It begins with a suicide and only gets worse from there.
Black Knight Sword is the second collaboration with famed cult studio Grasshopper Manufacture and Hungarian developer Digital Reality. Like their first collaboration, Sine Mora, these two studios take a classic genre (in this case a side-scrolling hack-and-slash) and twist it into a dark, mature fantasy. However the nightmare didn’t end there. Black Knight Sword embodies as sort of macabre horror both in and out of the game.
First things first the game is beautiful. They took this concept of a vaudeville paper puppet show and ran all the way to hell and back with it. The results? Absolutely fantastic. The amount of creativity that came out of this single conceit overflowed from the lighting, the physics, to the various gameplay surprises and aesthetic design that reared its lovely gothic head throughout the game. I could literally shout the praises of the art direction of the game from the mountaintops.
Similarly the game plays just as well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very simple, sometimes too simple, control scheme. A single button to slash, another for magic, another to jump, and so on. There are issues with the dodge mechanic in that it works as a great way to avoid injury but is sort of tricky to pull off and with the way it is limited to a single back flip and requires a slightly annoying control input makes it much more of a hassle than it should be. Aside from that the game doubles down as a platformer but unlike a lot of platformer hybrids, Black Knight Sword works exceptionally well as both genres.
Sadly this is the part where I talk about everything that isn’t related to design and controls, and this is the point where the whole package begins to show its loosened strings. Borrowing some wise words, there is a difference between challenging hard and stupid hard with Black Knight Sword falling into the latter category. It’s a combination of poor game design and poorly explained mechanics that caused me a major headache midway through the game. Either I wasn’t paying attention or it was just that easy to miss, but there is no auto-save feature. What that meant apparently is that you have to manually save, which you can do at any time, but if you die you will be sent back to your previous checkpoint regardless of whether or not you saved a little ways ahead of said checkpoint. Now I wasn’t aware that the game didn’t save for me so after a long string of continual defeats I turned off the game only to return to it starting from the very beginning. I mean the first level beginning.
Now the second thing I want to get at is the game may not be difficult per se but it is very cruel to the point of sadism. A very talented gamer will learn and progress, but with a limited health meter and basically no way to regenerate that health throughout long drawn-out levels added with a lives system that just ticks away, makes this game incredibly frustrating. There is health regeneration somewhere hidden in the level but it doesn’t really help if you can’t find it, especially in the more difficult segments, and the cruel irony is that all throughout the game you’re collecting hearts…for currency. A shop at the beginning of each section allows you to purchase more health, lives, stat bonuses, but they only apply to that particular level and then they’re gone.
I can see what they’re doing, a throwback to the arcade days in which limited lives and health and an abundance of elements trying to tick down both of those meters were meant to swallow as many of your quarters as possible. But sadly cute throwbacks get in the way of actual game progression and when a game with as many deliriously wonderful ideas and set pieces is halted by an inability to overcome some outrageous challenges; then I can only applaud them for following through with such an idea and curse them for not letting me have an easier time congratulating them for every other element in the game that works.
The game is great to look at and when the tempo is right the game is a joy to play, but when I’m running on a single bar of health and desperately looking to prolong my life all while breaking apart microwaves (I have no idea why, but microwaves are treasure chests…seriously this one just doesn’t make sense) flooded with hearts that do nothing but buy me a reprieve if I’m lucky to survive until the next shop, then we have some problems. Great art and a classic throwback to you arcade junkies, but a cruel tease that makes me upset because of how much it offers and how hard it tries to prevent me from getting a better look at it. This is especially true with the true ending. So much at the end of the road blockaded by so much unnecessarily difficult obstacles. It speaks volumes that I’m willing to put up with it just because of how pretty the game is, sadly my patience were tested far too much throughout the game for me to be left as happy as I wanted to be.
[+Delirously beautiful] [+Music is ace] [So much guarded behind the insane challenge] [+Nightmarishly over-the-top] [-Also nightmarishly difficult] [-Seriously, I’ve been collecting hearts throughout the entire game and none of them directly keeps me alive?!?!] [-Save mechanic is needlessly complicated]