(Wii U eShop)

Knytt Underground (Wii U eShop)

Game Review

Knytt Underground Review

Europe PAL Version

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

An abstract adventure

Knytt Underground is unlike anything else on the Wii U eShop; it's the work of Nicklas Nygren (better known as Nifflas), a developer that's produced some intriguing download titles on PC — including this game's predecessors — as well as the critically acclaimed NightSky. The fact this game stands apart from its eShop contemporaries is a badge of honour, as it's continually self-referential, happily breaks the fourth wall and teases gamers along in a quest that may or may not have meaning. It's abstract, puzzling and at times contradictory, attempting to be both bold and brilliant.

It's split into three chapters, with the first two introducing characters, some lore and primarily educating you in the basics of gameplay. Chapter One follows the incredibly agile sprite, Mi, who is introduced to the yin and yang fairy characters of Dora and Cilia, each with distinct personalities. In Chapter Two your character is a ball, which bounces around in what appears to be an abandoned lab (and its surrounding area) while trying to make sense of the fact that, well, it's a ball. There is the foundation of a storyline holding these chapters together, which merge into Chapter 3, and this delivers the vast majority of the game — it combines the two forms into Mi's interchangeable abilities, and puts into sequence events that may (or may not) matter.

At the heart of Knytt Undergound is a quest to ring six bells of Fate, which are scattered around a world comprising of hundreds of individual rooms, each serving as small areas of intrigue or puzzles. The world is intimidating in size — which we suspect was the intention — and primarily the task is to explore and piece together small slices of narrative into a cohesive whole that is, ultimately, your own unique interpretation. It's rather like a confused dystopia of small creatures underground, confusing human terms and beliefs and distorting them at every turn. While you may initially head off for a bell, it's quite possible that you'll get lost on route or distracted by characters and sub-quests — Lewis Carroll would be delighted at how deep this particular rabbit hole goes.

Even if you reach a bell, however, there are reasonable odds that someone or something will be blocking it off until you hand over specific items, so there's certainly incentive to wander off the beaten track and hunt down as many collectibles as possible. Fortunately, considering the fact it's not entirely optional, this can be a fascinating, engrossing experience. Although the world may be made up of hundreds of rooms, there's a cohesive structure and sense of a whole that drives the experience. Some areas are dark, necessitating navigation by shadow, some have over-sized 20th Century modern technology — such as gears — spinning in the background, and some show nature, with a Pikmin-esque flair for large-scale plant life. At times rooms have an alien, other-worldly feel which prevents you from becoming too settled.

Many of these screens are simply there to promote the overall ambience, with polished visuals being accompanied by an excellent but understated soundtrack. Often the background music is subtle or barely noticeable, while it's occasionally sweeping and, should the mood strike, pumps out a beat. Great care has clearly been taken to create consistent audio-visual moods, making this one of the most eclectic offerings on the Wii U — headphones are recommended.

We emphasize the tone above some core elements for a simple reason: that's what Knytt Underground itself does. Over the hundreds of rooms a third or less — or so it seemed to us — contain puzzles or threats to avoid, with some there simply as atmospheric bridging points to move through the map. Some will have divergent paths with simple environmental puzzles — high jumps may require skilful use of the ball and human form together — and others may have characters with which to interact; they occasionally set quests, while at other times simply hold a conversation. As Mi can't speak, you often have to choose which of the fairies — with their distinct characteristics — will speak up on your behalf, so that adds a little extra choice to proceedings.

There are rooms, however, that do require some puzzling and skilful reflexes to proceed. In many cases there'll be a limited use power-up that needs to be manipulated — these can range from boosted jumps, to flying abilities, and even a one time gun. At times these puzzles are devious and brilliant, forcing you to stack a refilled power just as you initiate the first while implementing a specific, challenging manoeuvre. Some are far simpler, but the occasionally difficult example will take persistence; at their best these rooms are very satisfying, and at their worst can be overly frustrating in the demands they set.

