This is a playtest of the PSP version of Knights in the Nightmare. You can also read up on our playtest of the original DS version.
If was there were a single word I had to choose to describe what I think of Knights in the Nightmare, “arrogant” would be it. It’s a game that assumes you have no life or responsibilities outside of devoting yourself to videogames and expects you to invest a generous amount of time in learning its intricacies.
No, scratch that. It’s a game that expects you to invest a generous amount of time in simply learning how to play it, right from the most basic actions such as attacking enemies to the more complex ones like actually winning a battle. Nothing in Knights in the Nightmare is simple.
For me, this presented a conflict. Having heard about Knights in the Nightmare from Spencer and other friends that enjoyed the depth of DS version of the game immensely, I felt almost obligated not to dislike it. After all, when someone says “bullet-hell shooter combined with strategy RPG,” you’d be crazy not to sit up and take notice.
The problem lies in the way the game is presented and its pacing. Five minutes in, you’ll find yourself being pulled out of the story and assaulted by tutorials that explain how to attack enemies, equip items on your characters and so on. These tutorials are broken up by multiple loading screens, which you’ll see far too often and sometimes for far too long.
What’s more, the tutorials aren’t very easy to understand and I found myself having to rewatch them multiple times before I had any idea of how to play the game. The deeper into the combat I got, the more confused I was. Ultimately, it took an explanation from Spencer combined with Atlus USA’s custom tutorial videos for Knights in the Nightmare on DS to help me understand the basic battle system.
Here’s a brief explanation of Knights’s battle system and where it threw me for a toss:
Like all strategy RPGs, battles in Knights in the Nightmare take place on a grid. Prior to going into battle, you’re asked to equip your characters with weapons and items. Easy enough, right? Not quite. Right from the first time you open your weapons menu, you’ll see a long, long list of arms that can be used.
The exact difference between a lot of these is hard to make out, as many of them share the same look and statistics. You may find yourself wondering how the stats influence the game at all. It’s also rather difficult to figure out which weapons your characters can or cannot equip. Where most games make an effort to keep things simple when you first dive in, Knights doesn’t.
Once you’ve equipped your weapons (four per character), these are denoted by four different weapon icons at the corners of your PSP screen. You’re then sent into battle. This is where things get interesting. Instead of controlling characters directly during battles, you control an onscreen wisp — a “soul” of sorts. This is the entity that takes damage from enemies and acts as your field commander.
When an enemy attacks, they release a volley of bullets in all directions, and you, as the wisp, are required to dodge these as you would in a shoot-em-up. When it’s your turn to take the offensive, you’ll need to move your wisp to one of four corners of the screen, each one housing a weapon attached to your character, and drag the weapon you want to attack with to your character by holding down the X button and using the analog nub.
Release X when an enemy is in range, and you’ll attack them. Enemies walk around the grid, so if you time it right, you can attack two or three at a time. It’s an extremely interesting system and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in an RPG before. The problem is, it’s only the beginning of a very long and convoluted set of rules you’ll need to learn before you can actually win battles as opposed to just fighting them.
By using the L button, you can switch between Law and Chaos modes. Certain weapons can only be used in a specific mode, and each mode also has an effect on the way your character attacks, as well as the overall battle. Changing moves also affects the amount of magic point replenishing crystals you get. For awhile, Law mode may yield more crystals. Staying in Law too long will diminish the amount of crystals you receive, so you’ll need to keep switching between Law and Chaos.
But none of this actually matters unless you figure out Knights in the Nightmare’s obscure timed battles. Every battle, you’re racing against the clock (or so it seems anyway) and the only way to win is to keep an eye on the Enemy Matrix. This is admittedly the aspect of the game I struggled with the longest.
During every battle, you’ll spot a 2D grid on the screen. This is the Enemy Matrix and each enemy in the battle is assigned a spot on it, along with a colour. Killing an enemy places a marker on their spot. You’ll need to line up a row of three kill markets of the same colour Tic-Tac-Toe style before the timer runs out to win battles.
Between rounds, a game of Jackpot takes place where you can attempt to influence the position of enemies on the Enemy Grid during the next round. Managing to figure this out will help greatly. But, as with all of Knights’s other intricacies, the Enemy Grid is something for which you’ll need to watch tutorials a couple times before you have it figured out. It took me a while to understand how enemies on the grid corresponded to enemies on the battlefield.
Once again, you may think that’s all there is to it, but this is the tip of a very large iceberg of strategizing and customization. Yes, I know I sound terrible for not liking it. But it isn’t the game’s vision I have an issue with.
To me, someone who’s low on time and wants to make the most of whatever free time he has, Knights didn’t feel entertaining. To me, it felt like work. There’s no effort to make the tutorials feel properly meshed with the ongoing story, and the game presents way too much information to the player at once, making it incredibly overwhelming. There’s no effort to disguise the “work” part of the game whatsoever. In fact, the game’s introductory narrative text fades away before even giving you a chance to read it completely.
I kind of want to feel bad for not liking Knights in the Nightmare. It’s a game that takes a risk, blends two polar opposite genres together and actually makes the resulting chaos work. However, for all it does right, Knights didn’t click with me on a moment-to-moment basis.
Better character interaction. Better music to keep you in the right mood. Making the tutorials feel like part of the story instead of pulling you out of it. Any of these would likely have made Knights in the Nightmare feel a little more player-friendly and entertaining.
Food for thought:
1. I couldn’t find a Data Install option anywhere, which would’ve helped greatly with the game’s load times.
2. Watching videos of the Nintendo DS version of Knights in the Nightmare, I couldn’t help but feel it looked a tad more approachable.
3. Knights makes the crucial mistake of not giving you enough save points early on while you’re going through all the tutorials. This alone contributed a fair bit to the impression it made on me.
4. I keep finding myself wanting to go back to Knights in the Nightmare, just to see if maybe “one last try” will make me like it. Unfortunately, I find myself turned off each time. At least I can say I tried.