Knights in the Nightmare - Staff Review  

Souls, Come unto Me
by Glenn "7thCircle" Wilson

20-40 Hours
+ A tragic tale with a unique storytelling method
+ Completely original tactical combat
+ Beautiful, detailed art
+ New Game+ alters the story
- Too many ways to negate the challenge
- Order of plot events could have been clearer
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   A well-intentioned mistake made generations ago is forgotten as time passes, and a recent series of poor decisions by do-gooders and selfish moves by the insidious cause not just the decimation of the inhabitants of the world, but threaten to unravel all of existence. The knights of Castle Aventheim fight gallantly, but fruitlessly, against the hordes of monsters that suddenly appear in their homeland, even after their king is murdered in the shadows, their prince vanishes overnight, and the cardinal who assumes power seems helpless. All is not lost, as a mysterious maiden unseals the soul of the dead king. With the ability to return corporeal forms to the spirits of deceased knights, this wisp of hope leads an army against those who would break apart the Rule of the land in Sting's latest game, Knights in the Nightmare.

   The storytelling in Knights in the Nightmare is at once perfectly clear and somewhat confusing. Between battles, a series of plot events are shown. One always takes place at the present location and time, one takes place at the present location, but occurred in the past, and one takes place at the current time, but in another location. Considering that the game has dozens of locations, dozens of battles, over one hundred characters, and no displayed timeline or rigid way to know how long ago, exactly, past events took place, it can be overwhelming. An omniscient narrator summarizes events and breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the player-controlled wisp in second person, adding one more voice to the chaos.

   The emphasis is on the plot's main characters and their actions, though, and these people are often the focus of story scenes. It is odd to describe in a review, but somehow the exact order that story events take place in the timeline is not important; what matters is the characters in the twisted plot, their actions and motives, and how their decisions affected each other and the world. This is always made clear and easy to follow. A specific character's development or a plot theme usually connects scenes matched together even though they occur in different places and times, so there is a method to the madness. The hundred nameless knights help add to the tragic tale — and this tale makes no qualms about being very tragic — but as the player watches them die one at a time in the "past events" scenes, their story role is to display the effects of the catastrophe occurring in the world: something most RPGs hide.

   It is disappointing, then, that the script itself stays very impersonal and distant. The player is unabashedly presented horrible event after horrible event, however the feel to the dialogue itself is stoic rather than depressing. The knights utter final speeches formally, such as calmly reminding each other to kill any mortally wounded knight to lessen his suffering. The narrator's voice is questioning and apathetic. The maiden herself is fixated on her task and keeps her secrets to herself. It seems like Atlus or Sting wants to let the devastating actions stand for themselves, stopping short of giving them the emotional words needed to push the game into tear jerking territory like Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth. It's a shame because had the writers chosen to go that route, this could easily have been one of those rare video game stories that impacts the player and sticks with him years after the credits scroll. The tone of Atlus's excellent Odin Sphere localization was formal, tragic, and very emotional, and Knights in the Nightmare, while competently translated, is missing that important "very emotional" component. There is also a small misstep in one of the game's many villains — a witch with the personality of Kefka on Xanax — who tends to steal scenes and make them boring.

Put the weapon on the knight, dodge the bullets, smash the treasure. Put the weapon on the knight, dodge the bullets, smash the treasure.

   For any other developer, the unique storytelling would be the game's one attempt at doing something different. This is Sting, creator of Riviera and Yggdra Union, so it breaks out of the JRPG box in every way possible. The battle system is by far the most unusual and creative part of the game. At heart, Knights in the Nightmare is a strategy game with a cadre of units to pick between and a stash of weapons for them to use. After each turn in combat, the knights and weapons brought into battle can be changed, allowing the player to plan ahead and target some monsters one turn and other monsters the next. The knights themselves are not targeted by foes; rather, enemies shoot bullets that damage the wisp if they come into contact with it. The player controls the wisp with the stylus, selecting weapons, activating units, charging attack bars, hitting enemies, changing between two attack phases, and collecting MP restoratives that erupt from damaged foes, all while dodging the monsters' attacks that blanket the screen.

   Wisely, each separate battle mechanic is extremely simple. The trick is learning to keep track of all of them at once, prioritizing correctly, and figuring out solid strategies for each stage. The opening stages are slow and very easy, providing a gentle difficulty curve at the start. A beefy, optional tutorial encourages the player to read up on the rules and practice executing commands. There is a lot of information to absorb. Because the combat goes so far away from the norm, gamers need to do something rare: read how to play the game first. Normal stages tend to be easy once the intricacies of the game are understood, and this is where the gameplay is at its best. Treasure chests and objects on the field can be hit to obtain key items needed to recruit knights in later levels. It is up to the player to decide if he wants to try to obtain every key item, and thus every knight, or focus on smashing monsters. The seven classes have a good variety of differences between them, and while it takes some time to memorize their individual attack patterns, strengths, and restrictions, they all have situations in which they are useful. The battle system rewards being skillful while still allowing a lot of freedom in how stages are tackled.

Power up knights by sacrificing unused ones. Power up knights by sacrificing unused ones.

   A game over occurs when the set number of turns for a stage are used up. A "retry" option allows the player to get all of his turns back with no punishment. For those with no gamer pride, it basically allows game over screens to be permanently avoided. For those who want a self-imposed challenge, a "restart" option resets the battle back to its initial state. The title screen offers the chance to replay old stages and gain additional experience points and weapons, although this option is disabled on the Hard difficulty. Some bosses have too much HP, too few turns in which to kill them, and spam attacks that literally cover the screen in damage-dealing rainbows of defeat. This is the only place where the difficulty seems unbalanced, and attempting to slaughter the toughest bosses without using the retry option provides the hardest, most frustrating obstacles in the game.

   The 2D character portraits and backgrounds are highly detailed, displaying the artists' beautiful drawings truthfully down to individual pixels. The art design is realistic without being gritty, and it is great to see original work that is not a yawn-inducing anime rip-off. In combat, the sprites in motion have a more toonish aesthetic so that they stand out from the background. This is a welcome decision since being able to immediately identify and locate monsters and knights in the heat of battle is required for victory. The bullets spewing out of foes are bright and colorful, standing out more than anything else on the battlefield. Again, this helps the gameplay; avoiding the relentless assaults is tricky enough as it is. A minor complaint is that the graphics as a whole do not pop off the handheld screen like they did in Riviera and Yggdra Union. This is probably due to the more realistic, less stylized art and menus, but it feels like a step back from Sting's last couple RPGs.

   Knights in the Nightmare stands out in every way, although more by being strange than by being fantastic. Each aspect of the game is very good, but missing the extra push that would have made it great. While the odd combat mechanics work well together and are certainly original, the battle system is not necessarily more fun than a standard tactics setup. The art is wonderful, though missing the visual impact of Sting's previous games. The tragic story is intriguing, would make a page-turner of a novel, and succeeds at telling a tale centered on its characters while keeping the player guessing about missing plot points until the end, but it lacks the emotional kick that would have elevated it to one of the best JRPG stories ever told. Similarly, the score is good, however its lows are not quite low enough; the music is not bland, but it could have pulled at the player's heartstrings during key story events and it falls short. Knights in the Nightmare is enjoyable, and once it grips you it is hard to put down. Something about the nonstop pace, whether it is the storytelling or the battle system, grabs the player's attention and does not let go. DS owners should definitely give it a shot as long as expectations are kept at "almost great." Tactics fans who are tired of the rehashed Tactics Ogre engine should love how the gameplay here is so completely different from anything else. People with poor reflexes or hand dexterity, or a blind hatred for using the stylus, should stay away.

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