3D platformers feel bound to a specific place and time. Identified in earnest by Super Mario 64 and plunged into oblivion by Banjo Tooie, the genre has struggled to move past the classic Nintendo 64 model. Mario’s path remains golden, but other shots in the dark and faithful flashbacks have fallen flat. Most recently, Yooka-Laylee showcased the danger of reflecting the past. A Hat in Time, on the other hand, finds its balance by observing the present.
Hat Kid flies her plush spaceship near a foreign planet. A mafia henchman—in outer space without a suit—approaches the viewing glass and punches through it, causing a vacuum that sucks away Time Pieces (hourglasses that act as fuel) from her spaceship’s vault. Hat Kid must then scour the planet’s four distinct zones and endure a series of challenges in order to recover up to forty missing Time Pieces.
Jumping is the most important mechanic in any platformer. Hat Kid doesn’t have quite the level of friction to put her in the upper tier of the genre, but she does demonstrate a satisfying level of ground and aerial control. A jump and double jump are complemented by a third diving-jump, itself demanding the player flip out of the dive or risk a slide landing. In a way, flipping out of a dive felt similar to Gears of War’s active reload mechanic. It gives the player an additional timing-based challenge and quickly rewards that action with better positioning.
A Hat in Time’s signature mechanic, as one may assume, lies with its titular hats. Balls of yarn tucked in the nooks and crannies of each level and can be assembled into different hats. The default hat is used to isolate the current Time Piece objective. Another throws bombs at enemies or breakable areas. A ground pound and hat that enables running represent other standard mechanics. A Hat in Time’s final two hats, however, phase objects in and out of the world and slow down time (and it’s the former where A Hat in Time develops its most inventive sequences).
Joining hats are badges. Essentially acting as perks, badges can enable a hook shot, turn the running hat into a scooter, magnetize nearby collectibles, negate fall damage, and a few other novelties. Badges are purchased from a strange vendor tucked away in every level (and, occasionally, in Hat Girl’s ship). With upgrades, up to three badges can be equipped at a time. Some are more essential than others, the hook shot, for example, is required for all of Alpine Skyline, but A Hat in Time leaves most of the other badges up to the player’s discretion.
Economy is an area where A Hat in Time’s can struggle. Green spheres, A Hat in Time’s currency, are everywhere in every world and respawn each time you leave. Most of the badges don’t cost that much, and after three or four trips through Mafia Town I didn’t have to go out of my way to collect any for the rest of the game. There are special, exorbitantly priced badges that make A Hat in Time harder or change english dialogue to Banjo Kazooie’s idiot language, so perhaps for some that’s worth the extra effort.
A Hat in Time’s first world, Mafia Town, keeps a respectable 3D platformer rhythm. A giant, circular map centers on a mountain (of sorts) and is loaded with wandering bad guys, swift platforming challenges, and obscured secrets. Acquiring Time Pieces means winning a battle royale against mafia henchmen, cheating to win a race, and collecting three golden tickets to open a treasure chest.
Mafia Town’s open embrace of 3D platformer tropes is soon revealed artifice for a more ambitious game. This is a risky maneuver—a portion of A Hat in Time’s audience will genuinely want another comfortable retread—but the opportunity it creates is worthy of applause. A giant, bright beautiful world loaded with familiar objectives could have been the blueprint for every level. While A Hat in Time occasionally wanders back into this thesis, much of the remainder of the game is content to stay away from it.
This should be apparently by the time you enter the second world, Battle of the Birds. Instead of a repeating world with routine challenges, you’re presented with a two rival avian movie directors each seeking Hat Kid’s assistance in creating a new movie. The Conductor, an owl, casts her as a detective trying to solve a murder across a series of train cars. DJ Groove, a penguin, is a chaos-obsessed party monster determined to throw a mixture of danger and adoration at Hat Kid. As best I can tell, A Hat in Time even gives players agency over which director eventually wins the battle of the birds. Each offers two Time Piece-earning challenges with measurable ratings, creating room for a presumed finale and surprise encore.
