By Jonathan Higgins / December 18th, 2012
|Title: Black Knight Sword
Publisher: Reverb Communications
Developer: Grasshopper Manufacture, Digital Reality
Consoles: 360 / PS3
Console Reviewed For: PS3
Release Date: December 11, 2012
Rating: ESRB M
A lot of the games, developers, and publishers that Oprainfall follows are seemingly cut from a finer thread. Rather than tread the road taken by many, they tend to make the more…esoteric design choices that, fortunately, yield wonderful results most of the time. No one encompasses the word “esoteric” more, in my opinion, than Suda 51/Grasshopper Manufacture. I’ve not had the pleasure of actually playing games designed by them, beyond one or two, but anyone familiar with them can tell this is a Grasshopper Manufacture game by footage and screenshots alone.
Black Knight Sword offers a unique presentation that is sure to bring the faithful in right away. But, beyond those who will “eat this game up” right away because of who played a part in creating it, there are those with a refined taste that begs for a deeper explanation. There is more to a dish than its presentation, after all.
At a Glance
I make a point to go into games designed by developers I am familiar with completely blind. Thus, my experiences with a game like Black Knight Sword are influenced only by my previous experience with the developer, not by hearsay. As I make my way through the game, I count on tutorials, menus, and other system features to help create a structure for the game itself, no matter how insane everything else about it turns out to be.
And that’s where I found a problem with Black Knight Sword almost immediately. The menu (seen from the title screen, when the game is paused, and within the game’s in-game shop to buy health, lives and power-ups) is an atrocity on the eyes. From eight feet away (a respectable distance for a bigger-screen TV like the one I possess), I could barely make out the menu. I could count on the picture-based tutorials presented in-game right away, but when it came to anything else, I either had to let it go (something that turned out to be absolute folly on my part when it came to saving, which I’ll get into momentarily) or get up and move closer to the TV to more easily distinguish the text from its gaudy backdrop.
A minor fault, to be sure, but if you’re not a big fan of crazy contrasts, you should definitely go into the game’s options menu and turn the brightness all the way up to better aid you in this matter. I promise, not all of this review will be a public service announcement, but I’ve got to get one more thing out of the way before I move onto analysis of the game.
I played through the game on Easy Mode first, in order to come to grips with gameplay and all other aspects of presentation without too much hassle. That said, I played through almost the entire game in several hours’ time over a single play-session. I died and got a game-over a handful of times, but nothing proved too difficult until I reached the final boss.
‘Twas an epic struggle, one I decided would be best saved ‘til later. So, after getting a game-over (again), I decided to Return to Title as opposed to continue on from the start of the level (which happens when you lose all your lives). I paid no heed to the “Your progress won’t be saved; return to title anyway?” message because I figured it was the usual fodder (this is one of those things I mentioned “letting go” earlier on).
Newsflash, ladies and gentlemen. BLACK KNIGHT SWORD DOESN’T AUTO-SAVE, NOR ARE YOU EVER PROMPTED TO SAVE. One could assume, as I did, that your progress would be saved at the start of every level, but… this is not the case. If you don’t go into the game’s menu and save yourself, manually, your progress will be for naught. I learned…that one the hard way. I wasn’t sure faulting myself for figuring auto-save was a given in today’s digital game (or at the very least, a message prompting ‘Do you want to save?’ after every level to better serve as a marker)… but this is definitely a fault of the designer:
You see, when you save your progress, your status after each of the game’s plentiful checkpoints is saved. Number of lives, life meter, anything you’ve collected up to that point—saved! So, getting a game over and starting from the beginning of the level is null and void. When your life count hits zero, just exit to the title screen and continue your game from where you last saved! Easy workaround that turns “no auto-save” into “practically save-state”…not intended to be a workaround, I imagine. Of course, I figured that out after I lost my first few hours of progress, but… that’s why I’m making it known here!
The save system of Black Knight Sword is so unbelievably archaic and clunky that it leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth, despite enjoying what else the game had to offer.
The game markets itself. As I mentioned previously, anyone familiar can tell this is a game designed by Grasshopper Manufacture right away. It is, without a doubt, a journey likened to an opiate dream, with plenty of trips into the surreal, plenty of moments that make you think “What…exactly am I playing?”, and plenty of fun to be had if you enjoy being jostled around from scene to insane scene.
I found the graphics are the game’s strongest feature. The art style, despite being almost overbearingly dark (and I don’t mean evil, I mean too dark—another reason why increased brightness is a plus), is something that makes Black Knight Sword stand apart from its contemporaries. The game’s ambiance is concerned with theatre and stage-work—most of the game takes place from behind a curtain. Rather than take the time to describe what I saw, I offer a slew of screens, with intent not to spoil the various curve-balls this game throws at you.
The soundtrack is fitting, adding to the sense of artistry this game possesses. There are plenty of memorable, jazzy turns to accompany you on this strange journey. A lot of sounds are also aligned with the idea of a stage show…dinging, audience reactions, and tiny interlude music pieces, to name but a few. Each song tends to fit the insane environments of the game very well.
