Sometimes I feel really bad for developers like Game Republic. It is obvious they have some really talented developers on their team. Games like Folklore and Majin have shown they can produce original titles with imaginative narratives that are truly fun to play. Knights Contract is the latest product from the house that Genji built and, to be honest, it is one of the most disappointing titles I have played in a while. From the get-go, I was genuinely excited to dive into the game. The story was intriguing, the art style interesting and the combat solid, but after several bad checkpoints and countless frustrations, I understand why the main character doesn’t want to be immortal anymore.
In the beginning, you will be enthralled with Knights Contract. The story is one of the more original and interesting that I have experienced in a while. You play as Heinrich, a former executioner that has been cursed by the same witches he was forced to kill a hundred years ago. You see, Heinrich cannot die. He has been wandering the world for a century, hoping to find the witch that cursed him so she can break the spell and finally let him die in peace.
Lucky for him, he actually does run into her. Gretchen promises to break Heinrich’s curse if he helps her take down her evil sisters. I was actually really interested in the relationship between Heinrich and Gretchen. Each witch you come into contact with is unique and everything about the narrative really draws you into the experience. Game Republic is one of the better developers when it comes to creating truly original stories, and Knights Contract is certainly no exception.
When describing the gameplay in Knights Contract, I like to call it a reverse Majin. Two-character games are not uncommon; we have all led around useless AI before. The catch with Knights is that Heinrich cannot die. Instead, when your health is depleted, you basically explode into giblets and have to mash the A/X button constantly to revive yourself. Gretchen, on the other hand, is extremely vulnerable and, for some reason, her AI kicks into aggressive mode whenever you perish. As you can imagine, this creates a series of frustrating game over screens. This is especially infuriating when the checkpoint system flat out sucks.
As far as combat is concerned, Heinrich is more than capable; in fact, I rather enjoyed the mindless mashing with a hint of strategy and combos. You can lock onto enemies by holding down a bumper and call Gretchen’s magic by holding down a trigger and pressing a face button. If you hit an enemy low on health with some of her witchcraft, you can perform a finisher on them. The combat is intuitive and satisfying and there were rarely enemy encounters that I didn’t enjoy.
The boss battles are the exception to this rule. Each level is themed for the current witch you are attempting to defeat. When you finally reach her, you are faced with a massive creature to take down. It is actually quite impressive until you manage to get to the end and you miss a button press during the quicktime event. Prepare for frustration at its finest as you get knocked back while the monster regenerates a ton of health and the fight, basically, starts over. This happened on more than one occasion thanks to the small window the game gives you advance the quicktime event, and how fickle the directional presses on the analog stick are.
I could easily forgive all of these issues and problems, but the game does one more thing that is entirely unforgivable. I mentioned earlier about the terrible checkpoints. Well, this is further accented as the game constantly has you backtracking the same ground over and over without any clear destination. Majin suffered from this with a poor map system and little direction, but Knights Contract makes that look like a Tom Tom GPS in comparison. I cannot count how many times I got turned around in a cave or level and ended up exactly where I started with the game rarely giving me any inkling that I was, in fact, going the wrong way.
Backtracking is part of almost any adventure game, but Knights makes it ridiculous. The levels are only ten to twenty minutes long and, if you removed the backtracking, I think this game would easily clock in at less than three hours. That is how tedious it becomes very early on.
I did like the visuals in the game. The bosses have clever design and the characters have a unique art style. The level design however, is atrocious. It is entirely too easy to get lost and they run the gamut of traditional game design with snow, lava and the like. Audio works, but is nothing to write home about. Characters are voiced much like a decent anime. The music is easily forgettable and overall the game just lacks a certain polish that helps it stand on its own.
Knights Contract is a fantastic narrative wrapped in some decent combat and plagued by poor design decisions. This is actually more disappointing because there is something here you want to experience, but the shortcomings really keep you from doing so. I cannot recommend this title at full price and, in fact, I would be hard pressed to encourage you to suffer through it until it lands in the bargain bin. It is a shame that after such a stellar game, such as Majin, we are given such a second-rate effort from a team that obviously knows how to make good games.
Review copy provided by publisher.