First Impressions – A Hat in Time (Murder on the Owl Express)

A Hat in Time – Murder on the Owl Express – Hands On.

Late last month, at Gamescom 2017, I finally managed to get some hands on time with 3D-platforming collect-a-thon A Hat in Time ahead of it’s October release.

Back in May of 2013 developer Gears for Breakfast launched a Kickstarter for A Hat in Time. Pitched as a ‘Cute-as-heck 3D platformer’ the game was made with a view to filling the void where the 3D platforming genre used to exist. The Kickstarter was an overwhelming success, with the $30,000 goal smashed almost ten-fold and an amazing amount of interest sparked in both the title and the genre.

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The earliest videos and let’s plays for the game (including the one on the Kickstarter linked above) focused on 3D platforming antics heavily reminiscent of Mario 64 and the Banjo Kazooee games, albeit with a cel-shaded visuals and —as hoped— massive modernisation of other aspects of the game in areas like draw distance, asset quality, and the like. Levels followed the protagonist, Hat Kid, as they fought off Mafioso and fled monsters in a haunted house setting. Plenty of platforming was shown off, a whole lot of combat and even a little bit of the game’s NPC chatter.

Strange then, that one of the two demos that the Gears for Breakfast team took to Gamescom earlier in the year was almost a reversal of that mix; rather than a heavy platforming and combat mix with pitter-patters of chatter, it was instead delightfully text laden and surprisingly combat light.

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The demo in question was of act 4 of the game’s third chapter, titled ‘Murder on the Owl Express’ and ‘Last Bird Standing’ respectively, the act sees the main character solving a murder aboard an express train; a train owned and operated by a film-maker-come-conductor who plays a major role in the chapter, although not so much in the act.

The gist of the challenge is simple, explore the train for a time, find out about the murder and then head off to find clues as to solve the murder. Littered around the various carriages and engine rooms of the train are a variety of platforming puzzles; paddles to bounce from, jumps to make, enemies to dodge, and keys to transport to locked doors. Each of the clues, manilla file envelopes, allows you to accuse a different person at the end of the act, however it’s fairly obvious who has committed the murder and so the challenge becomes about exploration and use of your skills  — each tied to various hats which you can change between. The detective hat will point out the next clue, an ice hat will turn you into a block of ice —which can give you the extra weight to use a paddle and propel across rooms— while another launches projectiles and another allows you to dash forwards.

Many of the rooms contained multiple floors, with a few of them requiring small platforming puzzles to be completed before you could traverse between them — that or you had to move from room to room in order to access the new areas. Others contained paroling, guarding, or resting packs of crows which, should they lock eyes on you, cause injury to the protagonist — it’s very much a stealth level.

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While the level contained the game’s collectables —shining, silver orbs— there was no real use to them on a mechanical level. This may be where I wasn’t confronted with a score table or leader-board at the end of the level, of course. What I will say for them however, and about the level design in general, is that everything seemed like it had been placed perfectly. Whenever you first entered a room the unpicked orbs nudged you to explore certain areas, or where to make certain jumps, similarly I didn’t feel like I got turned around in the halls — the game captured that need, and want, to look around a room before you bounced through it, something the developers were no doubt attempting to capture from the likes of Super Mario Sunshine and the Banjo titles.

I’m completely enamoured with it. It manages to completely capture the approachable and youthful feel of the early 3D platforming game’s movement. It’s not just the feel of the game, but also the visual appeal. Genre contemporaries Snake Pass and Yooka-Laylee may have received mixed critical reviews for their gameplay, but it’s impossible to deny the visual charm — A Hat in Time will easily stand alongside those, even if the level I played was darker and moodier than most of the game—It is, after all, wearing a reference to one of Agatha Christie’s most famous works as its level name.

The many characters which populated the level gave it a wonderful 90s cartoon feeling. Each character’s intent was almost immediately recognisable within a few moments of them talking; deceitful, curious crows in Inspector Clouseau style jackets asking security questions; mumbling, nervous Owls blabbering out whatever was freshest in their mind; and the conductor a bawdy, no-nonsense Scot taking on the authority role through command of voice alone.

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I’ve deliberately refrained from talking about the entertaining dialogue, nor a very fun aside (which involves rescuing an inanimate thing, subsequently allowing you to blame the murder on another inanimate thing) as I’d rather not ruin those moments for players when they come to experience them. So I suppose all that is left is to state that, due to the level’s timer, I only managed to recover two-thirds of the clues yet managed to complete the level — another refreshing nod to older games wherein you could finish the game with less than half of the items collected, with the 100% there only for the most vigilant.

I will certainly, gladly, be replaying that level when the game launches later this year.

A Hat in Time has a current release date of October 5th for the Xbox One, PS4, PC & Mac. The developers have expressed interest in releasing on Nintendo’s Switch, however the jury is currently out on that front.

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