While the 3D Platformer genre has been dormant for a while, 2017 saw a couple of notable entries. You’re probably familiar with Super Mario Odyssey, but I want to focus on the smaller release today: A Hat in Time—a game that, thanks to updates and DLC, is better today than ever before.
This is one of my favorite genres, and I’ve spent a lot of time playing games like Super Mario Galaxy, Sonic Generations, and De Blob. So with how dormant the genre has been, you would probably expect that I jumped on A Hat in Time the moment it released. I didn’t actually pick it up until late 2018, and just got around to playing it last week. But in a way I’m glad I waited, because with the massive amount of effort the developers, Gears for Breakfast, has put in post-launch, now is without a doubt the best time to try out this game.
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All too often when smaller developers make platformers, the core movement controls can feel a bit cheap, lacking the polish larger and more experienced devs can provide. But A Hat in Time bucks that trend, with controls that feel just as fine-tuned as you’d expect out of a company like Nintendo. The actual mechanics are simple: All you have is a jump, dive, and wall run. But the flexibility these abilities provide, alongside power-ups you unlock throughout the game, makes the simple act of moving an absolute delight.
Very early on you unlock a sprint cap that allows you to run faster, an ice cap that freezes your body to activate special ice panels, and a witch hat that allows you to throw explosive potions. These fairly basic power-ups might not wow you, but their potential is consistently realized in each stage, making sure none of them feel like an afterthought.
None of that would matter though if the game didn’t have some solid level design, and A Hat in Time most certainly delivers. The game has four proper worlds with six or seven “Acts” (or missions) each, alongside the final world which only has one Act. These Acts vary from exploration-based affairs to proper platforming challenges, with my preference definitely being the latter.
The developers know how to use the mechanics to create stages that are challenging, but not frustrating—all while using the different power-ups and abilities to their fullest. But the more exploration-based stages aren’t lacking either, and once you get used to the flow of the movement you can navigate the stages much faster.
So then, we’re pretty much good then right? After all, the gameplay is the core of any 3D platformer—you can tack on as much set dressing as you want, but if the movement is off the whole game will be off. However, while the controls of A Hat in Time are great, the developers didn’t stop there—they went the extra mile to make sure you would fall in love with the world of this game alongside the gameplay.
Each world in A Hat in Time has its own style, characters, and story to tell. You start on the fairly basic Mafia Town, an island solely inhabited by burly Mafia Goons, all led by the Mafia Boss. The story of overthrowing the Mafia Boss pretty much goes how you would expect, but this is relatively soft compared to the rest of the game. In one stage you’ll solve a murder on a train, film a movie, and be interrogated by crows all at the same time. Or maybe you’ll prefer the Subcon Forest where you complete various tasks set out for you by “The Snatcher” whose currently in possession of your soul.
While the creativity on display is constant and each world feels like its own thing, the one consistency is that A Hat in Time is a bit darker than you might expect. Everything on the outside is all nice and cartoony, but every world you visit is on the brink of some sort of disaster. Both Mafia Town and Subcon Forest are engulfed in flames at one point in your visit, for example. You’re also instructed on the fine art of assassinating people during your stay in Mafia Town as well.
The game keeps all of this rather tongue-in-cheek, as it knows you’re not going to take it seriously (nor it doesn’t want you to). Regardless, this mix of tones does give the story a unique flair compared to the rest of the genre. By mixing in some tangible stakes with the cartoony aesthetics and not limiting the writing to the standard “made for kids” affair, it allows you to grow more attached to the characters of A Hat in Time. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say this: Every major character you speak to has a very distinct and well-realized personality, more than you would expect going into a game like this.
Some shine brighter than others, but none of them truly disappoint—well, maybe besides one. The main antagonist is a bit undeveloped in my opinion, but I chalk that up to a lack of screentime rather than any intrinsic issues with her character. Besides, only one misstep in a cast like this is still nothing to criticize too heavily.
I play a lot of games made by smaller development studios, and when it comes to titles that I would merely call “good” there’s a common issue I have with them. Many games will have great gameplay or a great world/story, but rarely both. This makes sense, those are two very different goals that require different skill sets a small studio may not have access to. But A Hat in Time still manages both, which is what really elevates it from “just another indie game” to one of the greats.
I would be remiss not to touch on the Workshop support for this game. This is only on PC, but you can download user-created stages, abilities, and other mods from the Steam Workshop. If you’ve used the Workshop before, you know how easy this makes modding your game, so I was so glad to see the developers add support for this. Not only does it give you more stuff to do in this game, but the modding community is very impressive. Whether it’s an extremely difficult platforming challenge or adding in Cappy from Super Mario Odyssey, there’s some amazing stuff to be found on the Workshop for this game.
Besides the user-created content, there are also two DLC’s for A Hat in Time, each adding entirely new chapters to the game, alongside a bunch of other stuff (like online co-op and remixed versions of the base game’s levels). I’ve only scratched the surface of these, but from what I’ve heard these new chapters are even better than those found in the base game, so I’m definitely excited to play through them.
While 3D platformers have slipped back into dormancy, there has been a bit of a blip over the past year with Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time and Ratchet and Clack: Rift Apart—so it may not be completely dead. But even it if is, I’m glad A Hat in Time brought back this genre for a bit outside of the Mario brand. While the developers haven’t announced plans to further update the game (and are working on an entirely new game at the moment), what they’ve already done is more than most games like this get, and the user-made content will hopefully support it for years to come.
But even if this game does wind down, I’m glad I finally got around to playing it, and if you’ve read this far I’d recommend giving it a try yourself. A Hat in Time is available right now on PC, Switch, Xbox, and PS4/PS5 for $29.99—it even received a performance update for the PS5 and Series X enabling 60 FPS.
A Hat in Time
A thrilling 3D platformer with excellent mechanics, characters, and stages.