Nostalgia is all the rage. As the third season of Stranger Things rolls around, it’s hard not to realize how much of our pop culture feeds on other, older pop culture, which makes sense since the kids of the 1980s are the ones in the creator’s seat. Rex Crowle is one of those creators and his game, Knights and Bikes, wears its inspirations as decorations on its titular bikes. Cornish, childish, and cute, it’s not the most mechanically complex game around, but it appears to be a weird, charming bike ride down Nostalgia Lane that gaming could always use more of.
Its charm starts at its colorful, paper cutout-esque art style, which is reminiscent of something in Media Molecule’s wheelhouse. And that makes sense, given Crowle’s previous work with the famed British studio. These LittleBigPlanet and Tearaway influences are mainly in spirit since Knights and Bikes shares a kinship with those games only in attitude and not mechanics.
Knights and Bikes Preview | Treasure Island
Knights and Bikes is hard to nail into a specific genre but it’s a character-driven puzzle adventure game with optional co-op that stars two kids, Demelza and Nessa, as they scoot around an island in the United Kingdom in hopes to find treasure. Whether or not there is an actual treasure is unknown but Crowle described how this goal was a product of his upbringing in the middle of nowhere in the rural parts of the United Kingdom.
“People used to say to me when I was a child, ‘We had to make our own entertainment.’ But growing up on a farm in the middle of nowhere with not really a lot of TV — I’ve still not seen any Star Wars films or anything — and being a little bit cut off from pop culture, you did have to go out and explore the farms and get on your bike and ride around try to find fun stuff to do and find a fun friend to come on that adventure with you,” he said.
He used to explore the Luxulyan Valley, a heavily forested valley in England, where he found an old aqueduct that didn’t appear until you traversed well into the green abyss of trees. And that sense of discovery is magnified as a child and the small team at Foam Sword has tried to imbue that feeling within the game’s two young protagonists. Demelza and Nessa’s journey for treasure mainly takes place in a ruined theme park but also dips into the realm of fantasy; a visual reminder of their young imaginations.
Targets may grow legs and walk around or golf balls may manifest as enemies you have to beat up. There’s even an “evil haze” surrounding parts of the island, which is questionable as it probably doesn’t exist outside of their malleable minds. The cute, colorful art direction is consistent with this aura of immature bliss, as Crowle, who penned the style, said he wanted it to look “a little bit like how the kids would try to depict it themselves if they were telling you the story afterwards” and had “some sense of [the kids’] fingerprints” on the art. This means it looks like it was done in crayons and pastels yet it doesn’t appear like it was drawn like an adult emulating a child’s crappy artwork. Its palette looks great because it stands out but it’s also pretty in and of itself.
Knights and Bikes Preview | Kids and their toys
But it’s not just a pretty, passive experience to merely look at as it also has adventure game mechanics that serve as the title’s core loop. Whether or not you’re playing with someone or not, each kid gets their own array of asymmetrical gadgets to wield. Calling it a Metroidvania seems like a stretch but both use their different abilities to solve puzzles and work together in combat arenas.
The gear starts out pretty simple, like a pair of “wellies” (rubber boots for those of you outside of the U.K. and New Zealand) and a flying disc, but gradually begins to go down some bizarre paths. Demelza’s Power Glove-esque Gamer Gauntlet can shock enemies or equipment, but can make the user float or possess certain items when charged. This can be used in tandem with Nessa’s water balloon launcher, giving Demelza the ability to control a giant water balloon.
The other abilities seemed to also play off one another in increasingly odd ways, giving some light but surprising depth to the game’s puzzles and combat. This arsenal of repurposed and exaggerated toys is thematically consistent with the game’s tone and will hopefully continue to expand in the context of the full game. There’s even a shop where players can cash in all the junk they’ve found for cosmetic and non-cosmetic items. Whimsy doesn’t always make for engaging gameplay mechanics but, given all the combinations and upgrades, it could be the small push the game needs to be more exciting to play.
Regardless, Knights and Bikes’ story is the most promising. The story of the two girls and how they intertwine touches on family and the concept of home, which is different for both of them. Demelza’s home is the island where the game takes place whereas Nessa is an outsider drifting in from out of town. She slightly older than her ginger partner and doesn’t have the same roots in the island, meaning there will be some slight friction between them. It likely won’t turn into a depressing tale but having that emotional core underneath it all was important to Crowle.
“I’m not really into competitive online games because I feel it just makes everyone angry,” he admitted. “There’s enough anger around. I think it’s a shame to not put some kind of emotional journey under the surface, something that is a little bit more emotional at the core. And that’s definitely something we tried to put into Tearaway and, hopefully, to some degree, to this as well. And hopefully it’s surprising how much players will feel about the characters and the story as they move through it.”
Knights and Bikes Preview | Design by subtraction
Crowle and the small team behind the game didn’t just come right to two characters either. As it went through its early “Goonies RPG” phase with a full squad of kids, Crowle discovered that having fewer characters was better since it allowed for the team to focus more on two great character instead of a cast of weaker ones. And while it’s hard to say how that would have turned out, it does give the two protagonists more distinct personalities. Demelza is quite playful while Nessa is a bit more sassy, which makes sense given that she’s a bit older. The dynamic of two players not only works better for co-op but also has the potential to make the story more intimate, given how there are fewer kids to spread the narrative across.
It also helped the game be more authentic. Crowle didn’t have much life experience outside of his Cornish homeland so, in combination with his cultural blind spots, he couldn’t quite speak to Goonies-esque life experiences. Moo Yu, one of his development partners from Media Molecule, also grew up in Anaheim, California around Disneyland, meaning his accounts would also be slightly inauthentic to that inspirational source material. To combat this, they combined their lives and created a world like Cornwall but with theme park elements. And while much of the island was gated off in the demo, it was a unique blend of ideas that will hopefully feel even more alive once in the context of the full game.
That full experience isn’t far off, as Crowle revealed that the game has just recently been submitted to Sony for certification. Despite the stress of being an oft-delayed Kickstarter game, Crowle said he was quite happy with the experience.
“It’s been a really good experience and it’s been good having all the backers be so supportive,” he said. “And they’ve had to wait a bit longer than they were expecting but I hope that they will be happy with the end result.”
And even though we found a few bugs, if the complete version of Knights and Bikes continues to be a delightful blend of childlike curiosity and simple yet amusing puzzle mechanics, then those backers will probably be satisfied with this cute, nostalgic adventure game.