While it isn’t without its noticeable and very noteworthy flaws, Knight’s Contract is a unique and interesting entry into the world of action games. The mixture of highly stylized art, good story and great character progression with poor ally AI, mixed production values and a nearly broken game play element make the title worth checking out. Is it worth any more than that though? Read on to find out.
The game begins with a woman about to be executed via decapitation. As the executioner prepares his blade, a robed man talks the audience into frenzy with accusations of witchcraft and related deviltry. Then, the executioner chops off the woman’s head and her blood spills all over the grisly scene. The executioner, who is standing in the blood, then begins to glow and the horrific scene closes. Fast-forward to one hundred years later. The executioner is wandering around, solemnly. He his big, hulking and scarred, a Gears of War reject if I’ve seen one. His name is Heinrich and he is our ‘hero’. The woman he executed a century ago actually was a witch and in her death, she cursed him with immortality, thus leaving him to wander the cruel world, with no end in sight for all eternity.
Gretchen, the name of the witch who was killed, was one of a large clan of witches. The witches helped the people of their towns using their magic abilities. They helped produce food and aid sickness and disease around them and they lived for extraordinary amounts of time. Inevitably, the villainous nature of mankind leads them to fear and despise the witches. Then, they begin to execute anyone who was even thought to be a witch and this is how Gretchen ended up being killed.
A complicated series of events leads to Gretchen, as well as the rest of the witches in the clan, being resurrected. All of the witches except Gretchen wish to exact their revenge on humanity and Gretchen wishes to keep the witches code, which says a witch shall never harm someone, or something silly like that. Anyways, Gretchen meets up with Heinrich and explains how she cursed him a century ago. She explains that she’ll need his help if she wants to thwart the plans of the witches (and also, an overarching, bigger villain) and offers him the ultimate reward if he accepts: a swift and painless death.
Heinrich and Gretchen then make a blood pact, and go on to embark on a thrilling and magical adventure. Satisfying story aside, production values in the game are a mixed bad. The graphics in particular seem to be lacking a certain amount of polish and some of the textures are rendered sloppily. This is combated by the great art and design in the game. Gothic décor and architecture mix wonderfully with the magical, “bubble bubble, toil and trouble” flavor of the game. Enemies look pretty interesting and tie nicely into the game’s theme. The most interestingly designed characters in my opinion would be the other witches, because they are over the top and ridiculous.
The music in the game is easily passable except for the fact that it can be very overdramatic. I don’t need crying violins and ecstatic choirs while I’m walking up a flight of steps. It takes away from the real, serious drama and creates a kind of lame melodrama. The game-play is mostly good. It is primarily composed of combat which is spread out by the occasional futile task. For example, “Go find this” usually means to trot around hauling arse until you find what you’re looking for and then proceeding. It isn’t bad, just a bit boring.
Aside from fighting, you’ll also want to collect pages from an in game encyclopedia that you can read to find out more about the characters and the world. Many of them are hidden well and in my honest opinion, the encyclopedia doesn’t nearly create a big enough incentive to scour the world looking for the pages. This encyclopedia also holds concept art of enemies, characters and environments and I found this to be a lovely and appreciated addition.
The combat is about 60% awesome and 40% annoying. Why is such a huge part of fighting an annoyance? Well, as we discussed earlier, Heinrich is immortal. No, this isn’t just a story component, he is actually immortal. No matter how many blows he takes, you will never see a game over screen because of him. He can sometimes get severed in half or blown to pieces and in these instances you have to mash a button for him to literally pull himself back together. This immortality component seems like it could make for a pretty easy game right? Absolutely not.
You see, Gretchen isn’t immortal at all. She’s actually rather flimsy and fragile, particularly for a resurrected witch from a powerful clan. Her health bar is tiny and you’ll have to keep your eye on it if you expect to make it through the game. Enemies take huge amounts of damage when they hit her and if you get cut into pieces like we mentioned earlier, they’ll take the opportunity to snatch her up and siphon her vitality until you can come to her side. These segments feel so cheap it’s unreal. Difficulty by design or by result of an already faulty game play component? The world may never know.
