York University is easily winter-locked, and the building I lived in was an L-shaped snow trap in corner of the campus. Leaving for adventures was rare in ye olde days when multimedia had to be physically purchased. My precarious laptop went into a coma for anything more advanced than RollerCoaster Tycoon. So bless the games of Nicklas “Nifflas” Nygren, an assonant Swedish indie game dev who has been churning out hardware-easy, freeware gems since 2006, giving me stress-free solace.
Light on narrative and minimalist visuals, but soaked in atmosphere and clever platforming, Within a Deep Forest (which had you play as a ball) and the Knytt series (which had you play as a bygone Macintosh icon) proved sublimity in simplicity. In the homestretch of 2012, Nifflas released Knytt Underground onto PlayStation Network, ushering in a wave of changes both good and bad news for seminal fans, like myself. First and foremost that you’ll have to pay for this one.
The Knytt games are 2D platformers. You, as a scampering dwarven humanoid hero named Knytt, are faced with leaping challenges stressing you out in an otherwise geometric zen garden atmosphere. Knytt could do nothing but clamber up walls and jump. The series illustrates how far a well-designed game could go with no more than foundation mechanics. They were small, tender journeys that tested but didn’t terrorize. No matter how strict the obstacles became, a comforting and open world kept you venturing.
Underground, unlike other Knytt games, is oddly split into three chapters — with the first two really just serving as prologues for the third chapter, which is the bulk of the entire game — you’d be misled to think that this was a short experience. But Nifflas steps in as a sort of narrator, assuring us to hold on tight.
Narrative, one of the series’ new appendages, is new-ish turf for Nifflas. Previous Knytt games revolved around something simple, like an alien abduction or a world after humankind. In Underground, Knytt’s goal is to ring six bells as part of a family tradition. Along the way, she gains the ability to transform into a bouncy ball (effectively merging Nifflas’ two series) and is joined by two fairies who speak for the mute Knytt to help her complete quests and missions. They also curse like sailors, which seems to be the entirety of the M rating’s justification, unless there’s a hidden porno, gore and gun room I have yet to locate.
Story was never a forte in Knytt, as its timid presence donated some mystique. Here it verges towards a distraction, though some may find charm in the odd developments and anti-climaxes along the bumpy journey.
Change two, the one that’s most obvious and most alienating: the look. Knytt games were never much for, oh, textures. The beings inhabiting these planets were basic but servicing, and could have blended in atop the snowy mountains of SkiFree. Likewise, the environments were composed of shapes, lines and saturations. If Nifflas wanted to step things up for a PSN outing, he’s taken two steps forward and one back.
The environments have grown in Underground. An ecosystem of flowering knick-knacks, swaying photo-manipulated foliage, darkened cities of tiny lights, curious critters that peek when you pass by all give off a vibe closer to Samorost than a dyed Ikea shelf.
The massive world has a personality no matter how deep you go. Some annexes of the cave complex are drenched in fog and devoid of light, misty walls closing in with only your glowing pixie pals to light the way. Some cities are hidden beyond a tunnel, rewarding your challenge with some serene, uncovered hobble or hidden DJ show. Some areas are volcanic, and are a pain in the ass, when the game flexes your platforming finesse.
But that “step back” I mentioned? For whatever reason, the characters themselves — Knytt, family and quest-givers — all look like they’re more fitting for some faraway shovelware than from one of indie’s most vetted developers.
Beneath the new visuals, Knytt thankfully feels the same. The same engine scampers and ambiently hums under the new coat. True, Within a Deep Forest’s boingy ball has been added, edging off some of the on-foot, wall-climbing challenges, but Underground adds new challenges to compensate. There are also power-ups, which are more signal flags for puzzles more than aid relief. Actually, the steepest change in pace seems to be a more unconscious decision, an accident amid the grande expansion of the game.
Both Knytt and Within a Deep Forest had open worlds to discover, with loose Metroidvania sensibilities. There were only closed doors because you didn’t possess the ability to overcome a single notch, obstacle or platform just out of reach. The result were worlds that guided your hand but still felt as if you were cutting your own path, the option for a scenic route available though not logical. That guiding hand sensation is in the first two chapters of Knytt Underground, while the third, the massive world at your threshold, swats away that hand, and for better or worse leaves you with only your basic abilities and a map. It becomes a sort of 2D Skyrim, an immense area of play, littered with micro-quests, which you can accept or push onward into a world of unknowns.
Knytt’s main quest is to ring the six bells, but each are usually met with a request for coins or artefacts. Locations of the two types of wares are not pointed out in the map, and the quest to find them almost always spirals into chains of tangent adventures or darting to some opposite spot on the world by sheer momentum. For players who prefer scientific, concise gameplay may be irked at how distracting this can become, compared to previous Nifflas adventures. Players who live, breathe and die for raw exploration will champion Knytt Underground.
Much of the clutter seems to be Nifflas’ attempt to compete with commercial releases. The more open and lusher world works great, but there remains one or two off-putting missteps: the goofy-looking characters and their colloquial cussing, both can be overcome by rolling your eyes hard enough.
It is not the Knytt game that was my companion on a lonely campus, but while my patience is sometimes tried by a game more overwhelming than its predecessors, it is still ambiatic and warm, and is still an inspiring Knytt entry to behold.