Kickstarter sure is a fickle beast. The crowdfunding platform has held host to some truly notable flops, particularly where video games are concerned, but every now and again something notable emerges from it. Pulling nearly 10 times its initial $30,000 goal, it seems people really wanted a brand new 3D collectathon platformer .Much like its contemporary Yooka-Laylee, Gears for Breakfast traded on its audience’s nostalgia and proved that a market still exists for these kinds of games in an industry currently dominated by a generic video-games-by-numbers approach.
A Hat in Time (PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Oct 2017 | Developed: Gears for Breakfast | Published: Humble Bundle
Genre: Platformer | HLTB: 10 hours
We are Hat Girl! She’s a girl, she’s got hats, you get the idea. She’s trying to get home but unfortunately her spaceship suffers some damage and it scatters her fuel, the mystical and powerful Time Pieces, all across an eclectic array of planets. Sounds like a call to adventure to me! We join Hat Girl as she travels to different worlds and gathers her Time Pieces back up before they fall into the wrong hands and their awesome time-manipulating powers are used for mischief.
A Hat in Time wears its influences proudly. Super Mario 64 is perhaps the clearest of these as Hat Girl travels from world to world, each time dropping in with a specific goal to accomplish in order to gather another Time Piece before warping out once it’s been safely scooped up. You’ll be unsurprised to hear though that other games from the golden age of 3D platformers are obvious in their impact on A Hat in Time. The dorky, slightly dark comedy of Banjo-Kazooie is evident in the game’s dialogue, Hat Girl unlocks new powers as she crafts hats in a manner that reminds of later Mario entries such as Galaxy and Odyssey, and some of the level design that interacts with these new powers is reminiscent of Spyro the Dragon level construction. There’s also at least one stage that goes full-on Psychonauts, to my absolute delight.
The worlds certainly are inventive, with distinctly different aesthetics and even totally different styles of level design. The opening chapter takes place in Mafia Town, a Mediterranean village built up around a water-spewing volcano; the use of verticality in the design of the stage is excellent, and there are tonnes of nooks and crannies to explore and revist with new powers later in the game. The stage itself is more or less open to explore from the off, but that’s not the same for the other stages. One chapter takes place in a movie studio and follows a far more traditional linear level structure (incidentally your tiny heroine hopping around a giant movie studio feels so similar to levels like Al’s Toy Barn from Toy Story 2, another exceptional example from 3D platformers’ heyday), while others mix up wide-open stages with exploration and clearly delineated separate levels. It’s a testament to the strength of the design that it never feels disjointed and instead feels refreshing to switch between level types.
If you’ve played a 3D platformer of this type, much of the game will be instantly familiar. Thankfully, one thing the developers took the time to modernise was Hat Girl’s movement; older platformers may have been inventive and innovative but often the way their characters moved in these strange new 3D worlds was stilted and awkward. Blessedly, there’s no such clunkiness on display here though, and Hat Girl’s running, jumping, and turning are all extremely tight and accurate. Some of the game’s platforming challenges are tricky but you never feel like you’ve lost control of Hat Girl or had her movement cause a death.
However, the game does have a bad habit of introducing new gimmicks that I found hugely annoying; when we’re given pure platforming A Hat in Time excels, but too often that is muddied by tedious and frustrating tweaks that dilute the gameplay and mess with the fun. The worst offenders are the boss fights, which I found almost entirely and exceptionally poor; most of them fall into a pattern of simply waiting for boss animations to play out until you’re allowed a small window to hit and at least one ramps this up to such an offensive degree that the player might not as well bother being there at all. When A Hat in Time is good, it’s fantastic; when it’s bad it is catastrophically annoying and risks undoing all of the goodwill it builds up prior.
I mentioned hats before and that invites another obvious comparison to a different old-fashioned 3D platformer with sartorial theming: Super Mario Odyssey. A Hat in Time and Odyssey are cut from the same cloth, and I think it is a testament to the skill and care of Gears for Breakfast that an independently developed, funded, and released game can stand up next to something created and published by a monolithic company such as Nintendo. It’s no AAA release, but A Hat in Time occupies that same space as releases like Shovel Knight or Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, where the level of polish is brilliant but the game is at that middle tier of price.
