It’s necessary to approach any game by Suda51 with an open mind. The Grasshopper Studio auteur has created some of the most downright bizarre games of the last few years with killer7, No More Heroes and, more recently, Lollipop Chainsaw being the most recognisable of his works. Black Knight Sword marks his studio’s second collaboration with Hungarian developers Digital Reality after 2012’s well received shoot ‘em up Sine Mora.
The influence of a second studio does nothing to temper the overwhelmingly strange sights on offer here. In fact, the game feels like Castlevania and Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins met in a dive bar, booked into a cheap motel somewhere, buried themselves in a debauched acid-fuelled weekend and Black Knight Sword was the creation spawned of the union.
To begin with I’d be doing the game’s design team a great disservice if I didn’t pay special mention to the presentation, both visual and audible, because in both regards Black Knight Sword is an absolute delight.
The game is presented as a paper theatre scene or, to use the correct term, Kamishibai. The beautifully created backgrounds come in and out of view as if they are painted cardboard cut-outs and there’s a team of stage hands around the back, removing the previous scenes and seamlessly bringing the new ones into view. Each scene is distinctive too, be it for a trip through a pub, walking through a cityscape or taking a detour through a sewer. To reinforce the feeling of being at a stage performance there’s various small touches throughout, such as cut outs of cats moving through the backdrop, visibly supported on a stick, as if someone is carrying the prop above their head while hiding behind a piece of scenery. It’s subtle yet, when you take the entire way the presentation works into account, very clever.
To hammer home the stage performance aspect the gameplay take place within a windowed area with the outer borders being taken up with curtains. While undeniably another clever touch it does introduce a problem in that your field of vision is dramatically reduced as the camera already does feel very close to the action. It is possible to use the right stick to move the camera around but at times it still doesn’t feel sufficient from stopping you falling prey to a few cheap deaths.
The enemy characters are presented as grotesque and macabre marionettes, each with their own particular gruesome twist, from withered heads supported with legs or wings that sprout from the sides, two headed men who throw projectiles at you, to a Monty Python-esque werewolf. There’s also a few that are unique to the individual stages, such as the Mario influenced seed spitting flowers in the forest stage. There may not be a huge variety, and you’ll be seeing the withered heads more often than not, there’s certainly enough going on within each screen to keep you interested. Each enemy also dies in a over the top, yet satisfying explosion of blood and beating hearts, which are used as the in game currency to purchase upgrades from the slightly unusual shopkeeper.
As mentioned previously, the sound also deserves special mention. The orchestral score works well with the both the overall stage presentation and the action on screen, adding to the dark and foreboding atmosphere with slightly out of tune sounding stab from a string section. There’s also sound effects from the crowd who are watching the play. For example when your character dies the crowd cries out in anguish.
The highlight from an audible point of view has to be the narrator. He’s ever present throughout right from the first screens, his creepy horror film voice congratulating you for completing the stages, narrating voices for characters and warning you (or taunting you, I could never quite work out the tone of his voice) when close to death. The narration is wonderfully scripted and again adds to the overall feeling of the watching a Kamishibai performance.
Black Knight Sword is an action platformer that harks back to the days of 16 bit consoles. As I said at the beginning, Castlevania and Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins are the ones that are easily identifiable mainly due the hacking and slashing through gothically inspired 2D levels. The precision platforming of yesteryear also makes a return and you’ll need all your wits about you to navigate past bottomless chasms, sewage pits and, erm, deathly spikes of sharp cat’s teeth. Your attacks are the standard fare of melee attacks, both normal and a charged up version, plus a range attacked that can also be used to switch on blocks to create platforms.
Another way the game reflects on the past is that it’s punishingly difficult. Add to this the relative lack of lives (we’ll come back to this) and you’ve a real recipe for a frustration filled playthrough. It shames me to admit it but I started my initial attempt on normal difficulty and after two hours of screaming expletives at the screen I took the decision to save my sanity and drop it down to easy mode. While the change in difficulty did offer me more life and less damage from enemies it didn’t save me from falling into the platform style traps. Rushing through this game is not advised. Take your time and plan your jumps appropriately.
One very unwelcome way in which Black Knight Sword evokes the spirit of older games is that the developers chose not to include an autosave feature. This is only briefly mentioned during the tutorial and I completely missed it. After a solid frustration filled afternoon of fighting my way through to the third of the five stages I decided to take a break. On my return to the game I was distraught to see there was no saved progress. Starting from scratch after spending an afternoon resisting the urge to lob my PS3 pad through the wall was not an easy thing to do.
The scarcity of lives can also add to the general feeling of vexation. Losing all your lives results in needing to restart the level from the beginning and considering some of these levels are 30 minutes plus in length, a second third fourth run through the same section feels like a test of your mental strength as if devised by Satan himself. Upon losing all my lives at the end of stage two boss for the second time I swore I never wanted to play a computer game ever again and instead take up a less stressful pastime, like knitting. If you decide to pick up Black Knight Sword remember to save often.
The game throws another little issue into the mix with the controls. Precision platform games need precision controls and the jump mechanic occasionally feels a bit too ‘floaty’, resulting in a few missed landings. Thankfully for the most part the double jump ability will give you ample opportunity to line yourself up properly.
More annoying than the jump though is the dodge manoeuvre. The flip backwards is supposed to be your saving grace yet often feels completely unreliable. Sometimes you seem to be able to flip through contact with enemies or their projectiles at will, yet at others you’ll take damage.
After you’ve done this, after you’ve coped with the slightly dodgy mechanics, after you’ve pushed your sanity to the brink, after you’ve managed to defeat the various manifestations of the final boss, what does the game do? In classic Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins style it throws you right back to the beginning and forces you to do it all again so you can see the ‘true ending’. Thankfully any upgrades you’ve bought throughout the game will carry over into your next playthrough, making the higher difficulties a more realistic prospect.
Black Knight Sword is designed for people who honed their skills during the 16 bit era and long for the days where platformers were a challenge that will push them their very limits. Couple this with the beautiful presentation and here’s a game that, despite some frustrations, is well worth picking up.
MLG Rating: 7/10 Platform: PS3 / Xbox Release Date: 12/12/12
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a digital copy of Black Knight Sword for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of five days on a PlayStation 3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.