The individual parts — atmospheric exploration and environmental puzzles — seem perfectly suited to a download title, but there's a sense of over-indulgence at times in the sheer volume of this game, and the self-referential wall-breaking and mandatory slog through a huge environment. This isn't like the dungeon-crawling epics or Metroidian adventures of old that give you an important task to save a world, but a play on those very ideas. In fact, this is a deliberate deconstruction of those ideas — or at least that's our interpretation — which, actually, strips away some enjoyment. This game is so big and teases so much that some may become tired of its style.

It's nevertheless refreshing to see, in this game and a variety of independent efforts gracing various platforms, an attempt to avoid basic action-movie stereotypes and take an abstract, almost literary approach. If Knytt Underground was a film or a play, it'd be an art-house or small-theatre production, drawing attention from those that seek original thought and approaches to ideas. There are moments of glory here, when you'll discover an area or clever reference that only a game like this delivers.

And yet, being creative and forging its own path doesn't excuse a lingering sense that the gameplay, as a whole, doesn't deliver. We don't criticise game-length lightly, but the sheer size of the world is an issue, with the trek between areas occasionally arduous. When you combine an enormous world with minimalist control options — when power-ups aren't provided you're limited to the core sprite and ball form move-set — there are long spells of simply traversing the map, hunting for items that may — or may not — be in the vicinity. It's a test of persistence and patience, and the pay-off is limited; again, it's playing with convention and expectation.

The trouble for Knytt Underground, and worth considering for those considering a purchase, is such art-house production styles don't suit everyone; that, by their definition, is why they're deliberately non-mainstream. It's artistically commendable, but also bloated; a lengthy experience and commitment of time with little pay-off. The flat, distant 2D perspective on the world perhaps makes it that bit harder to feel fully invested in its peculiarities, and it's targeted at those that would sooner watch a foreign film rather than, say, the latest Transformers flick. It doesn't quite cross the gap of exploring fresh ideas with impulsive, attractive gameplay — it falls short in bringing its non-mainstream ideas to a wider audience.

For those that do like the sound of this title, there is the reassurance that the Wii U iteration is possibly the best. It's visually polished, certainly, but the GamePad can also be set to permanently display the map, which is invaluable for this sprawling environment. It also contains all of the content of the PC version, so running out of things to do is unlikely.

Conclusion

Knytt Underground is without a doubt the most unique game on the Wii U eShop. It takes relatively simple exploration platforming and wraps it in almost infinite complexity; it can be a game both without purpose and daunting in scope. As an art-game creation by Nifflas, it is intriguing, but its sheer scale and size will deter some; only those willing to invest both time and themselves will get the most out of it. It's a niche experience as a result, and will delight as many as it leaves cold.

Its fourth-wall breaking and deliberately playful approach to game conventions is to be commended, but the balance of artistic merit and fulfilling gaming experience isn't quite achieved. If you're game for the challenge in both gameplay and simply understanding what Knytt Underground is trying to achieve, then dive in.

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User Comments (42)

luke88

#3

luke88 said:

I think It's such a wonderful game, I would recommend it highly to anyone and would certainly give it at least an 8 myself. I would also like to recommend Nightsky to people as well. : )

EDIT. Sorry to go on, and I know there's no reason for anyone on here to pay particular heed to my opinion of this game but I am disappointed that review scores haven't been higher. I did read the review: I know it was mostly positive but I worry that all the wii u owners on the fence about this one may not feel that a seven is quite high enough to sway them, perhaps some might not read the reviews in there entirety. I'd like to urge any doubters to give it a go if they can afford to, and then to give Nightsky a go come next pay day : ). I think Nifflas makes really beautiful games and deserves financial success. I sent him a quick email- something I have never done with a dev before- just to tell him I really liked his games, I also told him not to bother emailing me back as I imagined he could be pretty busy. The next day I received a wonderful thank you email that also outlined some bits and pieces he was working on at the moment. It was a kind gesture, one that he really didn't need to make.

