This tranquil platformer has moments of brilliance, but we suspect it won't be enough to sustain most players
The PC version of Knytt Underground has been around since late 2012, but Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren’s mysterious subterranean curio has now found a new audience of would-be spelunkers on Nintendo’s Wii U eShop.
As you hike through the game’s strange and alienating depths to ring the six bells of fate, the looming black silhouettes that make up the ever-changing landscape channel the eerie atmosphere seen in both Limbo and Nifflas’ own NightSky, while the somewhat crude pixel-based character art and winding Metroidvania-style corridors could belong to any 16-bit platformer. It’s the vivid and surreal backgrounds that prevent Knytt Underground from being typecast as a mere clone of its source material, though, and the vague story and musings on faith and religion (not to mention swearing fairies) work quietly to give the game its own identity.
For the most part, the game has a bad habit of trying to be a bit too meta for its own good. With its minimalist design and needless appearances from Nifflas himself as a kind of omniscient, omnipotent narrator who can chop and change the story at the drop of a hat, it desperately wants to rub shoulders with the cool “art game” crowd. But whereas other indie art titles such as Proteus and Dear Esther managed to capture a sense of awe and wonder with their simple yet entrancing worlds and mechanics, Knytt Underground’s bizarre collection of ideas rarely converge in the same way.
One moment you’re a young girl on the way to a fairy spring who’s lost her voice and memory, the next you’re a bouncing sphere with googly eyes whose only purpose seems to frustrate and perplex players with its infuriating elasticity. Then you find you’re both with little to no explanation at all as to why or indeed what it’s all for. It’s certainly very convenient, as your spherical doppelgänger lets you reach new heights and areas previously inaccessible by climbing and jumping alone, but much like Nifflas’s NightSky, it often feels like convenience takes priority over any kind of unified coherency.
The more cynical among us might even see it as a thinly veiled attempt to cover up a lack of ideas, but for all its waffle and implausible transformations, there is a refreshing simplicity to be found in Knytt Underground’s lonely depths if you’re willing to dig for it.
The first two hours are more of a tutorial than anything else, as the real meat of the game doesn’t truly start until the third and final chapter. In Nifflas’ own words, the third chapter’s map is more than ten times the size of the first chapter, and it’s here where the shape-shifting puzzles really come into their own. There are some genuinely head-scratching moments as you try and figure out the exact angle where you need to bounce in order to progress or which moment you need to transform mid-jump to latch onto a wall’s footholds instead of bouncing straight off it, and there’s a great sense of triumph when you finally reach that tucked away nook with a perfectly timed jump.
Sadly, those moments are often outweighed by long bouts of frustration as you trudge back to the start of a puzzle each time you mess it up. This was particularly true of the platforming sections that played out over four separate rooms as it meant we were constantly retracing our steps. Your sense of progression is also hindered by some utterly thankless sidequests which neither reward you or advance the story. Most of them also require a fair detour as well, which is disappointing when there’s nothing helpful lying at the end of it.
With such a large map to cover, dead ends are frequent, but luckily the basic map on the Wii U Game Pad provides enough guidance to prevent you from getting lost. Important items and locked gates are clearly marked, as are rooms of interest, but there’s nevertheless a persistent feeling that you’re forever crawling around in the dark hoping you might stumble upon something important.
Ultimately, the one thing we were searching for – a sense of purpose – never really materialised, as its largely sidequest-driven story objectives always felt too removed and alienated from the main plot. There was never anything urging us forward except our own waning curiosity, and we suspect the third chapter will be too little too late for less patient gamers who couldn’t stomach the opening two hours of relative emptiness.
Knytt Underground won’t be for everyone. It walks in the shadow of greater art games such as Proteus and Dear Esther, and while there are genuine moments of great fun and mental dexterity to be found lurking in its depths, its open-ended, go-anywhere style of exploration is also its undoing. There’s certainly a lot of gameplay here for the price, but only the most determined players are likely to leave no stone unturned.