Knights Contract comes at us with the intention of mixing up the world of action adventure games by placing the player in control of an immortal executioner who is charged with the task of protecting his lovely witch. As battles play out our executioner will be dismembered and have his limbs strewn all throughout the area, only to come back together again to destroy his enemies. If the witch dies though, it’s game over, forcing players to think about more than just protecting themselves. Does the approach bring us a fun battle dynamic, or does Knights Contract fail to make the cut?
Knights Contract has an interesting premise, based on the fact that your main controllable character, Heinrich, is an immortal executioner. He’s been roaming the land for 100 years hunting for a way to end his miserable life, but to no avail. As the game start out, he meets up with Gretchen, who turns out to be a witch he had executed years earlier. Through a series of events he discovers that she has the power to release him from his ‘curse’, if he agrees to help on her quest. Seeing no other option, Heinrich agrees and becomes bound by contract to protect Gretchen, setting them both off on a long journey to battle evil, and bring peace to the land.
Unfortunately for Knights Contract, the premise of the game and accompanying story line are the coolest parts of the game. It’s disappointing, since there are a lot of great ideas here that are just poorly executed, and in the long run most people won’t ever experience the story, since they’ll likely throw their controller in rage and frustration well before approaching the end.
Knights Contract is entirely focused on combat throughout the entire game. At no point is there any platforming to speak of, unless you count dropping off a ledge to a lower ledge every once in a rare while. There are no puzzles, or any type of other gameplay to speak of. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except that the combat itself has many, many shortcomings. Heinrich is directly controlled by the player, while Gretchen follows and attacks enemies on her own. Fighting with Heinrich is a pretty basic affair. A couple square taps executes some weak combos, and tapping triangle finishes with a hard hit. As the game progresses Heinrich’s moves expand slightly (although, you’re never directly told this, it happens when his scythe upgrades), to eventually include some uppercut moves and other slices. It’s a bit contradictory that Heinrich can’t jump unless he’s uppercutting someone, but there’s much more baffling aspects in the game.
Perhaps its because Heinrich is immortal that he never learned. Maybe he’s just dumber than he looks (and considering his depressing attitude about being immortal for 100 years, he must be pretty dumb). Heinrich can’t block. Initially you might think “well, he’s immortal, and doesn’t need to.” However, this extremely basic combat mechanic is incredibly frustrating the entire time, since you need to protect Gretchen all the time, and not blocking a hit splits Heinrich into a number of useless pieces. Any time Heinrich is knocked down, you’re prompted to tap X repeatedly for about 20 seconds to get him to revive. Trust me, this monotony gets real old, real quick. A huge problem here is that Gretchen isn’t too smart either. While Heinrich is down she’ll run right up to enemies and attempt to fight them, which is like a kitten trying to knock out Muhammad Ali. It doesn’t work, she dies, and it’s game over. She’ll also stand directly in the way of traps, make no attempt to dodge any incoming attack, and barring that will get grabbed by an enemy to have her life sucked out. Mashing X and watching this happen is infuriating, and it will happen a lot.
What is provided instead of a block ability is a flimsy dodge mechanic. Okay, cool, Heinrich dodges, and Gretchen gets hit instead. Well, not only is that a bit daft, but the dodge mechanic doesn’t even work well. Half the time while intending to dodge to the left, right, or backward, Heinrich will instead jump forward, right into the very thing you wanted to avoid. Sense my frustration yet?
Luckily Gretchen isn’t entirely useless, and in fact in some sense is more powerful than Heinrich. While defensively weak, she provides Heinrich with a slew of powerful, and often times visually pleasing spells. When used in tandem with Heinrich’s fighting skills on weakened enemies prompts will appear to pull off finishing moves, which add to the intensity of the battle. Picking the right spell for the right enemies becomes important, and timing is as well. Whenever a spell is used a short cool down period is required, and then it’s ready for use again. Four can be mapped to the face buttons on the control, to be activated by holding R2 and pressing the corresponding button. Six upgradeable spells will be acquired throughout the game, and several hidden ones can be found by determined players. Two super special moves are available too, which really help in tough situations. One has Heinrich turning into a huge beast like creature and decimating his opponents, while the other has a giant, naked, blue tinted Gretchen crushing all opponents in the area for an instant kill.
When Gretchen gets damaged, Heinrich can call her to his side and pick her up, which heals both her and himself. While holding Gretchen, Heinrich can only run around. Casting any spell, attacking in any way, or getting hit will cause her to be dropped. When combining this with the lack of a block button, it means you’ll spend extensive time picking Gretchen up and simply running away from the enemies until her health is full again. This also gets really old, really quick, but luckily the enemies are just as stupid as everyone else, and simply chase you slow enough they’ll rarely make a hit. Even though Heinrich is immortal, he’ll limp when he’s damaged, and will need Gretchen to heal himself, or he’ll go down and she’ll die.
