Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Review: Knytt Stories

There are a select few games that impress me.  There are even less that really blow me away.  Today, it's easy to get lost in the sea of high-budget mainstream titles being released.  So many people are playing shooters and RPGs with a massive amount of levels, stats, ranks and other crap that it's become easy to lose sight of some of the simpler games.  In the '80s and '90s, there was no need to be the king of graphics or deliver a Hollywood blockbuster experience to the players.  Games like Metroid, Earthworm Jim and Sonic really proved that you don't need to emulate different mediums to be a great product.  One of the things I think modern mainstream developers seem to forget is that games aren't all about story and characters.  What separates video games from the rest of entertainment is the involvement of the user to create the experience.  It's hard to take in the atmosphere to a game when some grizzled soldier or companion is egging you down a linear storyline.  Knytt Stories, by independent developer Nifflas, takes this sad mold that modern developers have created and shatters it into a million beautiful pieces, proving that simplicity comes out over complexity any day.

The story in Knytt Stories is really something you won't care much about.  You play as Juni, and you've got to shut off this machine that's draining all the color from the land, blah, blah, etc, etc.  And yet, there's still an awe-inspiring sense of beauty that's present throughout the whole experience.  But how?  What's this?  A beautiful game without an emotional moving story to drive it?  Yes.  And it's this very absence of narrative that makes for one of the most memorable one and a half hours I've ever spent playing a game.  Because, you see, Knytt Stories doesn't use story as some sort of crutch to keep the player interested.  The design, ambience, and settings work in glorious harmony to produce an incredibly immersive atmosphere.

If anything stands out in this game, it's the sheer lack of any sort of pressure to complete it.  No bosses, no areas that become inaccessible, no time limit to complete any one task in any given amount of time.  It's really an unparalleled sense of freedom.  Knytt Stories uses this freedom of movement to encourage the player to explore the world around them.  And therein lies the most wondrous part of the game.  Navigating every nook and cranny of the vast landscape isn't necessarily vital to the completion of the game, as there are many rooms that serve no purpose other than being part of the atmosphere.  But the thing is, exploration never once feels like a chore, but rather a grand adventure.  You'll start out wanting to collect all of the power ups to make moving around easier, but once you travel to another zone, that extended jump ability will be on the bottom of your agenda.  Instead, you'll come up to a wonderful golden sunlit valley and stop thinking about the trinkets you have to collect.  Your mind won't be filled with anything but a desire to see more of this beautiful alien world.  Power ups become but tools to help you achieve that desire.  The feelings of wonder that Knytt Stories evoked within me were unlike anything I've ever experienced in any medium.

The music is gorgeous.  When I first started the game up, I was worried that a clashing style of music would destroy the atmosphere for me.  But when those sweet, gentle, ambient sounds started hitting my eardrums, the jaw of the Zen portion of my brain dropped, to put it lightly.  The soundtrack fits the gameplay and atmosphere like a glove.  It was almost like the game was literally rubbing silk on my ear.  The music never interrupts the gameplay in the least, and each area has music that is perfectly appropriate for the setting.  Combined with some subtle-but-noticeable soundwork (the patter of Juni's feet, gentle tapping while climbing, sounds of jumping and impact, etc), the results create a soundscape that I fell in love with the instant I started walking about.

There aren't enough good things in this world I could use to describe Knytt Stories.  The design, the music, the sense of exploration, there is so much that has been done right here that it's nearly impossible to say anything bad about it.  After you finish the main game, I'd highly recommend you check out some of the expansions Nifflas has put up on his site.  Nifflas is a brilliant gamemaker, but to simply title him as that would be an injustice.  No, this is art.  And moreover, it's a game that doesn't try to be art.  No pretentious story, no abstract messages, none of that.  Just one little, beautiful playable work of art.  I would go on, but then the rest of the review would just seem like rambling.  I think you all know what's coming next.



  1. WOW! This is actually really good Ethan!! I like how you describe everything, they really ought to pay you for advertising. I'm impressed.

  2. cool review, better than the indiegames.com one ;)