Developer: Sting Entertainment / Publisher: Atlus / ESRB: Teen (Alcohol and Tobacco Reference, Mild Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes) / Played on: PSP / Price: $29.99
Playing Knights in the Nightmare on the PSP feels like wearing your underwear backwards. Everything sorta fits and there’s more room in some areas, but others are uncomfortably squeezed. Suddenly, square pegs are in round holes, and everything just feels a little off. The original game for the DS tailored its interface to touch screen control, and while removing that doesn’t destroy the game, it makes the game chafe uncomfortably in many areas.
The story gradually revealed in Knights in the Nightmare will either be delightfully implicit or willfully obtuse depending on your tolerance for not knowing what the hell is going on for an hour or two. You control a deceased king, deprived of his memories and stolen from his resting place. You’re fittingly thrown into the middle of events with no context for the business going down around you, and you have to piece together the story leading up to the game’s start (and the various rules of the game’s universe) from the conversations and flashbacks presented in between battles. Piecing together the story is rewarding, but it’s a lot to take in, especially given the gameplay learning curve is also exceptionally high.
Knights in the Nightmare is such an original fusion of game styles that it defies easy explanation. The easiest analogy is thinking of it like a shoot ‘em up laid on top of a strategy RPG. You control the wisp – the soul of the aforementioned disembodied king – and you fly over a battlefield, using your wispy powers to grant temporary corporeality to your also-dead warrior vassals. You do this by hovering over a fighter and holding the X button to charge up their attack. However, the monsters that populate the battlefield don’t attack your followers, they attack you. Every so often, they’ll spew bullet patters that you have to navigate to land on the appropriate soldiers you want to use in your attack.
But the craziness doesn’t stop there. You don’t have a life bar, but a finite supply of time. Getting hit reduces your time, as does charging up your soldiers. Essentially, taking damage reduces the number of attacks you can perform. What’s more, you don’t win by just killing all the monsters in a level. You have a certain number of phases in every battle to get a Bingo on a monster board with each monster corresponding to a spot on the grid. Kill a monster and mark that spot off – get a row, column, or diagonal, and you win. You can target monsters that will get you through the battle quickly, or kill as many as possible before as progressing for more experience.
That barely scratches the surface of the game’s mechanics, which leads to a major issue – you won’t play the game for at least twenty minutes after starting (unless you consider playing as thumbing through text). The PSP version slips some of the game’s introductory tutorials in between levels, making it easier to jump right in to the story, but even that only teaches you the basics. The rest of the game’s mechanics are explained in a tutorial list containing more than fifty entries. The learning curve in this game is a cliff made of sheer, polished metal. One that tips over and falls on you somehow. And then catches on fire.
And yet, the whole system works very well once you invest the time to learn the ropes. There’s a lot of meat here for fans of strategy RPGs. If you like seeing numbers get bigger, get smaller, or combine to form new numbers, this game is absolutely up your alley.
Moving to the PSP from the DS has an obvious impact on the game’s control, as the Sony handheld doesn’t have a touch screen. As such, the wisp is controlled with the analog nub, and you control its speed with the circle and triangle buttons. However, these aren’t shift keys like you might expect (hold one to go fast, the other to go slow). Holding triangle accelerates the wisp, and once you let go, it keeps moving at that set speed. Circle does the opposite, permanently slowing the wisp’s movement. The adjustment is so touchy you’ll likely not mess with it during battle, instead finding a speed that provides a comfortable combination of accuracy and speed, and sticking with it. It’s fundamentally less accurate than using the stylus, but works well.
Oddly enough, the biggest control annoyance isn’t in battle. Before each phase of combat, you must place your soldiers and equip four item slots with weapons for them to use. Given that each class of soldier attacks with a different pattern and that you want to use elemental weapons to capitalize on monster weaknesses, you’ll be constantly popping into and out of various menus. This function was easy on the DS thanks to touch screen control and instant load times. Using the D-pad and occasionally waiting for data from the UMD makes setting up battles on the PSP much more of a hassle. The game offers an impressive array of sort features to help you see the exact set of items or units you want, but even getting there is clunky.
The game’s visuals have clearly benefited from the PSP’s extra storage, but the upgrade is a double-edged sword. While character sprites and artwork are all crisp and beautiful, there’s a noticeable pause before they show up, which slows down conversations displaying alternating character art and menus that have to load up images of weapons. While the improved visuals modernize the game’s visuals, the negative effect they have on the game’s pace and navigatibility outweigh the benefit. To put it another way – the constant grinding of the PSP’s optical drive kept my girlfriend awake when I tried to play it in bed before going to sleep.
The sounds of battle in Knights in the Nightmare are littered with various vocal quips from your warriors expressing concern over taking damage, warning that you’re running out of time, shouting the name of an attack, etc. Once a battle picks up pace, the near-constant chatter from your warriors makes the combat feel lively and kinetic, but will annoy the hell out of everyone around you. The game’s well-written music matches themes appropriately – moody and foreboding tracks accompany story segments while manic orchestra tracks play during battle.
You’ll love or hate Knights in the Nightmare in the same way you love or hate menus, numbers, and fastidiously grooming inventories. Translating the game to the PSP has produced an overall negative effect – it’s much harder to control and the load hits are annoying, though at least it does have better graphics to show for it. While the gameplay remains more or less as it was, the DS version is still the one to buy/try/play. If you’ve never played that one, then you won’t know what underwear is supposed to feel like anyway, so the PSP edition is a must-have for RPG fans without a DS.