One of the few things that I knew going into Knights in the Nightmare was that it was going to have a steep learning curve. The tutorial mode from the DS version is legendary for its length, and every video that Iíve watched has lots of objects zapping around the screen without apparent rhyme or reason. After playing for around 20 hours, Iím of two minds regarding the challenge. There are a lot of exciting moving parts to play with, but is mastering them all more trouble than it's worth?
"There are a lot of exciting moving parts to play with, but is mastering them all more trouble than it's worth?"
My first and predominant impression is that the novel mechanics are a lot of fun. Battles take place on a grid like a standard tactical RPG, but the play experience is completely unlike any Final Fantasy Tactics or Disgaea clone. Only two of the gameís six unit types are able to move, while all of the enemies wander around in real time. Proper unit selection and placement therefore becomes integral to success. Most of the interaction with the enemies is done through the weapon slots that hover in each corner of the screen. Dragging a weapon to an allied unit starts charging the attack meter Ė all while avoiding enemy attacks with the analog stick. These attacks are fast, furious overlays to the standard battle grid, so itís like playing a bullet-hell game while simultaneously tracking charge meters, mana flow, troop positions, elemental weaknesses, and battlefield mode.
Each weapon type has two different areas of effect, depending on whether the battlefield is red (chaotic) or blue (lawful). Switching between law and chaos modes influences several variables, including item drops and the abundance of attack-charging gems. The only way to deal worthwhile damage to anything is to grab enough gems to make charged attacks Ė but this requires weapons that have charged attack capability for the required modeís area of effect. Itís a crazy juggling act all around.
I canít compare the controls to the DS version, not having played it. However, the analog stick does work for controlling the main character wisp. Control is tight, and the speed can be modulated up or down with two different buttons. I can't comment on the new storyline either, as that arrives after the one that I'm currently playing.
The customization options are pretty staggering. By the end of the first few battles, I had an arsenal of weapons to sort through. Some were better than others, but enough of them were suited to specific, narrow situations that keeping a large selection on hand seemed necessary. Scrolling through the weapon customization options quickly becomes tiring. Weapons require frequent upgrades, and culling the less useful items requires plenty of time surrounded by number-choked menus.
Unfortunately, there isnít as much incentive to master the system as I had hoped. At least on the Normal difficulty (the hardest of the initially available modes Ė although the DS version has two higher difficulties upon completion), I can retry failed battles as many times as I like. Unlocked treasures and enemy statistics stay at the ranks they were at when I died, so even the toughest battles can be won through attrition. It means having a few weapons break along the way, and it doesnít do any favors to the finite vitality of my soldiers, but it has worked so far.
The primary advantage to mastering the system is unlocking everything. Most maps have breakable scenery elements in them that hide unique key items. Presenting the proper key item to allies or NPCs in subsequent maps entices them to join the party or give up a nice weapon. Obtaining all of the key items Ė and therefore all of the recruitable characters Ė requires patience and ingenuity that seem staggering to this Suikoden fan. The closest that Iíve come to unlocking that riddle is the finite nature of resources in the game.
Everything thatís obtainable in Knights in the Nightmare can be used up. Characters lose vitality points as they fight, which can only be restored by leveling up or by bolstering the heroís soul with a more expendable knightís essence. Items lose durability points with each use until theyíre only fit for scrap. Durability can be increased through the item crafting system, but this requires frequent trips to the non-story maps for raw materials. The ultimate sign of breakdown is the clock. Every round of every battle has a timer. Charging up attacks and getting hit by enemy attacks decreases it, limiting the number of possible moves.
As a systems guy, this is exciting stuff. The storyline is focused on a once-great kingdomís decline, and the battle mechanics echo this inexorable spiral into dust. Between the story battles, flashbacks drive the story while presenting the dying moments of each of the recruitable characters. Itís nothing so elaborate as Valkyrie Profile, but gets the point across: each of the heroes was mighty in life, but time ran out. They have a second chance to fight for their beliefs, but even that will end.
Will this mortal dust serve as the foundation for a new beginning? I donít know, but Iím looking forward to finding out. Although the story draws on so many of the old tropes, its intentionally fragmented presentation and connection to the battle mechanics have me interested in seeing what happens next. Itís a murky journey at times, and not all of the bells and whistles interact in harmony with one another, but worth looking into.