TobiasAmaranth

#4

TobiasAmaranth said:

I played Knytt Stories back when Indie games were first growing in popularity, especially free ones where you could just indulge yourself. I think the game does what it does very well, and the point of playing it is to relax, not to get hyped up.

SCAR392

#5

SCAR392 said:

I tried this on a PS Vita demo kiosk. I'm not particularly interested.

MAB

#6

MAB said:

Best $12 I have spent on the eShop so far... Also this further confirms that NL staff and users have terrible taste in games ;)

Dpullam

#7

Dpullam said:

I have played the other games in the Knytt series, and I can say with certainty that I'll end up buying this game at some point. I liked what I played of the PC demo and it held promise. I also need to give NightSky a go as well.

aaronsullivan

#9

aaronsullivan said:

@TobiasAmaranth
My kids and I love Knytt Stories. It's a relaxing and occaisionally very challenging morsel. This was made so kids can't play it. A dubious trade off as I've never read how great and clever all the dialog and adult issues are in the reviews. It's apparently long and bloated. It seems to have lost the charm of the original in a big way as the human art design is just not appealing — to me anyway.

I'm sad about it to be honest. :(

AyeHaley

#13

AyeHaley said:

I'm still tempted but this game's character design is atrocious and, from what I've seen, its dialogue doesn't consist of anything more than a boatload of curses.

sinalefa

#14

sinalefa said:

It seems that it demands a lot of time to fully enjoy, so I may get it later down the line, when my sisyphean backlog allows it.

JustinH

#15

JustinH said:

@Red_XIII Apparently the game's dialogue is rather salty at points. Haven't played it myself though — it sounds like a huge amount of time to play.

rjejr

#16

rjejr said:

I'm surprised there's no mention of Toki Tori 2 in the review. Game play wise they are very similar, wander around a side-scrolling 2D world w/ a very limited move set w/o knowing what to do or where to go but ever marching forward trying to reach an end. Toki Tori 2 is a Saturday morning cartoon in presentation and this is an art house project w/ swear words and sadness but they're the same genre. I played thru the first 2 and probably about half the 3rd chapter of Knytt (on PS3) and finished the main story line in TT2+ about a month apart.

shanoboy

#17

shanoboy said:

What's up with the mature rating? It looks like one of the most tame games out there.

Razzle

#18

Razzle said:

Great review, I have finished this game (the main 'quest' anyway) and I think everything Tom covers is relevant. The best thing about this game is the gameplay and the sense of exploration - you are given very little guide towards your goal and some quests seem fruitless with no payoff, so you are surprised yet determined to push forth. The mechanics are tight, the puzzles are challenging and music is superb. The biggest letdown is the way the developer breaks the fourth wall and the off-beat characters often use silly language, it makes you feel like you are listening to school children instead of creatures from another world. Also it should be said, once completed this game has a HUGE amount of extra quests for the completionists which would double the play time. I think the best thing to be said is that this developer had a vision for this game which can be felt overall, it is art and it is also a game which is worth experiencing. I congratulate them and hope it is successful.

ULTRA-64

#20

ULTRA-64 said:

Hmmmm......I'm in no rush for this,got my eye on the cave as my next 2d platform eshop game after I eventually get around to finishing trine 2!
Anybody know a date for how to survive on the eshop? I'm really in need of another zombie fix!!

TreesenHauser

#21

TreesenHauser said:

@luke88 To tell you the truth, I've been keeping my eyes on this one when I visit the eShop. However, lately I haven't had enough money to purchase it. I think I might get it when I do have some though, it looks great and my friends that have played it say it's really good.

Henmii

#23

Henmii said:

The trailer looked really nice and moody, but I understand it's a very abstract game!
So not for everyone but it sounds very intriguing, so I may download it someday!

kesley4884

#24

kesley4884 said:

I played Knytt a few years ago as a free pc game and was charmed by the exploration and the atmosphere. Knytt Underground is similar but has much more traditional platforming mechanics. This game carries over much of the casual exploration but there is a lot more danger to overcome using abilities which wasn't a part of the original. A score of 10 being a perfect game, I would say that a 7 isn't bad at all. If this sounds like your kind of game then it probably is.

