I think Namco has been on a roll lately with third person titles including Enslaved and Majin. I really enjoyed both of those games, so when I heard about Knights Contract, another new IP in the genre, I was excited. The box art left something to be desired (I know that's a moot point, but nevertheless), and as it turns out, the gameplay is both lacking polish in some areas and also suffering from some very disagreeable design decisions. These issues cause a lot of needless frustration, but there's still enough good going on with Knights Contract to make it deserve your attention...
Binding Contract Indeed
The premise of Knights Contract is pretty cool. You control Heinrich, an immortal executioner who wields a nasty scythe. He was an executioner in Europe when the black plague broke out. Faust, a sinister political leader at the time, was doing whatever he could to convince his people that witches were the reason for the 'black death' that was claiming the lives of so many. However, the truth of the matter is that the witches, who had always been kind to humanity, were only trying to help. Instead, they were wrongly accused and put to death.
Gretchen, the lead female role in the game, also gets axed, but her alchemist friends manage to create her a new body to possess. Very early in the game she and Heinrich bump into one another after Gretchen's apprentice introduces them. Heinrich and Gretchen share an interesting past I won't spoil for you. Anyway, Heinrich wants his 'curse' of immortality lifted so that he can live a normal life. Gretchen agrees to life the curse -- but only after Heinrich helps her get to Brocken, the witch mountain, to stop the witches and their revenge-driven onslaught against humanity.
The story and characters are cool and interesting and they work well. A lot of the gameplay works good too, but there are some major problems with Knights Contract. As you may know, this game has a similar permanent escort element as did Enslaved and Majin, but of the three, by far Knights Contract does it the worst. As Heinrich, you live and die depending on Gretchen. This 'contract' you sign during one of the numerous cutscenes binds you to this fact. That's all well and good, but keeping Gretchen alive is a serious pain in the ass a little too often. And, although you are apparently immortal, you can still die or get stunned, leaving you motionless for a good ten or more seconds before you can get back into the fight. During that time, enemies are likely to beat the crap out of Gretchen or she may decide to stand in a pool of fire while you punish the A button to try and get your character back on his feet.
The health system seems like a logical next topic to discuss. In the HUD, you will see a purple life meter which is specifically for Gretchen. Heinrich, unfortunately, does not have a life meter although I wish he did. I found in the heat of battle it was hard to tell how hurt Heinrich was. So I would go from swinging my scythe just fine to being split in half or collapsed on the ground. When you are in this temporarily dead or stunned state, you will know it, and all enemies will turn their attention to Gretchen instead of you. Instead of a countdown timer, button matching sequence, or some kind of mechanic like that, the only way to get back on your feet is to wildly mash A for 10 to 15 seconds. There is no indication of how close you are to getting back in the action, you just have to hope she can manage to hold on long enough. You can imagine how annoying it is to revive yourself just in time to see Gretchen take the final blow.
It's a real shame you cannot simply take over as Gretchen when Heinrich drops down or at least tell her to run the hell away while you get back on your feet. I would rather take over as Gretchen and Heinrich be out of action for thirty seconds than the current system. But instead, you are left to watch in agony as she does the dumbest things that so often get her killed, sending you back to the last checkpoint. Oh, and rather than Gretchen having a restorative health system, she can only heal when you tell her to jump into your arms so you can carry her. This makes for a lot of silly, needlessly intense moments where you are running around with Gretchen in your arms, completely defenseless, patiently waiting for the health meter to fill up as enemies chase you.
Boss fights make the whole situation only worse. Not only do you have to juggle keeping Gretchen alive but you can look forward to some of the most asinine button matching sequences I've ever seen. Every boss fight features a multi-part button matching sequence, and if you don't hit the correct button or move the left stick properly within a half second, poof -- you're ass is getting sent back to the boss fight with it having restored a ton (33%) of its health (and your health and witchcraft meters are whatever they were before the sequence started). If you manage to die during this period, the entire boss fight starts again. Facepalm.