This is really only the beginning of our problems with Gretchen. She is utterly and completely useless. It isn’t just the fact that the little fighting she does on her own is petulant and futile, though it may be. It seems like she jumps into harm’s way, happily exploiting your weakness for your enemy’s benefit. Why in God’s name is my ally helping my enemies by being so useless? Another problem with her and this turned out to be a bigger issue than I had anticipated, is that when you get too far from her she starts screaming and it blurs the screen. This wouldn’t be a problem if she tried harder to keep up with Heinrich. You’ll literally take ten steps, she’ll start screaming and then you’ll turn around to see her standing there. This happened to me dozens of times. It even got to the point where I would ignore her when she actually needed help, because she had done so much crying wolf.
In the heat of battle, you will probably turn around to see Gretchen watching you get pulverized and every now and then she might throw out a spell. Even when she does, if it doesn’t miss, it barely does any damage. Even though she has a pretty big application to combat because of her magic (which we’ll get to in a second), she seems like a big crutch thrown in to make the game less fun. I shouldn’t forget that you can heal Gretchen by picking her up and holding her. This not only heals her, but it also quickly regenerates Heinrich’s wounds. The process is painstakingly slow though, to the point that it sometimes seems like an afterthought.
The combat is essentially a kind of hack n’ slash system which is similar in nature to the combat in the Devil May Cry series, meaning there are several combos you can execute with just a few buttons. Heinrich can perform a hard slash and a light slash. The light slashes are much faster than the hard ones, but they take less damage. These two face buttons, combined with directional inputs, make up most of the combos. Heinrich’s scythe-play isn’t very deep, but it is satisfying. The odd nature of many of the combos makes it easier for you to mash the light attack button than to be stylish.
Speaking of DMC, you are scored on the complexity and power of your combos. These grades determine the amount of experience points you gain after a fight. Perhaps the biggest component of the combat is Gretchen’s magic. These are powers you must utilize, not the weakling minor spells she does on her own. The way you use the spells are a little odd. You must hold down a trigger and press a face button. This alone wouldn’t be too complicated, but you’re also going to have to hold down the aim button to hit anything with the spells, and this altogether feels a bit wonky and odd. You get used to it over time though.
These magic attacks are powerful and usually have a big area of effect. You can also do them while simultaneously attacking with Heinrich, which adds a layer of fun and style to the combat. This is also absolutely necessary if you want to quickly deal heavy damage to many enemies. Many of these spells reminded me a bit of Bayonetta, which is obviously a hugely relevant merit. Some of them snatch foes up with thorns and vines, others summon giant bear traps beneath enemies and still others send rows and rows of blades at enemies. This picks up much of the slack Heinrich’s lackluster scythe fighting leaves behind and makes the combat flashy and pleasant.
The spells are also strengthened with the experience points you gain from defeating enemies with big combos. Not new, but still neat. Heinrich’s scythe will also grow in strength, but this happens as you defeat bosses, not enemies. There is a meter beneath Gretchen’s health that gradually fills as you defeat enemies. When it is full, either Gretchen or Heinrich can perform a powerful special attack. Gretchen’s is better against large groups of enemies while Heinrich’s is appropriate for larger enemies or bosses.
Additionally, you can find accessories to equip that have various effects. Some of these increase Gretchen’s vitality, some decrease the cool-down times needed for her spells, and so on and so forth. The combat and character progression are a very tight package and if it weren’t for Gretchen’s pure garbage AI, this game could easily get away with a fantastic score because of them. There are many unlockables in the game, and I doubt you’ll net them all on the first play-through. There’s also another difficulty level, but I wasn’t quite up for that.
I don’t have many gripes with Knight’s Contract. There is no exploration because the levels are usually pretty linear. I didn’t find this a problem though. I personally didn’t really care for the surprise twist near the end of the story, but I certainly didn’t see it coming. A few of the bosses really exploited Gretchen, giving the entire dish an artificial and cheap taste. One of them was a complete and utter chore and I wished I could give up on the game because the lack of fun was so severe at this point. These moments really hurt my feelings because the game could have been so consummately awesome if it weren’t for them.
So, is Knight’s Contract a bad game? Should you buy it? Well, these questions are hard to answer. It certainly has many good things in it that are worth experiencing: the music, art, story, character progression and replay value are spot on. That being said, the abomination of a partner that is Gretchen, and a few other severe issues, give the game a horrible aftertaste. In my opinion, these are worth looking past to experience Knight’s Contract, but unfortunately, no one could blame you if you didn’t.