A Hat in Time is an adorable throwback to 3D platformers from the N64 era. It’s a love letter to games like Mario 64, however it’s a love letter from an honest partner. One who isn’t afraid to point out your flaws and tell you where you need to improve. Yes, I love you, but we need to talk about your camera control. And while we’re at it, let’s work on the the responsiveness of your jump. And is swimming really necessary?
A Hat in Time starts with Hat Kid losing all the Time Pieces she needs to power her spaceship for the ride home. The forty Time Pieces are scattered over the planet below so off she goes to get them back. I have to confess, I typically skip over the stories in platform games. I don’t particularly care about the three lines of dialogue blurted out as the reason for this week’s kidnapped Princess. Not this time. The minimal story here lets the characters shine through subtle animations and excellent voice acting. It’s also funny. Hat Girl managed to get a laugh from me with a blank expression and the part where she makes edits to a contract with Snatcher is one of the funniest moments I’ve seen in a platformer.
The charm and humor hit you immediately but it takes a while for the gameplay to live up to those high standards. The first world, Mafia Town, is so full of “stuff” that it’s almost headache inducing. It looks like the world started off twice as big and then someone crushed it all together. It’s designed to be easy for newcomers so there are no gaps to fall down and only a handful of enemies. I don’t mind a lack of challenge in early levels, however there’s so little actual platforming required that it feels more like a glorified hub world. It’s every bit the typical first world in a 3D platformer. It’s bright, it’s colorful, and it has a beach.
The second world is better in every way. Battle of the Birds isn’t so much a world as a section of linear levels that tell a story of two competing movie productions. Your performance in each level is scored and whichever side has the highest score at the end is the winner. Hat Kid takes part in a parade, a murder mystery, and an action scene. It’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Subcon Forest sees you completing contracts for the Snatcher. It’s outright hilarious at times, however the world itself is a confusing mess. Even a vague map would have been helpful. There are plenty of opportunities for exploration in the forest, but little reward for doing so. I once followed a path of trees that took at least twenty jumps—some of them quite tough—and there was nothing at the end of it. The final world is linear, but spectacular to look at, with hugely satisfying climbs up to the tops of mountains and giant windmills, with a helping of ice and lava for good measure.
Your main goal is to collect the Time Pieces, however to do that you need to collect yarn to knit new hats which in turn grant you abilities. Hat Kid starts with just one hat and all it does is point you in the direction of your objective. Knitting new hats lets you sprint, throw explosives, ground pound on springs, access an alternate dimension, and eventually slow down time. The last one feels like a bit of an afterthought. It’s only necessary for one Time Piece which is a short race course. I have a strong suspicion that the slow time hat was intended for a fifth world which never made it into the game. Perhaps it will be DLC.
While you do switch hats a lot, you’re never required to mix your hat abilities in platforming challenges. You might have to use a ground pound to spring to a new section and then access the alternate dimension to climb platforms. What you won’t have to do is alter the dimension to bring a ground pound spring into existence, bounce on it, and then blow a hole in a wall before you land. This lack of fast switching between abilities is presumably a result of the way you change hats which doesn’t lend itself well to quick transitions. You change hats by cycling through them on the d-pad, if you have the order memorized, or by using a quick change menu. It’s too clunky for rapid changes to work and hence the challenge is limited to using one hat at a time.
Returning to earlier levels with new abilities lets you collect items that were previously out of reach, but this rarely feels satisfying. For example, Mafia Town is littered with springs you can’t use until you get the ground pound. I went back to Mafia Town with the ground pound excited to access new areas, but all the springs did was move me around the map a bit quicker, like mini fast travel points. Likewise, the ability to access another dimension is limited to climbing on a crate and accessing a piece of yarn.
Hats are the game’s main gimmick, but it might have worked better as a system of permanent upgrades to one particular hat. With a bit of creativity, there are enough buttons to use all the abilities together which could have led to some fun challenges such as slowing down time while moving between dimensions and blowing up crates.
In addition to hats, you can buy badges from a vendor and equip up to three of them at a time. The most useful is a hookshot that lets you swing around levels and is mandatory to get past certain sections. Other badges include photo mode, a magnet to pull in collectibles, and a one-hit kill mode for those who like an extra challenge. As with the hats, these badges would have been better as permanent additions. Having to equip a certain badge to enable photo mode is a strange choice and the hookshot is always useful without replacing any other button prompt. Why not just make it permanent?
While most of Hat Kid’s abilities come from her hats, it’s her incredible jump and dive that make A Hat in Time fun to play from beginning to end. In addition to a double jump, you can dive for extra distance and can cancel out of that dive for one final jump. This lets you cross gaps you’d assume were too big and gives you plenty of control over where you land.
The main test of your platforming prowess comes in the form of rifts, which resemble the secret levels from Super Mario Sunshine. None of the rifts are particularly difficult though and it’s a touch disappointing that they weren’t used for some more intense platforming. Again, this goes back to the inability to mix up abilities as an ultimate test of skill.
The boss battles are three stage affairs that provide a challenge until you memorize the patterns and signposting. They’re fun encounters and my only minor complaint is that there aren’t checkpoints after each phase. You’re usually restored to full health after each phase so it’s not like starting again gives you the opportunity to do better next time. If you struggle on the third phase of a boss fight, then you’re going to get real good at phases one and two. It’s not a huge problem as the fights are creative and entertaining even when you have to repeat them a few times.
A Hat in Time does away with the lives system. You have four bars of health which is more than enough for all enemies except the bosses. The enemies could be removed from the game entirely without it making a lot of difference. The most common enemy type is a black blob that doesn’t have any interesting attacks, but then neither does Hat Kid.
You’ll ignore your health bar for nearly the entire game which makes its inclusion all the more pointless. It’s the only part of A Hat in Time that smacks of an old feature included for no reason other than “it’s the way things were always done.” If you fall to your death, the only difference between losing one health point and losing your life is that after you lose your life there’s a longer loading screen.
Credit has to go to developer Gears For Breakfast for creating an excellent camera system. You can choose how close the camera hovers behind Hat Kid and the scenery becomes transparent when the camera is behind a wall. It gets stuck on the scenery occasionally and there were moments were it was tricky to land jumps with precision, but for the most part, it’s great.
There’s a lot to collect in A Hat in Time, so it’s a shame that the game doesn’t do a good job of organizing it all in the menus. There’s no way to tell how many relics you have left to collect or what world’s they are on. Same goes for yarn, coins, and costumes. I completed the game to 100% but there’s plenty I didn’t get. Some rifts have pictures to collect and yet you can’t track which ones you still need. Collectathons appeal to, well, the need to collect everything. A checklist is a simple, yet essential part of that.
Gears For Breakfast isn’t a slave to nostalgia. It knows what made early 3D platformers special in the late nineties and it knows what makes them hard to go back to in 2017. It’s updated the genre but kept the nostalgia flowing in the process. A Hat in Time could do with being a touch longer, but I enjoyed the entirety of my fifteen-hour playthrough. Not bad for a $30 package.