Battle of the Birds is also where A Hat in Time starts experimenting with different genres. Solving the Conductor’s murder mystery briefly transitions action into a timed stealth game. Moving through train cars, finding the right keys, and staying out of sight of patrolling (or cackling) birds demands ruthless efficiency. Along completely different lines, DJ Groove hosts a city-wide party where photographers trail Hat Kid as she bounces all over town. This sequencecalls to mind Jet Set Radio’s merciless cops. Practical stealth and eighteen-year-old Dreamcast games aren’t exactly modern influences, but they both show a drive to escape the traditional definition of a 3D platformer.
Subcon Forest continues this trend. Inside of its neon bog is a haunted house that replicates Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s model of defensive horror. A Hat in Time isn’t nearly as grim or scary, but it places a nefarious presence inside the house and challenges the player to neatly avoid her while moving from room to room. It’s a rudimentary implementation of a popular design, but, like Battle of the Birds, it shows a willingness to step outside of a safe standard. You also get to fight an angry outhouse at the end of Subcon Forest, which I am contractually obligated to appreciate.
Alpine Skyline twists A Hat in Time back to form. It doesn’t define any Time Piece objectives, forcing an open-world approach. Your default hat will point you in the right direction, but the game is much more insistent on the player skying around its floating islands and reaching their peaks. The windmill, in particular, contains A Hat in Time’s most trying and difficult platforming sequences.
Scattered around each level are “glitches” that lead Hat Kid to one-off challenge levels. These are often pure-platforming sequences reminiscent of those Super Mario Sunshine levels where Mario wasn’t burdened with the FLUDD pack. Glitches also shift A Hat in Time’s aesthetic away from a lush fantasy world and into a more serene, blocks-floating-in-space style consistent with dedicated platforming. These aren’t especially challenging, but they are a nice change of pace.
An exception to normal glitch levels is found in Mafia Town. Rather than teleport Hat Kid to a completely different area, it changes most the ground to lava. Hat Kid then has to jump through elevated platforms in order to open valves and cool off the water. I love the idea of heavily modifying an existing environment for a crazy new idea (Alpine Skyline’s final Time Piece does this as well) and wish A Hat in Time had used more of its glitches to do stuff like this.
A Hat in Time’s voice acting is spirited and…kind of mean? Hat Kid isn’t exactly a sympathetic figure and her nemesis, Mustache Girl, makes a decent case for her actions. The bosses are also weirdly violent and menacing next to the atmosphere otherwise a part of A Hat in Time. Narrative in A Hat in Time doesn’t exactly matter, but the strength and combination of storytelling and platforming found in Battle of the Birds hints at potential that isn’t realized elsewhere.
JonTron, an extremely popular YouTuber who made extremely stupid and racist comments, still lends his vocal talents to a character in Battle of the Birds. This is notable because his presence was removed from the only competitive game in A Hat in Time’s field, Yooka-Layee. It’s not fair to mark this action against everything else that A Hat in Time gets right, but it is weird that a public shit head wasn’t removed from an otherwise friendly game.
It’s also worth mentioning that, per an original Kickstarter goal, A Hat in Time is slated to receive two additional bonus worlds in the form of free downloadable content. This seems like a lot—the base game only has four worlds that took me about nine hours—so it’s tough to imagine what kind of form these will take. A best case scenario would be the abundance of stellar content Shovel Knight delivered over the last three years, but anything on par with A Hat in Time’s existing levels would be pleasant.
What’s most important is that, in most cases, A Hat in Time is more interested in looking around than staring backward. This is a challenging exercise for a 3D platformer, and yet A Hat in Time keeps its perspective balanced between careful devotion and sensible progression. Being responsive to your environment, as it turns out, makes it easier to see where you should be going.