STAFF REVIEW of A Hat in Time (Xbox One)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018.
by Chad Goodmurphy

A Hat in Time Box art During the days of the N64 and PSone, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a different 3D platformer. This era was especially cluttered with them, and it was thanks to an advance in technology that made it all possible. This, of course, led to incredible and timeless classics like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, which were flanked by many copycats and imitators, some of which ended up being pretty good.

One major aspect of these games happens to be collecting. Whereas Mario had coins and stars, Banjo and Kazooie had jigsaws, notes and Jinjos. As such, these games were platformers that also moonlighted as 'collectathons'. You can call them what you will, but they’ve attempted to make a comeback this year thanks to indie developers.

In April, Playtonic tried to usher in a resurgence of the 3D platformer with Yooka-Laylee; a Banjo-Kazooie knockoff that centred upon a lizard, a bat and a magical book. However, much to the dismay of many (including yours truly), Yooka-Laylee failed to set the world on fire. The reasons included a bad camera, far too many borrowed gameplay elements, and a lack of polish that was evident from the start. Add in poorly designed bosses, bland worlds and an uninteresting pair of bad guys and you have even more to blame for its disappointment.

This fall brought with it a new, retro-inspired combatant with the same hope of revitalizing the once incredibly popular genre. That game is called A Hat in Time, developer Gears for Breakfast’s homage to the days of yesteryear, which was published by Humble Bundle. It is a game that is obviously as much of a passion project as it is a commercial effort.

Showings obvious signs of inspiration from Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, and those like them, A Hat in Time is a colourful, whimsical and unabashed little platformer. It tells the tale of Hat Kid, a young lass whose abilities change every time her noggin warmer does. She’s on a quest that will hopefully lead her home, but she finds herself stuck in a galaxy that features lots of varying geography, not to mention quite a few vastly different creatures.

Things begin in outer space, as a relaxed and easygoing Hat Kid enjoys a quiet trip home aboard her very plush and childlike spaceship. As she awakens from her slumber within a princess dream bed, which is neighboured by an epic pillow fort that even has its own diving board, she does so without worry. It is shortly after this that the proverbial crap hits the fan, when a visitor opens an airtight lock and chaos ensues. By that, I mean Hat Kid’s ship’s power cores – which look like hourglasses and are referred to as time pieces – end up getting sucked out into the great void. This causes her ship to stall, and her galactic trip home to come to an unexpectedly abrupt halt.

Somehow, all forty of Hat Kid’s time pieces end up falling downward, and crash land on the planets below. The planets that play host to A Hat in Time’s several different chapters, each have their own theme, characters and creature types.

The first place you visit, through telescopes that act as level select devices, is Mafia Town. It is, as you’d expect, a world that is staffed only by manly mafia men. Some are nice, others are stereotypes, and a few are meanies who wish to prevent our protagonist from getting what she needs. It’s here where miscellaneous tasks must be completed across multiple ‘levels,’ some of which only unlock after visiting later worlds.

Of course, the word 'level' is in quotes for a reason. That’s because instead of visiting a set of separate and unique stages, Hat Kid’s time in Mafia Town is mostly spent in the same open world environment. There she stops faucets from leaking volcanic lava, fights slightly evil mafia members, finds the code to unlock a golden safe and has issues with a brief friend named Mustache Girl. She’s a fellow little girl whose blonde hair is styled in a way that makes it look like she has a ‘stache.

After each level, Hat Kid returns to her ship where she can combine relics to create sculptures, sit in chairs, ride the Roomba to earn achievements, or collect gifts through a slot machine that takes discovered tokens. The ship also acts as her hub, and lets players level select in a way befitting the games of the 90s that this one pays homage to. Doors to the rooms where these telescopes sit are almost all locked until set amounts of time pieces have been collected.

Following Mafia Town, which honestly isn’t the best opening level a game could ever have thanks to a confusing layout, camera problems and uninteresting characters, you travel to a movie studio that is staffed by birds and only birds. There, two rival sects have discovered the fallen time pieces and wish to use them as awards, causing you to have to step in and change those plans. What results is having to sneak one’s way on set, then act within different movies, including one that mimics Murder on the Orient Express. The others involve racing across a trap-filled train that is close to exploding or leading a parade across rooftops as a harmful crowd cheers below.

Yes, the second event makes no sense on paper, and the same is true in action. The idea is that you cannot touch the crowd without suffering damage, which results in the loss of one of Hat Kid’s four health pieces, nor can you touch the parade members who mimic every one of your moves. While avoiding both, one must set off pyrotechnics and collect bird icons, both of which are far from enjoyable.

