Sting, the developer of Knights in the Nightmare, is known for making games that are highly complex featuring unique gameplay and a stylized presentation. System upon sub-system upon special feature, it seems that every "design space inch" of KitN is stuffed with such complexity. The gameplay that results from this design is just as cluttered as the visual presentation (see part.2). When you understand how powerful dynamics and emergence are, it's easy to see how quickly gameplay can lose focus as complexities are added. When so many rules and systems talk to each other the player can be stuck with a choir of uncoordinated, unharmonized voices.
The combat of Knights in the Nightmare has a lot of good design elements that are drowned under a high learning curve and a cluttered presentation. But it's the systems that support the combat that contribute most to the gameplay clutter. Surrounding the core combat gameplay is a layer of character and item persistence (or suspension). With hundreds of items, knights, combinations, and stats to consider there's a lot of complexity here. I argue there is too much.
I outlined the issue of excessive complexity as clutter here. In the article I briefly explained why too many elements can be a type of clutter. The idea is the more elements in a system, the more stress is put on the feedback design to ensure that these elements are distinct to the player. This is an issue of presentation. Furthermore, with more elements in a system that are very similar to each other, more stress is put on the level designers to craft challenges that make small differences apparent through gameplay. The most effective way to do this is by designing around interplay and hard counters. However, this puts more stress back on the feedback and conveyance design of the game. When players are not taught to identify small or nuanced differences well enough, nuanced level design can easily become a problem. And finally, if the excessive elements aren't balanced (to support interesting choices), they can really take away from the gameplay experience by consuming player attention that will ultimately achieve a negligible or unnoticeable functional result. You can spend hours crafting weapons in some games for the smallest strength increase that's hardly discernable as the damage values (the feedback) pop up and disappear forever.
Part of the problem with the non-combat systems in Knights in the Nightmare is that they are incredibly complex for being so simple and shallow. Everything can be optimized or reduced to a few rules of thumbs. The reason this is possible is because the systems don't play into any kind of interplay system or support any interesting choices. Consider the following examples.
Allied knights are your persistent combat units. From battle to battle, the player can fulfill special conditions to recruit knights to their army. In between battles players can manage these resources. Each allied unit has their own name, race, class, element affinity, vitality, L.I., C.I., and level stats. Because you can distribute your exp freely to your units, you can level any unit as you like or as necessary. This is a simple and dominant tactic for the knight leveling sub-system. Getting the most out of the other knight systems is about as simple. Try to match up a unit's element type with a weapon of the same element for a damage bonus (like Pokemon S.T.A.B.). Because a unit is permanently lost if they lose all of their VIT stat, simply fuse with a lesser used unit to restore some VIT. Everything else about the knight sub-systems seem to affect the smallest parts of the combat gameplay in the smallest ways.
It's about the same for the items system where each item features a power, element, level, user (class), grade (strength), durability (HP), Effect (0-99), and thrust (%) stat. When you look at the item menu screen the shear number of stats and data fields on the screen is staggering. At first sight, I thought that the item sub-system would be complex and deep like figuring out a puzzle game. But it's really very simple. My rules of thumb are merge all like weapons together to increase their durability. Once you get an item with a high durability (15+) you can begin spending various resources to upgrade the item. Every time you attempt an upgrade is a gamble. At first you might have a 98% chance of success. But with every successful upgrade your chances drop. If an upgrade attempt ever fails, you lose 1 point of durability. So at around 60% stop upgrading because the benefits don't out weigh the potential costs. If you ever need more upgrade resources, you can always break down lesser used items.
There's really not much more to it than this. You can put a lot of work into these systems to get results that are difficult to discern. Yes your knights are at a higher level. Yes, your weapon is now a +10 grade. Though you'll do more damage, is it enough to really make a difference? If so, can you tell with such a cluttered visual presentation?
It may seem a bit reductive to reduce the unit and item sub-systems to a handful of optimised procedures. It's been said that part of the charm of Sting's games is jumping head first into the deep end of the complexity pool and seeing how far it goes, so to speak. But I'm going to push back on this idea. I've written about complexity a lot on this blog. While complexity for the sake of complexity cannot be compressed or summarized, when you frame an analysis in terms of functional goals (gameplay) it's obvious that complexities can be prioritized so that the important pieces of information essentially render the unimportant complexities obsolete.
I've often described the poor design of many RPG attacks like Fire 1, Fire 2, and Fire 3 because the only thing that makes them unique is how much damage they do and how much MP they cost. Since these differences are numerical, they're very easy to calculate and arrange on a value scale. Once you get Fire 2, there's little reason to use Fire 1 ever again. In my article series Emergent Mathematics, I explain why this happens. The reason is the gameplay design creates functional roles.
Functional roles create the pigeon holes that dictate how many functionally meaningful options of a type can be sustained by a gameplay system. Without interplay interesting choices cannot emerge. Without counters to make multiple options viable, everything can be reduced to a simple value scale because, at the end of the day, video games are won by points. And every win condition in a video game can be expressed in points.
So it's not reductive to state that all the unit and item systems in Knights in the Nightmare are little more than a simple and repetitive math exercise. It's up to the design of the game to sustain the interplay to make my reductive strategies more complex and varied. KitN's core gameplay has a lot of potential depth that is utterly held back by clutter. But even the suspended gameplay between missions lacks any depth. In this way Knights in the Nightmare suffers from the same problem the Fire Emblem games do with its suspended design. For all the customization players can put into their Fire Emblem characters via weapons, items, level, and other upgrades, because the first-time player doesn't know what challenges that lie ahead, the player cannot build an effective strategy. Remember strategies are specific plans of action. How can we know to train a character in a specific way to better handle a mission that occurs much later in the game? The short answer is we can't know. So our best strategy becomes an obvious one: keep as many characters as possible while making them as strong as possible. This isn't hard to understand or figure out.
The sad part is for a strategy game, most of these out of battle systems don't add any strategy. You'll either operate with knowledge of future challenges (because you've beaten the game or are using a guide), operate under a general min-max tactic, or play blindly. For all of the loot drops, item farming, and character leveling in Knights in the Nightmare, all of the complexities that make up these features add little to no depth, interplay, or dynamics to the actual gameplay that is quite a mess of visuals and actions.
So what's the charm of all of these complexities? Is there charm in cluttered gameplay? Is there charm in style over substance? Is there charm in sorting through a bloated design space? Perhaps. Like complex games, I do enjoy complex puzzles, deep puzzles, and puzzles that fall in between. And sorting through a wealth of unnecessary components and complexities is a unique, engaging challenge in itself. However, considering all the work I put into understanding this game (15 hours - 25 missions), I got very little gameplay enjoyment out of it. I have a few great memories, yet even those are cluttered.
The big take away from Knights in the Nightmare is that great ideas and great core design can only stand if the other elements of the design work to support it. Clutter is a powerful deterrent to fun because it seriously interferes with clear feedback, a necessary component of goal-setting theory, which is a small but important part of how video games sustain fun. Complexities allows games to be rich in detail but, as their nature, they can be ignored when players have to work toward a function or a goal. Complexities require depth to be meaningful to gamelay overall. Depth (counters) is the core of video games an interactive medium.
Clutter is a nightmare that can kill interactivity and therefore video games. It's a shame that so much great design, wonderful ideas, and cool artwork can be put into a game only to have it held back so severely. The World Ends With You suffered a similar fate. It's time developers wake up and see that game design is more complicated than including interesting features. How these features interact and how the player receive them is what's ultimately most important.