Anyone who doubts that the Nintendo DS is the undisputed king when it comes to RPGs needs only to take a look at the list of amazing titles currently on the system. Well now it is also home to one of the most enchanting, and complex titles in the genre to date. Developer Sting is slowly making a name for themselves with a batch of under-the-radar titles including Riviera and Yggdra Union. Their latest effort, Knights in the Nightmare, is not only one of their finest titles to date, but also one of the most in-depth RPGs I have ever played; handheld or not. If you are a fan of the genre, own a DS, and are looking for an enticing new experience, then do not hesitate to run and buy this game now. Seriously no need to read the rest of this review, just go buy it. For everyone else let me explain to you why this is easily one of the best DS titles this year, and quite possibly one of the best on the system to date.
The story of Knights reminds me of the popular TV show Lost. Before each battle you are presented with a present offering of the story. Upon completion you are given the past interpretation. This way of storytelling actually works, but you really need to pay attention as there is a ton of dialogue to be read. The gist of the narrative is the typical good versus evil, but with the events occurring in both past and present, you manage to get more details on characters as you progress. The game focuses on a Valkyrie and a Wisp as they recruit new allies, and try to figure out what exactly caused this sudden downfall of their world.
From a first glance Knights probably resembles just about every other tile-based strategy title ever conceived. This deception is quickly vanquished when you first get into the game and see the tutorials screen. There are two separate training areas to learn the ins and outs of the title, and both contain a laundry list of activities that I strongly recommend you play through. The first gives you a general synopsis of the battlefield, and how to attack units and use items. This one took me roughly twenty minutes to get through. Then I opened the second tutorial menu and nearly fainted. Needless to say there is a lot to keep track of, and if you are willing to invest the time it can be extremely rewarding.
Let me try to break down as simply as possible. The game still takes place on a grid, combat is turn-based, but not in the traditional fashion. You have a timer that depletes every time you unleash an attack. This also counts as a turn, and each battle must be won in a set number of turns. Enemies have weaknesses that you can assess before each battle. There are also two modes the world can be set to, which has various effects on which weapons you can use as well as the amount of gems you can collect from fallen enemies. Yes all of this sounds excessive, and frankly it can be overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes one of the most challenging and addictive experiences you can have.
Knights in the Nightmare also uses a unique mechanic for performing all of your actions. Gameplay is performed via the touch screen, but takes place on the top screen. You control what is called the wisp, and it will be your one-stop device for everything. This is where the arcade aspect of the title comes into play. Enemies attack by sending out waves of energy, which are reminiscent of classic shoot ‘em up titles. By using the stylus you have to dodge these waves much like bullet dodging in shooter titles. Since your characters never move everything must be planned out before the battle begins. You can equip items to your hot-key menu, check enemy weaknesses and hit points, and observe items scattered around the level that you can break. Breaking these items warrants you new power-ups and even keys to unlock new knights for your army.
Controlling the wisp takes some getting used to, as you switch between movements on the bottom screen, which transfers to the top. It can be disorienting at first, but once you get the hang of, it is relatively smooth sailing. When I first jumped into the game I quickly became confused with how much there was going on, and how much I needed to keep track of. Switching between Light and Chaos, equipping the correct weapons, and dodging bullets all while trying to attack can be cumbersome. Thankfully the game has an easy difficulty setting, and the penalty for dying is never too harsh, so failure does not mean starting completely over from scratch.
Knights in the Nightmare is a truly remarkable game, but not one that will be suitable for all players. The amount of dedication that it takes to learn each little nuance of the gameplay could take literally hundreds of hours, which if you are dedicated ends up being highly rewarding. However, if you are not looking to spend a copious amount of time on just one game, there is a lot you will miss out on. That certainly doesn’t mean that KitN is not for you, in fact the fast-paced gameplay and intricate story are more than enough, and only the basics are required for general play. The balance between what you need to know and what you can learn is massive. Very few games manage to achieve this, so appreciate it while you can.
Visually KitN is quite impressive, sporting some gorgeous hand-drawn characters, and a dark/moody tone to the world. The sprite-based characters animate extremely well making this one of the more impressive looking titles on the system. The on-screen action can also become quite intense with tons of bullets flying across the screen and spells being cast, all without much hesitation from the frame rate. It is also impressive how much detail is on the screen like menu items and text, all which manages to remain readable. The audio is equally impressive with a score that really pushes the tiny DS speakers to their limits (I highly recommend slapping on headphones for this one). The retail copy comes with the soundtrack, so that immediately says they are pretty proud of their score, and they should be. The unique harmonies are catchy and very mood-setting.
Knights in the Nightmare is a miraculous achievement in game design, and one hell of an RPG experience. The complexity may be daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it, the experience is infinitely rewarding. The sheer amount of time you can lose within the world is amazing, and with an excellent visual style and great soundtrack the game rarely disappoints. If you are a fan of the genre you should have already ran out and picked up the game, but if you were hesitant before let your fears subside. This is truly one of the best DS games of the year, and quite possibly the best handheld RPG experience thus far on the handheld.