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Knights in the Nightmare

Platform(s): Nintendo DS, PSP
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Publisher: Atlus USA
Developer: Sting
Release Date: Nov. 9, 2010


PSP Review - 'Knights in the Nightmare'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 16, 2010 @ 7:03 a.m. PST

Knights in the Nightmare requires players to throw out everything they know about RPG and strategy games and embrace something altogether new and fresh. Frantic, energetic action mixes with thought-provoking tactical gameplay, all within a beautifully rendered fantasy setting and presented through a captivating, emotional narrative.

Every video game has its own rules. This is something that is easy to forget, since so many games like to "share" ideas. If you find a shotgun in a first-person shooter, you can generally understand that it is a close-range weapon that sacrifices accuracy for pure power. If you fight an enemy in pretty much any video game, you know to shoot the glowing weak point to do the most damage. Familiar rules make it easy to jump into a video game and know what it expects from you.

Occasionally, you'll get a game that has a distinct set of mechanics and rules. While there may be familiar elements from other games, these unique titles expect you to learn from scratch. This can be a rewarding process if the game is designed well, but it can be tedious or frustrating if the game doesn't make it fun to learn those rules. Knights in the Nightmare has a lot of rules, and it expects you to learn each and every one. Fortunately, the game is fun enough that you probably won't mind having to learn a handbook of odd and sometimes inexplicable rules.

Knights in the Nightmare has an unusual story that's told in a nonlinear fashion. You play as the Wisp, the lost soul of a tragically departed king. You're awoken from your slumber by a mysterious Valkyrie who promptly leaves you to your own devices without explaining what is going on. Gradually, you discover what happened to the kingdom and the people you know, why your soul was locked away, and the identity of the Valkyrie who released you. The story is told through a mix of flashbacks and present-day sequences, and it gradually builds up to some pretty interesting reveals. It's certainly not a mind-blowing story, but there's a fair amount to find. There are certain events that you won't see during your first time through the game, so replays are encouraged. However, Knights in the Nightmare isn't really a game to play for the story, since the plot largely serves as a way to justify the title's many unusual mechanics.

Knights in the Nightmare is a port of a Nintendo DS game, and perhaps that will explain some of the reasons behind the incredibly unusual combat system. It's one part RPG, one part puzzle game and one part overhead "bullet hell" shooter. It's not an RPG for those who favor slow-paced or methodical action, but neither is it a shooter for those who heavily rely on twitch skills. You'll need a bit of everything to survive. The result is a game that is like nothing else on the market. While "different" doesn't inherently mean "good," Knights in the Nightmare manages to craft an experience that is so unique but familiar at the same time. It's a surprisingly palatable blend of a lot of genres — assuming that you can understand how to play the game.

You don't directly control your warriors in Knights in the Nightmare. Instead, the game's battlefields are isometric grid-based boards where you position certain knights you've recruited. To activate and use those knights, you control the Wisp. In addition to being the main character of the story, the Wisp also serves as your cursor. It has no physical form and can't attack or be attacked by enemies. All it can do is lend its power to recruited knights to activate them and make them take actions. The knights can't easily move around the battlefield but the Wisp can, so you have to figure out how to best position your knights so your wisp can take advantage of them. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

Your Wisp cannot be directly attacked by enemies, and since he is an incorporeal spirit, he doesn't have HP, either. Instead, everything you do in the game is governed by time. Every battle is made up of a certain number of turns, and each turn has a time limit. Time is used up when you make your knights take action, and when time runs out, that turn ends, and when you reach the turn limit for that battle, the game is over.

Although enemies can't directly attack your Wisp, they can create magical bullets to interfere with him. The brightly glowing bullets appear on-screen and must be dodged by maneuvering your Wisp around them. If the bullets touch your Wisp, you lose time. Since every lost second brings you a step closer to a game over, it's pretty essential that you not get hit. It isn't as easy as it sounds, though. Enemy attack patterns can become really crazy, and dodging can be difficult. At the same time, the game rewards you for close dodges with extra experience points, so you're encouraged to take risks.

Winning battles isn't as simple as beating all the foes. Enemies respawn at the end of every round and will respawn forever. The trick is that each stage has an enemy matrix, which is rather like a tic-tac-toe board. Killing an enemy fills in one of the squares on the board, and if you successfully create a link horizontally, vertically or diagonally, you win the level. This isn't as easy as beating enemies until you get lucky, though. Between rounds, a slot machine pops up that determines your next enemy and its position on the matrix. Stopping the slots correctly lets you drastically shorten the length of battle, but you also have to think about which monsters you're stopping on. A monster that is in the right position but you're ill-equipped to handle could be far worse than a badly positioned monster that you can slay in a single attack.

