When a game has an "overwhelmingly positive" review score on Steam, it generally means it's going to be something pretty special.
That's what A Hat in Time, a 3D platforming adventure from indie developer Gears for Breakfast has. Not many games get such high praise from Steam users, so I was very interested in trying it out. But despite having the game in my library, I never did get the chance to take the PC version for a spin. When it was announced to be coming to consoles then, I jumped at my chance to see what all the fuss was about.
I expected something great, but what I ended up with was a frustrating and glitchy mess.
A Hat in Time places you in the shoes of a young time-and-space-travelling girl. I mean, she looks pretty human to you and I, but to the inhabitants of the worlds she explores, she's an alien. You see, as she was travelling home, an accident caused her to lose all her Time Pieces — the fuel that her ship runs on — so she's stranded until she collects them all again. Cue an adventure across several worlds, completing missions and battling enemies in order to find each Time Piece.
As far as premises go, A Hat in Time's is fairly solid. The narrative design is perhaps the area where the game really shines. Characters - even the enemies - are likeable, well-designed, and wonderfully voiced. The worlds you visit, too, are imaginative, colourful and varied. It's clear a lot of love has gone into designing a game world that's rich and interesting — but it's a massive shame that the actual execution of making that world has severely let A Hat in Time down.
For the most part, A Hat in Time is just not fun to play. It's frustrating in all the wrong ways. On Xbox One, character models look shabby and pixelated — a far cry from the stellar voicework that goes alongside them. And while the levels themselves are generally quite nice to look at, the camera makes them an absolute nightmare to traverse. Some levels left me feeling literally nauseous as I tried in vain (and failed) to get a good view of where I needed to go. Worse, looking through doorways or tight spaces would cause the camera to actually freak out, jumping and jittering in and out of the screen at an alarming rate. This wasn't a one-off occasion, either. It happens a lot.
There are some settings in the menu to allow you to tweak the camera, turning on and off assisted movement, and altering the zoom. I tried several different combinations of options, and none seemed to make much difference. Leaving the camera on manual control seemed to be the lesser evil, but it's barely a marginal improvement.
I hate being so negative on it, because A Hat in Time has some genuinely great ideas. Each level is incredibly varied; some play out like standard 3D platform levels, running around an environment and picking up collectibles. Another had me completely in stealth mode, sneaking past birds in a film studio. The next was an all-out noir adventure inspired by Murder on the Orient Express. The variation means it never gets boring and you're always eager to see what the next level is going to throw at you.
Related: Looking for more 3D platform games on Xbox One? Check out our review of Super Lucky's Tale.
Or at least, you should be, if most levels weren't so damn painful to play. The stealth sections in particular, while a great idea in principle, were a nightmare to play. The awful camera angles make it sometimes impossible to see what lies in your path, so trying to spot who you need to avoid while you're sneaking is often too tall a task. Jumping is another frustrating experience too, as your character is often unwieldy. While the button is responsive enough, trying to aim where you land - especially when trying to double-jump up a wall - is another story altogether.
I applaud Gears for Breakfast for their ideas and vision, as A Hat in Time is in many ways truly original. I'm just really disappointed it wasn't better executed in terms of technical finesse. At its heart, A Hat in Time is a lovely platformer that wants to be a joy to play, but its technical shortcomings are far too big to ignore.