Game Description: Certain to be one of the most innovative titles of 2009, Knights in the Nightmare is wholly unique. Not easily placed in any one genre, the game requires players to throw out everything they know about role-playing and strategy games and embrace something altogether new and fresh. Frantic, energetic action mixes with thought-provoking tactical gameplay, all within a beautifully-rendered fantasy setting and presented through a captivating, emotional narrative. Dripping with style and originality, Knights in the Nightmare delivers an unforgettable experience.
HIGH The moment where you finally "get" the game is pretty magical. There's a lot of depth here, but only patient gamers will stick around long enough to find it.
LOW The game's tutorial isn't as helpful as it should be. Knights in the Nightmare is difficult mostly because it does such a terrible job of explaining how it was meant to be played.
WTF The entire game is one giant WTF moment for the first few hours.
One of the constant rallying cries of jaded gamers is that today's titles don't offer enough "innovation." Everything is a copy of something else. Anyone who's spent more than a few years seriously playing games realizes that this is a medium that loves to milk franchises and ideas until the once overflowing teat of creativity is reduced to little more than a dry and lifeless husk. Fresh ideas are few and far between in a world filled with space marines, turn-based role-playing games, and so many military shooters that I feel like I'm worthy of an honorable discharge based on combat time accrued.
Developers Sting Entertainment are no strangers to making games that feel and play unique. They've worked on titles like Riviera and Yggdra Union (both for the GameBoy Advance and PlayStation Portable)—two games that were certainly different from a lot of others on the shelf. I knew going in that I had to expect the unexpected when it came to these guys' games—but even that wasn't enough to prepare me for their latest release, Knights in the Nightmare.
Knights is best described as a merging of strategy RPG games like Disgaea with bullet-hell shmups like Ikaruga. Sound like an insanely odd combination? It is—and that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of this incredibly unique title.
Trying to explain Knights in the Nightmare would require far more words than I have allotted for this review. The game comes with a full-fledged tutorial that will literally take an hour to go through. This can be skipped and players can jump into the game proper—but I'd advise against it. I've been playing strategy RPGs and shmups for years. Nothing in that experience prepared me for what Sting had in store for me.
The gist of the game is that players will take control of a wisp. This wisp is a ghostly spirit that serves like a mouse icon on your computer. Players use the stylus to drag the wisp around maps, selecting characters to act and attack enemies. The wisp also gives the soldiers their weapons and must dodge bullet attacks from the enemies. That's the most basic and rudimentary explanation I can offer—and it tells you nothing of the attack modes, the phases, the fact that no one takes damage, but instead everything revolves around a timer, collecting gems and items, managing units, or the countless sub-menus and gauges the game tosses at you right from the first battle. This game's learning curve is steeper than Everest.
The problem with Knights is that the game throws the huge tutorial at the player all at once. The tutorial is broken down into lessons, and you can tackle each concept in bite-sized chunks, but there's no final lesson. It's like learning all the steps to solving a complicated math equation, yet never putting all the pieces together and actually figuring out a problem from start to finish. Going through the tutorial will give gamers a rudimentary grasp of some of what's going on in the game, but the fact that publisher Atlus has taken it upon themselves to post YouTube tutorial videos showing how to play seems at least somewhat of an admission that that tutorial could be more helpful.
Because the instructional segment can be so obtuse, players wind up in the early battles of the game with no real idea how to win. It took me the better part of 20 battles before I finally had the moment where everything clicked—and judging from various message board posts, I wasn't alone. The game doesn't encourage starting over (at least not in the way something like Breath of Fire: Dragon Quarter or Dead Rising does), but most people have felt like starting from scratch somewhere between battles ten and twenty—when they finally figure out what's going on. That's not particularly great game design.
Once the hurdle of the learning curve has been cleared, the game starts to move in a different, but no less troubling, direction. What was once overwhelming with its complexity now becomes incredibly mundane and repetitive. Knights literally throws everything it has to offer at the player from the first moment. By the time the player has mastered the mechanics, the rest of the 40+ battles are just more of the same. The bullet patterns become more complex, some of the maps require a little more strategy in order to obtain items (required for recruiting more knights to the cause—a necessary evil since the game gives characters level caps and the only way to raise them is to either merge characters or find new recruits with higher caps), but there's no evolution in terms of combat. Granted, the game has so much going on that there's still lots to do (and micromanage), but the fun factor of being challenged all but vanishes about halfway through the campaign.
This leads me to wonder why Sting felt the need to bury players under a veritable information avalanche right from the start. Countless people never got to experience how unique Knights in the Nightmare is because the early challenge put them off continuing. In some ways, this feels more like a ploy to gain "hardcore" gamer cred than anything. There's nothing inherently wrong with appealing to the hardcore crowd—it's just disappointing that Sting has made the game nearly inaccessible to huge chunks of the gaming population not because they made a difficult game but because they explain how to play it so poorly.
That Sting has succeeded in making another innovative game (almost in spite of themselves this time out) should secure their legacy amongst gamers on the lookout for something different. Knights in the Nightmare struggles under the weight of its own complexity but the bizarre melding of divergent gaming subgenres make it a title I'd recommend to anyone bored with gaming's status quo.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Nintendo DS. Approximately 18 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol and tobacco references, mild fantasy violence, mild language, suggestive themes. I'm genuinely amazed this game has a T rating—it's really rather innocuous in terms of objectionable material. The real reason to keep it out of kids' hands is because the learning curve is so steep that most children will grow frustrated with the experience before they ever finish the tutorial.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game has no spoken dialogue. The entirety of the story is presented in text.
