The first few things you’re likely to hear about A Hat in Time are that it’s cute, it’s a 3D collect-a-thon platformer, and it features swappable hats that provide unique abilities. But none of those things are the reason to play it. The real value of A Hat in Time is that it’s a game of pure imagination. I can’t remember the last game I played that felt so unrestrained and confident. Collecting “Time Pieces” is the player’s primary goal, and while there’s only 40 of them (compared to the 100-or-so MacGuffins in similar games), the path to each one is stuffed with ideas, jokes, and visual flair. The game could honestly have been a classic, were it not for the old death knell of 3D platformers: sloppy, uncooperative controls.
There’s not really any mechanical innovation here, but it wouldn’t be necessary anyway. A Hat in Time is about familiar structures supported by all manner of wacky situations. It doesn’t matter that the hat powers are rather straightforward, because there are missions that involve turning off lava-spewing faucets, and there’s an entire free-roaming world traversed with grappling hook-propelled rollercoasters. At times, it’s reminiscent of Undertale in the way it presents an unremarkable scenario twisted into something fun and memorable through sheer self-awareness. It’s also overflowing with endearing style; the protagonist doesn’t need to stick her tongue out at passing enemies, but she does anyway, and the game is better for it. It almost feels like a waste to pour so much creativity into this genre.
Except for a couple of huge franchises grandfathered into continued relevance, the 3D platformer, and especially its collection-heavy variant, is unusual in that it never received any modern renaissance. Such a movement would be fairly redundant; the sandbox tsunami of the last decade already cannibalized the concept of gathering pointless junk in lieu of gameplay. But the base genre’s near-extinction was always practically inevitable, simply because of how easy it is for “jumping across hazards in 3D space” as a core mechanic to turn out disastrous. There’s a reason most of the fondly remembered titles from the golden age (and all of the noteworthy contemporary ones) were developed or published by Nintendo: a gameplay-first philosophy and a significant budget for testing and refinement are required just to make something playable.
Anyone who played any of A Hat in Time’s inspirations will be unsurprised to hear that the most dangerous enemy in this game is the camera, which constantly swivels around of its own accord, often while the player is in mid-jump. Additionally, while the simple geometry and rudimentary physics of fifth generation hardware forced those games to have reasonably precise level design, A Hat in Time suffers from an array of mismatched modern features. The levels are extremely open-ended, and the more complex physics make everything a potential platform. These sound innocuous, but put them together with a bunch of inconsistent hitboxes, and you have an overly crowded setting full of accidental wall-runs, misjudged leaps, and tiny details waiting to snag you at every turn.
Luckily, the capabilities of the Unreal engine benefit the experience elsewhere. If someone told me that this project began as a showcase for the power of its shader and particle systems, I’d believe it. While it doesn’t help the game’s overall cluttered feeling, it makes for a wonderful spectacle. The audio has a similar go-for-broke quality, cramming in as many effects and hammy line readings as possible. The result can be both endearing and annoying, but it’s definitely never boring. In this regard, the music is rather disappointing compared to the rest of the game, being a passable but largely forgettable sampler of Banjo-Kazooie imitation.
The respect that A Hat in Time has for its audience is wholly refreshing. Video games have always had a strained relationship with young players; the 80s and 90s “difficulty = more quarters” attitude bred a generation of elitists and masochists, while the following decades’ pandering and over-tutorialization often feels condescending. A Hat in Time has a middling challenge (it would be easier with better controls), but more importantly, it’s a family-friendly game that realizes it doesn’t have to be all saccharine, all the time. There’s one mission that’s practically Amnesia as a Wind Waker mod, and it provides all the same sensations as a horror game while being accessible to an eight-year-old – no easy task. The writing is also universally funny, especially since its pop culture references are only occasional and subtler than most.
There’s even a hint of environmental storytelling here. The story itself is nothing noteworthy, but the techniques used to deliver background details wouldn’t be out of place in Dark Souls – and they’re implemented well enough to make you wish the story was something noteworthy. Of course, underutilized potential is always a problem in games with this much going on. For the most part, A Hat in Time is pretty good at giving its mechanics and locales room to spread their wings, but some things still slip through the cracks. Most notably, there are actually only a handful of hats to assemble, and some of their abilities are highly specialized. Additionally, it’s a huge disappointment that a game all about time travel-enabling collectibles doesn’t incorporate that power into gameplay at all.
A Hat in Time has a tangled family tree. In addition to the obvious central pillars of 3D Mario platformers and Rare’s N64 output, it contains smaller branches from Sonic Adventure, Psychonauts, and a few 3D Zelda titles. And that’s all before its own eccentric contributions are taken into account. It’s remarkable that its most significant problems are merely technical, given how many design issues could have come from this nostalgia stew. Nonetheless, those technical problems are significant, and they prevent the game from ever being mentioned in the same breath as its inspirations except as an unfavourable comparison. Then again, for fans of this genre, there aren’t a lot of other options right now.
This review is based on the PC version of the game, which we were provided with by Gears for Breakfast.
Dodgy controls nearly ruin this lovably hyperactive ball of imagination.