There have been some harsh things said about Knights Contract - and I'm not just referring to the heavy blanket of obscenities I screamed at the television while playing it. ("What the hell is going on?" might as well be the game's subtitle.) But beyond some maddening parts lies a game I feel is worth playing, a game that could have been a top title in 2011 but will instead probably end up forgotten and sequel-less. Knights Contract is a perfect example of how style and substance lacking enough intelligence can doom a game right out of the gate.
Stylistically, there is a lot to enjoy here. When I first saw the main character, Heinrich, I thought he looked silly and cliched in his gobs of rags and one giant shoulder horn. Wielding an immense scythe with a hammer head on one side, he looked like the poster child for the me-too action-adventure. However, both he and the world he roams quickly grew on me. If you like traditional fantasy adventure settings and/or Europe in the Middle Ages, you too will feel at home here, but the real glue that holds the game together is the coven of witches you have to fight, one by one. The bosses are gargantuan and nasty, almost guaranteed to give you headaches and maybe make you long for a good anime afterwards. The magic effects are diverse and satisfying, so the enemies are fun to destroy even more than they are interesting to look at.
As far as substance goes, like most things today, there is nothing earth-shakingly original about Knights Contract, but it does have a story to tell. The coven started as a group of powerful women devoted to helping humanity. Once the Black Plague descended, though, they became the obvious scapegoats and ended up on the people's most-wanted list. Heinrich is a hunter who kills a beautiful witch named Gretchen and is consequently cursed by her with a spell of immortality.
Heinrich provides the muscle and Gretchen the magic.
That's right, Heinrich can't die. But he can fall to pieces, literally, Mortal Kombat style. Once he does this, you will either have to jam on the X button about four dozen times or use Gretchen's power to revive you at the cost of some of her own life bar. See, Gretchen and all the other witches have been brought back, and most of them have sworn vengeance on homo sapiens. Gretchen alone stands true to the witch's code, making her executioner into her protective knight in the process.
Heinrich provides the muscle and Gretchen the magic. There are twenty-four spells in all, of twelve main types. Similar to God of War, you earn orbs from fallen foes and then infuse your spells with these orbs to unlock their power. You can then map four of them to the face buttons. You also have access to two special attacks: Knight's Fury, which transforms Heinrich into a raging beast and slows everything around him to a near standstill, and Witch's Embrace, which involves a completely nude projection of Gretchen engaging in any of a number of screen-filling actions. The first one I saw had her sitting her bare bottom on the enemy, and others involve her crushing monsters in between her thighs, punching, laying on her stomach pin-up style, and more. Needless to say, I used Witch's Embrace almost exclusively.
There are twenty episodes to beat, and these took me anywhere from about six-and-a-half minutes to about an hour apiece. It took me almost twenty-two hours on the game clock to beat the final boss, but I would estimate many players will get the job done in about twelve. Of course, I'm one of those players that explores every nook of the game world, searching for every item I can find, but the real reason Knights Contract took me as long as it did was because of the game's aforementioned lack of intelligence - and I'm not talking about the banal dialogue.
The first problem arose when I saved at an inopportune time, went away, and came back to play the following day. I got completely turned around and ended up wandering all over the place until I found where I was supposed to go. I would get lost a couple of more times after that. Granted, it's my fault for not paying attention, but an intelligently designed map or even a compass you could call up in the corner of the main screen would have gone a long way. What I did get was one or two verbal warnings from the characters that we've already come this way and a poor map that only showed a small segment of the area at a time. The map was only available via a pause screen, and it took me out of the game too much when I repeatedly accessed it. It's pleasant having the game screen uncluttered, but some things should definitely be an option.
But the major problems I had with Knights Contract went much deeper than dialogue and design considerations. You see, Gretchen has no common sense at all. This is particularly evident in what must be an unforgettable battle to anyone that has reached it: the should-be-infamous second part of the fight with the skeleton witch Holda. Imagine if you will fighting a giant bloodthirsty reanimated psychotic on a platform surrounded by lava. The witch rains fire on you that collects in pools on the ground. Unlike you, your companion is not immortal, but fortunately all her powers are ranged. Now, imagine how you would feel if your squishy friend, instead of showing even the basic survival instincts one might find in a protozoan, repeatedly stood in the molten puddles and stared. She doesn't stay back and cast from afar while the ever-living tank gets the job done up close. No, like a stupid two-year-old, she toddles in and puts herself in the worst possible spot.
It's like being forced to play World of Warcraft or Guild Wars with an absolute newcomer who never gets better. I was particularly dismayed because just last year I played two other "male warrior tied to a female accomplice" games - the underrated Quantum Theory and the outright excellent Enslaved: Odyssey to the West - and neither of them had anything near this kind of problem. The heroine of Enslaved was damn near helpless combat-wise, but she acted believably and stayed down when the shrapnel was flying.
The last piece of the "dumb" puzzle is even more irritating, and it compounds the flaws in Gretchen's A.I. Simply stated, the camera is garbage at certain points in the game. Much of Knights Contract takes place indoors and the camera just has no clue what to do. Start a combo in the corner and gasp in wonder as the camera spins around and around, super close to the action, so that you are treated to a kaleidoscopic mash of polygons! Shout with raw emotion as the camera floats too close, too far, even beneath the action so you have no fix on where you are and where Gretchen is standing!
The last two chapters are the worst in this regard. In Episode 19, it is important to move quickly to bring down the boss, but the camera just refuses to follow to some parts of the screen, leaving you vulnerable to some inexcusably cheap hits. Once or twice, the boss slumped to the floor in such a way that I was trapped between two parts of his anatomy, unable to capitalize on his weakened condition because the camera made it almost impossible to get out. In fact, one of the first things that might annoy you about Knights Contract is the way your fatalities are consistently displayed with much of the action completely off the frame. ("Hey, that sounded brutal, I wonder what it looked like?") Again, inexcusable.
But unless you have no tolerance for restarting a boss battle a dozen times due to circumstances beyond your control, do consider picking up Knights Contract, if at a reduced price. The seed of a quality game is there, and it is fun 90% of the time. The nude super moves and the boldness and brutality of the intro trailer (linked at the end of this review) will appeal to some and the progression of story and ability will appeal to others. Personally, I would love to see more from the developers with the precondition that the finished product is really finished next time.
Knights Contract intro movie.