How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit, Low Fit. You get new abilities between chapters, but not during the actual exploration phase of the game, making this more of an open world exploration game than a
Primary Challenge: Exploration Focus
Time to beat: ~15 hours
Review Info: Knytt Underground was played on PC using the Steam version.
Buy Knytt Underground if you like…
- Tricky Platforming
- Platforming Puzzles
- Open Exploration
- Zen Atmosphere
- Philosophical, Religious, and Existential themes
▼ Review continues below ▼
Knytt Underground is a lot like reading someone else’s journal. There isn’t necessarily coherency to the narrative, but there is an identity to be discovered within its pages. The more you read that journal, the more you get to know that person, and the more likely you’re going to find common ground with them. Going into Knytt Underground looking for a Metroidvania experience is going to result in misaligned expectations. In this game you aren’t collecting power-ups that increase your ability to explore the world; everything you need to complete any task is given to you at the beginning of each chapter. There are some great platforming challenges, both of the puzzle and execution variety. However because of the scope of the game and its sort of aimless pacing, a player looking for action gameplay is probably going to be bored before the game says its over. Instead, the main draw of Knytt Underground is its zen atmosphere, contemplating the lives of the game’s NPCs, and ultimately reflecting on yourself in relation to those things. If this sounds pretentious to you then you’re probably in that “would be bored” category. Knytt Underground is fantastic in its own way, but not for the reasons that I would traditionally recommend a game.
The unorthodox nature of Knytt Underground’s design begins with its menu screen – which is not really a menu at all. You immediately gain control of the game’s protagonist and select menu options by platforming to the exits corresponding to what you want to do. In the main selection room you have a choice between one of three chapters, although they’re meant to be played in order. Chapters one and two essentially serve as a tutorial for the final third chapter, which is where most of your time will be spent. The first two chapters have small maps and work to establish the identity of the characters you’ll be playing with, and end as soon as that is accomplished.
Weirdly, each chapter ends with the author literally inserting himself into the game and making up some excuse for the chapter ending. This is incredibly unsatisfying, as there is no finality to anything. Looking at the game’s “plot” it feels like the characters themselves are making it up as they go. And yet, there’s still something intriguing about those same narrative elements. The more time I spent with the game the more its world felt “real” to me. The old axiom “it’s about the journey not the destination” is practically the main theme of Knytt Underground.
The main activity you’ll be engaging in on your journey are platforming challenges. In the first two chapters these challenges are pretty light. Usually they involve dodging some slow moving robot, or racing against a timer before a door closes – that kind of thing. You’ll also find glowing power ups that give you a temporary ability, but they don’t last long so you have to use them quickly. These power-ups could include linear vertical or horizontal flight, or a one-time attack that will destroy a robot that might be blocking your path. Most of these challenges require you to beat the sequence in one go or you have to start over. Knytt Underground does not feature scrolling of any kind, and each screen acts as a checkpoint, so the consequences for death are basically non-existent. Retrying any platforming section is relatively quick and painless.
By the time you get to chapter three however, you’ll have combined some abilities that were mutually exclusive in the other two chapters. With the added complexity, the platforming challenges have some legitimate difficulty to them. One of the abilities you get is also very fast and hard to predict, making some of the platforming more of try whatever and see what sticks sort of affair. With over 1,800 rooms in the game’s map there are also a lot of challenges that feel a bit samey, and if you have to backtrack through any of them you literally repeat them. Nevertheless the variety in general is actually quite high, with some biome based gimmicks sprinkled throughout. Considering how massive the world is it’s impressive that Knytt Underground maintains the level of quality that it does.
Platforming is your method for getting places, but where you’re going is to find more quest related objects. In order to complete the game you have to ring six different bells, and each one has some jerk guarding them asking for a favor, or for a collection of objects such as jewels or flowers. Some NPCs you encounter will give you additional quests that usually reward you with more of these quest objects. Simply exploring into the unknown will lead to more items found, with them often being gated by the harder platforming challenges.
