Kickstarter projects are always a risk. For every success story such as Shovel Knight or FTL, there’s a PR disaster like Mighty No. 9 or Unsung Story lurking in the shadows. Yooka-Laylee, an attempt to revive the N64-era of ‘collectathon’ 3D platformers, finds itself in an odd position: it technically provided exactly what it promised, but critics argued it did so without polish and (more vitally) a soul. I hope, then, that it’s not too bold a statement to say that as the Kickstarter project fans were hoping for, I believe A Hat in Time succeeds where many feel Yooka-Laylee failed.
For a galaxy-spanning 3D adventure, A Hat in Time sure starts out more low-key than you might expect, with our central protagonist (the ‘cute-as-heck’ Hat Girl) waking up in her bed aboard her personal space ship (the circumstances behind which are left intentionally vague). A visitor prompts the player to visit the cockpit of the ship, where they meet the first in what is a large cast of outlandish characters. Unfortunately, as we are soon told, “All roads lead to Mafia”, and a accident during a ‘toll collection’ results in Hat Girl’s spaceship-powering Time Pieces spilling out to the planets below. Cue a journey to the stars to recover the Time Pieces, all the while jumping between objects and solving local problems.
The initial, semi-open world of Mafia Town does a great job of introducing players to the game, with standout character Moustache Girl acting as a welcome (if sometimes… concerning) mentor. While the influences drawn from Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine are most obvious here, A Hat in Time as a whole is a charming concoction of many ingredients; don’t be surprised to find a pinch of Psychonauts here or a dash of Paper Mario there, with a occasionally dark underlying flavour that invites comparisons to Undertale, too. In one obvious homage to Murder on the Orient Express (and Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door), Hat Girl is tasked with discovering the identity of a killer aboard a moving train (which is also being filmed for a movie, by the way). In another sequence, Hat Girl becomes a mercenary-of-sorts for a ghost who has ‘borrowed’ her soul. Throughout, the game manages to successfully balance episodic goals, story segments and boss battles against more traditional platforming challenges, with Alpine Skyline and the various ‘Time Rift’ stages both being good examples of the latter.
Though the game’s inventive scenarios and whimsical dialogue make up the bulk of its appeal, a hat-switching mechanic and stat-altering badges provide new ways to interact with the environment as the player progresses. Badges might, for example, make it easier to collect Poms (the game’s currency) or survive fall damage. Hats, on the other hand, generally add a new move or attack to Hat Girl’s repertoire. The Sprint Hat, in particular, is a joy to use, allowing skilled players to string together jumps and motions into something resembling a sort of effortless parkour.
With 40 Time Pieces to collect – I’d estimate a good 30 of them are tied to unique objectives – A Hat in Time doesn’t outstay its welcome, either, with just enough meat to sate both hardcore platforming fans and newcomers alike. And if you’re still hungry for more once the credits roll, there are some adorable collectables to be found by way of a slot machine aboard the central hub, dispensing such goodies as BGM remixes and skin recolours for your equipment. A wonderfully catchy soundtrack composed by Pascal Michael Stiefel and featuring contributions from Rare legend Grant Kirkhope, among others, keeps everything moving along nicely, and the Wind Waker-esque cartoon visuals are sure to draw new players in.
Speaking of graphics, it’s worth addressing the performance of the recently released PlayStation 4 port, which caps the framerate to 30FPS and makes other changes to the visuals, especially concerning draw distance and Unreal Engine’s neato blur effects. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m particularly sensitive to framerate in comparison to the average player, but the compromises made here are quite disappointing; after the silky-smooth performance of the PC version (even on my ageing GTX 970) and immediately following the similarly-fluid Super Mario Odyssey, the previously-tight controls feel, by comparison, sluggish. You can probably adjust if you have no other option, but I’d thoroughly recommend the PC version of A Hat in Time first and foremost.
A Hat in Time’s initial release in October does, of course, invite lofty comparisons to the critically-lauded Super Mario Odyssey, but I’m pleased to report that this game holds up on its own merits. In fact, while I’d argue that Mario Odyssey is the superior game overall, it wouldn’t surprise me if some players prefer the adventures of Hat Girl; between this game’s refinement of the Sunshine formula, its oddball characters and its focus on tight platforming, it’s sure to win staunch supporters. Rather than sulk in the shadow of Nintendo’s plumber, A Hat in Time stands strong as a recommended appetiser (or even outright alternative) to Mario’s most recent masterpiece.