Change can be scary. Familiarity breeds comfort, and nowhere is this notion of familiarity greater than in our memories. Nostalgia is a powerful sentiment that has the potential to inspire or to hold back. Jonas Kaerlev, the creator of A Hat in Time, understands this keenly. He and his team at Gears for Breakfast hearken back to an older, beloved generation of games while developing their own sense of identity and fun. A Hat in Time doesn’t reinvent the wheel; it turns it into a brightly colored, well-designed, cute-as-heck unicycle.
Hat Kid & Co.
In true collect-a-thon fashion, A Hat in Time’s story begins by establishing what you need to collect and why. The protagonist, an adorable little mischief-maker known as ‘Hat Kid’, runs into trouble when an intimidating Mafia member knocks on her spaceship window demanding payment for local taxes. One thing leads to another and Hat Kid soon finds her spaceship fuel (glowing, magical hourglasses) jettisoned onto the planet below her. Only after finding enough Time Pieces can the intrepid protagonist make her way back home.
So begins Hat Kid’s wild journey. A Hat in Time is divided into five Chapters and further split into Acts (four worlds and the finale), all of which are incredibly varied and unique. From the free-roaming lackadaisical Mafia Town to the haunting, dreary melancholy of the Subcon Forest, the game manages to cover a wide range of tones and aesthetics to astounding effect. Players will take part in a murder mystery on a high-speed desert train, sneak and hide from a psychotic spinster queen in her snow-swept mansion, and zip from peak to peak amidst a towering valley of stone.
A Wholesome World of Charm and Heart
The game features a wide cast of colorful character, each of them possessing a vivid sense of personality that shines through their dialogue. All of the writing in A Hat in Time is a wonderful mix of witty, endearing, and childish. None of it is ever malicious or deprecatory; any conflict or insults are harmless and playful (I doubt anyone would get hurt by the phrase ‘peck neck’). The overarching plot is simple, but it doesn’t need to be anything more. It’s easy (and almost encouraged) to just forget about the destination and get lost in the journey.
As the game’s original visual designs borrow heavily from The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, it’s no surprise that A Hat in Time places great emphasis on cel-shaded graphics, a diverse and vivid color palette, and stylized geometry. This is especially important for a game where you spend most of your time navigating three-dimensional space with fine-tuned precision. Thanks to the game’s clear sense of shapes and colors, I found it easy and enjoyable to navigate through the different environments.
Despite having a small number of worlds, Gears for Breakfast went to great lengths to give each of them an impressive depth and a unique identity. The striking visuals and sweeping orchestral arrangements breathe life into gorgeous worlds full of color and whimsy. Packaged together with fun characters, engaging mechanics, and interesting level design, you have the makings of a fantastic game.
Modern Gameplay for the Modern Gamer
In an interview with Polygon, Jonas Kaerlev spoke about how several collectibles in Donkey Kong 64 were aggravating and tedious to get through. His disdain of unnecessary fluff manifests in much of the content. A Hat in Time is thankfully absent of collectibles that require you to obtain 100 of yet another collectible. While the game only boasts 40 Time Pieces to gather, the player obtains each of them through unique and memorable story-driven Acts or challenging Time Rifts.
Rifts and the mechanics surrounding them are indicative of A Hat in Time’s design philosophy on player agency and fun. You can only activate Time Rifts by assembling Relics, which are spread across the different worlds as collectible pieces. Once you’ve put together a Relic you can select Time Rifts in a Chapter’s menu to see a photograph of the Rift somewhere in the world. This process is extremely reminiscent of using photos in Wind Waker to find an objective: a fun mini-game to play and a good reason to explore the environment. Once you do find a Time Rift, you’re transported to a dreamy, watery landscape and tasked with navigating a floating obstacle course to obtain a Time Piece. Rifts are the game’s version of the Secret Stages from Super Mario Sunshine, the big difference being that they’re completely optional.
The way Time Rifts were implemented was a fantastic design choice for the player, as it allowed me to dictate the pace at which I played the game. When I wanted to progress through the story, I’d play through different Acts. When I wanted pure platforming, I could seek out a Time Rift and put my skills to the test. Time Rifts aren’t necessary to progress, but they’re essential to the full experience.
A Hat in Time offers a nice assortment of level designs and tweaks to mechanics; it’s fun to simply move and jump around. Hat Kid turns on a dime, her jump arcs are incredibly responsive, and it’s satisfying to combo speed and well-timed inputs for risky jumps. Hat Kid’s mechanics borrows a lot from Super Mario Sunshine by allowing the player a decent amount of aerial freedom. She effectively has a triple jump: after double-jumping, the player can dive and quickly cancel out to jump one more time. Though these seem small on paper, in practice these mechanics give the player so much control over their movement through space.
The effort with which Gears for Breakfast has crafted their levels is readily apparent from the first Act. In what can only be described as an organized chaos, the game boasts multiple different paths to navigate around a world. Sure, you can choose the direct way. Or you can choose the fun way. Although the depth perception can be a little off at times, the way objects are arranged in space result in different platforms and targets for Hat Kid to maneuver around. It’s easy to get into a speed-groove with the game; maintaining fast and constant motion feels tense in the best of ways.
As far as powerups and equipment go, the game features a number of different hats and badges that grant unique abilities and changes to the game. The badges are a neat addition, as their effects are non-essential for gameplay progression but are there for help, a challenge, or just plain fun. These upgrades are soft-locked by their respective currencies required to obtain them, but they’re otherwise unobtrusive in how they’re implemented. You never feel like you’re fighting with the game to play it.
My favorite aspect of A Hat in Time is the sheer number of objects you can interact with. Like the Rifts and badges, they’ll do nothing to forward the plot but they provide invaluable player choice. You can sit on a bench and look out across the ocean or sneak into your pillow fort to read your latest diary entry. This does absolutely nothing for the gameplay, but it does everything for the player’s experience. One of the most important aspects of “fun” is a sense of surprise. In that regards, Gears for Breakfast has sprinkled in so many little easter eggs, secrets, and interactives that you can expect a near-constant grin to be plastered on your face.
My only complaints with A Hat in Time have to do with the limitations Gears for Breakfast encountered as an indie game studio. As this was their first fully released title, there is a bit of roughness around the edges. The textures and models aren’t as high-resolution as a game like Yooka-Laylee and there is a fair amount of clipping and other graphical irregularities. Content-wise, the game is satisfying but on the shorter side of things. I finished the main storyline in 12 hours and am close to 100% as I near 15 hours. Two bonus worlds are supposedly in the works, thanks to Kickstarter stretch goals, but the 40 Time Pieces currently in the game are more than enough to provide a fun experience. With the addition of Steam Workshop support, A Hat in Time will hopefully find more life within the modding community.