Unfortunately, because there’s no immediate benefit to Knytt Underground’s exploration based “rewards”, the game can start to feel really repetitive. Completing a particularly hard platforming challenge only to find a dead end is disappointing, or in my case it made me really consider the value of a challenge for the challenge’s sake. In general Knytt Underground has really well designed platforming trials, but there’s just so much of it. There’s also no easy way to get to any place on the map. There’s a fast travel system, but it’s like the game’s opening menu – it’s unorthodox. I personally found it too unreliable to be of any great help to me.There are a ton of little hidden secret passageways that can cut a lot of time off your trips if you know about them, but like the fast travel it would require copious notes and a lot of trial and error to obtain that knowledge. It’s worth noting though that a good chunk of the game map is pretty much optional. Those gatekeepers I mentioned earlier accept either their favored object, or you can just fork over some coins instead. Sadly strategizing between whether to spend coins or to keep exploring for their favored object is something that you can only optimize through trial and error. If you decide you don’t care about the game’s narrative or any of its NPCs, or if you decide you just gotta fill out the map completely, you’re going to be in for a lot of tedium.
The NPC interactions you find could be a factor that makes exploration worthwhile. Anyone you can talk to has a distinct identity and you’ll even find many characters that are related to your party in some way. Interacting with them teaches you more about your traveling companions, and potentially could increase your attachment to them. If you’ve looked at the game’s ESRB rating, NPC dialog is where the game’s “M” rating comes from. One of your companions has no problem dropping “F” bombs any time she’s frustrated, and you’ll come across scandalous affairs and other less family friendly themes.
One aspect of the narrative that sticks out the most is a conflict between belief and truth – aka the age old religious debate. Characters are often caught between philosophical contradictions, and sometimes the main character’s world view is even challenged. This for me was the most relatable part of the game, and I think the best part about the way its presented is how it doesn’t draw any solid conclusions. It’s a bit like conversing with someone in real life and learning something about how they think, and that insight could lead to important self reflection. It might be really easy to say this game hates religion, but it even challenges that assertion at points as well. Just like the how chapter endings are inconclusive, Knytt Underground is about contemplation rather than closure.
Thus to get the most out of Knytt Underground, you need to take a deep breath and let your head submerge completely under the surface of its world. The game’s presentation elements that process a lot easier. The music is soft and ambient, except when the biome appropriately needs something different. The graphics are minimalistic with all platforms being black outlines. Even being silhouettes, there’s still enough detail in these platforms to establish buildings or other environmental cues. The backgrounds are kind of a random mishmash of lights or a collage of photographs, but they add a nice variety to each room. Letting go of the need to progress and just taking it one room at a time makes Knytt Underground a nice place to just escape, and it gives you plenty of opportunities to contemplate anything else you’ve found.
More than any other game I’ve reviewed, Knytt Underground is all about its immersive atmosphere. There are good platforming challenges and some decent puzzles, but if that’s all you’re looking for then there’s just way too much “padding” in between them. The world is huge and overwhelming, and a bit tiresome to go through. However, there is a meditative quality to the game’s presentation, and with the right mindset Knytt Underground is a great tool for quiet reflection outside of its more difficult parts. More importantly there are some really interesting things to discover from a narrative standpoint, if that’s something you’re interested in. Knytt Underground isn’t particularly competitive in terms of gameplay, but as a whole package, with the right mindset it can be a truly unique experience.
There's a rare instance where you need to use a temporary power to remove an enemy obstacle, but that's purely for puzzle platforming purposes. Basically there is no combat in this game.
On PC the ''press up to jump'' control scheme can be a bit awkward, especially considering how much you also have to climb in this game. Ball form can be slightly trial and error based, but consequences for failure are low. Overall there are a ton of great challenges.
There are many dead ends unfruitful platforming challenges, but what you can find might be intriguing enough to make the wandering and backtracking less memorable
Knytt Underground won't have a puzzle on every screen, but there are many screens where figuring out how to get up there will certainly please spatial reasoning fans
The story is disjointed and unfocused, but that almost seems like it's the point. It's very likely that any player going into this will find something they can relate to
The minimalist platform outlines with detailed backgrounds does a great job creating an atmospheric world to explore. The character portraits and sprites on the other hand are a little awkward
Music is more than half the equation for producing a fantastic atmosphere, and Knytt Underground has perfect music for that purpose
Many NPCs you meet will have dialog options you won't be able to see on a single playthrough, and the game's world is so complex that routing new ways to go through it could last months if you enjoy it