Every once in a while, a game will come along and blow everything you knew about a particular genre out of the water. For instance, remember the first time you played Portal? Do you recall that complete sense of awe you had when attempting to unlock the secrets of using both color portals at once? What about the complete feeling of satisfaction you receive when you finally figure it out?
Knights in the Nightmare re-creates that same feeling with the Strategy RPG genre. Enter a world where Strategy and Shoot ‘Em Ups collide.
Much like the rest of the game, Knights in the Nightmare’s story presents itself in a manner that you simply will not “get” until a few hours in. The story unfolds itself very slowly, and always in the same structured manner. Before a battle, you’ll go through a “scene in the past”, followed by a “present scene”, and finally, a scene involving the area you are in right now. The past scenes all revolve around one tragedy: the assassination of a King, and the fall of his empire. The story skips around between the days preceding and following that event. Considering the intro movie is cryptic, it will take you a few hours to grasp the game’s story-telling method: but once you do, it’s quite enjoyable. If I had one complaint, it would be that it takes a long while to become attached to any one character.
The entropic design of the game has it’s ups and downs, and I’ll specifically note the negative aspects first and foremost. For instance, there are an obscene amount of weapons you are able to equip, to the point of confusion. There are also an absurd amount of recruitable soldiers, all with their own backstory. The common player will find all of this extremely hard to manage, especially since the micro-managing of items and soldiers is needed on the harder difficulty settings. If you’re just a “normal mode” type of guy, you won’t have too much trouble completing the game if you ignore recruiting and item management, but it definitely makes the game easier. The game has a detailed video tutorial, followed by a myriad of text-based hints: I highly suggest that you at least watch the videos before venturing into the game.
On the flip-side, strategy junkies will love the sheer amount of weapon customization, synthesizing, and upgrading available. Out of all the SRPGs I’ve had the pleasure of playing, Knights in the Nightmare doubles most armory options. In addition to the weapon brevity, the selectable amount of Knights is also massive in size. Another thing that makes this game unique is the recruiting system. Throughout each level, you’ll find objects (such as candelabras) that yield key items when destroyed. These key items can be used on Knights you randomly encounter during your travels to coax the Knights into joining you. For instance, one tough Warrior of the 3rd Order may adore Cigars, or another shy Mage of the 4th Order may thank you for finding his prized spellbook. If you don’t buy into the recruiting aspect, you won’t get to level up or customize your party, but Knights will always randomly join you at the start of each battle. You can also sacrifice units, “transouling” their essence into another soldier, strengthening their stats and increasing their max level.
The actual battle system is where Knights in the Nightmare absolutely shines the most. Imagine an active battle Strategy RPG, in which the entire isometric grid is controlled in real-time, with a cursor (the Wisp). In this battle, the enemies can not only attack your placed units, but they can also fire “bullets”, that the cursor has to dodge, similar to a shoot ‘em up game. Daring players will find themselves handsomely rewarded in the form of extra experience points that are given out by the amount of “close shaves” you have with enemy bullets, which I felt was a very nice little addition to the gameplay.
Your objective is to complete battles in a certain number of “rounds”, which are comprised of 60 second intervals. Time is depleted from the clock when you charge up an attack, or receive a hit from an enemy bullet, so as long as you’re an ace bullet dodger, you’ll have more time to think about your attacks. Only two unit types in the game can actually move (the Duelist and the Lance Knight), which is a bit dis-jarring at first, but you’ll quickly learn to deal.
There are a ton of objects to manage during a battle, and the game is set-up so that you can succeed without having to move anyone. Each character class can attack in a certain direction: Hermits can slash diagonally, Warriors can attack a horizontal plane, and so forth. Before you start each round, you can sub in any other party member at will, and each ability you use takes up a certain amount of “vitality points” (health). Once you expend all of your vitality points, or if an enemy attacks you when you are at a lot vitality rate, your character is lost forever. As if I couldn’t overload your circuit’s enough, there’s yet another advanced tactic: the “wisp dodge”. If you hold the L button, you’ll take less damage from bullets, but you won’t be allowed to select units until you let go: this is strictly used as a defensive maneuver.
Boss battles are a complete thrill-ride. While each individual level’s enemies may vary in terms of difficulty, all of the bosses present a considerable challenge. They have massive attacks that may cloud your entire screen, turning your battle into a precise, puzzle-like maze affair (I hope you have a steady hand!). When this first happened, it blew my mind. I was struggling to avoid a 30 second attack, all controlled via the stylus, while I was planning out my next course of action. If you enjoy turned-based strategy games, prepare to have your world turned upside-down.
Aesthetically, the game excels in the visual and sound department. The game just looks like a DS RPG “should”, and the unique art direction is very refreshing. Knights in the Nightmare’s music is absolutely incredible, and perhaps will be listed as “classic” someday (if you pre-ordered the game, you’ll get an incredibly detailed artbook and soundtrack. Track these down if you can). The character voice-overs are only in-battle, and are about what you’d expect from a Strategy RPG: “This is it!; Prepare to die!; God, give me strength!”. Although they’re the typical fare, you won’t ever get too annoyed by them.
The game itself can run 20-30 hours, depending on how strict you are on customization. After you beat it, you’ll unlock “hard mode”, and the challenging “nightmare difficulty”, both of which are worth the subsequent playthroughs. You’ll also receive an alternate campaign to play through, which is completely worth doing. There’s also a “level mode”, where you can earn extra items by replay levels you’ve already beaten. When you play through this mode, it’s impossible to lose any characters: it’s mainly a way for gamers to play “catch up”.
If you’re absolutely confused by the mechanics of the game, don’t fret. It took me over two hours of play-time to “get” Knights in the Nightmare. Plain and simple, Knights gives us a complete overhaul of the strategy genre, and as a result, creates an utterly unique experience. If the idea of dodging bullets while simultaneously controlling units sounds exciting, I’d highly recommend picking this one up.
Editor’s Note: I felt like it was important to see how this game works in action, so here’s a tutorial video that displays a brief rundown of the battle mechanics.
Although the story is quite entropic for the first few hours, it does unravel nicely, and the visuals are absolutely stunning.
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While it seems like it’s too much to handle on a DS screen, Knights controls very well. I’ve heard complaints that allowing all units to move would create even more work, but I feel that it would enrich the gameplay a bit.
I would have liked more diverse voice-overs for the soldiers, but the score is incredible, and fits the game’s style quite well.
There is more than enough content to please strategy junkies, and casual players will love the “level mode”, which you can play on your lunch break, and earn items without fear of reprisal or failure. An alternate campaign, two additional difficulty levels, hundreds of items, and around 200 unique Knights should keep you busy for a long while.
Knights in the Nightmare is not a game for everyone, but it tries to be. Even though you can heavily customize your items, and combine Knights’ souls, all of it isn’t needed to complete the game. This is a must-own for fans of Strategy games, but casuals should take heed of the game’s challenging requirements.