Anyway, Odyssey. Like Mario’s adventure, A Hat in Time is naturally about headgear and platforming, those two natural companions. What I like is that both approach the idea differently. Hat Girl can create new hats to change how she interacts with the world; her default top hat can home in on objectives, but she also gets headwear that can let her sprint, concoct explosive potions, or even slam to the ground by turning to an icy statue. Additionally, she can purchase and wear badges which provide passive bonuses and abilities. Early game badges include one that lets you hoover up Pons, the game’s currency, quickly, but you can also unlock other useful powers such as a hookshot or a means of avoiding fall damage. Some badges are decidedly goofier though; there’s no utility to a badge that changes all the dialogue into Banjo-Kazooie-style grunts but I’m sure glad it’s there anyway!
Visually, A Hat in Time is a treat. Hat Girl has a cartoony Wind Waker vibe to her, especially in her giant expressive eyes that convey so much character. It’s impressive given she’s a largely silent protagonist aside from the odd grunt or word. Every world is vibrant and lush, brimming with colour; it’s exactly the kind of artistic style that will age beautifully. Special mention should probably be given to the Badge Seller, a recurring merchant who, when I first met him, made me think my game was genuinely bugging out. He twitches and distorts in a deeply unnerving way, his body twisting due to traveling between worlds too much, and his speech is equally warped to further unsettle unprepared players.
On top of that, the soundtrack is excellent. Primarily composed by Pascal Michael Stiefel, A Hat in Time’s music is one of the few things that never provided me with any frustration whatsoever. It excellently blends a bevy of genres, constantly switching to match the way the levels change setting and style.
The musical influences are as plain as the aesthetic and level designs ones. The Title Theme’s whistles makes it feel quintessentially Zelda, and they quickly blend in harmony with the wavy synths that feels like a signature instrument of the soundtrack. The jaunty low brass intro to New Adventure is so Banjo-Kazooie; you might get the same sense from Her Spaceship but then again it was literally composed by Grant Kirkhope! The use of Hat Girl’s leitmotif ties it together with Stiefel’s score neatly while still retaining Kirkhope’s trademark whimsy – just try not to bop along to the oboe!
The versatility of the soundtrack is one of its main strengths. You can find yourself enjoying the smooth jazz of So, What’s the Plan? and Mafia HQ, and then you’ll change level and suddenly it’s all change on the aural front. Deadbird Studio Reception has the same chill vibe I get from Shoji Meguro’s town tracks in the Persona games, the pulsing bassline and beautiful panned reverberating drums of Tick Tock feel perfect for stealth, you’ve got Wild West ragtime in The Conductor’s Train, heavy metal in The Battle of Award 42, and even a distorted screaming cacophony to capture the horror vibes of one chapter in Snatcher’s Contractual Obligations.
It also includes remixes of tracks from guest composers that can be unlocked in-game. The theme to the first level, Mafia Town, has a quiet sinister feel to it thanks to the low-pitched instrumentation, minor key, and aggressive staccato rhythm, but compare that to the funky electronic remix from Qumu that mixes in some beastly chiptune motifs. I love the fact that the remixes really take liberties with Stiefel’s originals; for example changing the Mafia Boss theme from heavy metal to a gorgeous orchestral track complete with ominous chanting. I feel the need to note the fact that there’s an electro-swing remix of a track included in this; Train Rush was already hectic, but making it into a Caravan Palace backing track ticks all the right boxes for me. That another track gets the vaporwave treatment is just icing on the cake.
It’s nice that A Hat in Time doesn’t outstay its welcome. 9 hours of play saw me to the end credits, though I still had 10 or so Time Pieces left to collect, not to mention the hidden relics and secret Hat and Outfits swatches to try and unlock. For those of us seeking a story end, A Hat in Time provides a reasonably quick hit of nostalgic platformer fun, but completionists are still catered for, which is great to see.
It made me unreasonably angry at times but once the credits were rolling and I could sit back and reflect on it, I found it was easy for me to recommend it. It has some flaws, serious ones at that, but I simply cannot stay made at a game made with such heart and love and care, and one that showcases such charm. I have a great love of auteur projects and for a tiny indie development team to come together and remind the game industry that there is an audience for exactly the type of game that I grew up with and to produce a rather fine game to prove it is precisely the kind of thing I’m happy to support.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.