Knights Contract Review
Both Killzone 3 and Bulletstorm came out on February 22. But a third game also arrived that day, even if you probably missed it amidst the FPS hullabaloo. It’s Namco Bandai’s Knights Contract, which actually looked pretty darn good when we first saw it later last year. The concept isn’t bad: you play as the invincible Heinrich, who is a little older than your standard hero and even walks with a limp due to a lifetime of heavy combat. He was once an executioner who beheaded witches and one of these victims was Gretchen, who cast a curse on Heinrich before his blade struck. So now the guy is immortal…and he only wants to die. And worse yet, Gretchen is now attached at the hip – so-to-speak – and she tags along in his bloody adventures. She can die so yeah, there’s some babysitting involved. And it isn’t fun.
The graphics have their highs and lows. Visually, the character designs and some of the special effects stand out as highlights; both Heinrich and Gretchen are drawn well and have plenty of sweet animations. Some of the bosses and enemies are pretty cool, too, and I liked a few of the backdrops. But much of the environmental design is either bland or lackluster in some way, and the cut-scenes have a few technical problems and tend to be a low point during the quest’s progression. Seeing Heinrich sliced to pieces while still remaining alive was entertaining the first time but soon got old (for reasons described below), and even those visceral effects get tiresome because you repeat the same attacks so often. The whole presentation needed to be cleaned up and despite a few “whoa, did you see that?” moments, the graphics are hit or miss and remain erratic throughout.
And speaking of hit or miss, the voice acting ranges from very solid to downright laughable, which is jarring. Plus, I just couldn’t determine whether or not I liked Heinrich; at first, I thought I did but after a while, his personality started to grate. Gretchen was okay but most other characters are voiced by actors who just phoned it in, and this caused much of the story to fall short of its emotional goals. On the flip side, both the effects and music are decent and fit the atmosphere and style; in particular, the soundtrack never seemed to let me down, even if the balance was a little off. In terms of effects, there are some truly wince-worthy pieces of audio, especially when it comes to nasty physical attacks. I couldn’t cling to this bonus forever, though; eventually, the uneven nature of the technical elements just became far too apparent. And then I had to focus on the gameplay… Wish I didn't.
So you’ve got two main characters and the player actually controls them both. You will only control Heinrich’s movements – Gretchen moves on her own, unfortunately – but you can execute attacks and skills for both characters with the face buttons and R2 button. See, you utilize the face buttons for Heinrich’s slow yet powerful scythe strikes, and you just press R2 to switch to Gretchen and use her spells. Those spells are totally insane and are way more powerful than Heinrich’s attacks; at first, I didn’t mind that. I mean, watching Gretchen grow to the size of a building and crush enemies like ants is pretty damn bad-ass. And almost all of her spells are awesome, too. But the difference in power really started to get to me, even though both characters have obvious strengths and weaknesses.
You really have to pay attention to what’s happening because even the smallest battles can prove deadly, and if you want to take advantage of your witch partner’s immense power, you have to keep her alive. …and that’s where we encounter the first and most glaring issue. Gretchen is entirely AI-controlled and because you have to protect her, you would’ve hoped Game Republic understood the need for a smart partner. But no, she’s a freakin’ out of her mind. She’ll stand in fire. She’ll run directly at enemies that can pulverize her frail body. She’ll watch a boss tear her up. The only way to save her is to have Heinrich pick her up and shield her while her health regenerates. Decent equipment doesn’t change Gretchen’s stupidity, and let’s not forget that if Heinrich gets slashed apart, it takes time for him to reanimate.
He can’t die, but it takes a little while for him to return to form. And of course, during this time, the enemies swarm Gretchen and she will likely die…and when she dies, it’s game over. Yay. And I’m absolutely convinced that Gretchen somehow loses even more IQ points when Heinrich is reduced to a bloody pulp; while you slam on buttons trying to revive the big man as fast as possible, that stupid witch runs around like a chicken with its head cut off. Then there are plenty of bad game design decisions: in one section, if Heinrich is knocked off a ledge, the game ends. For boss fights, I think every last one implemented the now-common QTE (Quick Time Event) system, and this soon got annoying. It’s most annoying because towards the end of the fight, you have to hit all the QTEs exactly or the boss regains some of his health and the battle continues.
And lastly, there’s the camera, which is often problematic. There were times when one of my heroes disappeared entirely off the edge of the screen, and the camera often doesn’t keep up with the action. Combine this with a bunch of frustration when you die seconds before taking down a tough foe (this happened a lot), and the game quickly becomes more of a chore than anything else. It’s unfortunate, too, because Heinrich has a huge assortment of attacks and combos, and all of them are fun to learn and execute. Gretchen’s magic is great and always a joy to behold, the story isn’t terrible, the character advancement mechanic works well, and the in-your-face attitude of the combat is a definite plus. It’s just too erratic and unrelenting; you always feel as if you’re at a disadvantage, and that’s often due to poor game design and development decisions. In short, it’s a missed opportunity.
Knights Contract misses the mark. It’s just way too irritating. I’ve never liked babysitting missions in other games and I was immediately concerned when I heard this title would be all about babysitting. But I figured, “well, if my partner is smart, it could be great.” Yeah, it didn’t work out. Gretchen is horribly stupid, rejuvenating Heinrich takes too long, they go overboard with the QTEs in the boss fights, the camera can completely betray you at exactly the wrong moment, and the technicals are all over the place. The combat has a lot of promise and the mechanics themselves actually work quite well (at their core). Some of the voice acting is good, you really get to know the characters quite well, and the super-cool visceral stuff is a big plus. But when all is said and done, it just isn’t worthy of your time or money. Maybe a rental on a rainy day.
The Good: Some fitting music and solid character design. Decent storyline. In-depth, sorta satisfying combat mechanic. Fast-paced, challenging battles.
The Bad: Uneven visual presentation. Some characters are terribly voiced. Horrendous AI. Frustrating, often cheap gameplay design. Overdone QTEs. Camera can let you down a lot. Character strength balance is off.
The Ugly: “Oh yeah, good plan…run right at ‘em, bi***.
2/26/2011 Ben Dutka