jump, and climb on any straight surface. Occasionally, you can use the power of different-colored orbs, which grant you special powers for an extremely short amount of time. The second form is a ball, which can bounce inordinately high. You can switch between the two at any time, even in mid-jump. It works remarkably well; mere seconds into the game and you have a firm grasp on how everything works and how you can use these abilities for the entire rest of the experience.
This leads to some very clever platforming challenges. Rooms with actual thought put into them are few and far between, but when a room comes along that is designed to force the player to utilize their abilities in new ways, it is remarkably fun and these are easily some of the best parts of the game. Generally, the game takes a form of zen-like exploration; it is a very calming, enjoyable experience, but it ultimately doesn\’t give much in the way of satisfying gameplay.
Exploration is fortunately extremely intuitive. Even I, someone who has never been terribly skilled at finding where to go in games, was able to beat the game with little problem. Death isn\’t an issue; if you hit a hazard of some sort, you are simply put right at the start of the room immediately before the threat at hand, meaning you can try over and over again. That’s fantastic, because it keeps exploration from ever getting frustrating. You can keep trucking on with no fear of having to redo anything.
It allows you to explore to your heart’s content, which is important because the world truly is huge. This ends up being both a strength and a curse at the same time. While at first fun to explore, the mind-blowingly huge world eventually becomes insanely repetitive. You visit a new room, jump around until you find the exit, repeat until you find a dead end, revisit a previously explored room with a branching path to reveal somewhere you have\’t visited, and see if you can access the path or, if need be, find another route.
It simply gets monotonous — even the well-designed rooms that involve actual skills and thought get frustrating when backtracking through them for the third time. The game does its best to introduce new concepts, but with no new skills being learned, the game continues to lose steam and the drive to keep playing wears down.
There are towns and side quests scattered through the world and they are nice distractions. However, they rarely have any meaning to them, other than providing random dialogue between characters, since the quests don\’t even offer particularly good rewards. Some are necessary, though, and force you to collect a certain amount of items, which can sometimes make up for with coins.
The basic structure is that you must ring the six bells of fate to save the world. Most are hidden behind doors that are being guarded by someone for whatever reason, leading you to collect items that are scattered in unknown places around the world. Though never actually hard to complete, usually because once you enter a room it marks whether or not there is a quest, item, or door there for future reference, it’s a big part of what makes the game so exhausting to complete.
Is the thing you need in that big chunk of unfilled map? Oh no, it doesn\’t look like it. Perhaps you should backtrack halfway across the map through a ton of detours to see if that unexplored part of the map has the item you need. It becomes routine, uneventful, and unrewarding. Somehow, it never becomes legitimately frustrating at all — probably because of how well everything goes towards creating a beautiful atmosphere.
The visuals are, for the most part, stunning. Backgrounds are truly remarkable, perfectly encapsulating the ambiance that the game tries so hard to achieve. Objects are beautiful as well; set against the brighter backgrounds, the shadowy, dark foreground gives the game a beautiful, calming vibe that improves the often uneventful gameplay. The music — calming and atmospheric, serving only to add to the ethereal qualities the game presents — isn\’t particularly noteworthy in any way, but it does its job — just nothing more.
The character designs are a true slap in the face to the pleasurable experience, unfortunately. Looking ripped straight out of a cheap cartoon, it couldn\’t clash more with the rest of the game. As easy as it is to spot your character as you journey through the underground, it takes away from the dark, calm beauty of the rest of the game’s visuals and that’s a shame. I never felt like I could truly sink into the world because it didn\’t feel consistent and it certainly hurt the experience as a whole.
The story is another polarizing part of the game. In some ways, it’s brilliant: it has a surprising amount of cool lore, offering a large amount of history to help build the world and invest your interest. It eventually accomplishes that, even if it does spend a long time in confusion at the beginning, discussing things without exposition to keep the player informed.
The characters are noteworthy mostly because, like the visual design for them, they clash horribly with the rest of the game. I went into the game wondering why it was rated M and I found out fairly early. They\’re obnoxious and aren\’t fun to interact with and a small part of that was because they hold nothing back when it comes to cursing. The dialogue was never even particularly humorous and I rarely smiled because of it. All it did was take me out of the calming, beautiful experience that Nifflas created so brilliantly. Ultimately, it’s a part of what holds the game back.
Knytt Underground is, in the end, a well-done game. Those who want a huge world to explore and secrets to discover, as well as those who want a beautiful experience, will certainly want to check the game out. Ultimately, poorly designed characters and dialogue keep the game from ever being truly immersive. Its excessive length and lack of new ideas means that the game sooner or later starts to feel boring, for lack of better word. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot to love. It just makes some missteps along the way.