Knights in the Nightmare begins with the longest tutorial in a Nintendo DS game ever. You can ignore it, but you really should complete it. All of it. Even the 70+ tip section. Knights in the Nightmare is as unique as it is complex.
Expect to spend half an hour learning the basics in the hands on first steps section, reading the tutorial, and skimming through the tips. After that you can start the game and enjoy it. There’s much more to Knights in the Nightmare than dodging bullets and animating knights. Crucial details like holding a shoulder button to hide, which reduces damage and cancels commands are only explained in the tips.
You play as a wisp, a glowing white speck. Blinking isn’t going to rend armies of slimes, skeletons, and living swords. Alone the wisp is helpless, but it can awaken knights on the battlefield to fight.
When you touch a knight it charges for an attack. Basic attacks release collectable gems which fuel real attacks. Grab a weapon from the right hand corner of the screen, drag it on to a knight, and then charge up for an attack. Weapon powered attacks take longer to charge, but actually have the power to slay sprites and defeat dryads. A basic attack might shave 35 HP off a 3,500 HP ogre. Barely a scratch to its wolf pelt. A weapon attack will dish out over 2,000 HP of damage. This is a rough comparison, but you aren’t going to get far only using basic attacks. Battles have freeform phases where you gather gems with help from knights that can hit a lot of monsters at once. Wizards and Priestesses are good for this task. Then you dish out damage with Lancers, Archers, and Duelists.
This works… at first, but monsters drop fewer crystals after each farming attempt. Why? Knights in the Nightmare has two attack phases: law and chaos. When gems run dry in the law phase you need to switch to chaos. The phase also affects the kind of attack each class does too. Take the Hermit as an example. This knight has a V shaped attack in law mode and two parallel lines in chaos mode. Most knights cannot move so you may need to switch between law and order just to hit a stray goblin.
While you’re making rapid fire strategic decisions the monsters retaliate with waves of bullets. Slimes attack with a sunburst bullet explosion. Witches conjure spinning pentagrams. Spiders throw fangs and sticky webs over your item selection area. If the wisp touches any of these it loses precious time and when time runs out the turn ends. All of these events can, and probably will, go on at the same time. Knights in the Nightmare is frantic. There’s so much going on most players probably don’t even realize the meter on the left side of the screen that tells you when the monsters will attack.
So far all I’ve mentioned were the basics. Knights in the Nightmare has so many more layers of depth like exploiting elemental weaknesses, pairing elemental weapons with knights of the same element, distributing experience points, and learning to time the slot machine reels to get the right monsters to clear a battle. Yeah, battles don’t end when you slay all of the monsters in a turn. Fights continue until you kill enemies to make a row or a column in a something like a deadly tic tac toe board or run out of turns
This probably sounds overwhelming. Knights in the Nightmare is sort of overwhelming. Since there aren’t any games like Knights you have to learn everything and since it’s a Sting game there is a lot to learn. Remember when you played your first fighting game and didn’t know how to do a QCF roll? You had to learn the motion and timing. Playing Knights in the Nightmare is sort of like that… with lost souls and lots of bullets.
In between fights Sting explains how the kingdom fell and eventually the identity of the wisp. The art book spoils the last mystery so don’t read it right away. Since the knights are spirits you barely get to know them. Most cutscenes show how they died instead of how they lived. I think I learned more about my party members from reading the Tome of Lost Souls than I did from playing the game.
Aside from Maria, a maiden following the wisp, there aren’t many chances to connect to the characters, which is unusual for a strategy RPG. However, the unraveling mystery and light Norse mythology drew me into the plot. Knights in the Nightmare has multiple endings, but the secret to discovering them is well guarded, at least during your first play.
If you want to sneak a bullet dodging fight during lunch choose leveling. These fast fights give you a brigade of unnamed knights, one from each class plus a random weapon for each of them, to use. Earned items and experience from freeplay leveling fights carry over to the main game. Monsters only have 25% of their usual life which means you can beat these monsters and stock up on weapons rapidly.
Knights in the Nightmare has grand boss fights too. I remember this one fight against Gunther who looks like a stereotypical dark knight riding a horse. He can end battles quickly by draining the vitality from your knights when you activate them. When a knight loses his or her vitality they’re gone. No, not just for the battle. Knights in the Nightmare has permadeath. Winning this fight meant learning when to cancel attacks mid-charge. Canceling in a strategy RPG… what other DS game offers that?