I should begin this review by offering Namco Bandai two apologies. First, for the somewhat scathing nature of this review, which may — not coincidentally — be the last Namco Bandai review copy I receive. The second apology is for whatever I may have done in the past to so terribly offend the publisher that they sent me Knights Contract in the first place, a game that seems to have an uncanny ability to find my biggest pet peeves in video games and throw them back in my face.
Knights Contract isn’t a terrible game. It isn’t as broken as Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 1, nor is it as ridiculously terrible as Rogue Warrior. It is a slightly unfinished-feeling game that takes some of the more annoying ideas found in video games and creates a title based around them. Few will love the game, but some might enjoy the action side of it — I am just not one of them, and I accept that as my own opinion, not a legitimate complaint for a review. But putting aside my bias — and trust me, these are things that I am not alone in despising — the game is still littered with problems that prevent it from being anything other than mediocre at best.
The story demands an apostrophe
Set in a slightly fantasy-based Europe of knights and chivalry, the story begins when a good witch named Gretchen was executed by a noble knight named Heinrich Hoffman, after the conniving Dr. Faust convinces her town that all witches are evil. A wave of betrayals follow Gretchen’s death, and women that were once dedicated to helping humanity are murdered at the hands of the reluctant Heinrich. When they are later resurrected, they are not amused, and vow revenge on all life.
For the next century Heinrich travels the world in search of a cure for the curse of immortality that Gretchen inflicted upon him at her death. He cannot die, and he craves his mortality above all else. During his wanderings, he stumbles across a village inhabited by the undead and cursed by a plague. The game is a little vague on this, but basically the resurrected witches are now evil and can create zombies and monsters. You kinda just have to go with it.
Heinrich soon meets the resurrected Gretchen, and she is determined to stop the vengeful witches from wreaking havoc on the world. The pair soon form a contract: If Heinrich can safely escort her to a certain magical location, she will remove the curse of immortality from him. But standing in their way are several foes that are packing a grudge against Heinrich for executing them years early, and waiting in the wings is the mastermind behind everything, Dr. Faust.
Right off the bat is fail number one. The name is generic enough, but that’s fine, it’s not like Bulletstorm or Dead Space are the most creative names ever, but the title of this game is just incorrect. It should not be Knights Contract, it should be Knight’s Contract. There is only one contract, and it belongs to one specific knight, so there should be an apostrophe. But fine, that is a minor quibble. Who needs to have a grammatically correct title. As long as the story is good, who cares about what they call it? But still…
The story is entertaining enough, but everything feels like it fits a checklist for that time period. You have character archetypes that fit certain molds, and once you have seen them for more than a minute or two, you know all you need to know about them. The only exception is the main character, Heinrich, who has a fairly compelling motivation, but it is nowhere near as powerful as it could be and it is never explored in any interesting ways. Many seemingly important and fascinating potential plot lines and details are just ignored. It is a shame, but it also means the emphasis is on the gameplay and not the story, which isn’t uncommon.
Attack! Annihilate! Destroy!
To seal the agreement between herself and Heinrich, the witch does her witchy woman thing, and the duo become magically bonded. Heinrich cannot die, and when he is seriously wounded, you tap a button to bring him back — but Gretchen can and will frequently die, dragging you down with her. As a result, the gameplay forces you to constantly attack your enemies while defending Gretchen. There is just one small problem with that.
There is no block button, nor is there any way to defend. None.
The game wants you to use a lock-on feature, which can lead to some impressive and devastating combos. Since you can’t die, getting hit is annoying, and it does break your combos, but it isn’t going to end the game. But since you constantly need to defend Gretchen, not being able to block can be frustrating.
Besides, even the most attack-heavy gamers who play hack-and-slash button mashers like Knights Contract will soon come to yearn for a block button. You may not use it often, but to truly master a game built on combos, you need to occasionally be able to block to stop the enemy from breaking up your attack.
Joining your forced berserker-style attacks, you can utilize Gretchen’s magic to add to your repertoire, and to take advantage of finishing moves that become available when the enemy is wounded. When she isn’t busy attacking the enemies’ weapons with her face, her magic can come in handy and spice up otherwise unremarkable attacks. As you play through, you earn points that can be used to upgrade Gretchen’s magic as well. You also have equipment to manage that you find throughout the game, and these usually offer some sort of status bonus.
When you use the lock-on targeting system, the game can be fun. Taking one large enemy can be a blast, as you dodge and roll around him then wail on it with physical attacks and magic. The problem arises when you are attacked by multiple enemies at once and the lock-on becomes confused, which is where a block would be handy. When the foes are armored, it can be even more of a pain, because each attack will be deflected, and you just have to keep attacking one blow at a time until the armor breaks.
When you aren’t using the lock-on, the controls are sluggish, and walking in a straight line can prove to be a surprisingly difficult feat. There is also an odd fact that Heinrich is faster than Gretchen, which means that every time you run over a stretch of land, you will hear Gretchen moaning from behind and the screen will warn you that you are too far away from your ball-and-chain/ally.
The gameplay has a few fun moments, but it is unresponsive and painfully unimaginative. You go, you smack stuff you run until Gretchen whines and you have to stop, then you repeat. And that is Knights Contract.
The developers contract
As for the graphics in the game, go ahead and watch this trailer.
