If you were to take the gothic look and feel of the Devil May Cry Series, combined it with the endless waves of similar enemies and topped it off with the minor RTS elements found in Overlord, you would have Tecmo’s latest PSP title Undead Knights. Now most people don’t find comparing games natural, but think about this, since I painted that picture doesn’t it help when you visualize the gameplay? All of that aside when we previewed Undead Knights last month I came away impressed. The simple mechanics work great on a handheld, and the gorgeous visuals really show off what the system can do. Now that we have had some time to sit down with the full version I can safely say that this is one of the most mindless and enjoyable PSP experiences I have had this year, but it is still not without flaws.
The story is as grim as you can get. There are three playable characters in the game and they are all rulers of the undead. Romulus, Remus and Sylvia all once served under the king who assassinated them and have returned for bloody revenge. They have been resurrected and granted the ability to call fallen soldiers to their side. The story is definitely nothing short of cookie-cutter, but it does manage to entertain and set a nice backdrop for the hack and slash action. Besides it isn’t often that you get to control characters that are inherently evil and somehow still considered to be the good guys.
The core game experience has you slicing and dicing your way through countless hordes of enemies without regard to anyone, including your minions. Each stage has you invading a different area where you will recruit zombies, smash through enemies and take down the corrupt empire. Nothing changes much and the levels are short-lived, which is perfect for a handheld game. You can switch up characters for each level, and for the most part each one of them comes with various strengths and weaknesses common to most action games. The core concept is sound, but also the game’s biggest flaw.
Things become almost too hectic at times during battles. Enemies fly at you in endless waves and sometimes objectives are not as clear as you might hope. For instance early on you have to use your zombies to create a bridge. Summoning them and pointing them in the right direction is cake, but once the button prompt appears onscreen you are not told precisely how to press it. I lost several zombies here time and time again, and the repetition caused me to stop playing. Eventually mashing the button like a mad man solved the problem, but instances like this are too common to ignore. There is also a multi-player mode that consists of both cooperative and competitive modes, but neither one will likely hold your interest more than a few hours at most.
Combat is smooth giving your characters some deadly combos with simple button presses. You also have access to some sweet necromancer abilities that lay waste to your enemies. These abilities can be purchased using souls collected from your carnage. The problem was that the menu to upgrade remains kind of hidden. In our preview build I played through ten levels before even realizing it was there. Once discovered you can use this to upgrade your health and other abilities as well. Controlling zombie is easy if not a bit frustrating. Tapping the R button allows you to go into an aiming mode where you can command your zombies to either attack, tear down structures, or solve the various puzzles. The problem stems from the fact that without direction most of them wander around aimlessly until told what to do.
One of the bigger problems that arises though is when you start to gather more and more undead soldiers. In a crowded area when you are attempting to grab new enemies to turn to your cause often times you will instead grab one of your own. This leads to frustration in intense battles. As I mentioned the AI is also severely lackluster. Not only are your zombies brain-dead (which actually makes sense), but the enemies will deliver predictable patterns and sometimes just stand in front of you waiting to be obliterated. The other disappointing aspect is that while combat is simple and satisfying, it is also ultimately repetitive. You will grow tired of the moves and powers after a while, and slowly resort to simply sending your brainless minions to do most of the heavy lifting.
Undead Knights is a good looking game. I am not going to lie I was impressed with the how much they got to fit on the screen while keeping the frame rate somewhat stable. The gothic look and feel really do the game justice and the character designs of the main three and bosses are great. The camera can be fickle at times causing more than enough frustration, mostly due to it being a little too close to the action for its own good. Also controlling it with the d-pad is just as aggravating as it sounds. Speaking of sound this game does not deliver the best audio performance I have ever heard. Instead you are subjected to some below-average voice acting and a terrible collection of butt rock. Seriously I understand the whole gothic-vibe, but the constant wailing guitar becomes annoying after the first stage.
Undead Knights is a solid action game for the PSP. The mixture of strategy and balls-to-the-wall action is well rounded, and the repetition is minimal. If you enjoy titles like Dynasty Warriors or Devil May Cry (I know they are hugely different just trust me) then you will find plenty to enjoy with Tecmo’s latest portable hack and slash. If you own a PSP and enjoy action games even in the least, this one is more than worth your time.