Puzzle-platformers are often overlooked by platforming genre purists as being more about the puzzles than true platforming skill. While this is sometimes true, Knytt Underground is a great example of a puzzle-platformer that skimps on neither of these game mechanics. There may be a good amount of thinking involved, but at the end of the day the controls are pixel perfect, even when momentum physics enter the frame.
It seems that all of those anti-war peaceniks were right; humanity has blown itself to hell and ruined the surface of the planet for everyone. Or at least that's one of the more prevalent theories that the remaining species of Earth have thought up. Whereas humanity is now extinct, other creatures have burrowed below the toxic surface to start society anew. Among these are Sprites, Fairies, Tails, and an assortment of other fanciful creations that would fit right into a child's fairytale. You play as Mi, a mute Sprite with special powers who is tasked with saving the world. Well, at least you think you're saving the world. The human race has left behind a clock that counts down every couple of hundred years and the assumption is that if this isn't dealt with it will probably destroy the planet.
Accompanying you are two fairies that act as your voice proxies. This actually adds an element of dialogue choice to the gameplay, since you can choose between answering an NPC using Dora or Cilia, with varying results. Think of it as a very simplistic Paragon/Renegade dichotomy. If you want to answer an NPC in a polite, no nonsense kind of way then Dora is your girl, but if you like to be a little bit snarky in your games then Cilia is the one to choose. As far as I could tell it doesn't actually affect anything, other than what kind of dialogue you receive in response, but I appreciated the option to choose different dialogue options nonetheless.
As you progress you'll learn more about this mysterious world: its history, the inhabitants, and its secrets. In many ways it's not all that different to the world we live in today. There are groups that seek to understand the world through religious study, and those that want to base their understanding off of observations of the natural world - the Myriadists and the Internet as they're called here. I really enjoyed listening in (metaphorically speaking anyway - it's all text so don't expect any voice overs) on Dora and Cillia discuss not only the world at large but also their personal stories, like how Cillia's overly religious father drove her away from the concept of religion.
The world itself is often a sight to behold. Traveling around the map leads to all manner of environments with their own unique 2D backgrounds and general feel. Unfortunately, the sprites and other characters inhabiting the world are noticeably less fun to look at and stick out like a sore thumb against the majestic backdrop, but perhaps that is by design. I played Knytt Underground on PlayStation 3 but you also get it for PlayStation Vita as well, and the game features cloud saves which allows you to easily switch between the two.
One of the greatest feelings I get from gaming, and one that's often been overlooked by developers this generation, is the joy of exploration. Having a giant map to explore with no other goal than to see what there is to see makes for a pleasant gaming experience. In comes Knytt Underground to the rescue. Once you've worked your way through two introductory chapters that teach you the ropes of your ability sets, the entire map opens up and you're given the freedom to do whatever you like, and with a grid of 49 x 29 screens to explore and fill up the map it could take quite a while. As of writing this review I've spent ten hours on the game and still have more to explore if I so choose, and something tells me I will indeed be back.
If you're not particularly keen on exploration and want to progress through the story instead then Knytt Underground might not be to your tastes. Even the main storyline quest employs barriers that require you to aimlessly explore and search for certain items like ancient human artifacts or rare flowers without any clues as to where they might be. This is probably the main sticking point of the gameplay in general and you really have to be in a certain mood/frame of mind to really enjoy it. If you aren't down for exploring without an end in sight then you'll probably grow weary of Knytt Underground long before you've obtained all of the items you need to “save the world”. That said, each time you get an item or take on a new random quest you're given a little bit more knowledge about the world, which gives you enough of an incentive to keep exploring.
Another criticism of the game is that the map balloons up to quite a large size and the quick travel options are expensive and convoluted, so most of the time you'll be hoofing it on foot, which can take quite a while if you're on the wrong side of the map. Of course this is partly a blessing in disguise, as you're given more time to play around with Mi's crazy abilities. Mi can climb any vertical surface and is quite adept at getting around her underground home. But that's not all she can do, certain areas have lights that Mi can jump into to temporarily gain flight, or projectiles to kill off enemies. After the introductory chapters you'll also be able to use a ball form which lets Mi bounce around and reach places she otherwise couldn't. The best puzzles use both forms and the lights to make for complicated sequences of gravity defying acts that would make Mario blush. It's this combination of puzzles that require a plan but also skilled platforming execution that makes Knytt Underground so fun to play.
So there you have it, a puzzle-platformer for the platforming purist, assuming that you don't mind some aimlessly milling about in underground caves and whatnot. The characters aren't visually arresting, but the world they inhabit, their stories and the gameplay are all highly compelling. If you're a PlayStation 3 or PlayStation Vita owner with a penchant for some platforming then this is the title for you.
This review is based on a digital copy of Knytt Underground for the PlayStation 3.