Sunday, 13 January 2013

REVIEW - Black Knight Sword (XBLA / PS3)

"And now for something completely different..."

Have you ever wondered what the result would be if you took Sega's Clockwork Knight and Capcom's Ghosts 'N Goblins, mixed them together with the avant-garde, silly soundtrack from Skullmonkeys on Playstation, then had the whole mixture set on a theatre stage and directed by Terry Gilliam? Of course you haven't. Well at least I hope you haven't as this might lead to further questions only a trained psychiatrist can answer. Regardless of your odd gaming fantasies, Grasshopper Manufacture have seen fit to produce such a fusion, and the result is one of the most bizarre games you will ever play.

I must confess something first though. I am not a fan of Suda51's (head honcho at Grasshopper Manufacture) work. Often hailed as a creative genius, Suda51 has brought us such games as Killer7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw. I, personally, hated each and every one of them and found the perverted and obsessive use of gore in many of them quite tedious and off-putting. However, after playing and enjoying last year's Sine Mora I was prepared to give his games another try. Black Knight Sword appealed to me much more than other Grasshopper Manufacture games due to the game having a clear resemblance to the American McGee Alice games, the more recent Alice : The Madness Returns being particularly great due to a demented art style and dark storyline. Whereas those games allowed you to explore the bizarre worlds in three dimensions, Black Knight Sword goes for a more retro approach and comes in the form of a 2D sidescrolling platform game.

If you thought the aforementioned Alice games were weird, then you ain't seen nothing yet. Black Knight Sword revels in its insanity, constantly bombarding the player with visual oddities. The whole game takes the form of an on-stage theatre production. From the moment the Silhouetted audience take their seats and the curtains rise you know that, visually, you are involved in something very different from your standard platforming fare. The game starts as it means to go on, with a suicide in a dingy hotel room setting the scene. You are suddenly given control of the hanging man, and must rock back and forwards to snap the rope. Upon hitting the floor the corpse of the Black Knight lies before you, a sword stuck in his chest. Upon removing said sword, you are transformed into the living embodiment of the Black Knight. That is about it as far as storyline goes, further developments are spoken to you in chilling tones by the games narrator, and each level is separated with nonsensical mini stories depicted in child like drawings. They bring to mind the Grimms' Fairy Tales that you probably read when you were younger.

Graphically, the game is both creative and stylish. The backgrounds resemble flat wooden stage props that effortlessly change around as you progress through the levels. Your character is always centre stage, with the levels moving in the background to give the illusion of moving forwards through different environments. It works fantastically well, with detailed backdrops comprising of many layers all deconstructed and rebuilt in fine style as you run forwards. Many have the appearance of being on circular rotators, spinning around to reveal things such as waves at sea, or flames engulfing buildings. It is immediately impressive and is the main element that draws you into the game. It is worth noting that shmup extraordinaires Cave produced a 2D platform game called Nin2-Jump which was also set on a stage, so Grasshopper Manufacture cannot claim to be totally original here. Musically the game is equally strange, with mind bending compositions comprising of sounds such as groan tubes and maracas, as well as many vocal grunts, clicks, whistles and screams. It definitely suits the game, making it even more of a strange sensation to play.

You, of course, play as the titular black knight, armed with a demonic sword known as Black Hellebore. This takes the form of a doll like girl spirit that morphs into the blade at the beginning of the game. You hack and slash with it in a strange 'pokey' manner, and can also fire it out its spirit form by holding down the right trigger and releasing it. Firing it can also be used to transform transparent blocks into solid platforms, allowing access to new areas. The foes you face consist of decapitated heads that resemble a nightmarish version of Mr Potato Head, fat two-headed jugglers who make chicken sounds, horse heads on springs, and flame spitting faces. The bosses are even more grotesque and you will find yourself facing abominations such as spiders wearing gas masks, bloated knights with their faces on their distorted bodies, and an encounter outside a biker bar in the desert that brings literal meaning to the motorcycle term 'hog'. There isn't a great deal of variety in the enemies though, and you find yourself killing the same adversaries over and over, even the bosses are reused. Thankfully the levels offer more variety than the enemies contained within them. The gorgeous backgrounds change regularly, from spooky forests and underground caves, to a scorching desert and fairground at night. All are visually impressive and it is a joy to witness the transformations between areas take place.

Unfortunately Black Knight Sword's gameplay fails to live up to the high quality of the aesthetics. Gameplay consists of the standard platforming fare of running to the right, jumping on platforms and over pits, slashing at enemies as you go. The barking mad cosmetics of Black Knight Sword merely mask things we have seen many times before. For example, killed enemies drop bloody hearts that can be collected and used as currency to buy upgrades to your health bar, armour, and attack power. The 'shop' is a hideous abomination that is summoned by releasing a flying eyeball from a cage on a human leg (yes, really). The beast is a huge eyeball with multiple grinning mouths attached to it. After appearing and speaking to you in a classic Monty Python 'old woman' voice, you then select the upgrade you want, feed the monster the hearts, and get zapped by a lightning bolt from its eye. This kind of nonsense is just the tip of the iceberg in Black Knight Sword, and by the time you get to the (disappointingly poor) shoot-em-up section involving a giant chicken, you will be slightly desensitised to the weirdness factor of the whole experience.

Level design is fairly bland, with no real sense of exploration involved, bar a few hard to reach platforms that conceal the game's hidden collectables, Cat-head Grass (A cat head in a flower pot, what else?). Worst of all the knight is a chore to control, feeling extremely clunky and unresponsive at times. Wearing armour would obviously add weight to one's frame, but this doesn't translate well in gameplay terms. Ghouls 'N Ghosts' Arthur had armour, yet he was pretty agile, and a joy to control. The clunky movement isn't helped by the game's punishing difficulty level. Projectiles come thick and fast, and the Black Knight simply isn't up to the task of avoiding everything. If you lose all your lives (usually on one of the extremely challenging boss encounters) then you have to repeat the entire stage, which is a pretty soul-destroying experience. Despite its punishing difficulty there are only a measly five stages to complete, with the final stage consisting of an immensely tedious maze full of all the bosses you have previously beaten. It soon tests your patience to the limit, you will really wonder if you want to continue at all. I recommend playing Black Knight Sword on the easy difficulty setting, just so you can get through the game relatively unscathed, and enjoy the crazy backdrops and boss encounters. It is certainly not a game you will want to come back to after completion, despite the additional arcade and challenge modes.

It's a shame that after all the creativity that has gone into the presentation, the gameplay should be so generic and unsatisfying. I applaud the developers for taking the risk of releasing such an outright bizarre game, and the visuals really are captivating. However the underlying game is just so bland and run of the mill that I can't really recommend it.

The Good

  • Wonderfully twisted and stylish presentation
  • Great graphics and quirky soundtrack
  • Is fun for the first couple of stages

The Bad

  • Outlandish presentation masks generic and uninspired gameplay
  • Very difficult and frustrating
  • Soon becomes dull to play
  • Only five stages (the last of which is awful)

Developer : Grasshopper Manufacture
System Reviewed : XBLA
Also available on : PSN
Price : 800 points / 7.99