Knight’s Contract was shown to the press at last month’s Ignite event in San Francisco, and among the many games on offer, it was the one that showed the most promise. Part Darksiders, part God of War, it promised an unusual storyline, dynamic melee combat, and a stylish magic system that seemed to add its own unique twist to the action-adventure genre. Unfortunately, a fifteen-minute demo does not make a full game, and even after that first fifteen minutes, it’s obvious the game has as many bad points as good.
Before discussing the negative aspects, let’s talk about the ways Knight’s Contract fulfills its promise. Starting with an absolutely stunning pre-game cutscene, it launches into an engaging Salem-witch-hunt-like story that details the initial adulation, subsequent betrayal, and inevitable execution of a race of long-lived magical women. Heinrich, the executioner, is cursed by one of these witches and when the game starts, he’s one hundred years older: gray, grizzled, cursed with immortality, and wearily walking the earth searching for someone who can break the curse. He enters a village decimated by the Black Death and meets a bizarre little alchemist named Minukelsus. Through him, Heinrich ends up in the last place he ever expected—employed by a resurrected Gretchen, the very witch he’d once beheaded.
Gretchen needs the help of a dedicated bodyguard because she’s out to stop a group of vengeful ex-friends who are like the medieval equivalent of the movie “Mean Girls.” These witches are bent on making humanity pay for their persecution and as such, have forsworn the Witch’s Code. The last adherent to the code, Gretchen is determined to save humanity and so she and Heinrich enter into a blood-sealed “Knight’s Contract” wherein he becomes her bodyguard. The concept’s a little like last year’s Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, where “sexy chick meets cantankerous warrior.” Like Monkey and Trip, Heinrich and Gretchen have distinctly different but complementary talents to bring to the table. Heinrich’s main one is being able to swing a jumbo-sized weapon that’s something like a scythe with a meat tenderizer forged onto the end of it. Gretchen, in turn, can use various kinds of powerful magic, casting spells that do things like clamping enemies into vicious bear traps or bringing giant hammers slamming down on their heads. The two work together beautifully, creating at times (especially during finishers) some very stylish-looking mayhem.
During combat, Heinrich and Gretchen collect souls from downed enemies, which allows them to upgrade Gretchen’s magic; they also gather trinkets that grant both of them various combat and healing bonuses. Healing’s admittedly a little strange in Knight’s Contract since Heinrich’s immortal and instead of dying, he falls (literally) to pieces. Pulling him back together requires pounding on the “A” button repeatedly which makes him jump up, good as new. Gretchen, on the other hand, can die and when that happens, it’s game over. Heinrich heals her by swooping her into his arms like he’s about to carry her over the threshold (a little weird, since Heinrich could be her too-muscular grandfather) and waiting for her health to tick up.
Aside from this unusually cuddly healing mechanic and some flashy and interesting combat—including a section of the game that pairs up Heinrich and the weird little alchemist—the game offers some really cool (and disturbing) bosses and some memorable art direction. Two places in particular really stand out – a castle festooned in long swaths of human hair and a dreamlike sequence set in a village made of floating ash. Adding to the atmosphere, the evocative score and solid voice acting pull you into the story and keep you wanting to move forward. The problem is that issues with poor AI, a too-high default difficulty setting, and confusing level design often prevent you from doing so.
The first two issues are intimately related. Boss fights can be a hair-pulling exercise in frustration as you struggle to avoid unreal barrages of insanely powerful attacks and watch in disbelief as Gretchen walks purposefully into them. The “RB” button is supposed to call Gretchen to you, but you can mash the RB until your index finger goes numb and still she’ll be hanging out in the middle of a pool of hot lava or standing immobile under an oncoming lightning strike. When not actively trying to get herself killed, she’ll drive you nuts urgently shouting, “Heinrich!” whenever you get a few steps ahead of her. What’s funny is that late in the game, when she and Heinrich temporarily separate and you take control of her alone, she proves she’s just as resourceful and lethal as he is. So…why did she need him in the first place?
Just as infuriating as the reluctant AI is the confusing level design which sends you through village streets, sewer tunnels, and castle hallways that all look (respective to their level) exactly the same. For people with no sense of direction, this is a nightmare, especially since the game often asks you to go back to someplace you were before. The map is no help at all, since it doesn’t reorient itself with you and most importantly, doesn’t show your objective. As a result, it’s all too easy to spend a good half-hour just running around and around, trying to figure out where you’re meant to go next and seriously examining the real extent of your motivation to finish the game.
Interestingly enough, the first two issues are greatly reduced provided you play the game on easy difficulty. I played all the way through on the default “Squire” difficulty and then for grins, started over on “Page.” On default, you’ll get two hours in and wish you were never born, but on easy, Knight’s Contract plays like a different game. Yes, the AI issues and possibility of getting lost are still there, but everything else is cranked back to a reasonable level that allows you actually enjoy yourself. Ultimately, it appears the game’s problems would have been minimized had the development team not made such a grievous error in judging its default difficulty.
It’s really too bad this happened because overall Knight’s Contract has a lot of good things going for it. It has fast, intuitive combat, cool, creepy environments, splashy visual effects, good music, solid voice acting, and a story that’s fairly fresh, as far as action games go. The sad thing is that all that is undermined by bumbling AI, absurdly difficult and frustrating bosses, and a maze-like approach to level design. Anyone thinking of buying the game (or if you have it and are utterly frustrated with it) know that it’s possible to overcome many of its faults just by changing the difficulty setting. That said, Namco should realize their mistake; default settings are critical and once gamers have gotten a bad taste in their mouth from a game, even changing difficulty might seem like more work than it’s worth.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.0 Graphics
Creepy, imaginative environments and flashy visual effects are the stars of this show. 3.5 Control
Except for an unresponsive AI companion, controls are intuitive and easy to use. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Music and voice acting do their part to pull us into a magical, medieval world. 2.0 Play Value
This score is highly dependent on the game’s difficulty setting. Still, at default, the game is unacceptably frustrating. 3.0 Overall Rating – Fair
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