Review: A Hat in Time

A Hat in Time is an indie platformer following in the footsteps of games such as Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64, despite the clear inspiration it has little issue finding its own identity. It’s a “cute as heck” platformer and that shows through its dialogue and visual design. A Hat in time gets the important things right. As well having a sense of humour and some very original ideas, it feels responsive and fun to move around in. The only real jank I encountered was the occasional camera problems, getting stuck on invisible walls or locking into positions I didn’t want it to. The movement feels tight even if it doesn’t have the Nintendo polish that it would be unfair to expect a kickstarted indie game to have.

For a “collectathon” 3D platformer there’s not actually much collecting to be doing, which works out quite well. There are only 40 Time Pieces, A Hat in Time’s equivalent of Banjo-Kazooie’s Jiggies or Super Mario 64’s Stars, all of which are an explicit reward for completing a specific challenge in a chapter. General exploration and shorter challenges are rewarded with yarn, which can be used to craft hats and relics which unlock bonus stages. Neither of these items require you to collect all of them to 100% the game, relics, for example can be found in various locations, but not all of these locations must be accessed to obtain every the relic in every chapter. Likewise, collecting Yarn unlocks new hats, but you do not need to collect every yarn in the game to unlock all the hats. This gives a more casual pace to the exploration that I feel works really well for a game that is shorter, overall, than many others in its genre.

The hat system is a mixed bag. The Brewing Hat and Ice Hat are pretty much just keys with abilities used to access new areas. The Dweler’s Mask works slightly better as it materializes certain platforms, functioning as a platforming ability. Barring a late game hat which see’s very little use at all, this is the only hat that really acts as a platforming ability. The Sprint hat allows you to run, but is never needed for platforming. The badge system is also disappointing, most badges you can equip are fairly inconsequential, with the exception of the hookshot badge which is so important it should have just been a straight up ability, regardless of equipped badges. I feel both of these ideas could have been expanded on greatly to force more variety into the platforming.

The First level, Mafia Town, is almost the stand out example of level design, the closest A Hat in Time comes to Super Mario Odyssey’s New Donk City. Set on a mountain island, it’s a dense cone of obstacles where merely moving around and finding an elegant path through the use of your platforming tricks is fun. I say “almost” there for an important reason, Mafia town is the first level in the game and while it’s a well designed level, it’s also bad introduction. On your first arrival in Mafia Town you wont know the fun and fast ways to jump and dash around the level and it doesn’t do a great job of organically teaching you either. Instead, contained within this level are a series of challenges that involve going to a specific spot and doing a specific challenge in that area. None of these missions are bad, but they don’t mesh so well with the design of the level. It deserved better and could have been more interesting had it came later in the game, where it could take advantage of the players expanded moveset knowledge to put the structure of the level to better use. Going back to Mafia Town at a later point when you are more familiar with the gameplay makes all the difference and I recommend you do so. In fact for many of the collectables you will need later abilities to obtain them, so I feel the developers probably intended this to be a place you come back to throughout the game and for that reason I’ll still say Mafia Town is a good level.

The next two levels really show what A Hat in Time can do with its presentation. Not content with following that usual formula of water level, lava level, desert level and so on, the settings of A Hat in Time’s levels follow through more so on an “idea” than an “aesthetic”. Chapter 2 follows two rival movie directors each of whom you must help in the creation of their films. The platforming challenges of the missions then revolve around you fulfilling the requirements for the movie they’re creating. This works out far more interesting than simply having the levels take place on a movie set with no context would have been. Importantly still, I think the game could have done a lot more with this concept. It’s great how it contextualises some of the obstacles of the game, but the aim of the story still almost always revolves around fulfilling a basic platforming challenge. This is still fun, but what I would have liked to see is more forced variety in the gameplay to express the story through the actions you take. The stealth elements of the chapter do a decent job of this, but alternatively in “Murder on the Owl Express” to collect evidence for a murder you take on various platforming challenges to get an item which is called only called evidence. It doesn’t give you the feel of a detective story, because it’s still just a platformer. This all in all isn’t terrible or game ruining, the platforming is perfectly fun, my disappointment comes from the presentation suggesting something more ambitious. I wanted the game to push itself just a little bit more, in the way a game like Undertale does, with climatic twists on the gameplay to present story ideas or Super Mario Odyssey does with New Dunk City Festival and its ending.

Similarly, Subcon Forest has many of the same positives and negatives in its presentation, but unfortunately the level design itself is far less interesting. Navigating the setting is boring, unlike Mafia town, which is dense with obstacles or Battle of the Birds which has a variety of different settings, Subcon Forest is almost a flat plane with puzzle and platforming challenges littered throughout. Still, there is one stand out act in this chapter, which turns the game into survival horror and is an outstanding example of when A Hat in Time’s presentation successfully takes a front seat and stretches the game’s boundaries.

The overarching story itself is lacking. Mustache Girl is a particularly weak villain, she doesn’t feel like a real threat and only features prominently right at the beginning and right at the end. She doesn’t have any attachment to the events of most chapters. The characters of each chapter, while interesting, exist only within their chapter, other than the occasional minor character visiting the ship’s hub world. This blunts the impact of the ending somewhat, which tries to take advantage of your relationship with these characters, but I never felt like I had been on a journey with these characters, I only felt I’d gone into their worlds to assist them. The story lacks a character arc that persists for the whole game, even if there are some decent character arcs within each chapter.

Despite the platforming itself being fun and having enough fresh challenges to support the length of the game, I was disappointed in how easy it is. A Hat in Time feels as though it aims to please both younger players and those who are older with nostalgia for the genre. Its writing, while very simple, does occasionally wink and nudge at an older audience. For this reason I don’t take issue with the base game being easy, but do take issue with the simplicity of the optional challenges. The time rifts are those exact optional challenges I expected more from. The blue time rifts are much like the secret levels from Super Mario Sunshine, unique platforming challenges that exist in a vacuum from the rest of the level. I often love these linear and focused platforming challenges in 3D platformers but here they are pretty simple and all follow the exact same sterile blue and white aesthetic.

Where the optional challenges really do stand out, though, are the purple time rifts. These are simply some of the best levels in the game. Like a freeze frame of the chapter’s history, capturing the essence of the level into one big platforming challenge, dense with atmosphere, while this┬áChrono Trigger-esque lofi hip hop music plays. The visual design of these levels borrow from their main chapter and expand on the meaning behind the setting in a magical way. These areas though slightly more challenging primarily because of their length are still pretty easy, but do come the closest to being the ultimate test of the mechanics introduced in the chapter.

This platforming excellence comes to its peak is in Alpine Skyline. Unlike the previous chapters in more open settings, Alpine Skyline is like a web of more linear platforming challenges connected in a nonlinear fashion, free to explore in which order you prefer. The presentation is less explicit, but still manages to create a grand feeling appropriate for the penultimate chapter. For me personally, I love the linear and focused platforming style of games like Super Mario Galaxy 2 and 3D World, while at the same time also enjoying the levels in a game to feel like they exist in a consistent and believable setting. Alpine Skyline delivers on both of those wishes. It’s the kind of approach to level design that I feel could be strong enough to support an entire game.

A Hat in Time is an extremely solid game. It feels good to play and has many unique ideas in its presentation and setting. The game is not too long, it took me about 14 hours to 100% according to Steam and I feel satisfied with the time spent. Most of A Hat in Time’s negative aspects are not so much glaring issues as they are short fallings, areas where the game could have pushed itself more to provide a greater challenge or more unique abilities and platforming challenges. I can’t fault it too much, because it is still a solid and enjoyable game.