…like it was a bullet.
The tactical RPG is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my favorite game genre. Managing a group of characters across a board of varied terrain using special abilities, items, and the very world itself to create momentary advantages in combat – that’s exciting to me, keeps my brain limber and my attention piqued. As such, I’m biased in favor of tactical RPGs. Thing is, I also get a kick out of top-down shooters like Ikaruga and the old Raiden games – those are great fun, and it’s always a challenge to test my reflexes.
[image1]So, with those predilections in mind, it should seem like an easy win for Knights in the Nightmare – a mash-up of tactical RPG and cherry-blossom shooter. No such luck. The two kinds of gameplay – fun individually as they are – do not mesh together comfortably.
When I first popped the game into my DS, I assumed that there would be a bit of a learning curve – and there definitely is. The tutorial takes somewhere around forty minutes to complete and is worded poorly. Some of the subtleties of the rules do not come through clearly, and a number of important game systems – durability of weapons and vitality of characters – are not covered at all. Enjoy losing a character to permanent death on your eighth battle of the game, and breaking weapons mid-fight within the first five!
The basic conceit of the game is that your character is a spirit – a wisp, the game says – who is recruiting the ghosts of dead knights to fight battles for him. Each of your characters is a spirit of a dead knight, and you command them by moving the wisp over them. You can also command them to use special attacks by dragging a weapon from a sidebar onto them. Attacks are charged and aimed using the wisp, and all of this occurs while the monsters are shooting at the wisp with various bullets and such.
[image2]As a side note, when a medieval-themed tactical RPG refers to something as ‘bullets’, it kinda breaks the mood. Developers, please learn to adopt language and diction consistent with your subject matter, or I'll stab you with an ancient Greek microwave oven.
The game boasts some 200 characters in it, though you can only recruit maybe 100 of those (I managed 40 on my first run-through of the game). A large number of characters, oddly, are just random ghosts sitting around on the battlefield who don’t contribute anything – they’ll typically give you an extra weapon for noticing their drab, colorless existences, but otherwise they just clutter the background.
Speaking of clutter, the U.I. has so much crap on it that it’s frequently hard to see the battlefield clearly. With sidebars, timers, unreadable notes and numbers crammed along edges, and the icon for the current battle phase (law or chaos – remind anyone else of Ikaruga?), it can be incredibly difficult to know what the hell is going on, especially since you’re dodging attacks all the time. Dodging, thankfully, isn’t absolutely necessary in the early game – being hit only pulls time off your turn, and the early game gives you enough turns that you can be a little more laid-back about the bullets, and instead learn your way about the mess of a U.I..
[image3]When you get right down to it, though, the gameplay just doesn’t work. Dodging bullets while pulling a weapon from a sidebar over to a knight all while tracking a three moving monsters and a dozen tidbits of information just isn’t fun. It’s work. What’s worse, the game offers little control over the placement of your troops. A few classes can move themselves along the battlefield when they attack – something you will come to rely on heavily in some battles – but for the most part, your troops stand in place and toss out their shots. Especially painful is that among your moving troops, it is actually possible on many maps to trap them so they can never move again. You know that just screams fun gameplay, trapping yourself in a way that you can never recover from.
Because of this, you spend a lot of the game waiting for the opponents to come into range of your attacks. With damage curbed against how directly they are in the line of your hits, and with special attacks slowly killing your troops and breaking your weapons, waiting for the right opportunity to strike is vital. It’s just a mess, and the pacing of it all never feels right. It’s not a fast-paced challenge of reflexes, nor is it a complex problem to solve – it’s just a hectic game of cat and mouse with no sense of tension.
Not everything is bad about Knights in the Nightmare, mind – it has wonderfully drawn artwork, some cute visual effects, and an incredible musical score. Once you’ve adjusted to the clutter of the screen, you’ll probably be impressed with the attention to detail and quality of the graphics.
[image4]The storyline is an interesting piece of work, but told in a somewhat haphazard way. If you’ve ever read any of George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series, then you already know the storytelling style – only Knights in the Nightmare is much thinner on details and doesn’t flesh out the characters anywhere near as well. As such, if you’ve got the patience for the painful gameplay, the storyline can become a draw for completing the game – it ended up being the primary interest for me.
Knights in the Nightmare is an unusual game in a number of ways, and has a large number of positive qualities – fine artwork, an excellent soundtrack, an intriguing storyline – but fails in the most fundamental aspect: the gameplay. It’s generally dull. Despite a high initial learning curve – usually the sign of a game with depth and complexity – Knights in the Nightmare is shallow and simple.