A Hat in Time is a love letter to the 3D platformers of old, a time when that peculiar genre held sway in gaming. It does a good job of celebrating all that was good about such games, offering up genuine challenges. But it's unable to escape the orbit of a style of gaming that was very much of its time.
The 3D platformer, at least its origins, has always felt to me like a solution in search of a problem.
Prior to the mid-'90s, 2D platformers were a gaming staple. Once consoles were able to process 3D imagery, it just made sense to come up with a Super Mario 64 and a Crash Bandicoot. Otherwise, I'm certain that 'stick a camera behind a cartoon character as it jumps around' wouldn't have been a priority.
But it was a priority, and now those games stand for a certain time and place, 20-odd years ago, which is usually the fallowest of periods in the nostalgia biz. A Hat in Time is a nostalgia piece. It does not attempt to re-invent or innovate. It simply takes a slice of the past and reheats it.
Back in the day, this slightly odd genre posed significant development challenges, such as where to place the camera, and how to ensure that the exactitude of 2D platforming was accurately (though not prohibitively) executed. Many of those early games were tightly designed and narratively charming, because the likes of Nintendo and Sony invested in developers with skill and imagination. These were the games that sold consoles to target audiences of children.
But the genre was overplayed by crappy imitators, and has now taken a detour into the realms of the toy market. Super Mario Odyssey looks to be a potential savior, a way to remake 3D platforming. It certainly looks ambitious.
This being the nostalgia-friendly world of gaming, there's an audience for a return to a '90s-era, 3D platform game that makes demands on its players, while cleaving to genre norms, such as a huge focus on collecting stuff. A Hat in Time is unashamedly a tribute act, trotting out a look and feel heavily influenced by the likes of Banjo Kazooie and Psychonauts.
It's not unlike Yooka-Laylee in this regard. And like Playtonic's Banjo rewrite, it's better at recreating the past than imagining a future.
I played about five hours of the game and I reckon it will go down well with the thousands of people who supported it on Kickstarter, all the way back in 2013. But if you've left behind all those primary colors, bouncy, moving platforms and lava levels, I don't believe this game will tease you back.
For sure, it's pretty, in the gaudy way of such things. It's an anarchy of forms and colors that adds up to a carefully constructed world, in which finding order is the puzzle at hand.
The game stars a spacefaring kid whose main ability is jumping. She can also bash baddies with a broom, but this is barely the point. Her job is to jump from one thing to another in search of access points to goodies that are squirreled away in hard-to-reach places. She can also find bonuses that can be crafted into hats, which give special abilities.
She must collect timepieces before her little rival gets to them first. At the same time, she has to deal with the “mafia,” a bunch of slightly confusing quasi-goons who look a lot scarier than they behave.
All this hide-and-seek means there are a lot of dead ends and backtracking. The entire world is more like a bolus than a linear puzzle. It doesn't invite you to follow any particular path. It literally tells you to get lost, and have fun doing so, assuming you've got the chops.
More than once, I made my way patiently to a far-off target, fell off a ledge, and had to start over. It was usually my fault, but it came as a surprise to find a game like this that gleefully expects me to fail repeatedly.
A Hat in Time expects me to make jumps accurately, and to figure out (the hard way) when something is too far to reach. It's a departure from the hand-holding we've seen in games like Knack 2. This game wants you to think creatively and to move nimbly.
Some of the quests demand repetitious attempts to master tricky chains of platforms. I gave up on more than one to go in search of a different goody. There is a definite hierarchy of difficulty going on here. I kinda enjoyed working that out for myself, prioritizing targets as my abilities increased. (I mean my actual skill levels, not some artificial in-game abilities.)
Like many 3D platform games of the past, A Hat in Time doesn't entirely solve the camera problem. I often found myself wanting to look at stuff, but being denied by an unwieldy camera system. When I'm trying to make precise jumps and climbs, that's a problem.
The map I played is an island city, a highly layered puzzle of platforms, ramps, corridors, rooftops, launchpads and ropes. I can't begin to imagine the planning it took to design such a place, with all its interconnected nodes and surprising shortcuts.
If you want a 3D platform game with tons of things to collect, but one that doesn't try too hard to innovate, A Hat in Time just about hits the mark. It's out today on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One.