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.
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.