Sometimes you’ve just got to offer concession to the notion that a game like A Hat in Time has the gall to put a great big, childish grin on your face. In another scenario, the ways in which Gears for Breakfast’s crowdfunded 3D platformer plays so heavily — and dangerously — close to the script of one particular series’ greatest strides and at times, one specific entry in particular (Super Mario Sunshine) might have been its biggest misgiving. A bane that might have otherwise ruined any and all sense of unique identity or personality that the game’s deliberately hyper-vibrant, hyper-joyous, hyper-childish stature attempts to maintain over the course of its four world (or five, if you’re including the main hub on top of that) adventure. An adventure that those simply content with statistical completion could get around eight to ten hours of enjoyment from and may well never touch again.
But if that is the case then Gears for Breakfast just may have pulled off one of the biggest risks among independent game development in a long while; for all the cutesy, cartoony, completely-bonkers set-up that is the game’s introduction, A Hat in Time just might be one of 2017’s most charming and delightful outings because of such a deliberate pinning of its visuals and its delivered tone. This, the latest round of 3D platforming that’s been making a fair few waves recently — both tidal and tepid alike — A Hat in Time‘s dial is turned a fair bit more towards the 2000’s than something like Yooka-Laylee or the N. Sane Trilogy. With the Gamecube/PS2 being the era it so fondly whisks us back towards with nods to the adventurous intaking of games like Jax & Daxter but also the often-surreal undertaking of something like Billy Hatcher.
So let’s talk the game’s premise and story: Hat Girl (because that’s her official, canonical name), after waking up in her bedroom and taking but another giddy dive into a pool of multi-colored pillows aboard her own personal spaceship (you keeping track?) is on her way home, when she’s halted by a literal knock on the ship’s external glass by a member of the Mafia in space (still with me?). Refusing to pay the tax enforced by the Mafia for entering their planet’s airspace, a following scuffle and breach sends both Hat Girl’s collection of hour glasses and herself, hurtling to the planet surface. It’s up to the player, as Hat Girl, to recover the missing hour glasses scattered across the game’s four main worlds while subsequently solving a series of self-contained dilemmas that play out almost like episodic sagas in what feels more and more like an interactive Saturday morning cartoon that A Hat in Time sometimes goes the extra mile to conjure — notably the way each “episode” opens up with a unique still of Hat Girl in the context of that episode’s objective/setting.
If some games are described as playing their story straight-faced and with rigorous intent, A Hat in Time could best be surmised as playing its story with both hands clasped across its mouth — trying its best not to snicker and chuckle at the lunacy it’s painting. Even from the mere perhaps convoluted introduction, A Hat in Time isn’t shy of providing an off-the-wall premise and reminding you on constant basis of the surrealism of its game world. It’s a high-risk delivery but whether it’s down to the instilling of sixth-gen platformers’ refined use of 3D, explorative design and vibrant array of luscious color palettes…or not, A Hat in Time very quickly burrows its way into your heart with its [bordering-on-sickly] sweet demeanor, colorful environments, goofy narrative, but above all else, Hat Girl herself. Her confident, optimistic and occasionally cheeky persona — much like Wind Waker’s Toon Link — adding a tremendous amount of likability to what is essentially another silent protagonist in a game chock full of vocal secondary characters.
Even the way Hat Girl herself blows raspberries on occasion to passing NPCs becomes but another one of the game’s light-hearted “oh you” moments and even more reason to revel in the character’s upbeat presence. Despite its (in the grand scheme of things) seemingly-pointless reinforcing of its naively-innocent demeanor, these minor actions thankfully don’t get in the way of the game’s controls and content which, even for a game as delightfully silly and rather more obtuse with its humor, goes a long way in reinstating the genuine pleasure one can get from something as simple as traversing the environment. The movement in A Hat in Time is wonderfully simple but accessible in a way that could have you charging across a level in much the same manner as a city free-runner. While it may take some by surprise at just how agile one can be in ascending as much descending onto corresponding levels and atop nearby platforms, Hat Girl’s slick movement is a perfect fit for a level design philosophy that so clearly places player involvement as its number one priority.
And it shows; its diverse locales pulling players in many numerous directions. Though the basic functions of running, jumping and sliding make traversal easy enough, it’s the added layer of Hat Girl’s maneuverability which one can even combo together — sliding, wall-jumping, even the canny jump-cancel that becomes an essential tool for reaching the more distant platforms in latter challenges/episodes — that itself pulls A Hat in Time‘s controls into the realm of splendor. Add to this the fact that Hat Girl’s own abilities can be added to, modified and swapped out upon acquiring a new piece of apparel, as well as the not-so-mandatory presence of context-based objects and it’s clear to see that A Hat in Time is trying to be both an objective-led platformer and a sandbox at the same time.
But it succeeds; the first level alone easily taking up an hour of play-time simply wandering around, bouncing and hopping to an fro about its many multi-leveled aspects. Long before you reach the inevitable boss stage which, on its own, marvels with both its mechanics but also its presentation. And this is long before you come up against a movie studio-esque level with the opening objectives weirdly mutating into a stealth game of sorts. But it’s this bemusing oddity to A Hat in Time‘s end delivery that only makes it a bigger and more convincing win the further you progress through.
That is if you focus squarely on the main objectives that take you through each one of the world’s story arcs. While A Hat in Time does offer some additional — and optional — objectives off the beaten path (either popping up after certain episodes are cleared or require you to sniff them out), sadly these added-on incentives don’t quite match the boggled high that is the main gameplay’s attraction. And it’s here, more pressingly, where Gears for Breakfast’s evident “influences” come a little too far into the foreground and suffer from a severe lack of imagination. You don’t need to venture far into the game — whereupon you’re running through Super Mario Sunshine-esque obstacle courses — to have all of A Hat in Time‘s bubbly personality lose all of its fizz. This can crop even in the main worlds themselves; temporary objectives like finding a set number of items to unlock a safe — the game simply giving you the location of all necessary items from the get-go — coming across like padding and existing purely to satisfy a collectible itch.
Other aspects such as the very badge collecting principle, though not necessarily a flawed practice, lack any degree of progression or purpose mapped to the environments you’re exploring. Abilities and perks intended for future episodes often getting unintentionally discovered much earlier on. While the sandbox-styled levels do reinforce the sense of repeated play and returning to these worlds out of genuine enjoyment for the way the game handles, the seemingly random plotting-through of upgrades comes across as a little too chaotically-placed and lacking some form of viable structure.
I’d be lying if I said my playthrough of A Hat in Time wasn’t chock full of that same familiar sentiment on enjoying a game purely on its controls or even its tone which the developer paints in large and confident strokes. Gears for Breakfast, like a lot of studios as of late, look back when moving forward and while the visuals plant the game’s influence within the more sixth-gen, early-2000’s period, A Hat in Time fortunately offers plenty in attitude and charisma to make its bold and brash visuals far from as abrasive as you might assume. The pairing of the surreal world-building and Hat Girl herself — in all her childish and playful traits as a silent protagonist — is what seals it though as A Hat in Time is one of the few platformers that understands the joy of the genre lies in simply messing around in a given area without as much a care for the objective underpinning it. Like Hat Girl herself, A Hat in Time excels in this unapologetically confident stride it takes and is tonally all the better for it. With some interesting (at times funny) set-pieces thrown in for good measure, A Hat in Time is one of the better examples of the genre’s recent revival.