Monday, March 28, 2011
Knights Contract feels like a game developed for last generation, complete with many of the gripes that came with titles of that era. It’s really unfortunate too because hidden under the surface is a great story and solid gameplay mechanics, but many won’t tolerate its weakest points to experience much of either. Those that can handle a dated title with a thick Japanese influence shouldn’t overlook yet another magical journey from developer Game Republic.
Heinrich Hofmann was an executioner during the middle ages, most notably known for the death of several witches. In a world overcome with fear towards the enchanted beings, nobleman Dr. Faust has managed to get public opinion on his side and has called for the execution of all known witches. Of these witches is Gretchen, who curses Heinrich with immortality just before he executes her. Now, 100 years later, Heinrich traverses the countryside alone, his only wish that death overtake him. The world has changed –– monsters now plague the lands and kill innocent civilians –– the apparent source being Faust, now hell bent on world domination. When Heinrich assists a young woman, he discovers that she is none other than the reincarnation of Gretchen, the witch that cursed him. She explains that her sisters have all been brought back by Faust, who is seeking an ancient charm that Gretchen possesses, and has employed the witches to get it. She also offers to dissolve Heinrich’s curse if he agrees to help her eliminate Faust and any witches that get in their way. With the freedom from his curse right in front of him, Heinrich agrees to assist Gretchen.
In Knights Contract you control Heinrich and are accompanied by Gretchen. As an immortal, Heinrich cannot die but he can be destroyed, which will then require you to rapidly mash down on the recovery button to regenerate. Gretchen, on the other hand, is more than capable of dying, so you’ll need to watch her every step of the way. Gretchen recovers her health and has plenty of spells to assist her so she’s not completely helpless, but when Heinrich falls you’ll see she can be quite vulnerable. Heinrich wields a hammer/scythe hybrid weapon and is the game's resident button-masher. Gretchen can be equipped with up to four spells that you can also use as attacks. They come in handy quite often throughout the campaign. There will be moments where grinding away at enemies isn’t always the best strategy, especially if you put Gretchen in harm’s way (she will follow you for the most part, even if it results in death). If Gretchen gets low on health Heinrich can carry her, which heals both of them more rapidly, but also prevents Heinrich from attacking enemies. Many of Gretchen’s spells deal heavy damage on more than one enemy, so there’s merit in temporarily stepping out of battle to protect her. These mechanics work well, but dispatching scores of enemies is a fun endeavor, albeit as repetitive as most titles of this genre.
You will frequently encounter bosses, which is the first of many weaknesses for the title. If you are allowed to confront a boss head on and they remain within the designated battlefield, there’s usually little challenge. Other bosses are allowed to flee the arena –– some rarely even enter it –– and require you to dodge attacks and counterattack. This can get very annoying considering many bosses are equipped with one hit kills and extremely long health bars. As a result, you can end up in lengthy battles only to have it all end (and restart) because of one cheap attack.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, all bosses end with a quick time event. The timing on these are punishing with a narrow reaction window. To miss even one press in a sequence results in the boss regenerating massive amounts of health before you can try again. This is why it took me over an hour to defeat an early boss, but thankfully most of the later bosses weren’t nearly as bad, save the brutal final battle.
There really aren’t any invisible barriers in Knights Contract, many of the areas allow you to move freely, which is only a problem when it’s possible to walk off ledges or cliffs. That’s why the camera is such a problem –– it allows you to control it until you are in a small room or a boss battle when you need it the most.
This wouldn’t be much of a problem if the AI for Gretchen was decent, but it’s abhorrent. She loves to run right into traps, at dangerous bosses and even off cliffs when the moment calls for it. In fact, Gretchen was so seemingly suicidal that I carried her during every boss battle just to prevent a death I had no control over. This is why the early levels with environmental dangers seemed harder than later levels that lacked them because Gretchen was no longer magnetically drawn to lava pits and falling ice. Level design seemed segmented, most levels seemed like they were pieced together like a puzzle. As a result, long loading screens break up the pacing and some loads appear within minutes of one another. There’s even a boss battle that loads a short cinema each time she wields a specific attack that is thankfully rare.
You do get a map in the game, but with many areas looking identical and an abundance of reused elements, getting lost is a common endeavor. A simple waypoint or arrow guiding system could have easily overcome this challenge but as it stands you can find yourself backtracking. If you walk a ways without a cut scene or enemies there’s a good chance you’ve wondered back to where you began. As a hack-and-slash fan, I appreciate button mashing more than the traditional player, but with how many times you have to smash down on a single button to regenerate Heinrich in later levels is more a game of attrition than skill. I also hated that you had to reach a save point, something few levels possess, or beat a level in order to save and quit – why couldn’t checkpoints also be savepoints?
The dated feel of Knights Contract doesn’t end when it comes to graphics or sound design, either. While screenshots impress, the game in motion looks like a fuzzy upres of something that came out on the original Xbox or PS2. Cutscenes clean up the action a bit, but they don’t compare with most of today’s games, looking more like poorly compressed video files. As far as sound design, this title provides generic scores to accompany the action that will rarely be noticed. It seems like only a handful of sound effects were reused over and over again to accentuate the repetitive nature of the campaign. Voice acting, in contrast, was a delightful change of pace. While the writing may seem hokey at times, each line is delivered with care and the story feels more real because of if.
Knights Contract delivers some fun gameplay elements and a unique story that many gamers will appreciate. Unfortunately that appreciation will wane thanks to repetitive gameplay, poor level design and punishing boss difficulty. Unlike Ninja Gaiden, which is brutal but is softened by smooth, responsive controls, most deaths in this title won’t be your fault. I’m not sure many other than reviewers will ever see the story’s conclusion. If you can endure the dated gameplay and work your way through the campaign, the story alone will be a decent reward. It’s a shame this wasn’t at least a budget title, like the developer’s last game Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, because at full price Knights Contract just doesn’t deliver the goods.