HIGH The first time I dominated an encounter after fully comprehending the battle system.
LOW Another last boss? Why can't this game just be over!
WTF Japanese developers really love their quasi-Christian bad guys.
Back in my review of Hexyz Force, I expressed confusion that such a rote, stock-standard game could come from the developer responsible for such wildly offbeat titles as Riviera: The Promised Land and Yggdra Union. The majority of the games in Sting's catalog are infamous specifically for their unusual design and disregard for genre norms. After receiving Knights in the Nightmare—a game that attempts to fuse strategy-RPG with bullet-hell shooters—for review, this disconnect makes a lot more sense. For all of its innovations, Knights in the Nightmare utilizes a surprising amount of the conservative game design previously found in Hexyz Force.
I don't mean to imply that Knights in the Nightmare isn't an unique game. Thoroughly describing the battle system would take a thousand words of its own. To greatly summarize, Knights in the Nightmare is a game where the player takes control of a mouse cursor, and dodges bullets that fly across the desktop. Threats are dealt with by "clicking" on stationary units, charging them for a time, and then letting loose with powerful attacks. There is a lot more complexity to it than this; some unit types actually can move, all types have differently shaped ranges for their attacks, there are elemental affinities and weakness to wrangle with, and plenty more besides.
Sting includes a pretty robust tutorial on the main menu, but this is one situation where an in-game tutorial would've much better served the player. Learning the game means delving through an hour of training before even starting a new file, and even then there are several game concepts that aren't even mentioned, let alone explained. Players can attempt to fully learn the ins-and-outs of Knights in the Nightmare by reading a hefty amount of supplemental text included on the disc, but without being able to play the game at the same time a lot of the terms lack significance. It's completely possible to spend thirty minutes reading about mechanics only to forget them once in battle. It's also possible—for a very intelligent player—to read and comprehend every scrap of information out of the expansive tutorial section, and thus feel utterly unchallenged for the entirety of the game.
It's perhaps the height of irony that a battle system as esoteric as the one found in Knights of the Nightmare comes off as overly simplistic once understood. The game only features a handful of different enemy varieties, and each of these foes has a couple of standard bullet patterns. After encountering a new foe once or twice, their attacks become familiar and predictable. Even in a combined offensive with other enemies, these patterns continually become less threatening with each fight. Less than halfway through the game's 46 battles, encounters with standard enemies were essentially over before they had begun. Boss encounters, which pop up every two or three scenes, do present a unique challenge when compared to the regular fodder, but it isn't long before they fall into routines of their own. While no two bosses share the exact same moves, their giant, screen-covering attacks have enough in common that the same tactics can be reused again and again.
That's not to say the battle system is unfun, only that it's easily mastered, and couldn't support the game on its own. Fortunately it doesn't have to.
Between battles, Knights in the Nightmare is virtually indistinguishable from its Strategy-RPG brethren. The fusing and upgrading of weapons and units can be witnessed here in almost unaltered form. Knights in the Nightmare clings to genre-standard party management tropes with a devotion that easily matches the desire for innovation demonstrated by the battle system. The compulsion for micromanagement I experienced in Hexyz Force came back with a vengeance during my sessions with Knights in the Nightmare. I would often find myself spending more time and effort in the pre-battle setup than during actual encounters, and this imbalance became increasingly exaggerated as my mastery of the game's systems improved.
For the most part, Sting manages to ping-pong back and forth between the game's two modes in a way that kept my interest. It's only when the story begins to flounder that I found myself toughing it out just to see the credits roll. Initially the story is about the inexorable death march of an undead and immensely powerful king—the protagonist, no less!—as he is drawn to retake the castle he ruled in life. Along the way, he recruits the souls of his recently deceased loyal retainers and exterminates nearly every living thing that still remains. About two-thirds of the way through the game, on the cusp of the penultimate battle, Knights in the Nightmare abruptly directs players on the hunt for a MacGuffin, and introduces a spate of as-yet-unmentioned antagonists. This entire arc sacrifices a rich atmosphere—and my enthusiasm along with it—to simply pad the game's playtime. Up until this fetch quest, Knights in the Nightmare had cultivated a mood that was truly deserving of the game's title.
Knights in the Nightmare isn't the mind-blowing, avant-garde experience I had expected based on my familiarity with its developer, but it is a solid title and a frankly amazing port job from Sting. Knights in the Nightmare relied on the stylus and touchscreen of the Nintendo DS in its original incarnation, so bringing it to a system with much more conventional inputs is no small task. While writing this review, I frequently forgot that this game was a port at all, which is a testament to how naturally it controls on the PSP. Consequently, I was free to evaluate the quality of the game rather than the quality of the port. Aside from some serious endgame stumbles, Knights in the Nightmare does a good job of balancing the tried-and-tested with some legitimately interesting experimentation.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PSP. Approximately 22 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains alcohol and tobacco reference, mild fantasy violence, mild language and suggestive themes. Most of these descriptors aren't present in particularly offensive quantities, but parents should be aware that Knights in the Nightmare paints the picture of a pretty grim world.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There is a lot going on visually in battle, so there are times when listening is useful when trying to assess situations. In particular, some enemies will launch attacks that can be prevented by "mousing over" them a few times. These attacks are preceded by a chime, which I found myself relying on pretty heavily. They're not impossible to spot using only visual cues, and the attacks themselves are never serious enough that missing them would end one's game, but it's of obvious concern for hard of hearing gamers.