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Knytt Underground review

What lies beneath is a very big surprise

There's a meditative quality to this game. Despite concerning a pilgrimage, it contains almost subliminal dialogues on technology, narrative and, most of all, faith, which lend it a stillness that... Wait. Sorry, but did that fairy just call someone an "anus"?

Knytt Underground is full of contradictions. The way it purposely refuses to be seen as the typical thinky-thinky 'art game' by including a foul-mouthed constant companion, or how it takes the appearance of a Metroidvania game (Side-on view? Check. Giant, dizzyingly intricate world? Yes, sir) only to largely abandon the compulsory unlocks that define that genre. It's told in a simple, three-chapter structure, but the final chapter's map is 10 times bigger than the others and features a mute sprite, Mi (who can phase into a sentient ball), on a journey to ring six bells in an effort to stop the apocalypse.

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This desperation to defy expectations could appear overbearing, or unenjoyably try-hard. But for all its oddness there's a solid spine to the entire affair, an uncompromised bit of gaming know-how that holds everything else together. This is a 2D platformer, and Nicklas Nygren (the Swedish one-man dev team behind the Nifflas moniker) has made a damned good one.

New Ball Game

With the first two chapters acting as unspoken tutorials for controlling Mi and the Ball, it's the third that becomes the game proper. Placed in the middle of the gigantic map, you now have the ability to, with the press of R, switch from one character to the other at any time.

It's a simple conceit from which Nygren gets a baffling amount of mileage. Every route contains at least one platforming challenge, whether that's getting to a ledge using only spells, or dodging the dangerous robots hidden in the darker corners of the world. Hours into your travels, you'll still be realising how some quirk of the unerringly precise physics engine changes your view of how to get around.

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As a result, getting around becomes your primary motivation. The six bells are the only locked aspect of the world (amounting to around 20 rooms in the entire game), only opened after you've collected certain artefacts - remnants of a lost human civilisation, rare flowers, an owl mask. You'll find them in hard-to-reach areas, or through hidden passages, or at the end of fetch quests set by members of the Underground population (a collection of fellow sprites, fairies and rarer, less humanoid creatures), themselves hidden among the scenery.

It's not a beautiful game, but it is intriguingly surreal and the room design (ranging from claustrophobic mazes, areas of tessellated blocks that shift as you move and undersea labs) and an ambient soundtrack that subtly switches tracks depending on your location make the constant back and forth a joy.

Testing Questing

For such a spectacularly weird experience, it's a shame that the game's definitive problems all lie in the most mundane aspects. There's no autosaving and no more than one quest can be active at a time, meaning you'll often have to trek tens of rooms back to a save point or character just to remember where to go next or even turn the game off. Worst of all, there's no option to make notes on your map, making marking secrets you haven't worked out how to get to yet, or just a favourite room to show off to friends, a case of literally writing down coordinates.

Not everyone will like the integral aspects either, with its purposely vague story (Nygren himself sometimes appears as a character to apologise) and a focus on the journey over the results of it - particularly when a lengthy quest ends for seemingly no reward.

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But then that same quest might well change how the game ends - although you won't realise it at the time - or a useless conversation might offer a hint you don't understand until later. There's something of Fez about it (which is appropriate, given that Fez was itself inspired by Nifflas' own Knytt Stories), a sense that there's far more to seemingly unremarkable elements - which should prove absolutely perfect for inquisitive minds on Miiverse.

Where exploration in Knytt's spiritual predecessor, Super Metroid, is a process of deepening isolation, every new block on the map representing a shift away from safety, Knytt ties understanding into every step - whether that's in gradual clarification of the storyline, a better grasp of the mechanics or just a hypnotic new strand of song. It makes for one of the most beguiling, thoughtful and lovely platformers on Wii U and... Sorry. Did she just say fu-

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  1. Time-Bomb Thursday 19th Dec 2013 at 16:01

    Is Joe the only person working for ONM nowadays? I I haven't seen anyone else's face on here for months!

    P.s. nice review! :wink:

  2. thecoolmana777 Friday 20th Dec 2013 at 08:29

    Awesome review! I'll probably download this later it sounds good! :D

  3. dap005 Tuesday 24th Dec 2013 at 14:52

    Is great to see Knytt which was a freeware (http://nifflas.ni2.se/index.php?page=Knytt) finally get a sequel released onto a nintendo console. The rise of indies on the eshop isn't just a myth ^_^.

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