Knytt Underground review for PS Vita, PSN

Platform: PS Vita
Also On: PS3, PSN
Publisher: Ripstone
Developer: nifflas
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

Knytt Underground is…something.

I realize that outside of my house, that doesn’t mean much, so I should probably give a little backstory. Basically, any time my wife or I come across something that leaves us more confused than anything, the go-to response is “Well that’s…something.” (The phrase “Uh….huh” is also acceptable.) “Something” is a descriptor that applies to anything that exists outside of the usual good/bad, awful/awesome dichotomy.

And if ever I’ve played a game that seems to exist in that difficult-to-classify grey area, Knytt Underground would be it. I mean, I have an opinion on it — I kind of hate it. Or, at least, I think I hate it. It’s probably a mark of how confused the game leaves me that I’ve played it for about a dozen hours now, and explored more rooms than I can count (literally, since the save system, and its total lack of autosave, means that I twice lost a substantial amount of progress), but I still can’t tell for certain whether I like it or whether it makes me want to throw my Vita across the room.

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That’s not to say I don’t like and dislike certain elements of Knytt Underground. Take the game’s art, for example: it’s gorgeous. It’s got a neat style that could almost be accused of ripping off Limbo — in many places, you’re basically playing in silhouette — if it weren’t for the fact that every so often you’ll come across dazzling, vibrant colours and images, things like luminescent flowers and glowing mushrooms, that are simply beautiful. Considering you’re playing in a 2D cavern, that’s quite an achievement.

Also neat: the sheer size of the game’s world. You’re tasked with exploring a cavern that contains approximately 2,000 rooms, and a significant chunk of them require a combination of careful planning and luck in order to reach. With that kind of scope, it’s very easy to sink lots of time into the game, and you generally won’t feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again.

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You will, however, wonder why you’re doing it. That’s Knytt Underground’s big, glaring flaw, as far as I’m concerned: there’s not much of a plot to speak of. Or, more accurately, there is (possibly?) one… something to do with ringing bells of fate to stop the world from ending, if Google is leading me in the right direction, but the game does a horrendous job of explaining it. Things get mentioned in passing in conversation with characters you meet throughout the game, but there’s no way of telling what’s important to the story, and what’s just a weird digression. Just like the game starts with your character in silhouette and no explanation of what you’re supposed to do next (hint: exit to the right to get to the game’s title screen), if you’re anything like me, you’ll constantly feel as though you’re only getting snippets and fragments of something that may or may not be much larger. While that may be true to life, it’s not exactly conducive to making a coherent game.

That said, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that I might be looking at things the wrong way — that I might be looking for a linear plot when that’s not supposed to be the focus of the game, and that all the random asides are there to be reminders of that fact. If that’s the case, then trying to apply the usual “This game is awesome!”/”This game sucks!” labels just doesn’t work. If you’re supposed to focus on the simple joys of exploring and solving the occasional puzzle, rather than worrying about completing quests and finding items and ringing bells of fate, then…well, then the game is an unqualified success, and I’m just missing the point entirely. Though the converse is true, too — if creator Nicklas Nygren was trying to tell a story with Knytt Underground, he failed miserably.

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Considering Nygren’s past, however, it seems like the charitable approach is the one to take. I mean, if the man once made a game where the point was figuring out the rules, expecting anything in the way of obvious linearity is probably expecting too much. I can’t say, in all honesty, that it’s an approach that speaks to me (I like my games to be obvious and linear, darnit!), but I can say that if you’re the type of person who can appreciate the journey as much as the destination in a game, then Knytt Underground should be well worth your time and money.

Grade: B