|System: Xbox 360, PS3|
|Dev: Namco Bandai Games America|
|Pub: Namco Bandai Games America|
|Release: February 22, 2011|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Neilie Johnson
Knight's Contract was shown to the press at last month's Ignite event in San Francisco, and among the many games on offer, it was the one that showed the most promise. Part Darksiders, part God of War, it promised an unusual storyline, dynamic melee combat, and a stylish magic system that seemed to add its own unique twist to the action-adventure genre. Unfortunately, a fifteen-minute demo does not make a full game, and even after that first fifteen minutes, it's obvious the game has as many bad points as good.
Before discussing the negative aspects, let's talk about the ways Knight's Contract fulfills its promise. Starting with an absolutely stunning pre-game cutscene, it launches into an engaging Salem-witch-hunt-like story that details the initial adulation, subsequent betrayal, and inevitable execution of a race of long-lived magical women. Heinrich, the executioner, is cursed by one of these witches and when the game starts, he's one hundred years older: gray, grizzled, cursed with immortality, and wearily walking the earth searching for someone who can break the curse. He enters a village decimated by the Black Death and meets a bizarre little alchemist named Minukelsus. Through him, Heinrich ends up in the last place he ever expected—employed by a resurrected Gretchen, the very witch he'd once beheaded.
Gretchen needs the help of a dedicated bodyguard because she's out to stop a group of vengeful ex-friends who are like the medieval equivalent of the movie "Mean Girls." These witches are bent on making humanity pay for their persecution and as such, have forsworn the Witch's Code. The last adherent to the code, Gretchen is determined to save humanity and so she and Heinrich enter into a blood-sealed "Knight's Contract" wherein he becomes her bodyguard. The concept's a little like last year's Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, where "sexy chick meets cantankerous warrior." Like Monkey and Trip, Heinrich and Gretchen have distinctly different but complementary talents to bring to the table. Heinrich's main one is being able to swing a jumbo-sized weapon that's something like a scythe with a meat tenderizer forged onto the end of it. Gretchen, in turn, can use various kinds of powerful magic, casting spells that do things like clamping enemies into vicious bear traps or bringing giant hammers slamming down on their heads. The two work together beautifully, creating at times (especially during finishers) some very stylish-looking mayhem.
During combat, Heinrich and Gretchen collect souls from downed enemies, which allows them to upgrade Gretchen's magic; they also gather trinkets that grant both of them various combat and healing bonuses. Healing's admittedly a little strange in Knight's Contract since Heinrich's immortal and instead of dying, he falls (literally) to pieces. Pulling him back together requires pounding on the "A" button repeatedly which makes him jump up, good as new. Gretchen, on the other hand, can die and when that happens, it's game over. Heinrich heals her by swooping her into his arms like he's about to carry her over the threshold (a little weird, since Heinrich could be her too-muscular grandfather) and waiting for her health to tick up.
Aside from this unusually cuddly healing mechanic and some flashy and interesting combat—including a section of the game that pairs up Heinrich and the weird little alchemist—the game offers some really cool (and disturbing) bosses and some memorable art direction. Two places in particular really stand out – a castle festooned in long swaths of human hair and a dreamlike sequence set in a village made of floating ash. Adding to the atmosphere, the evocative score and solid voice acting pull you into the story and keep you wanting to move forward. The problem is that issues with poor AI, a too-high default difficulty setting, and confusing level design often prevent you from doing so.