With 2012 almost at an end and all the big name titles released weeks prior, Black Knight Sword is in an interesting spot to grab a little bit of last-minute attention. Initially, the interesting visuals, the ten dollar price tag, and Grasshopper Manufacture/Suda 51 seal of recognition make for a compelling buy. The pieces are all there for a downloadable nugget of greatness, but strange design choices and unforgiving difficulty make Black Knight Sword more of a cautionary tale.
Black Knight Sword takes place inside a play of sorts. For the duration of the game, theater curtains adorn the edges of the screen. An omniscient narrator with a honeyed voice is your primary source of information outside of a handful of in-game cues. None of this pertains to the actual plot, however. The story within the play is actually quite sparse and is only revealed in the final stage of the game. Actually, that’s a lie. A brief intro video explaining the basis of the story is only revealed by waiting at the title screen long enough for it to start up. Yes, the game actually hides the introduction from players.
From there? Well, there’s something about a white princess and a black princess who are sisters and hate each other. There’s also a Black Knight who has a sword that possesses the spirit of the black princess. But since there are also fire-breathing chickens and a spider with a gas mask then plot is obviously more atypical than most. If anything, the game embraces a lack of coherence which is in no part due to Grasshopper Manufacture being behind it. It’s easier to find more enjoyment in the brief tales at the beginning of each stage.
It will get repetitive hearing the constant stabbing sound the Black Knight’s sword makes along with the teeth-clenching clang of armor every time he is hit. Since those are the two things players will be doing the most of in the game, it’s going to be heard often. Despite that, some other stuff is just so wild and bizarre that it breaks the monotony in a good way. Weird cat sounds, strange death moans from enemies, along with a mild enough soundtrack accompany the intensely odd setting the game takes place in. Special recognition should be given to the narrator who talks through the whole journey. Sure, his “it will all be over soon” comment when the player nears death will spin anyone into a rage blackout with visions of punching him in the jaw, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. With a voice that belongs to a manipulative villain in a period piece, he adds just enough flair and oddness to be endearing.
As ridiculously incoherent as Black Knight Sword is, it looks just as ridiculously good. It may not be as detailed as Black Ops 2 or as stunning as Journey, but Black Knight Sword has a gorgeous aesthetic. Once moving past the static tutorial area and into the actual stage, the concept behind the whole “theater” setting reveals itself. Like any other play, backgrounds are wheeled in, objects and characters drop in and dangle from wires. Everything has a thick feel as if made from hand-cut wood and it becomes quite striking. Transitions range from simple clouds or backdrops shifting at a moment’s notice to entire environments altering on the fly. There are times when the changing backgrounds can be jarring and it would be advisable to stop moving so everything can jump into place.
Many screenshots and initial previews of the game seem to focus on the first few minutes of the experience. This is a great injustice to the game because those grabs do not pay any kind of service to some of the better levels in the game. A highlight is definitely a desert highway that transitions to a different time of day with every few steps. Black Knight Sword’s insistence to keep part of the play area obscured by curtains is questionable. The concept isn’t exactly terrible, it just isn’t ideal. Players can use the right stick to move the screen around and get a glance at out-of-view platforms. It helps in some cases but it will also take the camera a few seconds to right itself again. It would have been preferable to have an option to turn the curtains off or at least remove them in subsequent playthroughs. Just because an idea is good, doesn’t mean the gameplay should be constantly tethered to it.
After an extended period of time with the game, one might begin to wonder if there is an issue of style over substance. Truly, one of the most arresting things about Black Knight Sword is the visual element of the game. Everything is wonderfully inventive and should impress even the most jaded gamers, possibly extracting several laughs from some. Still, you can’t help but wonder if the less than exceptional gameplay merely serves as a delivery method for that fantastical vision that Grasshopper is associated with.
