I consider Psychonauts to be one of the greatest games ever made, but its brilliance comes with a bit of a drawback in that after playing it, I could never go back to more “standard” levels in platformers ever again. Mere fire worlds and ice worlds just can’t compete with the likes of worlds made of giant blacklight paintings with bulls running in the streets or Escher-style lands with government conspiracies hosting pyromaniac milkmen. And indeed, such genius level design has rarely been seen in platforming since then. But then I recently got a chance to check out the “Murder on the Owl Express” level from the upcoming 3D platformer A Hat in Time and it genuinely feels like a breath of fresh air that would make Raz and company proud.
As you may have figured out from the title, this particular chapter of the game centered around a murder mystery. During the initial journey through the train, a group of slender, mysterious trenchcoat-clad crows (agents of C.A.W.) gather information from our protagonist (simply named “Hat Girl”) in ways similar to that of online scam artists. Once all of the information was gathered, the killer struck, with the main suspect being none other than Hat Girl’s own long-lost relative…made up during a discussion with the crows, and represented by a cardboard cutout. Unsurprisingly, A Hat in Time gets a lot of mileage out of its humor, and a lot of it is well-written and rather charming.
Thus with the crows taking over things and acting awfully suspicious, it’s up to Hat Girl to conduct a private investigation and gather the six pieces of evidence needed to solve things. This is where A Hat in Time’s main inspiration – the collect-a-thon platformers of the late ’90s – kicks in, having you comb over each area for the evidence, along with any regular items to collect, and solving puzzles to unlock new areas. This level in particular placed the emphasis on stealth, where you have to avoid the glares of the C.A.W. agents snooping around. Doing so requires you to make use of the special abilities various hats give you, allowing you to sprint during moments when no one’s looking, bounce across certain platforms, or detect where the nearest area of importance is. It’s arguably simple gameplay, but it comes together perfectly, making for a fun experience that does indeed evoke the best games of the ’90s.
After collecting all of the evidence and thus unlocking the six available suspects, it was time to select who the killer actually was. Since this is for comedic purposes, who you choose doesn’t affect things gameplay-wise, but it will affect the dialogue in later scenes. Overall, the aesthetics of the train, witty dialogue, and slight gameplay twist worked together to create quite the memorable level indeed, also helped by some nice and wide areas that perfectly supported the more traditional platforming elements as well. If A Hat in Time is meant to echo 3D Mario platformers in terms of gameplay, then this portion echoed the Excess Express section of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. And combining the gameplay of Mario platformers with the writing and creativity of the Mario RPGs (pre-Sticker Star, anyway) is an idea we can all get behind.
So, will the rest of the locations that Hat Girl travels to in her quest to collect the missing time pieces in time end up being just as impressive? Other footage suggests it’s most likely, but we’ll see for sure when Humble Bundle and developers Gears for Breakfast release A Hat in Time for the PC, XB1 and PS4 on October 5.