Knights Contract‘s poor combat scenario is compounded by an incredibly huge slew of glitches, and a very fickle camera. The camera alone will make you want to destroy the game disc, hoping it won’t piece itself back together too. Too many times in battle the camera will decide to lock on to some seemingly random object or enemy, placing Heinrich and/or Gretchen off screen for extended periods of time, and just adding to the general confusion. There is a lock on feature, which is used by holding L1, which is great when it works, but there’s many instances where the camera can’t seem to decide where the priorities lie – the enemy you’re locking onto, or the random object in the distance. Imagine Gretchen having low health, running to pick her up and heal her, only to have both your characters off screen and unable to tell where to go, only to die. Do this about 15 – 20 more times, and you’ll feel a fraction of the pain that comes from playing Knights Contract.
Glitches are rampant as well. Whether it’s clipping issues, enemy or Gretchen AI going completely crazy and running in circles, Heinrich randomly falling through a floor and dying, or a late boss fight completely freezing up into an immortal, unmovable statue which forces the need to reset the game, there’s plenty of random issues that will pop up throughout the entire game. One especially annoying glitch is when Heinrich drops off a ledge, sometimes Gretchen refuses to follow. Putting too much distance between yourself and her at any time causes her to die, and Heinrich’s lack of a jump ability means you can’t backtrack. The solution is to carry Gretchen at all times you’re not in battle.
Many of these issues show up sporadically throughout the game, but they all seem to come together during boss fights, which are already intended to be difficult to begin with. In every single boss fight the camera insists on locking on to the boss at all times, despite them throwing minions at you to battle as well. Of course, large amounts of confusion ensue, and cheap one hit kills really make it a kick in the shins. One fight in particular, the storm witch, will drive even the most diehard gamer up the wall. While running around on precarious bridges, the storm witch will slam Heinrich with one hit kills by smashing him, punching him off ledges, and ripping bridges up that he stands on. When she slams her fist down, Heinrich has an opportunity to jump on top to deal extra damage at close range, but unfortunately he often times falls right through her massive bicep as if it didn’t exist, only to plummet to his death. Once you learn all this it starts to seem like it’s not so bad, until you remember that Gretchen is dumb, and she’s susceptible to all the same cheap moves as well. You’ll likely die a number of times, simply because she refused to dodge. This boss isn’t really even that difficult as designed, but inherent flaws of the game make it hard to stomach, and worse battles await further on. It’s really a shame, because some of these bosses have great designs, and simply look like they should be fun to destroy.
The graphical quality throughout all of Knights Contract is inconsistent. In fact, the opening videos that run when the main menu is left idle are the best looking portions of the game. Two different incredibly epic videos run with some slick visuals, huge monsters, and vivid effects, which incorrectly imply that fun and excitement lie ahead. Thus, it becomes so much more disappointing that before starting the game you’ve already seen the best it has to offer. Actual gameplay has character models with pixelated edges and bland textures, and the environments are often times worse. Certain scenes have nice scenery, but for the most part you’ll run down a lot of repetitive looking hallways, with very little detail or objects to act as landmarks. As a result certain areas become easy to get lost in, especially in later levels, which turn into maze like corridors that all look exactly like the previous hallway. When you get lost, you’ll inevitably notice that the in game map is horribly designed, and is utterly useless 90% of the time.
There’s much, much more gone horribly wrong in Knights Contract, like the total lack of in game options (you need to exit to the main menu to adjust anything), or the sections where Heinrich and Gretchen get split up, and you realize Heinrich is a giant wuss, or my long list of unmentioned glitches that I recorded along the way. However, what it all boils down to is the fact that Knights Contract is entirely focused on escort mission combat, and falls short of making that work well in any way. Priority number one in creating this scenario should have been to give Gretchen superb AI, so she would be an asset, rather than an annoying liability. Barring that, combat should have been fleshed out so it felt like more than sporadic, repetitive button mashing, but lack of a block button, horrible dodge response, and Heinrich’s mediocre move set hold it back from resembling anything coherent.
Knights Contract almost redeems itself with an interesting story line, and an unexpected ending, but the total lack of fun throughout the game means you’ll need to torture yourself to experience it. Magic spells have a stylish flair which genuinely looks fantastic, but as I’ll always say, beauty isn’t everything, and the lack of real substance underneath ruins it. Overall, Knights Contract is far more tedium than fun, flat out. Do yourself a favor, and pick up any one of the numerous other games in this genre instead, since you’ll have a hard time finding a current generation game worse than this.
PlayStation LifeStyle’s Final Score
– Horrible Companion AI, Tedious Escort Mission
– Camera wrestling, fickle lock on
– Glitches and overall lack of polish