Developer: Namco Bandai Games / Publisher: Namco Bandai Games / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature (Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Language, Nudity)
Don’t piss off a witch. Or better yet, don’t persecute all of the witches in town so they seek revenge upon the entire human race. That’s a lesson I learned while playing Knights Contract, a new action game from Namco Bandai Games. With a strong story and gory gameplay Knights Contract puts a different spin on the God of War style of gameplay, but a handful of faults means it fails to live up to that kind of exemplary standard.
It’s the Middle Ages and witchcraft has become a familiar aspect of daily life. Feeling a bit of animosity towards witches, the people decide to execute each one of them. Unfortunately for mankind the witches don’t take kindly to the idea of being exterminated, rising from their graves and seeking revenge on all of humanity. The game picks up about 100 years after these executions and the world is in shambles. You play as Heinrich, one of the executioners of said witches who has been cursed with immortality. Heinrich teams up with Gretchen, the reincarnated witch he executed nearly 100 years before, and the same witch that gave him eternal life. Gretchen will free Heinrich of his curse if he aids her in her quest to defeat the evil witches, and seeing as he wants nothing more than simply to die, he obliges. The story is compelling and definitely unique with its fair share of plot twists that will keep you engaged, however pacing problems will hinder your overall enjoyment. There are intriguing moments (like battling through a lava drenched city) and dull moments (such as trudging through similar-looking landscapes over and over). The story had so much potential but comes off as mundane drudgery.
Knights Contract is very similar in gameplay to action-adventure games like God of War or Devil May Cry: you clear waves of enemies from a room before advancing further, collect orbs to power up your attacks, and eventually learn new attacks and spells. For the most part it works as advertised. You control Heinrich who brandishes a large scythe/hammer weapon that doles out the punishment to anything that gets in his way. Weak and heavy attacks make sure your enemies meet their end in the goriest ways, as each kill is rewarded with gratuitous amounts of blood splattering everywhere. While you only control Heinrich, Gretchen aids you in combat and you can command her to use magical spells while fighting. She can conjure spikes from the ground to impale enemies, thorny vines to tie them up, and even boost Heinrich’s scythe in size to deal more damage. Using magic against weakened enemies allows you to perform brutal finishing moves that obliterate your foes and sends their flesh every which way. Though you can’t control Gretchen, being able to use her spells at your command in combination with Heinrich’s physical attacks makes combat both bloody and satisfying.
Entertaining combat is the only part of Knights Contract’s gameplay that is actually fun. Everything else falls below the level you’d expect from other games in the genre. The camera swings around at awkward angles whenever it gets a chance. The right stick can control the camera but to little avail: It’s manageable in wide open areas but is downright awful in close quarters. Gretchen’s AI is also hit or miss. She has a penchant for disaster: walking through lava, attacking overwhelming groups of monsters, and getting left behind. Heinrich can’t die but can get knocked down and requires some time to pull himself together, but losing Gretchen means game over. Cheap kills are a problem too, as some enemies can knock you or Gretchen off the stage resulting in an instant game over. Levels can be overly complicated, and without a mini-map it is all too easy to get lost. Boss battles would have been a highlight for the game if it weren’t for the quick-time events needed to defeat each one. And when I say quick-time event I mean quick: there is a fraction of a second to hit the correct input or you’re fighting the last part of that boss again. All of this adds up to a frustrating experience. At nearly 12 hours to beat (and more if you play the higher difficulties you unlock by completing the game) you’ll definitely find plenty to hate.
Though you wouldn’t expect it from the aforementioned subpar level of gameplay , the sound in Knights Contract is superb. Voice acting is done well with Heinrich, Gretchen, and the witches delivering convincing dialogue. Even in-game dialogue is performed well and never gets annoying. Sound effects are up to par as well. Hearing Heinrich’s scythe tear through the skin of his foes sounds painful. Equally excellent is the game’s eerie soundtrack. Symphonic tunes and ghostly hymns play during fights and cutscenes. Though the songs do tend to repeat throughout the course of the game, they aren’t bad by any means.
Knights Contract takes you from derelict and destroyed villages, to a burning castle, and a snow-covered forest inhabitated by a giant snake. The settings and backgrounds show variety and add a lot to the atmosphere. Though they can be clunky and hard to navigate, each level has a distinct feel to it. I especially liked traveling through the witch Rapunzel’s castle, which was infested with a seemingly unlimited amount of hair. Enemy and character designs all look good, but it’s the bosses that look the best: giant purple beasts, fire-covered knights, and the aforementioned snake are a few of the highlights. One flaw here is the game’s load times: it takes a good deal of time to load each level, and expect to walk a few feet after each loading just to wait for the game to load the next cutscene.
Knights Contract could have been so much more than it is now. The story truly is imaginative and the combat system makes destroying your foes loads of fun. But it’s in the details where the experience falls apart. Unforgiving quick-time events, unintelligent AI, frustrating cheap deaths, and confusing level design are just a few problems. I want to like you, Knights Contract, but you’re not giving me much to work with! An average story and amusing combat cannot do enough to pull this game from the ranks of mediocrity. Those looking to quench their demon-slaying and witch-hunting should apply elsewhere.