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Wasn’t that awesome? Great graphics, a unique look, and interesting characters! Now have a look at a screenshot from the actual game:
There is a bit of a difference. The trailer is beautiful. Unfortunately, not a single frame of that is in the game. Odds are the trailer was handled by a third-party company that specializes in video game trailers but is otherwise unrelated to the actual product. Happens all the time.
Knights Contract looks OK. It is better than last-gen graphics, but does feel dated. They are passable enough, but there will be times when you are in the middle of combat and the camera will move to and angle where everything is blended together. The game also slows down sometimes, and backgrounds can sometimes hide your destinations because of unremarkable design.
There are also the levels themselves. Some of them are alright, albeit generic, while some of them are awful. A handful of stages are bland and dull, and when you occasionally are forced to search big areas rather than follow a linear path, you will wonder if you have passed the same area several times because there are identical looking sections. There is a map, but it is fairly useless, and once in a while you will actually end up running in circles thanks to level design that will frustrate the best of gamers.
Usually the areas are linear and unremarkable, which means they are inoffensive. You will never stop and stare at the cleverness of Game Republic’s bland levels, and you will typically forget all about them as soon as you are done with them.
Formula for a disaster
Everything in this game, from the story to the gameplay feels as if it were done without any care or soul. There is not a trace of originality to this title, and it feels like the developers just didn’t give a damn. They had a product to get out, and they crammed in a bunch of things from other games to get it done.
More specifically though, the game is built around one of the most frustrating gameplay mechanics of all time—the dreaded escort mission. Nobody likes escort missions. There are entire websites dedicated to hating on escort missions, go ahead and Google it if you don’t believe me. People tolerate them, but they are a frustrating way to artificially increase the difficulty.
Video games are supposed to be fun. Taking your character and powering them up to the point that they become the whispered nightmare of evil creatures, or giving a soldier that is up against something like 200 opponents enough firepower to mow them all down is awesome. There is a sense of bad assitude that most — if not all — gamers aspire to. You leave your mark on the world and dominate those before you. It is a staple of what makes video games fun.
But then you add a pathetic character that lacks the ability to defend himself in even the most basic way, and force you to go from death-dealing demigod to nurse maid. Your entire fate is tied to the intelligence of a computer-controlled character, whose primary motivation is to make your life tougher by trying to keep her alive. No matter how good you are at the game, occasionally, your fate will be decided by almost random chance, as your escortee falls over and dies, and there is nothing you can do about it. Who honestly thought this was ever a good idea?
Remember Resident Evil 4, one of the most critically-acclaimed games released for the Gamecube (and later the PS2)? The game revitalized a lagging franchise and helped breathe life back into the survival-horror genre. It was a masterful game… except for the parts where you, a heavily armed warrior prepared to kill the foulest minions of Hell, was forced to defend Ashley, a puny girl that could be killed by a strong gust of wind. Ashley sucked. She did nothing, ate up your healing inventory, and frequently died which forced you to restart. It was not fun.
Knights Contract is an escort mission. The entire game. From the first moment you take control of Heinrich, your one primary concern will be defending Gretchen, which is made doubly difficult by the fact that she is extremely weak and there is no damn block button in the game. Not having a block button in a button masher-style game is weird enough, but not having one in a game where your primary goal is to defend someone from taking damage is a cruel joke.
And it never gets better. You get stronger, and you kill enemies with more style and panache, but Gretchen, despite her upgradable attacks, always sucks, and will frequently be separated from you while enemies wail on her. To top it off, the only way to heal her is to pick her up and carry her, which means you will find yourself pulling a Benny Hill and running in circles while enemies chase you.
Then there are all the other annoyances they throw in. Annoying character that occasionally shows up and forces you to do something difficult to save his dumb ass? Check. Backtracking through level after bland level? Check. Instant fail missions? Check. Infrequent checkpoints? Check. Unskippable cut scenes? Check. The list goes on.
Now, to be fair, these might just be things that I personally dislike in games. Maybe there is a rare group of fetishists that really enjoy escort missions. Maybe annoying and pathetic sidekicks are OK with some. But hey, at least the gameplay is mediocre.
Knights Contract is not a terrible game, it is just a frustrating one that lacks any originality and then fills gameplay gaps with annoying clichés that were never fun to begin with. If you are one of the few rare, and potentially certifiable people who actually enjoy escort missions, your perversions will be fully realized in this game which is nothing but. The gameplay is fun at times, although it feels somewhat imprecise in its movements.
Knights Contract is the equivalent of a Sy-Fy Channel original movie about killer alligators, which you will watch without once utilizing your brain. Maybe you will enjoy it, but odds are you will forget it even as you are playing it. But then imagine that the actor you have hated your entire life, the one person you really hope does not ever make another movie or star in another TV show, is the hero of the movie, and you have Knights Contract.
The sad thing is there might have been a good game buried in there somewhere, but it died a slow death at the hands of mediocrity. There are just so many shortcuts taken that kill this game. Even the escort mission could have been slightly augmented with a co-op — although who would want to play as a weak character with limited magic is beyond me, but it would have been something. Knights Contract is a weak offering that might be fun for a little while, but quickly teeters towards annoying. And I still don’t understand why there isn’t an apostrophe in the title.
Score: 5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Namco Bandai)