Platforming and atmosphere intertwine in this subterranean adventure
Swedish Indie game developer Nifflas has been cultivating a small but vocal fanbase for his Knytt series: a collection of freeware platformers designed to emphasize the exploratory aspect of the Metroids and Castlevanias they are influenced by first and foremost. His newest, Knytt Underground, feels like the culmination of everything Nifflas has learned in his years of working on this series; a bold attempt to step out from the freeware scene and finally make a project big enough to monetize. In that regard, Knytt Underground is a significant step forward for the series, and joins a cadre of excellent non-linear platformer adventure games (the temptation to use a certain portmanteau to describe this type of game is nigh-overwhelming) for the PlayStation Network Marketplace and various PC avenues like Desura.
Knytt Underground follows the adventures of a mute heroine named Mi, an intrepid sprite adventurer of the eponymous subterranean setting of the game, and a pair of fairies who talk on her behalf as well as offer various tidbits of exposition, advice and background detail when apposite. The two fairies have distinctive personalities: One friendly and honest; the other cynical and brusque. As the player character depends on the two to speak for them when encountering an NPC, the player is implicitly selecting between a "naughty" or "nice" response - the same kind of binary dialogue decision many RPGs have, but presented in a way that is congruous to the setting. And that's really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the interesting little touches in this game.
For instance, there is no health or weapons or experience levels or anything that would normally be prevalent in these games. There's no combat or bosses either, per se. Instead, certain rooms will present an obstacle course reminiscent of something like Team Meat's Super Meat Boy series: To get from Point A to Point B in rooms containing valuables will generally require some precision platforming and skillful use of the player character's unique skill set, in which any deaths will simply reset the player to the point of entry and allow them as many repeat chances as they'd like. It doesn't feel like the game is suffering from the lack of depth one might surmise from the loss of those RPG elements, but rather helps to focus the platforming gameplay at its core.
A drawback with this no-combat approach is that many of the areas seem devoid of any exciting incidence. However, the game spins this in its favor to create a wonderful atmosphere of desolation and remoteness. Though an utterly disparate game by every other metric, Pikmin 2 had this particular element in spades as well: Those times when the jaunty soundtrack just drops away to ambient sounds and the immense, picturesque surroundings become both humbling and beautiful. It's that feeling of place that Knytt Underground pulls off with similar aplomb, and it's largely due to a tremendous sense of sound and color more than anything else. The actual character art leaves a bit more to be desired in comparison, but it's serviceable enough for an Indie game with limited assets. Hey, at least it's not all pixels again.
I feel I ought to mention the game's writing as well. It's a bit idiosyncratic, which I suppose is to be expected from a developer to whom English is a second language. This isn't to say that it is filled with egregious typos and grammatical errors or anything of the sort, but it is a little more liberal with the blue language than this kind of game would normally necessitate. Much of the game's more incidental side-questing is in service to fleshing out the world and specifically the relationships that the three main characters have with the rest of Knytt Underground's residents. The designer/author has also inserted a lot of his own personal thoughts, misgivings and opinions and given them voice through his layered characters; the self-deprecating nature of the delivery making it all easier to empathize with. There are themes of homosexuality, religious persecution, Ludditeism, environmentalism, a cute lack of comprehension about the various relics left behind by the long-dead human race (another aspect the game shares with Pikmin) and the usual searching existential questions which like as not go unanswered. If it all sounds a bit incongruous for a game in which the main character transforms into a ball to solve jumping puzzles, you'd be right, but it's a personal touch you just wouldn't see in a bigger game that couldn't afford to alienate anyone by including such an indulgence. More and more often, I'm finding that these auteur elements have become the most endearing thing about Indie games, though obviously your mileage may vary in that regard.
On the surface, Knytt Underground is a game that would seem to join a legion of excellent games of this particular sub-genre such as last year's Fez and Dust: An Elysian Tail, as well as earlier games with an equally fantastic atmosphere like Aquaria, albeit one that is a bit too empty and expansive for its own good. Dig a little deeper and you'll find a deeply personal game with some superlative platforming action and an addictive drive to discover the undiscovered: A game which turns the old Metroid formula on its head for something quite unique. It's not without its flaws, but it's a curio that's definitely worth a look.