The Black Knight Falls
Eleven days ago, I posted a review for Sine Mora, the first of two collaborative projects to come from Japanese development house Grasshopper Manufacture and Hungarian game creator Digital Reality. It was a wonderful, fantastic game, and I—along with my trusty Vita—were better off for having played it.
Now, I come to the latter of those two games: Black Knight Sword. Truth be told, this was the member of that duo that I had been more excited for. I had only noticed Sine Mora in passing at one of this year’s press events, and it had done little to catch my eye. Black Knight Sword, meanwhile, was a stylish and strange action-platformer, one that promised to take us back to the days of the 16-bit era, when games such as these ruled the roost.
And yet, halfway through my first playthrough of Black Knight Sword, I was hating it. Not disliking it—hating it. Given more time, consideration, and a chance to rethink my opinions during a second go-round, those feelings calmed down somewhat. The truth is, Black Knight Sword isn’t a terrible game; it’s just a game that does an amazing job of getting things wrong.
The problem with making games that play and feel like those from our past is that that’s an easy task to screw up. If the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia are taken off, and we give an honest look at what existed during the 16-bit era, reality shows us that a lot of games back then were terrible. Controls were clumsy, platforming was often obnoxious, and difficulty came not from real difficulty, but from cheap hits and a focus on trial-and-error.
Black Knight Sword has all of those things—and, at times, it seems very proud of that fact. We’re better than that now, however. We’ve advanced as an industry, as an entertainment medium, and as players. Games can exist that honor old-school mentality and design, but that also do so by building on the good that those days provided, combined with the smart sensibilities of today. Dust: An Elysian Tail was a perfect example of this: You could feel the 16-bit influence in everything it did, but without any of the baggage or garbage of that era.
Too much of Black Knight Sword’s difficulty comes from out-of-date gameplay conventions, and it’s hard for me to just forgive those things for the sake of nostalgia. The titular Black Knight’s sword strikes are jabs instead of slashes, so its hit box is very, very small. When this is combined with enemies that often have unusual movement patterns, hitting a target can be highly frustrating and risky. Of course, enemies need merely touch you to send you recoiling with damage—leading to that constant feeling of the game being “cheap.” In one instance, I was even killed instantly by a projectile that hit me the moment I entered a new area of the game; given that Black Knight Sword punishes you with the loss of any upgrades you’ve purchased should you exhaust all your lives and need to continue, situations like that should never, ever exist.
I don’t want you to misunderstand—I’m not crying because the game is hard. I enjoy the style of difficulty of games such as Dark Souls, and I also appreciated the more old-school challenge of franchises such as Mega Man and Ghosts’n Goblins. In all of those games, the player is never betrayed; parameters are set, rules are followed, and one never feels like the game is hard simply for the punishment of the player. Black Knight Sword comes off as sadistic at times, as if it intentionally wants the player to not be able to progress.
Then, let’s throw another wrench into the system: Black Knight Sword’s dodge maneuver. By pressing down and hitting the jump button, our armored protagonist will do a defensive roll backward. While the move itself is helpful, the problem is that the Black Knight can also move forward while crouching by pressing diagonally down and right on the D-pad or analog stick. It’s very, very easy to be moving forward, have your finger slip just a bit into that position—and then, when you hit the jump button, thinking that you’re going to be jumping forward, instead find yourself rolling backward. So, when this happens as you’re on a ledge where that roll will mean certain doom—and it will happen—you’ll curse the developers for not having made that roll its own separate button.
Even with all of that, I did still get enjoyment out of Black Knight Sword. Playing the game again, having a better idea of what to do, surviving in sections where I’d died before—I was having much more fun than I did before. Maybe it’s a feeling of empowerment or that chance to get even with something that’s been tormenting you; some of it was also just the ability to appreciate challenges more once you’re past that initial period of angst over not knowing the best way to handle a situation. Once I was separated from that, there were numerous parts of Black Knight Sword where I felt everything came together the way the developers intended—especially the very-challenging-yet-completely-awesome final boss battle.
If you’re masochistic, you might actually enjoy Black Knight Sword from the start; for a lot of players, however, I suspect that enjoyment won’t fully come into play until a second time through. For both personal and professional reasons, I’m glad I forced myself to play through it more than once—because I would have completely written off Black Knight Sword otherwise.
Part of what keeps Black Knight Sword from falling into retro-revival mediocrity is its personality—but even here, I’m going to need to include a number of asterisks. The game is presented as a play, with the action framed on all sides by graphics meant to look like stage curtains. When Black Knight Sword remembers the theme it’s going for, it’s fantastic: animals in the background are cutouts moved across the horizon on sticks, and scenery changes come via lowered backdrops and quickly removed or added props.
Unfortunately, this whole idea is never played up enough. The entire game should have been obvious in its portrayal as a stage play, as it’s an idea bursting with creativity and uniqueness that’s rarely been seen before. Instead, the concept shares equal billing with the typical flair of Suda 51’s Grasshopper Manufacture studio—that trademark style of random weirdness that’s prevalent in many of the games they’ve produced. Except here, instead of feeling legitimately weird, it feels forced and overthought. Microwaves provide health items. Why? Because it’s unusual! Now, you’re fighting an enemy that’s the head of an old man coughing up fireballs. Why? Because it’s bizarre!
It reminds me of why I’ve come to dislike Tim Burton’s recent movies—because it seems as if every one of his projects now has to have that “Tim Burton style™” instead of playing up the strength of the source material. Black Knight Sword was a damn fantastic idea, and it feels like so much wonderful potential gone to waste. Had we had better gameplay concepts and more style than strangeness, I can imagine that this would’ve been a worthy follow-up to Sine Mora and a celebration of those moments we loved on the Genesis and Super Nintendo. Instead, Black Knight Sword‘s shining moments are dulled far too often due to its obsession over being a love letter to a segment of games that I’m glad are gone.
SUMMARY: If you adore Suda 51’s design sensibilities or appreciate games that punish players, then Black Knight Sword might offer enough for you to enjoy your time with it. For everyone else, far too many other games are more worthy of your time and money.
- THE GOOD: Some legitimately interesting stylistic choices and some challenges (and bosses) that are difficult yet satisfying.
- THE BAD: At times, Black Knight Sword can feel cheaper than a .99 cent store.
- THE UGLY: Certainly not the Black Knight’s living-sword companion Black Hellebore—ohmygodshe’ssoadorable!
Black Knight Sword is available on PS3 (PSN) and Xbox 360 (XBLA). Primary version reviewed was for PSN.