Exploration! It’s a human desire. Embedded in the psyche, it drives us to achieve and discover. Give us a new world to explore and we will uncover its secrets, simply because we can. Knytt Underground is a game built for explorers. If you long to climb the highest mountain, or spelunk the deepest cave, but fail to leave the cosy armchair, Knytt Underground is made for you. It is perhaps a shame then that it fails to massage many other human desires in the process.
Ostensibly a friendly 2D platform game containing simple puzzle elements, the world of Knytt is a wonderful cornucopia of interconnected rooms. While it contains definite nods to its influences such as Metroid or even earlier spectrum classics such as Dizzy or Odd Job Eddy, it instead strips back the danger or conundrums leaving a very gentle and free experience. Your character Mi, who runs like the wind, has two miraculous abilities: effortless climbing on any vertical wall and flawless landing from any height. This makes the compulsive obsession to explore the open world of strange interconnected rooms effortless as you sprint up walls and fling yourself from great heights. Dumped in a starting area you are instructed to go forth and use these talents to explore every nook and cranny you can reach, in whatever order you see fit.
And that is the basic premise of the game. There is a flimsy plot about searching for some fairies and ringing bells, random quests to collect certain items and later a strange ball bouncing ability that has seemingly been transplanted from another Spectrum classic Wizball (or more accurately from developer Nifflas’ previous game Within A Deep Forest), but these are simply tools driving you to explore the one thousand six hundred odd rooms in the game.
For those in the dark, Knytt has some heritage. The creator Nicklas Nygren, known as Nifflas, started pumping out low budget freeware exploration games at the start of the century and created the Knytt world for this purpose. Building up an extensive following he has slowly become known somewhat as an indie pioneer, one of the ‘indie’ world before it was actually a ‘thing’. The release of Knytt Underground sees Nifflas making the move to console and a full commercial release.
While the original Knytt games were cute, if perhaps laughable, in their pixelated design, the world of Knytt Underground has evolved into something rather beautiful. The people of Knytt (a term for small creatures) are sprites, fairies and tails (catlike beings), creatures all tiny in comparison to humans. The world they inhabit, now deep underground due to a catastrophe on the surface, is filled with gigantic versions of machines, statues and flowers. These are all depicted using photographic backgrounds creating a curiously realistic scene in a manner not dissimilar to Amanita Design’sSamarost, with bizarre and surreal images littering the screen.
These photo styled backgrounds add an extra incentive to the exploration as you discover various areas ranging from bizarre scientific tubes to glorious flowering caverns, from the dark grimy innards of a massive machine to strange ancient temples. It is perhaps a shame then that the world you explore is never fully realised, with areas seemingly placed haphazardly with little explanation as to their origin. In a sense, it feels like the large quantity of rooms available to explore has limited the overall quality of design for each individual area.
This is a theme that runs throughout the entire experience. Quests, found by interacting with characters in the world are almost entirely of the fetch an item variety and often in areas already explored causing frustrating backtracking. Meanwhile, the plot, which sees our mute character Mi hunting down some fairies to act as her voice, then mysteriously bond with a sentient ball like creature and finally traveling the kingdom to ring bells which may save the world, is notably weak and obscure. There are tiny hints that shine some light on the fate of the surface world, or flesh out the character’s backgrounds, but too often the game wants you to make your own judgements rather than adding its own depth.
Perhaps more frustrating is that far too much of this information is provided by your two fairy followers, who chirp up at certain intervals, or while interacting with other characters. The fairies each have their own personality, one pious and humble, the other logical yet very highly strung. While the interplay between the two can be interesting at times, often their text (there is no voice acting) is depressingly juvenile and dissolves into petty throwing of expletives. Younger players may find the over-abundance of the f-word rather shocking, particularly in a game aimed at the casual market.
If we ignore the plot, which the game seems all too comfortable doing, the other major issue is this mysterious ball. After an introductory chapter, where the player get to grips with little Mi’s controls, the following chapter throws in this strange sentient ball. The controls for this sphere o’frustration are beyond annoying, seeing it fling out of the grip of the player or bounce awkwardly disappointingly often. Similarly the physics, which are less relevant for the sticky platforming of Mi, are wickedly inconsistent seeing the ball bounce off surfaces at awkward angles. This results in high levels of pain and frustration in the more difficult rooms which require delicate and accurate bouncing to progress.
When it works, Knytt Underground is wonderful. A beautiful and vast world of corridors, chasms and clever puzzles waiting to be explored. However it is the barebones attitude to plot, quests and controls that really holds the game back. The original Knytt series was a successful indie project because it was so undemanding and unassuming, yet a move to PlayStation 3 (as well as cross buying on Vita with useful cloud save functionality) and a major commercial release requires something more than a simple overhaul of the graphics. The addition of the mysterious bouncing ball, while understandable to add a needed level of diversity, is sadly lacklustre and ends up seeming rather forced.
Some will pick up Knytt Underground on the PlayStation network and discard it after a few minutes for its lack of gameplay, others will be struck with a powerful drive to push on for tens of hours, reach every single room and collect every item simply because they can. Not a game for the exhilarated, the passionate or the energetic but a game for the calm, the peaceful, the curious.