There are some other issues as well. For one, you can't help but notice how many darn loading screens and cutscenes there are. I mean you'll go through a ten second load sequence for a three second cutscene sometimes, what the hell? There are numerous pointless cutscenes -- ones that should have just been integrated directly into the game instead of slamming the game to a halt, throwing up a black load screen, playing the scene, and then loading again to get back to the game. For as much disc access as there is, I was surprised there weren't visual tearing issues or major framerate problems, but I really didn't notice anything bad in that area.
As far as the controls go, they are mostly good, but I would have really liked a block function for Heinrich. While you can duck and roll with A, having an actual block, and maybe even a block and parry system, would have greatly enhanced the gameplay. As it stands, while there are numerous basic combos using the Weak (X) and Strong (Y) attacks, this game boils down to a button masher. Granted, with the ability to grab certain enemies with B and use Gretchen's witchcraft with RT + face button, there is more strategy than just random button mashing, but it could have been even better with blocking.
Speaking of button mashing, or well, fast paced combat, I didn't think the developers did a good job with the Finisher mechanic. When you have an enemy weakened, and you have Gretchen cast a spell, you might get a prompt to press B to execute a fancy finishing move. Two nags with this system are having to hold LB to target the enemy whose lifeline you want to see, and also having to press B at just the right moment. Keep in mind that combat in Knights Contract is fast and furious, and there are a lot of button presses going on. It's very easy to miss out on a finisher prompt because you are simply already engaging in your next attack.
A way to command Gretchen would have been great as well; nothing fancy required, just a way to have her to get the hell back from the enemies or environmental danger that she is so oblivious to. Also, whenever you run too far away from her, the screen goes purple and she cries out your name in this overly dramatic way -- even though you are like one or two seconds away from her. Thanks to this and the health system that requires that you carry her, I find just carrying her around from battle to battle is the way to go.
Also in playing Knights Contract, I thought that I was getting lost too often. There is a map you can pull up in the pause menu but it only shows you where you have been in the most basic of ways. Sometimes the longest part of an episode (aka level, the game calls them episodes) for me was just figuring out how to get to where I knew I was supposed to go. Honestly, and this was something I noticed with Majin, a lot of the level design is very similar from one area of a level to another, and that can make it a little confusing when you are trying to figure out where the heck to go.
For all of the problems I had with Knights Contract, there are just about as many good or great things I can say about it. As I mentioned earlier, I like the story and the characters. The combat is fun, although far from perfect, in that you get to combine the fast, brute force physical attacks with witchcraft, and that is cool. I liked the variety of enemies and the fact that you can revisit an area (which I had to do several times from being lost) and you don't have to worry about respawns, which is huge for me (I hate respawning enemies in this genre). The bosses are neat, but the design choices I mentioned above make fighting them less enjoyable than they otherwise would have been.
I think the devs also did a nice job of forcing you to really think about what equipment and witchcraft you wanted to equip and upgrade, too. The equipment cannot be upgraded actually, but since you can only wear one piece of it at a time for much of the game, deciding what to equip when is both a positive thing and a slight annoyance. With witchcraft, you can equip four at a time. These four can be upgraded three times, but at very high cost, so deciding what upgrade path to take is key. It's too bad the game won't tell you what the next level of an upgrade nets you before you buy -- instead, you have to commit to buying and then you figure out what, exactly, the upgrade does for you.
From a presentation standpoint, Knights Contract gets by, but fails to impress. While the texture detail and clarity leave a lot to desired, I did like the appearance of most of the monsters and bosses. Most of the levels are rather plain and lack much detail or interesting characteristics, but the monsters pick up some of this slack. Overall though, Knights Contract has kind of a muddy, pixelated look; while it definitely doesn't look 'last gen,' it's a far cry from some of the visual splendor seen in games as far back as a couple of years ago. Aurally, the experience does fine for itself and little more.
With that, lets get to the summary...
Knights Contract should have been a better game, but several poor design choices really hurt the experience. Still, I found it rewarding enough to continue on and discovered that underneath some of the glaring issues, there is a solid game to be found.