Knytt Underground is a peculiar one. Part explorative adventure and part physics-based puzzler, the game’s somewhat dark narrative, in which the world’s inhabitants believe a prophecy that the world will dissolve if the six bells of fate aren’t rung every six hundredth year by a member of the Sprocket family, never seems to take itself seriously enough.
It’s part of creator Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren’s mischievous quirk. Players left to wonder whether the world’s plight is indeed real, or the result of scaremongering across millennia. Whether you choose to believe that the Gods of Order will awaken to stabilise the world’s elements is another matter, as, cast in the role of mute sprite Mi Sprocket, you are the one chosen to set out on such quest.
Considering the potential consequences of failing to do complete such an enormous task, Knytt Underground amounts to a rather serene experience, publisher Ripstone even going as far as to call it “zen-like,” not that we could dispute such claim.
With the world’s surface having been destroyed by humans in a war five hundred years ago, the remaining population were forced to live in underground tunnels punctuated with overgrown flowers, trickling waterways and rampant robots and turrets hell-bent on neutralising any living entities that cross their path.
Split into three separate chapters, the first and second serve as shorter narratives that set out to introduce you to the game’s platforming mechanics and design. The first explores Mi’s use of coloured orbs to aid you in your exploration. White orbs can be flung at enemies to neutralise them, whereas red, blue and green orbs temporarily fling you upward, sideways, or weave yourself in any controlled direction respectively.
After an unexpected explosion, Mi discovers that she has been turned into a ball, and, unable to talk is soon discovered by a fairy that decides to call her Bob. This is the second chapter’s humorous tale, players learning to put the transformation’s physics to use as they recklessly bound across the world, magnetising themselves to swing from enemies and bouncing their way up slanted inclines.
Once you’re past these, the third chapter brings everything together. With Mi having learned to freely switch between her normal and ball forms, this is where the game overwhelmingly opens up as you at last approach the main task at hand. Accompanied by fairies Dora and Cilia you adventure toward ringing the six bells of fate, each being pre-determined points designated on the Mapper displayed on the Wii U GamePad that automatically marks all paths and areas that you have taken. With thousands to wander through – the third chapter said to be ten times larger than that traversed in the first – this is an adventure that will take you considerable time to beat.
If that sounds worrying, fear not as curiosity will often get the better of you. The combination of switching between Mi’s two forms never tires and the game’s backdrops switch between sublime greenery to ominous technologies to make sure that your continual discoveries remain varied. Side quests spur your journey, seeing you recovering artefacts, flowers or other oddball items for the world’s inhabitants, often for little reward although some open up new pathways to speed your exploration.
Whilst a game that can easily have you hooked for hours at a time, there are grievances to mention here with the lack of autosaving soon becoming the most significant. Considering that death merely sees you respawn in or near the room that you’re trying to tackle this comes as a surprise, instead requiring players to return to previously explored areas just to check in at a save point.
The Wii U GamePad, whilst put to commendable use, could have also seen more helpful implementation. The Mapper, which tracks where you’ve explored as well as highlighting key parts – objectives, save locations, and quest starting points – would have been enhanced further with the chance to place your own notes. This would save returning to impassable areas or taking a wayward turn, an occurrence which soon began to happen regularly for me.
Despite such criticism, it is in discovery that Knytt Underground manages to excite by luring your curiosity throughout its entirety. Broody and evocative, Nifflas signals the emerging rise of the indies on the Nintendo eShop, crafting experiences that rival even the platform holder’s lofty creations.