Review: Knytt Underground

Review: Knytt Underground
3.5

Platforms:

Windows PC, Mac, Linux, PSN, SONY Vita, PS3, Wii U, Steam

Game Name:

Knytt Underground

Publisher(s):

Ripstone LTD.

Developer(s):

Nifflas' Games

Genre(s):

Adventure, Platformer

Release Date:

Original Release: December 2012, Steam: Oct 25, 2013

Knytt Underground – What We Think:

The sprawling sequel to Nifflas’ “Knytt Stories” is an open-world puzzle platformer with slightly more ambition than content. The marketing boasts more than 1,800 distinct chambers and I have no reason to doubt the claim. But it’s a bit like a celebrity starter mansion with two room’s worth of furniture. The foundation is lovely, even if the rest of the house is vacant.

You play as Mi, an ace spelunker on a quest to ring six bells to save the world. Mi also happens to be mute, communicating through two fairies that roughly align with the good angel/bad angel dichotomy. Dora is the diplomat, an optimist who sees the good in everyone, while Cilia is the cynic, mistrusting the intentions of the same.

Knytt Underground - game screenshot - Mi

Thankfully, the cliché is put to astonishingly good use here. Since Mi is otherwise mute, the fairy speaking is able to speak for Mi, and her personality becomes Mi’s personality. Unlike more typical shoulder angels, Dora and Cilia aren’t imagined arbiters. They’re tangible, two distinct aspects of Mi, and their interactions with other characters generate appropriate consequences.

Two Sides of Mi

You’re able to choose which fairy represents Mi during any given encounter, so the gimmick adds depth to routine conversations because it allows you to visualize how one discussion could play out in two different ways. Sometimes it’s easier to be nice (that’s when you pick Dora). Sometimes you don’t want to deal with other people’s crap (that’s when you send Cilia).

Knytt Underground - game screenshot - mushrooms

The dualism makes Knytt Underground an exceptional in-game expression of the notion that how we respond to a situation may depend on idiosyncratic things like mood or sense of humor. It results in well-observed insights about gender, technology, social responsibility, and numerous other issues that combine to create an evocative picture of a civilization with more convention than sense.

Wide Open Spaces

The problem is that the level design isn’t well suited to the mechanic. The world map is massive, a network of pathways not far removed from a genuine underground like London or New York. And like a proper subway, the central experience at the heart of Knytt Underground is one of transit. You’re always going from one place to the other, and that commute takes time.

The scope eventually starts to work against the narrative. Far too much time passes between NPCs willing to give you a meaningful quest. Most of the rooms are connecting corridors, empty space that fills the distance between two destinations.

Knytt Underground doesn’t have enough tricks to justify the expanse. The core movement mechanics are blessedly forgiving and the puzzle design is challenging without being obnoxious. Getting around is pleasant enough.

But there’s no variation to the pattern. After two brief introductory chapters – one of which teaches you how to move as a bouncy ball – there are no new abilities or landmarks for the next dozen hours of gameplay. Every room is qualitatively identical to the one that came before it.

The World is a Fine Place and Worth Fighting For

After enough such hours, the sheer pointlessness of it all saps any enthusiasm you might have had. Knytt Underground is incredibly bleak and often errs on the side of pessimism. Most of the NPCs are there to take advantage of you, like the greedy toll collectors demanding payment before letting you ring the bells that will save the world. You’re doing these people a favor, so why are they making it so difficult?

Knytt Underground - game screenshot - robots and lazers

That message is fine, and may even be an accurate reflection of reality. Knytt Underground is intended as critique. Mi is one of the few competent people in the Underground. Her mission is thrust upon her, and Dora and Cilia are both quick to attack the logic of a culture that never asks ‘why.’

But if you want to progress, you still need to enact the rituals you’re supposed to be questioning, fulfilling all of the arbitrary conditions set before you. The people asking you to do stupid things are the ones getting what they want while you waste your time traversing a monotonous, dangerous landscape.

And If I Don’t?

In the end, it feels like the joke is on you. The only way to gain the upper hand – to break free of the rigid conventions that the game is mocking – is to stop playing entirely. It’s a tempting option, and that’s not the sort of thing you want to be thinking as a player.

Knytt Underground is ultimately so desperate to be non-linear that it loses any semblance of momentum. One fetch quest is indistinguishable from the next, and none advance the plot enough to be noteworthy in isolation. Even ringing a bell yields nothing beyond a loud gong.

Knytt Underground - game screenshot - time keeps on ticking

Fine Tooth Comb

The game’s mysteriousness is similarly maddening, and there aren’t enough rewards to warrant all the slight of hand. Despite some picturesque backdrops, the foreground is blacked out and stripped of any distinguishing signifiers. Lower levels are shrouded in a black murk that makes it tediously difficult to cross a linear room, while hidden pathways look exactly like uneven terrain just pretending.

Most of Knytt Underground is spent collecting various items to use as payment, but the game never bothers to explain how the inventory is organized. You often won’t know what you have or where it’s supposed to be used, especially when items like coins or keyboard keys apparently don’t count as “human artifacts.”

The only way to be sure you pick up the items you need is to search every single room, which transforms Knytt Underground into an exploration game that demands completionism and undercuts any thrill of discovery. If you see black space on the map, chances are you have to go there to pick up an essential item. The game instills a sense of bureaucratic duty instead of wonder, dictating where you will go rather than letting you wander.

Knytt Underground - game screenshot - flashes of brilliance

Some Treasure Underground

The flaws are so frustrating because Knytt Underground often shows flashes of brilliance. The writing is excellent, offering thoughtful and humorous critiques about motivation and society. Much of the interactive design is also sound when examined separately from the plot. Someone with more patience might be more forgiving.

Unfortunately, the game is difficult to engage with on its own terms, sacrificing pacing for unnecessary padding. It doesn’t put enough emphasis on the things that make it unique, and the result is yet another artsy platformer that fails to stand out from every other title bearing that distinction.

Knytt Underground – Official Site

Get Knytt Underground on Steam

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Watch the official launch trailer for “Knytt Underground”:

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Eric Weiss

Eric is a Toronto based video game critic and theatre practitioner. He is currently a regular contributor at Dork Shelf, while past creative writing credits include the stage plays The Handy Man Can (2008 Montreal Fringe Festival) and Shredder (2009 McGill Drama Festival) and the video game Apocalypse Later (TOJam 2012). Follow him on Twitter @Harry_Houdini.

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