It’s hard to mask the feeling of resentment after spending time with Black Knight Sword. This game is hard, and not in the way Super Meat Boy or Dark Souls is hard. To be honest, it feels like a game that is almost more concerned with flaunting its difficulty rather than how bizarre it is. To give an example: one trophy/achievement is awarded from never dying in the game while one is given for never visiting a shop. On the opposite end of the spectrum, one is awarded for getting a game over 50 times. Yes, 50 game overs.
Acting as an homage to a bygone era of (mainly 8 and 16-bit) platformers, Black Knight Sword is more akin to the kind of legacy and tortured emotions that Ghosts’n Goblins left gamers back in the day. From time to time the game is tough, mostly it’s just unforgiving. Like those old games, Black Knight Sword is fairly easy to control. One button moves, another jumps, one uses a special attack, the other sends the sword’s spirit hurling in a direction (don’t ask). Evading is a crucial skill needed in tougher parts of the game but for some reason the developers thought it would be best to ignore all the other unused buttons and instead have players evade by pressing down and jump.
The questionable button mapping of a simple evade move is the first of many puzzling design choices. The game doesn’t auto-save. Players who don’t pay close enough attention in the tutorial will miss this announcement and possibly turn off the game and find all progress lost. Manually saving is the only way of preserving progress and the game doesn’t even tell you if a save was successful. Perhaps to fit the bizarre nature of the game, Grasshopper Manufacture chose to use an even more bizarre system when it comes to game overs. After losing all lives a player is given two options: either quit to the main menu (to load a previous save) or restart. Restarting actually sends the player back to the beginning of the level without any previously gained power-ups or attacks that might have taken the entire game to accrue. The option to restart must be meant as a joke or a cruel trick to anyone who isn’t paying enough attention. Did the developer actually think anyone would go for this option?
For all the platforming fundamentals Black Knight Sword uses, it only gets a few right. As fun as it is stabbing many of the enemies to death in a spray of blood it can get bland doing it to hundreds of enemies that swap a single head motif. There are heads that shoot fire, heads that jump, heads that fly, and heads that just walk around. It’s a shame this single enemy is used so many times because other models are inventive and challenging. Have fun guessing their patterns, though, because they often change preventing any hope of memorization. Jumping can be clumsy and can often lead to instant death or a major loss of health. It might be cool having a shopkeeper that is a flying eyeball with mouths but the upgrades feel hollow. Special attacks are learned over time but the option to upgrade the strength of the sword isn’t present. The same enemy that died after five hits in stage one will still take five hits to kill at the end of the game. The absurd logic of game overs aside, the system of lives is almost pointless. The only benefit to actually dying is that the player is granted full health and magic uses. Death means starting from the last check point which in some cases isn’t terrible but when it means having to play an entire boss fight over, then terrible doesn’t begin to describe it. A much more sensible solution would be to have the player revive right where they were downed. This would have made the final boss fight more enjoyable and less frustrating. It’s also worth mentioning that the final stage before players get to that tedious final battle consists of a boss-rush mode. So yes, prepare to end up fighting several bosses, especially the one you just killed a minutes ago at the end of the last stage.
Black Knight Sword certainly has its moments. There was a shoot-em-up stage that consisted of riding a giant chicken that is definitely a highlight of the game. After enough deaths, players might master the game’s pitfalls and take pride in their ability to narrowly avoid death. Difficulty should only be a deciding factor when it comes to judging a game when the difficulty is more of a punishment than a mechanic. Playing Black Knight Sword on normal difficulty could make a grown man cry. Playing it on easy becomes a walk in the park; in fact, it’s an entirely different experience. Hard mode only exacerbates things by changing enemy patterns and having enemies shave off even more health. It’s almost as if not enough care was given into balancing and diversifying the experience for the actual normal player. Because of the beautiful art and scenery, sometimes it might be preferred to just watch Black Knight Sword being played out instead of punishing yourself. It would certainly allow players to sit back and enjoy what really makes the game shine. Oh, and remember Ghosts’n Goblins? The game has one last laugh for players who beat the game: you don’t get the good ending until the second playthrough.