Few games have surprised me like Knytt Underground. It starts out innocent enough, featuring good-looking backgrounds and the kind of 2D platforming we've seen hundreds of times before. But then it takes an unexpected left turn that leads us straight into one of the gutsiest games of the year. And just when you think you've gotten a handle on what makes this underground world tick, the game throws in another wrinkle. With an enormous world to explore and a deeply-personal narrative that will keep you guessing, this is one of 2012's best games.
Knytt Underground's story is split up into three chapters, though even that is something of a ruse. The first two chapters work as tutorial stages, giving the player a chance to get used to completing missions and surviving a plethora of platforming puzzles. In the first chapter we take control of Mi, a silent protagonist with a penchant for climbing. In chapter two we take the form of a bouncing ball, a form that allows players to make huge leaps and speed through the cavernous environments. These chapters end just as they're getting started, both in the same violent way.
It all leads to chapter three, where the game merges the ball and the silent hero into one of the most agile platforming heroes to ever grace the screen. Mi now has the ability to switch between her human shape and the bouncing ball, giving the player a character that can quickly make her way through even the trickiest underground labyrinth. And it's a good thing she's that nimble, because it's going to come in handy when completing the game's 34 quests.
Knytt Underground doesn't stray too far from Metroid and Castlevania. Mi spends much of her time exploring the gigantic world and filling in the pop-up map. The game comes packed with close to 1,500 rooms to explore, dozens of items to locate and a lot of hidden secrets (and even extra games) to dig up. Needless to say, Mi's quest is going to take more than a few hours.
The good news is that Mi isn't alone in her journey. Along for the ride are Dora the sun fairy and Cilia the moon fairy, who act as the ambassadors to our mute protagonist. As the descriptions imply, these two are polar opposites. One is optimistic and always ready to give people the benefit of the doubt; the other is cynical and foul-mouthed. It's up to the player to decide who speaks for Mi, leading to some incredibly awkward situations.
As Mi travels around the underground world talking to its citizens, she discovers, much to her horror, the world is doomed. Thankfully there's something she can do about it. This involves traversing the huge world to ring six bells. But not everybody agrees that this will save humanity. Before long we're caught up in a battle over faith and destiny. Knytt Underground goes from being just another "Metroidvania" platformer to an incredibly deep, often dark story about religious doctrine and its believers.
I wasn't ready for the game's sharp left turn. For hours the game lulled me into thinking that it was a squeaky clean platformer, the type of thing Nintendo might have published in another era. And then all of a sudden, completely out of the blue, Knytt Underground turns into something that would make South Park blush. Not only is the dialog littered with four letter words, but the themes go into decidedly controversial topics involving sex and violence. Things go from bad to worse as you travel around this enormous world completing quests and ringing bells.
Part of what makes this adventure so surprising is the amount of detail that has gone into the world. With 1,500 areas to fill, the developer has crafted a fully-realized world with numerous cities, vacation spots, universities, residential neighborhoods and even an amphitheater. What's even more impressive is that these citizens have a history and their own mythology. Digging deeper uncovers a storied past that explains where these characters came from and how we had a hand in their creation.
On a more personal level, the game spends a lot of time working through the pain and suffering that still consumes the two fairies. Both have their childhood horror stories, though the way they choose to address it is completely different. At times it feels like this was a chance for the game's designer, Nicklas Nygren, to address some of his own skeletons in the closet. Knytt Underground has a lot to say about religion, families and judgment.
The narrative gets a little heavy-handed at times. It wouldn't surprise me if some players were completely turned off by the game's never-ending barrage of profanity and dark themes. If that describes you, then you're in luck; the game's huge world and platforming puzzles are fun even if you decide to skip the story. Best of all, there is a lot of variety to the types of challenges you face along the way, making this a solid platforming action game independent of the storyline.
What sets Knytt Underground apart from the competition is the complete lack of proper enemy characters or bosses. This is not a game about picking up weapons or upgrading your combat. At no point will you jump on an enemy's head or throw a turtle shell. This is a game about solving complicated platforming challenges. It's more akin to Super Meat Boy or N+. From time to time you'll have to put up with laser-wielding robots, but they are part of the puzzles and not free-roaming bad guys.
Unfortunately not every obstacle can be overcome with your superior climbing skills and morphing ball. Sometimes Mi will need to use one of the power-ups that grow in the wild. The color-coded assortment of power-ups include one that allows Mi to fly horizontally, another that shoots her straight up in the air and one that allows for a double jump. These items are the key to locating hard to reach areas on the map. But there's a downside; these power-ups will only be active for a short amount of time.
What amazed me was the excessive amount of content in Knytt Underground. I was still uncovering new secrets after 20 hours of play, which is more than you can ask from most downloadable PSN releases. Beyond the dozens of quests to complete and 1,500 rooms to explore, players will be treated to two separate endings and a bonus VR-style mini game that is completely optional. And that's not all. Digging around in the credit screen will win you a chance to play Juri's Story, another extra game taken directly from a previous Knytt outing.
Although Mi and her fairy companions are tiny, the world around them comes to life with gorgeous backgrounds and inspired level designs. Some of the visuals look photo-realistic, offering players something interesting to look at as they are making their way across the huge world. Despite being so small, I never lost track of Mi. A lot of the credit goes to Dora and Cilia, who spend their time circling our hero. I primarily played through the adventure on my PS Vita, and even then I never had a problem keeping track of Mi's whereabouts.
Knytt Underground continues the cross-buy trend. Picking up this game on PSN will give you access to both the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita versions. The game supports cloud saving, which makes switching between consoles a breeze. I found Mi's adventure to be a little easier to play on Sony's handheld, but that may just be personal preference.
Mi's controls are sharp and responsive. Some may argue that they are too responsive. This silent protagonist harkens back to the days of Amiga platformers, like Zool and The Great Giana Sisters. This may take a little getting used to. Mi is speedy, which can lead to overshooting jumps and other platforming hazards. It didn't take long for me to adjust for her speed.
I am genuinely shocked and delighted by how much I enjoyed Knytt Underground. I had no problem buying into the fully-realized world and the interesting level designs. That civilization's history and religion fascinated me, to the point where I had to track down every last shred of information. I even got a kick out of the fairies' foul-mouthed conversations. It all clicked for me. Regardless of whether you like daring stories or amazing platforming puzzles, Knytt Underground is not to be missed.