Decay is the dynamic that is used throughout many of the systems in Knights in the Nightmare. To win, you must defeat enough enemies across multiple turns. As you defeat enemies, less hazardous bullets are fired. This is a natural kind of decay. Players only have a certain amount of turns to complete each mission. Each turn ends when you run out of a special point value called "time" (see video explanation in part 1). Using items to powerup your allied characters is the only effective way to do damage to enemies. When you activate an allied knight some "time" is automatically consumed. When you, the Wisp, get hit by enemy bullets you lose time as well. There are many more examples. With such a design where a key resource frequently decays, pressure is put on the player to play more effectively.
As I've discussed here in my series on interesting choices, RPG decay dynamics may influence the player to play differently as the resource diminishes, but the real effect typically comes when the the resource reaches zero; or when a mechanic can no longer be used. In other words, though the decay of a resource may happen gradually, we may have to look more closely at when its effect is strong enough to counter gameplay actions. The following is a list of features in Knights in the Nightmare that walks through the chain of influences various decay features have on the core gameplay.
Decay Dynamic Elements and Their Influences
- To prevent players from using too many strong item based attacks back-to-back, each item attack consumes MP. (Remember, item attacks are the only effective way to do damage to enemies and obstacles). To gain more MP, players have to hit enemy targets and collect the MP restoring gems that rain down from impact. The weak normal attacks are great for causing these gems to drop.
- To prevent the player from simply switching to a few normal attacks to collect gems then continue using the powerful item attacks, there's the phase and fog features. In either of the two phases (law or chaos) the fog will slowly fade away from the field when you attack or do other actions. The less fog in the field, the less MP restoring gems drop from enemy attacks. So to keep your MP levels high and therefore your offensive potential, one must switch back and forth between the phases (read more on phases of combat here). When one phase drains, the other is restored.
- The phase of battle has dynamic effects on enemy and ally attacks. Some items only work in particular phases. Some items have effects that only activate in certain phases. And some enemies have specific attacks per phase. This means you may want to coordinate your offensive abilities and defensive strategies considering the timing and position of enemies in addition to the phase of battle.
See the different attack ranges and directions.
- Each allied knight has a unique item-attack they can do in each phase. More so, to encourage players to use a range of different classes of knights, each knight is designed with limited attack ranges. Unlike Advance Wars, where attack ranges of units are the same in all four cardinal directions, most of the units in KitN can only attack in two. For example, the Warrior (see image left) can only attack back and up while the priestess (see image right) can only attack front and right. What may feel even more strange is that most allied knight units cannot move. The L.Knight, Duelist, and Valkaryie are 3 units types that can move to different spaces in the field as they attack, but only in the chaos phase. This wrinkle in the design space based on movement works well.
- With the limited attack ranges, types, and abilities of your allied knights (the only way to attack enemies), you may come to a point where you cannot kill all the enemies in the field before the turn ends. Whether you can't hit them because of the functional blind spots of your units, or because you don't have the right weapons for the job (you can only take 4 items to battle each turn), you often have to cut your losses and wait for the next turn. This is all a part of the normal gameplay. Large battles can have around 4 enemies, 3 knights, and 12 turns to work with. With multiple turns to work with, longer strategies are possible. There are times when I spent entire turns just repositioning my units and attacking static destructible objects.
It's important to note here that the gameplay design of Knights in the Nightmare features enough complexities, dynamics, and wrinkles to create a many varied gameplay challenges. The real-time gameplay is always flowing and the dynamics keep things from getting too repetitive. And there are still more features that affect gameplay that I haven't talked about. Terrain elevation boosts the charge speed of units. There are elemental types for allies, enemies, and items with a somewhat wrinkly weakness and resistance relationship. There are status effects that include wound, burn, freeze, shock, bless, and curse which function very similarly to the status effects in Pokemon. Then there are high skill attacks that do massive damage yet take longer to charge and then disable the use of the item for the rest of the turn. The list goes on.
From what I described, Knights in the Nightmare sounds like quite a complex and unique game fusing the gameplay of a strategy RPG and a shmup, even if it took a host of fairly abstract dynamic systems. In some ways, the game does live up to the high quality of features I described. But overall, Knights in the Nightmare is a game held back by the biggest problems that commonly terrorize shmups and strategy RPGs: Clutter, long term strategic planning around suspended elements, and a lack of depth. We'll start with the clutter.
Can you tell what's getting hit? Who's doing the hitting? What can you see?
Knights in the Nightmare is cluttered visually and function. Remember, clutter is the opposite of clean design which deals with the feedback and presentation of information in a video game. There's so much going on in this game, it took me hours of practice just to be able to see the gameplay and navigate the menus properly. This process is known as information reduction. The screen, which is formatted for the original Nintendo DS screen dimensions, is packed with HUD and other elements. The art assets are rich in detail and color, but unfortunately this clutters the visual presentation. On top of the background sits enemies, units, objects, excessive hit sparks, RPG damage numbers, and the large shmup bullets. It's hard to see what's going one, and it's hard to pinpoint some elements as the gameplay moves on in real-time. You basically have to memorize the game see the possibilities in your head to play effectively. This is bad design.
You would think will so many HUD and cluttered visual elements, when you learn to see properly you'll have access to lots of important feedback. But you don't. Some of the most important information to know is difficult to find especially in real-time. I think enemy HP is the most important piece of information to know and that Knights in the Nightmare could use clean lifebars. Just by looking at a life bar players can easily gague enemy defensive strength or their attack strength. Looking at a bar also makes it easier to count turns-until-KO. With gameplay this complex, the necessity of clean design increases. Consider how Advance Wars: Days of Ruin deals with information feedback. There are a lot of complexities to this turn-based strategy game. However, because lots of the information (like damage) is given contextually, the data is organized into menus, and the gameplay is turn-based Advance Wars maintains perfect cleanness.
The same goes with Pokemon. Pokemon Black is actually far more complex and deep than Nights in the Nightmare. With so many attacks, Pokemon, items, moves, and other dynamics there's a lot to learn to become a master. However, even beginning players can play and understand what's going on because of the feedback design and turn-based battle system. At most you have about 5 options to consider: 1 of 4 moves and switch Pokemon. The commentary at the bottom of the screen ("Super effective!") goes a long way to inform the player. And the colored lifebar allows players to accurately gauge damage.
Because Knights in the Nightmare plays in real-time all of the feedback design is greatly stressed compared to turn-based games. This is also why I think the gameplay would be much cleaner and better if it were slower. Though the gameplay is a hybrid of two gameplay systems, the bottom line is players can only focus on one at a time. The shmup gameplay and the strategy gameplay each are engaging enough to demand player's full attention. So when the player must work with both systems simultaneously, the only way this can be done is ultimately switching back and forth. This is why it makes sense to slow down the gameplay of both parts, or to find other ways to clean up the gameplay actions.
Gameplay is much more engaging when players understand what's happening as it's happening rather than being overwhelmed. So much of fun and skill design revolves around player control and clear feedback. If you overlook how your design affects these parts of the player experience, your dream game can instantly become a nightmare for players. I've already proved this here where I explained how gamespeed affects the types, amounts, and proportions of skill players can potentially exert. Knights in the Nightmare developers put so much work into their gameplay systems, yet they work against each other when played. And it gets worse.
In the 3rd and final part, we'll wake up from this nightmare after we examine how all the good in the design can be so easily deconstructed.