The combat system isn't as simple as pointing your knight in the right direction and watching him go to battle. There is a wide variety of combat classes, each with a different gimmick. Certain character classes can only face certain directions, so you have to think about where to position them. Knowing attack ranges is extremely important, as poor positioning is a gigantic waste of time.

On top of that, you have to manage skills. You'll find weapons with special attacks that you can use, and the attacks have special properties and elements that allow you to damage things you normally couldn't. Regular attacks aren't very useful against most of the enemies, so skills are the only reliable way to damage foes. Weapons have a durability statistic, and they'll break if you overuse them. Since you need the skills that the weapons provide, you'll have to think about what you're bringing on to the battlefield. Using a fire-element sword to kill an enemy in three attacks is a waste when compared to using an ice-element to do it in one. You can also upgrade weapons to add benefits, but considering their durability issues, you have to be careful about this, too.

If skills are so powerful, why should you bother with regular attacks at all? That is where chaos and law come into play. Each battlefield has an alignment that determines a number of factors, including a character's attacks. You can change the alignment of the field from law to chaos and back again, but the catch is that the alignment also influences the magic points you spend on your skills.

The battlefield is filled with a magic fog. Attacking enemies with regular attacks knocks loose magical crystals, which you can use to power your skills. The more you attack, the less fog there is, and that, in turn, means that you regain less magic until it is practically drained. The fog doesn't vanish but transfers to the opposite alignment. If you drain the field of fog when you're in the law alignment, then the chaos side is pumped full.

Recruiting and leveling knights is a bizarre and confusing process. To recruit a knight, you have to find an item in one of the stages, so if you don't carefully investigate every stage, you can't recruit every character. In addition, your knights are not an infinite resource. Using a knight in combat slowly drains his vitality, and once that's gone, he's gone forever. This means every attack has the chance of wasting weapon durability and knight vitality, so it can be a waste to wildly attack enemies. You can restore and improve your character's vitality, but it involves a sacrifice. A character can be trans-souled to another character; it destroys the original character but gives a nice boost to the recipient. Loyal characters that you've used in combat will be more effective in trans-souls than guys who you picked up off the street, so there's a balancing act in using characters and eventually moving them on to better characters.

Knights in the Nightmare's complexity makes it difficult to get into. Even with the revamped tutorial, the game absolutely bombards you with information, so it can feel overwhelming. There's more than an hour of tutorials spread out among the early parts of the game, and those just contain the most basic information. If you're willing to devote the time and energy to understanding chaos and law and trans-souling and kill markers, it's pretty easy to get the grasp of the game. Unfortunately, the in-game tutorials don't have the same effect as spending time learning the mechanics on your own, and that's probably what will make or break Knights in the Nightmare. The game expects you to spend a lot of time learning and mastering its gameplay, and if you do, the gameplay is interesting and rewarding. If you don't or just play casually, the constant stream of mechanics and information can render the game a confusing and incomprehensible jumble. If you don't like the idea of puzzling out mechanics and keeping track of a vast amount of information, then Knights in the Nightmare isn't for you.

If Knights in the Nightmare has one serious problem, it's that it was clearly designed to be played on a Nintendo DS. The developers did their best to adapt the controls to a system without a touch-screen, but it never stops feeling awkward. Actions that were easy in the Nintendo DS version feel slower and more awkward on the PSP. It's certainly not enough to make the game unplayable, but as someone who played the DS version, this distinction was never far from my thoughts. During some of the game's more hectic moments, it felt like the quicker and more responsive controls of the DS version were far more appropriate. The interface still feels designed for the DS, and the menu screens are awkward to navigate, so it could have used a little more revamping.

Knights in the Nightmare has gotten a nice graphical overhaul from the DS version, though. All the character sprites are larger and better animated, and everything is a bit shinier and looks nicer. The character animations are vivid and adorable, which is an odd mix with the rather desolate tone of the story and landscapes. The larger size of the screen makes it easier to distinguish what is going on in battle compared to the DS version. It's a great boon when bullets are flying everywhere on the screen and shiny animations are all over the place.

In the end, Knights in the Nightmare isn't a bad port, but it doesn't manage to surpass the original. There are tons of new features, slight gameplay fixes and noticeable graphical improvements, but they're all balanced by a gameplay system that was designed for a different control scheme. The controls are not bad, but they're not great, either, and fans of the DS version will find them to be awkward. There's still a lot of fun to be had in Knights in the Nightmare. The combat system may be complex and borderline unintelligible, but once you get into its depths, it is extremely addictive. You have to be willing to devote a fair chunk of time to understanding all of its mechanics, but if you do, you'll find an incredibly engrossing game.

Score: 8.0/10

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