And to offer a final note regarding “bells and whistles”: the story. You play as a suicide victim possessed by the spirit of The Black Knight, out to destroy a dark princess whose tyranny knows no bounds. As oddball of a purpose as this is—the accompanying fairy-tales to give each of the game’s five stages their purpose goes past the realm of “oddball” into the metaphysical. There is a surprising amount of depth and philosophy behind this abstract platformer with a seemingly flimsy story. That’s very much to the game’s credit, of course. But the ending is…unfulfilling. And when I beat the game for the first time and unlocked a trophy titled “You call that an ending?” I got the sense that Grasshopper Manufacture was pulling my leg.
A Difficult Path to Tread
The player takes control of The Black Knight. Controls start out easy enough—move with the joystick or d-pad, jump once or twice with the X button, and slice stuff into bloody oblivion with the square button. The Black Knight’s attacks gain layers of complexity with power-ups offered at the end of every stage in story mode (including charged-up sword attacks, a magic attack, and an energy shot fired from your sword by game’s end.)
The Black Knight’s avatar of sorts, Black Hellebore, can be controlled with the R2 button. This causes a spirit to ascend forward from The Black Knight to access far away switches, or hurt far away foes. Be mindful not to jump when using Black Hellebore, however, because it turns an otherwise solid jumping mechanic into treating The Black Knight like iron—he drops so quickly, it is impossible to recover.
The camera can be controlled with the opposite analog stick. Camera is rarely an issue you’ll face when playing this game, but it’s helpful to look around you to get your bearings in an insane, dark world.
Arcade Mode and Challenge Mode
Outside of the main story, there are modes for competitive players. The first of two to discuss is Arcade Mode, which throws you into a level and tasks you with killing tons of enemies in an effort to achieve a high score. Said scores can be viewed via the game’s Scoreboard Menu which uses the PlayStation Network to amass worldwide totals. This can add as much value to the game as you’d like it to. If you’re not a competitive person, I don’t believe I saw any incentive to play through it. But if you are—it can add hours of fun onto a game that could use the extra content, considering there are only five stages.
And the second feature to discuss is Challenge Mode—a variety of missions that isolate some of the game’s more difficult mechanics and force you to beat them under certain conditions (like not ever getting hit, for example). A lot of these modes expose flaws in the game’s controls, to be perfectly honest. While playing through Easy and Normal difficulties in the story, I took little issue with the game’s controls (outside of using Black Hellebore, which was quite cumbersome at times). But challenge mode forces the players into situations with complex controls, and…one may start to realize how much the game’s controls begin to fail under these conditions. All in all, if you’re willing to stick with it and get used to the game’s…finesse, these missions can add even more replayability. That said…I am not.
Difficulty Curve? Better Described as Difficulty Slope
As aforementioned, I played through the game on Easy first. This was undoubtedly a good choice on my part. Easy Mode should be considered the “standard” for one’s Black Knight Sword experience. It offers just enough challenge to amount to a fun romp through the insane. If you don’t abuse the game’s save feature, you may even arrive at some sort of point where you’re stuck for a while! I suppose it’s fitting for the easiest difficulty to amount to the perfect introductory experience.
But wow, do things ramp up severely in Normal. It’s like night and day. Enemies are faster, more unforgiving. Bosses turn from annoying pests with easy patterns into…”I’m going to throw my controller against the TV now…” You find yourself almost wanting to abuse the game’s save feature to better aid you in the much more difficult venture of Normal. And Hard Mode…that’s best left for the truly sadistic. I consider myself a seasoned platformer, but… this game’s difficulty left me almost perplexed. It’s not often I suggest Easy Mode over Normal, but I would definitely suggest that in this game’s case.
After the End
Without offering too much as to what happens—there’s something there. Also noteworthy: you are tasked with collecting certain things throughout your journey, which adds a deeper experience to what otherwise is a fairly cut-and-dry platforming experience.
I half-expected there to be some sort of frog boss in this game, because to summarize my experience, I’ll use the popular label of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride”. It is a wild ride to say the least—surrealist art often is. But as I mentioned at the start of this review—a game cannot function on presentation alone. I am pleased with what I saw and pleased with what I heard. Despite flaws, I am honestly pleased with what I played and may find myself coming back to the game in order to further enjoy the eccentricities and features it offers to the dedicated.
But the flaws the game does have, like a severely outdated save system, hold it back from becoming the fully-realized experience it could be. Black Knight Sword could have been a great game if certain features didn’t render it broken. As a complete package, Black Knight Sword is good.
But “good” at such a price-point when there are several other great platformers out there that far outclass it, leaves me debating if it’s worth your purchase or not. To anyone who is not a Grasshopper Manufacture faithful who will eat surrealist art like candy—beware, beware, as the game often instructs of its player.
Review Code supplied by Publisher/Developer
Black Knight SwordGrasshopper ManufactureSuda51