One aspect of collectathon 3D platformers that has remained consistent over time is their unfettered imagination. Whether we’re talking about Spyro the Dragon or Ratchet & Clank, these games have crazy, colourful worlds that fill you with childlike wonder. Serious plots and realism go out the window because fun and “gameyness” are prioritised above all else, and that’s exactly what A Hat in Time aims to establish from the get-go. It’s characterized by a humorous whimsy that’s bound to put a smile on your face, but the game’s appeal doesn’t make up for lacking level design.
The journey begins with Hat Kid being stopped above a strange world by a spacefaring mafia goon, who has come to collect a toll. When our little hero refuses, the moustached grunt punches a hole through her vessel, sending the girl and all her collected Time Pieces careening toward the planet below. Now she must recover the hourglass treasures to fuel her ship so she can go home, which entails meeting more oddballs and their bizarre dwellings along the way.
As we said, A Hat in Time purposefully combines incongruent, weird influences to structure its four main worlds. One moment you’ll find yourself posing as an actress in a movie-making competition between two birds, and then you’ll be forced into contractual obligations (such as delivering mail to ghosts or defeating a toilet boss) with a demonic ghoul to get your soul back.
The story has little rhyme or reason to its own detriment at times, but it possesses a good amount of witty dialogue and humorous descriptions while examining objects. The dialogue in particular isn’t always this way, which frequently dips into drawn-out monologues and exchanges that don’t stick their intended landings. At least the upbeat music and cutesy sound effects do their job consistently well to uplift the game’s undyingly joyful innocence. Hats off to composer Pascal Stiefel for tracks with some clever building transitions and key changes.
Our conflicted thoughts extend to the visual direction. It’s not until the last two worlds where the cel-shaded game starts to carve out a cohesive, attractive style for itself, which is most evident in the gorgeous, Himalayan-inspired world of Alpine Skyline. On the other hand, Mafia Town and Dead Bird Studio feel more like collections of random assets with the level design reflecting a similarly haphazard approach.
Excluding a couple noteworthy bosses, nearly everything’s an absolute breeze with scatter-brained objectives that feel more like fluff and busywork halfway through the game. This is how the missions pad out their poor diversity in the way of platforming and objectives, which we could easily cheese our way through with little setbacks. Despite these issues, we’d be remiss to not admit that some of the game's randomness pleasantly surprised us. There’s a stealth-oriented horror mission that’s unexpectedly tense, a mini-boss fight that adequately tests your mettle, and so forth. If anything, A Hat in Time isn’t afraid to push boundaries with experimentation, even if it isn’t consistently good at it.
That’s not to say the gameplay in itself is bad. Indeed, the core controls are tuned to a tee. You’ll be doing lots of double jumping, wall climbing, and diving to get around, and these three moves alone can be strung together in satisfying ways that exhibit an attention to polish that doesn’t disappoint. Abilities like the Hookshot or Dweller’s Mask flesh out platforming in exciting ways by (respectively) allowing you to swing across chasms or temporarily concretize ethereal objects. Features like these poke at promising implementation, but much of their potential use is limited in moment-to-moment application, leaving us wishing there were more Hats and Badges that meaningfully expand Hat Girl’s moveset.
Besides acquiring Time Pieces with story chapters, you’re given reason to scavenge worlds by finding relics or balls of yarn scattered about to craft new hats. You’ll also come across Time Rifts hidden in obscure locations that bring you to otherworldly obstacle courses, but all these optional assignments lack depth to uncover. Most of the collectables have obnoxiously massive, glowing auras around them that require little effort to spot and obtain. Time Rifts offer somewhat greater platforming challenges, but any incentive to do them dissipates since you’ll have most of the Time Pieces you need by sticking to the main objectives. That is, unless you want to acquire different colour schemes and hat variants to keep Hat Girl fashionable.
A Hat in Time excels with an overwhelming charm in its writing and art direction that overcomes any missteps in these areas. Its core, smooth mechanics also benefit from promising ideas, but none of them prevent the game from being pulled into a wormhole of mediocre level design and objectives. The potential for phenomenal platforming and exploration is here, but for every positive, there seems to be a negative in A Hat in Time.