Indie video games often circumvent the need for huge budgets and massive teams with a keen sense of style and creativity and Knytt Underground by Nifflas Games is no exception. Candidly, I personally feel a sense of guilt attempting to criticize Knytt because it is clear that the game was made with high ambitions and strong intentions. Unfortunately; the fact of the matter is that while Knytt Underground may check all the boxes, at no point does it rise above the sum of its parts.
Knytt Underground is a metroidvania platformer and the latest game in the Knytt series of games developed from the mind of Swedish designer Nicklas “Nifflas“ Nygren. It has been said that the game is the largest metroidvania game to date, but does the old adage of quality over quantity still ring true? I set out to find out for myself.
From the beginning of my journey I wanted to love Knytt Underground from the bottom of my heart. Dynamic backgrounds sway back and forth, impacted by a stroke of the Vita’s rear touch. Caverns are deep, mysterious and haunted by a haunting soundtrack that is saturated in melancholy. Last but not least, the scope of the games map remarkably large, far more expansive than any of its peers. So what prevented me from fully embracing a game that seemed to be everything I wish for?
The most glaring issue is the game’s mechanics; Knytt Underground may be structured as a metroidvania-platformer, but it misses all the marks that make both genres a joy to play. Other than level design, it is difficult to even label the game in the same vein as other metroidvania titles. Other than sporting all of one singular upgrade that is made available halfway through the games entirety, Knytt Underground is void of all character upgrades; making backtracking a chore.
Platforming is also a mixed bag. At its best, the platforming feels as though it is emulating mechanics and scenarios found in other Vita titles such as Guacamelee; utilizing gravity and power-ups to reach your goals. At its very worst the game feels like a free browser-based flash game – simplistic and very raw. Rarely is the game challenging, and there is little to no consequence for failure.
The second issue is the sheer size of the games map. During the first two chapters the entire magnitude of the game’s layout is somewhat hidden from you. While you may be asked to explore portions, you are intentionally blocked off from getting too lost. If you take your time to explore and complete side quests, chapter one will last you all of two or three hours. Oddly enough chapter two is the shortest of the three. When I completed the second chapter I was struck with disbelief, shocked at the brevity compared to the first; but little did I know it was all a set up.
It is in chapter three that the games mammoth map truly unfolds, sinking you into its expansive pits. Worse yet is that due to the game’s sole upgrade, you will not be unlocking areas via powers; instead you are asked to backtrack continuously exchanging items. Most of the games areas are blocked off with doors. Guarding each door typically is some sort of gate keeper who will require a payment to allow you passage. What this sparks is a chain of fetch quests where you will hunt down mundane trinkets and trade them with other NPC’s for items of value. Once you’ve collected the correct item its back to the gatekeeper, rinse and repeat.
Adding fetch quests to an already overwhelmingly large map didn’t add anything to the exploration; it only tested my patience and made the entire journey more aggravating. As beautiful as the scenery may be, you will grow to loathe passing it for what seems like the fifteenth time. Short cuts can be unlocked to hasten each trip, but frustratingly enough these side paths are usually blocked by locked gates of their own. You will be mentally exhausted by the time you reach the end, which in and of its own is perhaps the game’s biggest flaw.
The last problem with the game is the means in which the plot unfolds. During your adventure you play as the mute protagonist Mi. Having a lead character remain silent means that everything you will learn about the world unfolds through your environment and the “dialogue” you engage in with NPC’s you encounter throughout your journey. There are times that the conversations can be informative, interesting, and even enjoyably silly; however the issue in Knytt Underground isn’t the dialogue it’s the rate in which information presents itself. You can play for hours and only gain the faintest of hints as to the reason for your quest. Make no mistake, I am not advocating for brutally obvious storytelling, it is simply that the bread crumb trail that is KU’s story is far too long and far too sparse.
Conversely the story actually does manage to pick up steam towards the end of the games third chapter, including multiple factions of creatures and an overarching plot that describes an entire worlds history and how you may just be the savior it; but due to the aforementioned ending it is all for naught.
I will not spoil the ending of Knytt Underground but understand this; it is enigmatic, unsatisfying, and brief. While it is clear that the developer intended it to be as such (mainly due to the fact he explains so during the finale) it doesn’t change the feeling that you’ve been cheated. After enduring the games astounding scope, and pursuing the games sparse fiction, it is devastating to be struck with an ending so inconclusive. Any good will that remained inside me towards Knytt Underground was decimated by my feelings towards the conclusion.
On a final note there are also some minor flaws that should be mentioned. If you are looking for trophies, you very well will find them here but expect to work. The vast majority of the trophies are given as a reward for reaching unspecified, diffucult-to-reach sections. Furthermore, the fact the game comes carrying a Mature rating due to the inclusion of a few unnecessary and superfluous curse words makes it even harder to recommend Knytt Underground, especially at the current price of $9.99 (even if it does support cross-buy/cross-save functionality).
Seeming to constantly taking one step forward and two steps back at every turn, Knytt Underground stretches itself thin and ultimately falls flat. Striving to both impress the player aesthetically as well as deliver a moral lesson, one must commend Nifflas Games for their well intent but it is utterly disappointing how far the execution missed its mark.