Following a lengthy development process, A Hat in Time’s release was seemingly well-timed. Following on from the successes of Ratchet and Clank and Yooka-Laylee (as well as some less high-profile examples), 3D platformers are now clearly a viable genre again. On the other hand, the release of Mario Odyssey will surely overshadow other titles in the genre. I haven’t played Nintendo’s new system-seller so can’t make direct comparisons, but A Hat in Time is good enough to warrant a positive response. It’s responsive controls, generally well-designed levels and wacky style combine to create a really enjoyable game that it is more than worth the lengthy wait.
The game begins with the creatively named Hat Girl waking up and navigating her brightly coloured spaceship. A surprising knock on the window announces the appearance of a local Mafia enforcer who insists on a toll for passing their planet. Upon refusal, he breaks the glass and all of Hat Girl’s precious hourglasses are sucked into the void, eventually coming to ground all across the aforementioned planet. As game premises go, it’s fairly ridiculous but entirely in keeping with the cartoony atmosphere.
The end result is a platformer that rigidly follows the structure of Mario 64. Each level contains a number of challenges to unlock hourglasses, and later levels are locked behind doors that require a certain number of hourglasses to access. The clear influence of Nintendo’s classic helps A Hat in Time to stand alongside Yooka-Laylee, which is itself the spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie.
The multiple hourglasses on each level require you to become familiar with each area’s layout and its particular obstacles. This is mostly a positive, since you soon find shortcuts and begin to work out how to access distant or blocked off powerups, but this approach does bring the layout of each level into sharp focus. On the whole, the different worlds in A Hat in Time are well-realised but the first chapter, Mafia Town, is perhaps the dullest of them all and makes for a somewhat underwhelming beginning. This is not helped by the fact that many of your abilities are locked at the start of the game, including being able to attack. Once you have made it through the first couple of challenges, however, the game begins to come into its own.
The second and third chapters illustrate the tonal variety of A Hat in Time and it was here that its charms really began to win me over. You’re first taken to an avian version of Hollywood in which you must negotiate between two warring bird directors, one owl and one penguin. The challenges here range from a cinematic train chase straight out of Uncharted to a surreal murder mystery populated by Columbo-esque crows. I get the feeling that it is here that the imaginative talents of Gears for Breakfast were most exercised, and it certainly represents a step up from the enjoyable, but formulaic opener. This chapter contains the controversial voice talents of JonTron, but his role is incredibly minor and can be easily avoided altogether – just don’t talk to the owl receptionist if you don’t approve of his outspoken statements on white supremacy and race in America.
Subcon is another huge shift in tone, taking place in a haunted forest. Trapped by a demon and forced to sign your soul away in return for your freedom, the darkly cartoony feel is wonderfully atmospheric. Your tormentor sets you challenges which range from euthanizing disturbingly suicidal fire imps to delivering mail to demons. Aside from a fiddly set of jumps across a poisonous swamp, this level was the clear highlight for me and really showed how well designed A Hat in Time is.
While the following chapters are strong, they feel more linear and amount to obstacle courses with little of the charm and character of the second and third chapters. Chapter 4 is described as free roaming but actually follows an identical format with the only difference being that you find the hourglass routes within the level rather than being set the challenge upon entry, and the final chapter is a gauntlet of difficult platforming that forces you to bring all the skills you have learned through the game to succeed.
This summary makes the game appear a little short, and it certainly feels that way, but more chapters are promised and the game includes a level editor on PC, so more content will become available. There isn’t a huge amount of challenge in the levels so far and certainly nothing like it’s equally delayed counterpart Cuphead, but the well-judged sense of progression ensures that your time feels rewarding. The various levels do make use of the different hats that you unlock and their respective powers, but as with Mario 64 the core game is pure platforming. The double jump, air dash, and cancel controls make for a fantastic degree of control, with only a few moments where a combination of small platforms and uncooperative camera angles resulted in frustration.
A Hat in Time has certainly been well worth the wait, and is easily recommended to platformer fans across all formats. It sits nicely alongside Yooka-Laylee and offers a different take on the N64 nostalgia that both titles share. It’s unlikely to knock Mario off his perch as king of the 3D platformers, but it is a more than acceptable pretender to the crown. It also has a central antagonist called Moustache Girl who is a girl with a bushy moustache. A Hat in Time opens up to be a real standout in the recent renaissance of the 3D platform game.
Version tested: PC