The Peak Of Curiosity
By now everyone can safely assume that whatever emerges from the team at Grasshopper Manufacture isn’t going to follow any conventional design. The makers of Lollipop Chainsaw and Shadows of the Damned have a propensity to create games that push the envelope and are full of imagery and surrealism that defy believability. Black Knight Sword is all that wrapped up in old school charm, but anyone with a decent reservoir of game knowledge will find many influences apparent in Suda51’s attempt at a 2D action platformer.
You’re literally treated to a theatrical experience right from the outset, as the action takes place on a proscenium stage behind a velvet curtain frame. Enter the narrator, with a story recited in poetics, setting the opening scene with a grim image of the hero, naked and hung by the neck in a hotel room. Fate, in the form of a spirit called Black Hellebore, decides his corpse worthy of carrying out its mission, and thus presents the revived leading man with an empowering suit of black armor. Black Hellebore then forms into a magical sword for the hero to wield. The thing is, this new knight is essentially a puppet in this adventure, though that idiosyncrasy is veiled behind the player’s control as you march your knight onwards.
The abrupt prelude gives little in the way of a backstory; thus, like a good book, there is the lure to keep playing and discover the ending. The narrator continues to guide you as a storyteller, taking the voices of the characters, most of which are high-pitched and scratchy (which, along with some of the art design, will instantly remind you of old Monty Python skits). He is also sure to inform you, in the context of the scene, when your health is low and when a boss battle is looming—a narration style popularized by last year’s indie game, Bastion.
Of course, this isn’t a graphic novel, and the side-scrolling gameplay is full of many familiar elements that make Black Knight Sword easy to pick up and play. I would classify the action and level design as a crossbreed of early Castlevania and Shinobi titles, though I’d have to say Grasshopper’s title isn’t nearly as challenging as either of those games were back on their respective bit-era consoles. Still, Black Knight Sword can do things that weren’t possible on pre-twin-stick systems. The camera, for instance, can be manually panned using the right control stick, letting you check for secret platforms above or see if the pit in front of you truly does send you to your death.
Combat has many different layers. Your sword can be thrust in any direction, including diagonally. Black Hellebore can be released as a ranged attack when charged with the R2 trigger, though this leaves you disarmed for a moment, with your punches dealing considerably less damage. Clearing stages unlocks magic attacks, some with finite uses that target a large area, others that upgrade your sword with charged-up dismembering strikes. Defense is limited to dodge rolls to evade attacks. The only issue I have with evasion is that you can only roll backwards. It would have been nice to choose your direction, so you could, say, roll underneath an enemy who is jumping towards you. I would also advise going old school and using the D-pad for movement. Although the plastered tutorial murals (which are very LittleBigPlanet, by the way) highlight the analog stick, crouching is far too sensitive and ultimately frustrating.
To add an RPG element to the game, there are permanent and consumable items to purchase. The currency is human hearts, which you collect by defeating enemies and bashing open microwaves, and you’ll exchange them at a shop run by a winged eyeball after you’ve freed it from its cage. Remember, this is a Suda51 game, so that last sentence shouldn’t seem all that strange. Tucked away in corners are plants with cat heads, the obscure collectibles of Black Knight Sword. You can see them on display from the main menu, where they bow their heads while you play with sound effects, but they serve very little purpose beyond the personal satisfaction of collecting them all and earning a few extra points.
There is no multiplayer, although your score is displayed on a global leaderboard. Obtaining a high score requires more than simply racing through the levels, of which there are only a handful in the campaign. They’re long enough, but with little in the way of a challenge they don’t beg to be replayed. You can up the stakes by raising the difficulty level, which adds more enemies and gives them greater endurance, but they all have easily distinguishable attack patterns.
To truly test your skills here, you’ll want to head to the Challenge Mode, which has more than twenty missions. Each is relatively quick, but requires finesse with the controls and a keen grasp of the combat mechanics. They are all graded based on completion time, and they too are displayed on a leaderboard.
The art design is such a mishmash that I couldn’t possibly try to define it. There is lots of colored sketchwork with defining pencil lines, and then there are doors with bold, multicolored, geometric shapes that look like they came out of the circus. The Black Knight himself has limited detail, with limbs that look like stretched ovals that have been colored in haphazardly with black squiggly lines. The animations, on the other hand, are incredibly smooth. Your hero moves at just the right speed, with slow strides that give a believability to the bulky armor he’s wearing. And then, of course, you do a dexterous double-jump that throws that believability right out the window.
The music and effects are just as jumbled as the visuals. With clown horns, pig sounds, opera singers, and a death song reminiscent of “Taps,” you’ll never know what you’re going to hear next. My favorite effect is that of the armor, which consistently chinks along with a metallic clatter. Every scene has a different melody, hitting both major and minor chords, but usually (and deliberately, I’m sure) sounding out of tune.
Black Knight Sword may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but don’t be quick to assume its chaotic design choices make it seem like it was quickly thrown together without care. A few minor control issues aside, the gameplay is incredibly tight. It’s not the most challenging platformer you’ll ever play, but if you have any sense of curiosity, you’ll want to keep playing just the see what the creative people at Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality have come up with next.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
A mélange of various styles, certainly a distinct point of view from the developer. The animations are old school, but super smooth. 4.5 Control
A few minor grievances don’t deter Black Knight Sword from being a delight to pick up and play. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Like the visuals, the audio is all over the place, but each sound adds to the surrealism of the adventure. 3.5 Play Value
The story is short, and the other modes are only moderately filled with content. However, you still get a good bang for your buck. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|