Old school memories
Black Knight Sword is in many ways a throwback to old school side-scrolling hack and slash games like Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and the original Castlevania. Digital Reality and Grasshopper Manufacture, under the watchful eye of notorious Suda 51 have clearly tried to rejuvenate this style of game with their latest downloadable offering. So, is this love letter to the gaming days of old successful? Well, sort of…
If I had to pick one word to describe Black Knight Sword it would be “stylish”. The game is presented as a display of paper puppetry, with most of the artistic style falling between watercolor paintings and woodblock prints. The entire game plays out as if it is an elaborate staged piece, complete with a silhouetted audience making occasional appearances, and an ever present proscenium arch framing the screen. Entering new areas causes the background elements to drop into place like painted sets, and many elements of the game are designed to look like Victorian era stagecraft. It’s all beautifully implemented, and without doubt the look and presentation of the game are its strongest suits.
The game opens with your character having apparently just hung themselves in a seedy motel room. You struggle to break free of your noose, and when you do you discover the body of the titular Black Knight lying on the floor of the room. When you pull the (also titular) sword from the body, the Black Knight’s essence grafts itself on to you, and you then become the Black Knight for all intents and purposes. And then you start walking.
There is absolutely no indication of where you’re heading or why. It’s not a particularly crucial element in a game of this nature, but c’mon, guys… give me something. At least Super Mario Brothers had you trying to rescue the princess, but even that rudimentary motivation is missing here. You simply set out on a winding, mostly linear path because, well, there’s nothing else to do.
You start the game with a fairly standard set of moves at your disposal: jump, double jump, stab up, stab forward, dodge, etc. Early on you’ll also get a limited magical attack, and that about does it. You run into flying eyeballs throughout the game, and these allow you access to shops. Here you can spend the hearts you’ve collected from defeating enemies on things like restoring some health, restocking your magic, or buying extra lives.
The game doesn’t auto-save, so it’s a good idea to get used to saving the game after each checkpoint… if you’re satisfied with your performance, that is. You begin the game with only three lives, and the only way to acquire new ones is through the aforementioned shops. Not only are they fairly expensive to begin with, each subsequent life purchased costs more than the last.
The game starts off fairly easy and straightforward, but difficulty ramps up quickly as you progress. The game may bear a passing resemblance to Terry Gilliam’s famous Monty Python animations, but the creatures you encounter are twisted and bizarre. Each thrust of your sword is answered with torrential gouts of blood, which is so over the top I actually found it to be a bit of a misstep on the game’s part. The visual style is so striking that the copious amounts of gore wind up feeling like tarnish on antique silver.
There is a narrator who periodically offers guidance of a sort in dark and ominous tones, and is suitably creepy. It would be nice if it revealed some sort of motivation for your actions, but that’s not to be. Instead it spouts confusing bits reminiscent of twisted nursery rhymes. The voice is well performed, but since it doesn’t actually provide any real exposition it comes across, as the Bard said, as “full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.”
The sound effects are well done, full of squishing and groaning and other unpleasant sounds. You occasionally get sounds of the audience gasping, hooting or cheering in reaction to game events, which is actually pretty effective. Even the startup screens play into the stage motif, with the developer logos appearing as spotlights on the drawn curtain and sounds of an orchestra tuning up.
The game controls are fairly simple and straightforward, as is the gameplay. You learn every move there is within the first half hour of the game, and the only reason it takes that long is because your single magic spell isn’t accessible from the start. There are no combos to master, items to use or skills to upgrade. It’s all walk, jump, stab from beginning to end. Unfortunately, this becomes fairly repetitive well before the game is over.
In fact, the game is mostly either disappointingly repetitive or frustratingly difficult. There are places where you have to approach a fireball-spewing head without enough room overhead to jump over the incoming fireballs, so you’re forced so soak up incoming damage until you can get close enough to finish off the enemy. Bits like this aren’t frequent, but they’re tooth-grindingly maddening when they occur.
Overall, the game is quite beautiful and inventive. Unfortunately the actual gameplay doesn’t quite live up to the visual flair. The story is essentially nonexistent, and paired with the repetitive gameplay the only real motivation to keep playing is to see what comes next. That’s not all bad, mind you, but there was always a nagging feeling that there was a lot of potential that was never realized. The game is definitely reminiscent of some old school games, but also serves as a reminder of why those games evolved. The simple addition of a few different skills or an upgrade system could have dramatically improved the experience. All in all it’s a decent game, but the outstanding visuals can’t quite make up for the lackluster gameplay.
Review copy provided
Tested on PS3