Next up is a dark and mysterious forest, where large mushrooms, dangerous slime (in the place of water) and mean spirits rule the day. This, unlike the bird studio, is another somewhat open world where you must travel to different areas on foot, be it a tainted well, a haunted house (where noise awakens a ghost who must be hidden from and avoided) or a group of spirits whose campfire desires paintings. This half-decent world stands out for its dark and gloomy style, but it is punctuated most by a large spirit who forces you to agree to contracts before taking Hat Girl’s soul as collateral. These contracts are a nice touch in a way, but they are under-utilized and therefore disappointing, especially since they generally relate to major objectives. Things like cleaning the well and defeating the boss, for instance.

Even the fourth chapter of A Hat in Time continues this trend of showing promise and creativity but failing to provide a wow factor or the commonly referenced knockout punch. This large open area, which takes the form of a series of mountains, forces you to ride rails to and from each section and complete tasks while doing so. First, horns must be blown to signal the aerial rails’ deployment, then they must be ridden in the right order. It’s easily the best looking of all of the environments, but can sometimes be more obtuse than the rest and doesn’t deliver on its visuals’ promise.

Simply put, A Hat in Time has a lot of solid ideas, but its execution leaves quite a bit to be desired. On one hand, it’s easy to applaud developer Gears for Breakfast for the amount of thought and love they obviously put into the project, and for some of the settings and dialogue that they came up with. However, on the other hand, it’s hard not to feel disappointed by their execution. It truly feels as if they tried to include every homage they could think of, then ended up being bitten by using this 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach. This game has its moments, but is too all over the place and too cumbersome to be the great platformer that it could’ve been.

The other unfortunate thing is that, although its cheerful, colourful and generally warm look draws you in, its gameplay is too cumbersome to really enjoy. The platforming lacks precision and the controls leave something to be desired. A lot of the objectives also feel like busywork, making the game feel like a chore when it’s supposed to be fun. This is especially problematic during the open world sections, none of which made me want to return for further exploration.

While playing this game, I never knew what to expect, and this often wasn’t a good thing. There were far too many times where I wondered where I was going or what I had to do, because the game didn’t do a good job of conveying that. Sure, it has a hint system, which sometimes points to your next objective, but that’s only available whenever you’re wearing Hat Kid’s basic hat. If you equip another one that you’ve crafted (after collecting limited pieces of yarn hidden in each of the environments) that button will default to their special ability, be it sprinting, throwing magical potions that explode on impact, or turning into a block of ice. This is something that wasn’t explained, which led to me wondering how to find my objective after returning to the thing following a short break. The options menu wasn’t helpful, either.

Hats aren’t as integral as you’d expect though, and that feels like another missed opportunity. While some are needed for progression, and others help find secrets, the developers didn’t go far enough with this premise and it often feels forgotten when you’re simply scouring worlds for combination codes or engaging in basic combat with Hat Kid’s simple umbrella. Sure, the badges you can pin to each hat offer some creativity, like a blast attack, limited health that causes you to die after one hit, a camra to take pictures with and radar to help you find hidden items, but it’s not enough. It also takes a lot of crystals (which you’ll collect throughout your adventures) to buy many of them.

Finding hidden items can lead to relics, which come in at least two pieces. When placed together on pedestals in Hat Kid’s ship, they combine to open time rifts that can then be used to travel to new stages. At least two of these are actually found on the ship itself, while others are hinted at through photos, which can be looked at using each world’s telescope. This is an okay, but unspectacular system, and the ones that I completed were also very basic, acting as challenge rooms as opposed to anything creative.

Presentation wise, A Hat in Time has both pros and cons. While it’s evident that a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into this retro-inspired passion project, a frustrating camera affects the experience, as does some missing polish. The game looks alright, but it’s just not anything special in the looks department, nor is it the easiest or most player friendly game out there. This is especially true during a trip towards the forest’s haunted mansion, during which invisible walls and very limited time limits create frustration.

The audio is also okay, with limited and very exaggerated voice acting having been employed in order to both create and fuel a cutesy, cartoony vibe. The music and sound effects are occasionally too obnoxious, like the dialogue can be, but for the most part it all fits and delivers what you’d expect from this type of game.

With all that having been said, I must say that I’m torn and feel kind of bad. On one hand, I applaud the passion that developer Gears for Breakfast approached this project with, and admire their enthusiasm. However, on the other hand, I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t have much fun with this game. Although A Hat in Time was crafted with love, and has some good moments, it’s overwhelming and obtuse, and lacks cohesion, polish and great gameplay.

Overall: 5.6 / 10
Gameplay: 5.3 / 10
Visuals: 6.1 / 10
Sound: 5.5 / 10


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