|Release: November 9, 2010|
|Screen Resolution: N/A|
by Steve Haske
I would never put it past Atlus to localize some of the most bizarre and quirkiest games Japan has to offer, but when I first heard about Knights in the Nightmare I was taken aback. While certainly not the most bizarre Japanese game I've seen - Nippon has released games about corporate executive cat and mischievously (non-sexually) poking witches - Knights does have an unexpected blend of genres, fusing a strategy RPG in the vein of Final Fantasy Tactics with a bullet-hell shooter. Atlus and Sting have decided to team up once again to re-release the game on the PSP, this time with upgraded and streamlined controls and a slick new widescreen presentation. Knights was hardly a bad looking game when it debuted on the DS, but anyone who picks up the PSP version will likely appreciate the improvements and the visual upgrade.
If you don't know how exactly a bullet-hell SRPG works (and unless you're up on Knights' original release, that's probably a safe bet), it begs some explanation. Much like countless other strategy-oriented RPGs, Knights—in case the name wasn't a tip-off—is set in medieval times. Something is rotten in the state of Aventheim, and the vast majority of its subjects are now dead. You play a wisp, the specter of an unfortunate soul compelled to bring back slain comrades and rid the land of the evil forces responsible. Now, in a regular SRPG this would involve tactical unit placement and strategic maneuvering, but it's not quite so systematic here. While Knights does employ genre staples such as character leveling, job classes, item management and, to a limited degree, unit placement, the results on-screen are a bit more chaotic.
First of all, this is not a traditional turn-based affair. Don't expect to be able to calmly plan your moves. After your pre-battle unit placement and equipment management, every second counts. Each turn of a battle is measured (and penalized) by time rather than the more common practice of trading off a finite number of unit actions between enemy moves per turn cycle. Essentially on any given map you have a select few spots where you can place units, although unlike in a standard J-strategy game, mobilizing them is not as simple as selecting a move command. If your units were the main lifeline, that would be a problem, and while you do have to worry about the HP for your recently resurrected army, you actually control the wisp in battle. Here's where Knights' gameplay drastically varies from its contemporaries: the wisp basically acts as a ship in a shooter. While the time on your turn ticks down, various monsters attack in the form of screen-filling projectiles of various sizes, shapes, and styles (some far more obnoxious than others). If the wisp is hit, you lose time, bringing the end of the turn closer (all battles must be won in a certain number of turns). Dodging projectiles in turn nets you extra experience, which you can use to upgrade weapons and troops that remain in your party.
Defense is only part of the equation, however—were the wisp to simply dodge projectiles, your actual units would never attack any enemies. To attack (or take some other action), you need to drag an equipped weapon from an equipment slot located in the screen's corners to any unit that can use it, making the pre-battle equipment selection process paramount. Though your troops can attack without using an equipped weapon, doing so results in a miniscule amount of physical damage. Only special attacks have any chance at actually destroying an enemy. You're allowed to attack as many times as you can (bear in mind that the wisp is still in control of all commands on the battlefield, so you have to be cognizant about dodging projectiles even when using a unit to target an enemy), but each special attack consumes MP. Strategically, it's a good thing you're allowed to use plain physical attacks, though, because once you're out of MP, doing so is the only smart way to ensure the battle continues smoothly. Also making matter worse, weapons have a durability range and can break after some use, though this can be remedied to some degree through fusing like weapons, upgrading, and discovering new instruments of death found in treasure chests and dropped by enemies. Needless to say, Knights' combat will look like a chaotic mess to anyone that, say, casually watches a trailer of the game. Its constituent mechanics may be hugely unorthodox and seem overly complicated on paper, but they actually fit together like carefully constructed jigsaw pieces. The game is deep—I haven't even touched on everything here, instead just giving you a primer of the basics, so you should anticipate a long haul with this one.
Should you pick up Knights' PSP if you already own the DS version? That depends on how much you enjoyed it the first time around. Knights' narrative content, which chronicles the events both before and after the tragedy at Aventheim, remains essentially the same aside from an extra mission, but the improved presentation and controls are really the star of this port. The game's hand-drawn art and detailed sprites pop on the widescreen PSP, and the wisp—logically controlled using the stylus on the DS version—now is mapped to the analog nub. Although you might think that "downgrading" to a joystick of any kind would make the game control worse, it's actually easier. You can adjust the speed of the wisp at your leisure, and thanks to the PSP's bigger screen (and the fact that swiping a stylus isn't obscuring your view) it's far easier to react to the action on-screen. The loading times aren't quite as good (though if you get the digital version from PSN they are instantaneous) but it's a small price to pay for such a quality production. Knights may not be for the average Mountain Dew-chugging gamer, but if you've got the patience for it, it's a rewarding title that's among the best RPGs available for the system.
CCC Freelance Writer