Knights in the Nightmare just seemed custom-made for the Nintendo DS touch-screen. That's why it was a surprise to discover that Sting planned a PSP port of their game. I've spent some time with Knights in the Nightmare for the PSP, though, and it is a surprisingly solid port. It doesn't quite surpass the Nintendo DS controls, but for a gamer who didn't try this incredibly unique little RPG, it certainly does the job.
The story is told in a somewhat nonlinear fashion. You play as The Wisp, the lost soul of a king who is awoken from his slumber by a strange armored maiden. You begin your quest to discover who you are and what happened to the kingdom. The story advances after the awakening of the Wisp and in brief glimpses of the past as you encounter the souls of dead knights who lived before the death of the king. The story is slow to unfold but surprisingly engrossing, and there's a fair amount of mystery to uncover. There's little to say about the story that won't spoil the plot twists, although players should be aware that a single playthrough won't show everything that the game has to offer.
Knights in the Nightmare has an unusual combat system and is quite possibly the most complex RPG available on the DS or PSP. It's not so much an RPG as it is a puzzle game with RPG elements. It also has elements of the popular "bullet hell" genre, and the end result is a game that requires you to use both twitch skill and strategy. This isn't a bad thing, although the amount of information that the game gives you can be overwhelming, especially at first glance. The title features a tutorial that can take well over an hour and still leave you feeling unsure of what you're doing. Fortunately, once you spend some time with the game, it becomes quite easy to pick up.
You don't directly control the combatants in a skirmish. Instead, you're given control over The Wisp, who is a glowing white orb and a major character in the story. However, the Wisp has no physical form and can't directly attack anything. In order to fight enemies, you have to use the Wisp to empower knights who you collect on your journey. Combat takes place on an isometric battlefield with enemies and knights positioned around the area. The Wisp is a cursor that you move around the screen. By hovering over your soldiers for a moment, you can charge their attacks and target them at various opponents. Charging also increases the radius of the knights' attacks, allowing them to target more foes.
You don't have hit points in this game as you would in a traditional JRPG. Instead, everything you do is governed by time. Every battle is comprised of a certain number of turns, and each turn has a set time limit. Taking action by having your knights attack during a turn uses up time. Time also functions as your health bar, so as you attack enemies, they'll attempt to harm your Wisp by firing bullets that cover the screen, like something you'd see in Gradius or Ikaruga. If these bullets touch your Wisp, you lose time, and if you lose all your time, your turn is over. Lose all your turns, and the game is over. It may sound simple, but the enemy attack patterns can get pretty crazy. Forcing your Wisp to dodge between enemy attacks is an essential skill to master, especially since close dodges earn you extra experience points.
As if that weren't complex enough, you don't win the fight by simply beating up all the enemies. This is where the enemy matrix and kill markers come in. The enemy matrix is a series of grids, and at the start of combat, each monster is assigned a space on the grid. Defeating that monster fills the space with a kill marker, and in order to win the battle, you have to get a tic-tac-toe with kill markers horizontally, vertically or diagonally. Between rounds, you take your chances with a slot machine, and if you have good timing, you can make certain stages a lot shorter by influencing the next round's kill marker placement.
Simply winning battles isn't enough; you have to figure out how to do so within the time limit while still breaking as many objects as possible. Various objects are scattered throughout levels, and you can break them with your attacks, assuming you've chosen the proper troops. Damaging these objects will open them like treasure chests, and you'll be rewarded with new items. You'll also find key items, which are required to recruit new knights to your party. If you don't properly loot an earlier level, it's possible to end up in a situation where you can't recruit new soldiers to your party.
Skills have useful elemental effects, and they're governed by various weapons found throughout the game. If you want to defeat enemies, you'll need skills. Regular attacks are about as strong as a stiff breeze to the monsters you face, and the only way to reliably damage enemies is with special skills. To use skills, you equip weapons in a slot on the four corners of the screen. Activating them involves moving The Wisp to a corner, grabbing the item, and then dragging it to the knight who can use it.
Weapons are governed by a number of factors, including character level and character class, so not everyone can use the same skills. The more you use a weapon, the less durable it will be, and it will eventually break. On the other hand, you can also upgrade weapons to increase their attack power or fuse weapons to increase their durability.
Skills need Magic Points, which are earned by hitting enemies with a regular non-skill attack. These attacks do almost no damage to foes but knock magical crystals out of them. If you move The Wisp over these crystals, you'll collect them and earn MP. Each attack also lowers the amount of fog in the area, and fog is directly related to the amount of crystals that are knocked from an enemy. If the fog is high, you'll get tons of MP, but if the fog is low, you won't get many. At any time, you can alter the battle area from Law to Chaos or vice versa. Doing this changes the shade of the level from blue (Law) to purple (Chaos), and it has a dramatic effect on everything in the battlefield.
Changing between Law and Chaos alters the available attacks, with different classes gaining different attack ranges depending on the current alignment. The Warrior, for example, attacks in a straight horizontal line directly in front of him during Law, but when Chaos is activated, he attacks in a V formation, making it easier to hit unusually placed objects. Certain skills only work in one alignment, thus making it even more important to switch carefully.
There is also a rather detailed leveling system. You can level up the various knights you've recruited by spending experience points between levels. This increases their attack and the weapons they can use, but you're limited in how far you can level a character. This is where Trans-Soul comes in. Knights have a limited amount of available vitality, and they lose it during battle. When vitality runs out, that spells permanent death, so attacking wildly is a very bad idea because it'll quickly kill off your party. On the other hand, characters can be transferred to other characters via the Trans-Soul process. This permanently destroys the character but increases all the attributes (including VIT) of the character to whom they're transferred. It's a balancing act between keeping your army powerful and not putting all your eggs in one basket.
The developers did an admirable job translating the touch-screen mechanics to a regular handheld system. The Wisp is controlled using the analog nub instead of the touch-screen, and most of the mechanics are slightly altered to make up for this control difference. For example, you can manually alter The Wisp's speed by pressing various buttons.
The new and improved visuals are top-notch. All of the game's graphics have received a significant upgrade for the PSP, and it really is to the game's benefit. Everything looks brighter and more vivid, and when compared to the Nintendo DS version, it's easier to distinguish things during the hectic battles. There are a few minor additions to the game, with the most noteworthy being the addition of an extra story line starring fan favorite Princess Yggdra.
Knights in the Nightmare is an odd choice for a port, but from what we've seen, it's surprisingly well done. Most of the gameplay mechanics translate to the PSP with minimal loss to the game's overall quality. The improved visuals and additional content are a nice addition, although it's tough to judge if it will be enough for former players to pick up the game a second time. Knights in the Nightmare is lining up to be a solid port, so if you're a PSP owner looking for a unique RPG, you should look no further than Knights in the Nightmare.
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