Andyjm

#25

Andyjm said:

I'm going to sound thick here (not for the first time!) but what is 'the fourth wall' that both the review and comments reference being broken?! I know about the Berlin Wall but that's about it!

ThomasBW84Admin

#26

ThomasBW84 said:

@Andyjm It's a term used for theatres (but can apply to films, books, anything!). If you think of the back and side walls around a stage (that's three), people refer to an invisible fourth wall separating the actors from the audience. By breaking the fourth wall you communicate directly to the audience, ignoring that invisible wall that's supposed to keep the stage performance and spectators separate.

Hope that makes sense!

Pod

#28

Pod said:

This sort of thing really is my bag, baby.

Looking forward to playing it.

SKTTR

#29

SKTTR said:

Despite poor character design and questionable plot, Knytt really grew on me. The fresh platforming, action, and puzzle sections did it for me. 8/10

CanisWolfred

#30

CanisWolfred said:

They're a good developer who knows how to make an interesting atmosphere. Something about this just doesn't appeal to me, though, and I'm not sure what. Maybe it's just the visuals? No, I don't think so....I'll get back to you.

LeasTwanteD

#31

LeasTwanteD said:

While it sounds like a game i'd like i've been quite underimpressed by the trailers. Might wait for a discount i reckon.

Dave24

#32

Dave24 said:

I thank God that I bought it for 6 dollars + other games with it, because I would regret buying it for full price. It's not a bad game, but characters can be annoying and at times controls are unresponsive.

ThomasBW84Admin

#33

ThomasBW84 said:

@rjejr I can see the comparison on a technical level but, in my view, they're entirely different experiences. Toki Tori 2+ is far heavier with puzzles and has a slower tempo (unsurprisingly) while I think Knytt Underground is a lot quicker, more free-wheeling. That's just me though, both good games :)

LDXD

#34

LDXD said:

I really like this game I just wish there was more to do some actual combat would be nice and more enemies
I like the exploring and the weird crazy things some of the characters say
Its something I like to pick up and play every now and then something tells me its gonna take me forever to beat it

rumple88

#36

rumple88 said:

Looks really strange, been wondering about the game play and story thanks for the review. It was really helpful. I'm going to pick it up this week.

Will-75

#37

Will-75 said:

@luke88 I agree Nightsky is an amazing title on the 3DS e-shop I hope more gamers get a chance to try it ., so far I'm happy with my download of Kyntt I love the atmosphere of these titles cant wait to see what they do next .

T7L3R

#38

T7L3R said:

Definitely my indie goty. I recommend it for anyone who likes to explore in video games and enjoys puzzles. The best way I can describe this game is it's Metroid where you can't fight back against the enemies and must avoid them. @shanoboy swearing, ''adult topics'' (religious ideas). But seriously fairies swearing and threatening to beat people is pretty funny when you think about it. I wouldn't consider it an M rated game but then again I'm only about half way through the last chapter.

ProfanePelican

#39

ProfanePelican said:

The backgrounds are really interesting. They're beautiful and simple at the same time. I wonder if having the large silhouettes cuts down on game's size, considering there are over 1,800 rooms... In either case, the backgrounds make everything look very abstract. Hopefully the music pairs well with the imagery. This game seems like it may be too big of a commitment for me, though.

Daisaku36

#40

Daisaku36 said:

I've had fun with this game, and I hope to see more from this studio in the future. Somehow, Indies see promise in Wii U, and they'll keep getting my $$$ for it.

Kolzig

#42

Kolzig said:

Really awesome that Nifflas got this on Wii U also. I have it for PC and it's really great and enjoyable like his games always are.

I hope that in the future also Nifflas will make games to Nintendo platforms, these have that feeling that games on Nintendo platforms should always have. Great gameplay, great thrillrides.

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