Review - Black Knight Sword
Grasshopper Manufacture is, quite consistently, one of my all-time favorite developers. They’re a fascinating company headed by one of the very few “auteurs” of gaming – Goichi Suda. The studio has seen almost equal measures of success and failure, often sticking to their “artistic vision”, if such terms are ever appropriate, regardless of financial risk. Black Knight Sword stands as one of their more creative works, but it is, to my dismay, held back by frustrating and repetitive gameplay that never really serves to reinforce the core narrative direction.
I’m going to try –really, really hard I might add-- to avoid this review becoming a treatise on game theory. That said, I can’t help but feel that BKS misses the point of gameplay in a big way.
I couldn’t be said to subscribe to the idea that games must be fun in order to be worthwhile, and I think that anyone who even remotely appreciates survival horror can agree with me there. Being frightened, or feeling a deep, ominous air of foreboding, isn’t really fun in the same sense that racking up kills in the latest military FPS is. What they are, though, is engaging. The same could not be said for Black Knight Sword, but alas, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.
Seeking to hearken back to the era of 2D action-platformers, BKS has a very straightforward set-up. Some man nearly dies by suicide, and finds a magical black suit of armor and a sword that contains an ancient spirit with ambiguous motivations, bent on the destruction of someone known as the “White Princess”.
The entire game is narrated by an especially unnerving man channeling Vincent Price and narrating a modern reinterpretation of early 19th century Czech marionette theatre. The result is something that is permeated by this persistently unsettling tone. Though, upon reflection, that might have something to do with my own discomfort with inanimate objects made to look like people and theatre culture before the 1950s. Either way, BKS gives me the same sense of existential dread as looking as this guy’s face.
Presentation is Black Knight Sword’s strongest suit. It’s unique, disturbing and creative all at once. Providing a breath of fresh air in an era saturated with the same modern military settings and an endless army of grizzled space marines. Sadly, the rather exceptional setting and tone only serve to highlight the lackluster tedium that characterizes the remainder of the BKS… experience.
Gameplay is indeed, rather similar to older 2D action platformers, but not without qualification. Pacing, flow and a steady, manageable difficulty curve have been all but forgotten.
Remember how in Super Metroid, Samus became more and more powerful over time? Well… what if, instead she only gained power if she bought upgrades with the literal hearts of her enemies and, instead of being permanent, what if they disappeared after a game over? Unfortunately, that’s exactly how BKS works. Unless of course you manually save constantly and then manually reload those saves instead of using the autosave/autoload features that are built-in.
I could forgive these… idiosyncratic design choices if they served some larger narrative purpose, if they helped along the theme in some way, but the fact that it is possible to manually correct this problem serves to highlight some of the haphazard design choices.
Super Metroid, and indeed nearly all 2D action-platformers succeed because they specifically follow the theme of player empowerment. Backtracking serves a specific purpose. The first time you, as the player, enter a given area, you realize that your power is limited, and you only have one or two real options for progress. Later, as you revisit the area with more abilities, you’re able to reach areas that were blocked-off before, thus giving you a very real benchmark of your own progress.
Other games can accomplish this by establishing a specific villain or goal to which the player can measure their increasing skill and power, BKS, for all of its style and deliciously disturbing presentation, doesn’t provide a metric for progress. The “grand goal” is only alluded to by the narrator. There is no conflict to which the player can tie themselves; without any coherent theme or development arc, the entire experience seems more or less pointless. It is frustrating for the sake of frustrating; weird for the sake of being weird.
I find these types of games both inspiring and infuriating. On the one hand, I’m grateful that for developers that try to take risks, developers that experiment with what does and doesn’t work. It’s nice to have a break from the formulaic and the routine. On the other hand though, it seems like the developers just aren’t paying attention to what made all of the other games, to which they are allegedly alluding, great.
At $10, I can only recommend Black Knight Sword under very specific conditions. If you can answer yes to all of these, then you should probably check this game out. Otherwise try the demo before committing.
Have you played all of the other, better 2D action platformers available on current-gen consoles (Outland, Shadow Complex, etc.)?
Do you have an unnaturally high tolerance for unnecessary pretension?
Does pushing yourself through a masochistically difficult adventure excite you?
Do you have a fetishistic fascination with Czech marionettes?
Dan Starkey is the latest addition to the ScrewAttack Reviews Team. Some say he never sleeps and eats only gourmet amaretto cupcakes. Others claim he's a hyperactive optimist. To citizens of the Internet, though, he's Captain Starkey, Intergalactic Games Journalist. You can follow him on Twitter, or add him on Facebook.