An adorable homage to the heyday of 3D platformers that pulls a few fun tricks from its hat.
Disclosure: IGN Entertainment, IGN’s parent company, recently purchased Humble Bundle, the publisher of A Hat in Time. This technically makes us the publisher. (We didn’t actually know about that when this review was being written.) Humble Bundle and IGN operate completely independently, but going forward, all Humble Bundle-published games we cover will have a disclosure regarding our relationship, and we will endeavor to use freelance critics to review them when possible.
There’s a mafioso floating outside Hat Girl’s pillow-stuffed spaceship, miles above the planet below, decked out in a blue blazer and an apron that says “Kiss the Cook.” He probably should have been a lawyer, judging by how he chooses to interpret the situation.
“What is this? Flying boat?” he asks. “All boats need to pay toll in Mafia Town … even in space!”
It’s one of the first moments in A Hat in Time, and it sets the tone for the bizarre 3D-platforming antics that follow. Seconds later Hat Girl refuses the pay his toll, prompting the lunkhead to smash the ship’s window, which turn sends the 40 magical hourglasses that power Hat Girl’s ship careening down to the planet below, along with poor Hat Girl herself. Hat Girl later returns to use her spaceship as a hub for her adventures, taking time to board up the hole by hammering nails in the glass. Apparently.
Yeah, A Hat in Time gets pretty weird. But it’s the good kind of weird: the kind that kept a big, stupid grin on my face for the next 11 hours or so. I loved almost every moment of it, thanks in a large part to its personality, its mostly creative levels, and its wonderful 3D platforming that recalls the glory days of the Nintendo 64.
The utterly adorable Mustache Girl swears herself as an enemy.
You might be thinking from the title and all those hourglasses that A Hat in Time has as much time travel stuffed into it as an entire season of Doctor Who. Oddly, that’s not the case, and A Hat in Time seems barely interested in maintaining any kind of storytelling momentum, much less staying on topic. For instance, an utterly adorable adversary called Mustache Girl swears herself as an enemy early on but is basically forgotten for hours while Hat Girl busies herself chatting with trenchcoated crows and bartering her soul to maniacal forest spirits.
It’s a bit like watching a series of Silly Symphonies – the early, wacky Disney shorts that often had little in common with each other besides a few recurring characters. A Hat in Time encourages this association, as it kicks off each new zone with a hand-drawn title card as though a cartoon were to follow instead of a platformer. At times, the segments varied so greatly in theme and setting I felt as though I were playing entirely different games.
Deep forests populated by creepy spirits come later.
There’s the sunny, cluttered alleys of Mafia Town, where loveable louts brag about their degrees in “mafia” amid a colorful but largely aimless landscape that initially feels like a by-the-numbers 3D platformer. (It does much to make up for this, though, with an exhilarating 2D boss fight demanding perfectly timed leaps before a crowded stage.) But Hat Girl’s adventures grow more focused when she ventures into a movie studio where an owl and an Elvis-like penguin compete for awards while our hero stealthily avoids the gaze of crows on a sepia-toned Orient Express. Deep forests populated by creepy spirits come later, as well as soaring alpine peaks and beautiful, abstract hidden bonus zones that exist mainly to challenge your platforming skills without the need to conform to setting, much in the way of Super Mario Sunshine.
In a weaker game this extreme variety might be disconcerting because of a perceived lack of focus. But I found the constant shifts in setting were what kept me interested, as well as the frequent opportunities for A Hat in Times’ adorably goofball and occasionally dark humor. Repetition barely exists as a result, save for the enjoyable and tight platforming dance of running, jumping, collecting baubles, and belly-flopping over chasms. It only suffers on account of the occasionally wonky camera that seems to be the curse of just about every 3D platformer ever made.
On their own, these ingredients would have made have made for an enjoyable but unsurprising 3D platformer. But let’s talk about the hats. I love the hats.
By the end I could have opened a hat shop.
The main goal of A Hat in Time may technically be collecting all those lost hourglasses, but that’s never so much fun or as rewarding as finding all the bits of yarn that let our hero craft new hats. One might be a visor that lets her race across landscapes; another might be a witch’s hat that lets here concoct a brew she can throw like a grenade. By the end I had so many I could have opened a hat shop, and I liked that the associated abilities encouraged returning to previous zones so I could find extra hourglasses and – more importantly – more hats. Badges add to the sense of discovery, too, which grant Hat Girl perks such as automatic loot pickups or a last-second parachute that lets our hero correct herself after a bad jump.
A Hat in Time, oddly, is a game that grows more enjoyable as the levels progress. This isn’t just because of the excitement of discovering new hats and badges, but also because the levels themselves increase in creativity, size, and rewarding challenge. A Hat in Time is almost never exactly linear, but it’s definitely at its best when it gives Hat Girl a clear goal, allowing both the platforming and the storyline to slip into a satisfying flow. Get past Mafia Town, and you’ll find yourself zipping from door to door on a moving train, using hat abilities to hunt for clues and get to keys that unlock other doors beyond precariously placed platforms. (If you need another Doctor Who reference, the train itself is much “bigger on the inside.”) Elsewhere, you’ll sneak through the labyrinthine backstage of a movie set where humans are banned, timing your moves so as to avoid being seen and getting slapped with astronomical fines for “owl harassment.” The flow gives purpose to the platforming, and so boosts the fun.
“Charm” is a word that gets thrown around far too often in discussing games these days, but virtually every frame of A Hat in Time warrants it. Months from now, I’ll likely remember it less for all the bouncing around and more for Hat Girl’s “can-do” look at she dons a deerstalker cap before solving a case or for “Corgi Quest 7: The Leashes That Bind,” the text-based RPG she plays back on her ship. It captures the spirit of early Nintendo not only in the strength of its platforming, but also because of its near-saccharine purity, which gets smartly shattered at perfect moments such as when Mustache Girl starts talking about cutting up all the mafia guys and stuffing them in little jars.