Until now I’ve always been wary of describing small developer video games under an ‘Indie’ label, considering that the genre and effective scope of the game should be judged on its own merits rather than by the developer behind it, however Knytt Underground is the kind of game that challenges even that. It consistently turns its own way, sometimes to the detriment of the overall experience, but always in ways that justify its own strange sense of self identity.
Right from the start it lies to you, describing itself as a three chapter game… But chapters one and two are mere training levels, a self contained set piece designed to help you acclimatise yourself to the strange world of KU and the seemingly entirely disparate control mechanics of Mi (walk, jump and climb) and Bob (BOUNCE). Each chapter ends suddenly, entirely unsatisfactorily some might say, but this is just an induction to the most important theme of Knytt Underground. Throughout the game you will be asked to go on pointless fetch quests, to carry out minor objectives and missions that the game flat out admits are just there to get in your way. On quite a few of these ‘not so minor’ inconveniences you return to the quest giver to find they have… vanished, and even when they remain present the paltry reward is hardly worth the effort. Right from the start the game is making a point about the genre, toeing a difficult line between parody and becoming one of the worst examples of fetch mania. It does however raise an interesting question…. Do you do this for the tangible rewards, for the sense of self accomplishment, or just because you enjoy doing it?
If you give yourself time to acclimatise past the black and basic geometries through which you must climb and bounce your way, this is a beautiful immersive world that, despite showcasing some of the most basic programming in video games today, can arguably be said to feel just as alive as many open world AAA blockbusters. The writing is deceptively simple, it certainly won’t win any awards for its course and basic humour, but it draws the player in with as little pointless faff as possible. The map is simply humongous and will take hours to explore and whilst some people will complain it is both sparse this is gaming at its purest, most simplified form. Whilst the foreground is dark and simple the background art and music are both distant yet beautiful, full of little touches and flourishes designed to amuse and inspire. Control wise things are a little sketchy, challenging but not impossible, particularly when trying to navigate the unpredictable bouncing ball around some very dangerous areas.
I really don’t know why I’ve fallen in love with Knytt Underground, it’s probably not something I’ll ever play again, but for a few dozen hours I was completely entranced.
(Wii U version reviewed).