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A Hat in Time (Switch) artwork

A Hat in Time (Switch) review


"Timeless"


About 10 minutes into playing A Hat In Time, you could be forgiven for assuming that it's essentially a high quality, solidly-made Mario 64 clone. You start out in a hub-world environment, with doors locked behind the number of trinkets (in this case, timepieces) that you've acquired. But with one door open at the start, you can head in and enter your first true world. It's a wide open, non-linear playground of obstacles and enemies to jump on and over. There are little coin-like things everywhere that you can grab and help guide you along your way. Despite the freedom that all this space provides (space which is far more densely packed with exciting obstacles and geometry than the old days, thankfully), you have a singular objective that's relatively easy to find. Once you finish that objective and grab your trinket, you're kicked backed to the hub. But jump back in, and there's a new mission for you, in a different part of that playground, for a new timepiece. You'll do some exploration, some combat, and lots and lots of jumping. It's warm and fuzzy and comfortable and familiar, like catching up with an old friend.

But before you assume this is just an attempt to rope you in with nostalgia for the N64 era, perhaps it is best if you enter the second world. I suppose that means I should describe it for you, but I won't. Sorry! Suffice to say that the mission structure that follows is nothing like the first one, or for that matter like the Nintendo games of yore. One has virtually no platforming and zero combat at all. Another is stealth, and then a whodunit, then a challenging speedrun, then flat out horror. That's why I'm not giving you specifics. Playing this game, moving from one timepiece mission to the next, is constantly surprising you with its own unique mission structures. Even if each world has a unifying theme, they all play differently, and each missions in a single world can feel unique in terms of tone, setting, and gameplay. Wondering what could possibly come next, constantly being surprised, is part of the joy, part of the charm. So no, I can't give details, because you deserve that same experience. Just know these worlds you visit simply aren't your typical Mario-esque fire or water based enclaves; they each have a unique style you won't see anywhere else.

Simply put, this isn't a clone. This isn't an homage. This isn't an attempt to surround you with nostalgia. It's an original, brand-new take on the near-extinct 3D platformer genre, presenting itself as a step forward rather than looking back. And it succeeds, gloriously.

It all starts at the roots; A Hat in Time is still a 3D platformer. You move around and jump. Or double jump (Hat Kid ignores your silly concept of physics). Or jump, double jump, and then dive. Or double jump up to a wall, scamper up it a bit, and pop off the top. Or wall jump if you prefer. Really, the key here is that there is a huge sense of freedom with the movement, with the dive particularly being genius. It's a mostly horizontal dive, meaning it can give you a massive reach, feeling even more impressive than Mario's long jump. But more importantly, you can cancel it at any time, completely halting Hat Kid's momentum. So not only does the dive allow for crazy jumps, but it also gives you extreme precision, allowing you to aim for and hit small platforms from far away. Likewise, that little scamper and pop up on walls makes platforming a little more forgiving and gives you that little extra amount of verticality.

A platformer, even a 3D one, lives and dies with how fun it feels to just move the character around, and I honestly can't think of any that do it better. It's fluid, it's responsive, it's precise, it's well animated... it's just natural. I mean, sure, there's the typical camera problems that plague every 3D platformer ever making it hard to judge precisely where to jump to land on a thin wire, but even there the game feels pretty forgiving. Even when I fell to my doom, I never felt the need to blame the game for my own flaws. Doing a double jump, then dive, then cancel to reach that seemingly impossible location is enough to give you a dopamine hit, because the movement is so natural you feel you are completely in tune with the game and the character. You're in complete control.

Besides jumping, there's also Hat Kid's namesake, the hats themselves. These allow you to run faster or fire little magic bombs at enemies and obstacles or help with puzzles or whatever. Thankfully, these powerups never overwhelm the rest of the game, serving to complement your moveset rather than taking center stage. You're still mostly running and jumping, not constantly switching caps for painfully transparent puzzles or anything like that. Thus, it doesn't feel like a gimmick, just something you use every once in a while. And while many of them are for specific purposes, they have their secondary effects as well. The spooky mask is used for specific puzzles, yes, but it can also be used to make entirely different sequences a little easier. The ice hat allows you to catapult yourself, but can also be used to gain crazy speed by sliding down slopes. Again, it just helps to make the movement all the more expressive.

So you head out into the worlds to face the 40 missions awaiting you. Besides the standard story ones, there are certain optional missions that you must unlock, and then find the secret entrance to them in the world proper. Most of these are just pure platforming segments, but there's one on each world that is a fragmented remix of various parts of the world with no enemies (but still hazards!). The goal is to collect enough whatevers to keep moving to new fragments, but the REAL aim is to seek out and find all the pages of a storybook for each one that provides some backstory. It's a clever idea, as is needing to find the secret entrance, so these were nice change of pace to the traditional approach. Speaking of change of pace, there are plenty of other collectibles and secrets to distract yourself from the main missions. You need to collect yarn in order to make the different hats, you need to find and put together relics in order to unlock the aforementioned hidden missions, and you need to find special coins to play a slot machine game to unlock new color schemes and different hat styles. None of this distracts too much from the end goal, which is good. You never feel like this becomes a collectathon or an exploration-based game; the timepieces are still your primary goal. But if they give you another excuse to jump around in these wonderful worlds, they can't be bad.

The world of Hat in Time is bright and colorful, except when it's not supposed to be. Then it's dark and foreboding, or at least mysterious. But regardless of the tone, it's always well defined and doesn't get in the way of the platforming. Objectives are easy to see, platforms are clearly defined, enemies are instantly recognizable. That's the important part, but it certainly doesn't hurt that the game is also full of so much gosh darn character. I mean, it starts out with a Mafia cook who speaks in Boris and Natasha Russian accent knocking on the window of Hat Girl's spaceship (a window she can open... and nail boards into). Hat Girl will make sound effects as she moves along, giving a joyous "Boing!" when firing a hookshot or mischievously going "Blehhh" to a passerby. She will also put her hand up in a finger gun, James Bond style, whenever you're sneaking around. Not for any reason, mostly just because she's having fun. She can also get a pair of sunglasses out of a gumball machine and wear them for the level... and then get another one to put on top of the ones she already has on. Why? Well, why not? Or find her secret diary, where she writes comments about the levels you play and the odd odd bosses you fight. Or play patty cake with the villains, or pick a fight with your roomba. There's so much charm that you can't help but play with a smile on your face.

All that character, combined with perfect controls and expressive movement and innovative levels and intense boss fights and satisfying exploration and expansive setpieces and frantic challenges simply work to make this game feel whole, a complete package. Sure, I could nitpick. Some of the level missions were pretty simple, and the hidden pure platforming stages never seemed challenging enough. There's a few inside joke-type lines that feel like smarmy teenagers showing their supposed cleverness rather than the rest of the truly charming writing. And the Switch version, unfortunately, has some pretty long loading times. It's not perfect! But when the overall package feels so special, such minor issues can be easily brushed aside. Besides, the long loading times means you have more time to appreciate the loading screen art... Oh, did I mention that each individual mission has its own unique, gorgeous artwork associated with it? Yeah, like I said, complete package.

So many indie games are consciously trying to ape some trend or style, thus often making them feel artificial and soulless. You know how it is: we have a Dark Souls inspired Metroidvania with roguelike influences and an expansive skill tree all done with Game Boy pixel art and blah blah blah blah blah. Despite its obvious nods to Mario, A Hat in Time frankly doesn't do that. It just says, this here is my 3D platformer. It's a cute as heck one. And it's all our own.

And you know what? It's also one of the best.

5/5

mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (April 27, 2020)

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