Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture, Digital Reality / Publisher: Reverb Communications / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: 800 MSP ($10) / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence]
A common issue I’ve had with Grasshopper’s games is that they frequently opt for style over substance. Games like Killer7 and No More Heroes are mostly memorable for their oddball stories and presentation rather than tight, rewarding gameplay.
Though Black Knight Sword is not wanting for oddball presentation, it’s the most gameplay-dense game from the developer to date. This is a no-frills 2D platformer, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the SNES. For me, Black Knight Sword is wonderfully retro, but I have decades of experience with Castlevania and Mega Man. I suspect gamers that didn’t cut their teeth on challenging 16-bit fare may react negatively to the game’s less forgiving aspects.
VISUALS AND SOUND
Though Black Knight’s gameplay is substantial enough to stand on its own, the game’s presentation is so bizarre that it warrants initial discussion. The whole game is designed to look like a kamishibai or paper drama (thank you Wikipedia). As you explore the stages, your character remains stationary in the middle of the screen while the stage elements move around you. Even the backgrounds fold up and down as though moved by invisible stagehands, while large hazards are suspended by visible sticks and strings. This hand-crafted look has been used in a few recent games like LittleBigPlanet and Nintendo Land, but Black Knight manages an extremely unique take on what’s becoming a common visual style.
The content of Black Knight’s visuals is downright bizarre as well. There’s almost no unifying theme to the enemies and environments aside from the visual style. Enemies include shriveled heads with wings, gargantuan gas mask-wearing spiders, and two-headed farmers that appear to toss eggs. As you progress, you travel through British pubs, the American Midwest, and fairytale-style forests filled with oversized slices of toast. This is pure, unrestrained creativity in both style and content. I guarantee that you’ve never seen any game like it.
The game’s sound is equally bizarre, filled with random effects like pizzicato violin plucking and chicken cuckoos. Enemies emit a range of grunts and death throes that are otherworldly and disturbing. Akira Yamaoka’s score is equally oddball, featuring minimal electronic tracks and bizarre, off-rhythm percussion. This is a far cry from his more palatable Lollipop Chainsaw score and may even top his iFuturelist album in downright oddity.
In animation and sound, Black Knight Sword is very reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s animation, though not so direct a parallel as ACE Team’s Rock of Ages. Passing qualitative judgment on it is difficult since it’s so out in left field. As typical with games from Grasshopper, it’s worth playing simply because there’s no game like it.
The classic 2D platformer formula is present in Black Knight with little change. You take control of the Black Knight and must run through five stages, each stocked with waves of enemies, floating platforms, and punctuated by a large boss. Enemies drop hearts when defeated that can be spent on token upgrades like a longer health bar, more lives, or a boost in attack power. There are a few modern sprinkles of game design–collectibles sprinkled throughout the stages encourage exploration and a challenge mode offers short, difficult levels with leaderboard integration. Even still, the heart of the experience is in pure platforming.
If it sounds minimal, that’s because it is, but that doesn’t make the game uninteresting. Just as in the early 90s, the real reward is in mastering the levels and bosses so thoroughly that you can run the game without losing a single life (there’s even an achievement for doing so). Even though there are only five stages, they’re long and challenging enough to justify the game’s price.
This game is no slouch in the challenge department either. The first few stages lulled me into thinking that Black Knight was developed with modern concepts of challenge in mind, but some of the later bosses sent me to the game over screen more than once. There’s even a Mega Man style boss rush in the final stage that forces total mastery over the game’s enemies. If that weren’t enough, an Arcade Mode ramps up the difficulty to absurd levels. Not only are there several times more enemies in every stage, but they move faster, attack faster, and do more damage to boot. In Arcade Mode, Black Knight easily meets the difficulty of Super Ghouls n Ghosts, if not surpassing it.
The controls in Black Knight are more than capable of recreating the 90s platforming experience, though there are some issues that feel idiosyncratic to the genre. The Black Knight attacks with a sword meaning that, at melee distance, you’re vulnerable to unannounced sways and movements of your enemies. More than once I took surprise damage from a boss because it decided to lurch into my space without much warning. Additionally, while you can attack in eight directions with the sword, flying enemies occasionally approach you at a perfect angle to slip between your attacks and pop you.
Of course, one could reasonably argue that those are not problems, just unavoidable aspects of the 2D platformer experience. Actually, my greatest gripe with Black Knight’s controls has nothing to do with the software. The 360 D-pad has never been exceptional, and a game requiring precision controls only highlights how fuzzy and annoying the damned pad can be. Several of my lives have been taken by a D-pad that occasionally registers the wrong inputs. Make sure you have a recent 360 controller and you should avoid those headaches.
Black Knight Sword is the sort of game that, had it come out fifteen years ago, would have a huge cult following by now. Any gamer that cries for a new, classic Castlevania should put their money where their mouth is and buy this game immediately. Beyond that recommendations are harder to make. Black Knight Sword embraces trial-and-error difficulty that modern design claims to have graduated from. Whether or not you agree with the movement will largely determine your appreciation of the game.