Developer Gears for Breakfast’s A Hat in Time channels classic platformers like Banjo-Kazooie for a delightful romp that makes a great last-minute stocking stuffer.
I did not want the year to end without circling back to one of my favorite releases of the holiday season. A Hat in Time is everything that trumpeted genre-revival competitor Yooka-Laylee wanted to be, without so much as a hint of its self-importance. It manages to match — and sometimes best — its inspirations, with a charming aesthetic that belies the depth of its gameplay.
A Hat in Time is a 3D platformer in the spirit of the genre’s heyday, when the original PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 were shiny and new. It has the same semi-open environments in a variety of themed zones, packed to the gills with collectibles and interesting terrain upon which to run, jump, slide, and climb. You control Hat Girl, an otherwise unnamed and silent protagonist in search of her fanciful ship’s misbegotten fuel.
Her journey begins in Mafia Town, the first of four main worlds, through which she will sift for the floating hourglasses. Like all of the game’s environments, Mafia Town is a child’s sketch of ideas, joyously simplified into light-hearted caricature. As you scamper about the surreal playground of grunting men Doing Crimes for a living, it’s genuinely difficult to keep from smiling. A Hat in Time lacks the modern industry’s tendency for cynicism, instead opting for a madcap escapism that is as clever as it is stress-free.
And yet, beneath that clever silliness beats the heart of a true heir apparent to the days of Super Mario 64. Control is tight and precise, though occasional camera jankiness shows up to remind us that the genre’s particular problem with giving you a reliable perspective was never really solved. It is, however, a minor concern at worst. For the most part, Hat Girl’s journey is underpinned by some of the strongest gameplay that 3D platforming has seen in a long, long time.
Binding all of this together is an aesthetic that is both charming and simple to a fault. While it lacks a certain level of technical sophistication, it wears its chosen look with style and panache. Environments are bright and intricate and more akin to the elaborate obstacle courses of classic design than any attempt to render something that makes any practical sense. When slipping into a puddle of mud causes Hat Girl to totter around with mud on her face and arms stretched out in pantomime of a “monster,” the effect is instantly endearing.
Sound design is similarly strong, with music, voice, and effects work that sells the imaginative environments every step of the way. Hat Girl is silent but expressive, in the spirit of old-school video game heroes, but her enemies and allies have no such restraint. From Mustache Girl to the almost-eerie Badge Seller, A Hat in Time‘s cast is memorable and consistently engaging.
For its $30 asking price, A Hat in Time offers a wealth of content. My only real criticism is its difficulty curve; I would love to have seen a more forgiving option attuned to the young children that would otherwise enjoy this family-friendly title.
My young daughter — with whom I played this game, and who is, at this very moment, asking me when work will be done so we can go back to scouring its enchanting world for its treasures — loved every moment, but as it wore on the times she needed daddy to take over the controls became more and more frequent. Toward the end she was more passenger than driver of the experience, jumping in to play around when objectives were otherwise completed. Perhaps a substantive patch could introduce a version of the experience she could more easily enjoy without my intervention.
This minor quibble aside, I have no problem recommending Gears for Breakfast’s A Hat in Time to anyone looking to relive the glory days of early 3D gaming, or searching out an experience that anyone gathered in the living room can enjoy. Its modest price tag makes it an unexpectedly full-featured stocking stuffer that would stand proudly beside any of the holiday’s high-profile AAA releases.
NOTE: A copy of the game was provided for review by Gears for Breakfast.
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