As a game designer I dream up a lot of projects. In my minds eye I allow ideas to grow and combine regardless of their perceived feasibility. In my wildest design dreams, I have never thought to fuse a grid based strategy RPG with a shoot-em-up. Such is the Sting/Atlus game Knights in the Nightmare (KitN). The last hybrid game I've played is Henry Hatsworth or Tuper Tario Tros. KitN is far more intense, abstract, and complex than these games. In fact, KitN is one of the most complex games I've ever played. There's something great about this game hidden inside the nightmare of its design complexity. And somewhere inside this 3 part repair you should be able to glean my review.
The first order of business when playing Knights in the Nightmare for the first time is to drown in tutorials. Actually, you can either drown in tutorials or be utterly lost by jumping right into the game. What's unique about KitN is that the tutorials are numerous, organized, and entirely presented up front on the main menu. I clocked in 1.5-2 hours of slowly working my way through the tutorials before I felt comfortable enough to start the game.
There are so many tutorials because the game is quite complex with its rules and systems. Hybrid games tend to be more complex than non hybrid games because they're the product of two designs. To give you a better idea of just how much is front loaded in KitN, I've listed all the tutorial items below.
- basic attacks, dodging attacks, defeating enemies, acquiring gems, changing phases, attack range, phase skills, ready state, breaking objects, recruiting knights,
- The tactics screen, checking your enemies, checking you allies, setting items, item selection, setting allies, ally selection, the effect list, beginning teh battle, game progression, controlling the wisp, activation, attacking skill attacks, restoring MP, phase changing, items and phases, item compatibility, Activation Limits, item durability, enemy attacks, enemy recovery, enemy skill attacks, ally vitality, enemy statistics, pause talk, objects, destroying objects, obtaining items, orbs and mediums, recruiting allies, key items, job classes, attack directions moving units, grams, punish attacks, enemy elements, high skill attacks, activating effects, damage rate, experience points, the heroine, mimics, elevation, enemy charges encounter reels, game over, boss stages, the setup screen, exp distribution, upgrading items, upgrading limits, effect conditions, item breakdown, fusing items, transoul, exile
Unrestrained complexity is one of Knights in the Nightmare's most distinguishing qualities. Remember how I often say that complexities cannot be compressed? What this means is is impossible to summarize an experience. To fully explain how complex KitN is I have to cover a lot of material. That includes every feature and layer of the its gameplay. From the character systems, the pre-battle planning, to the combat I'll cover it all one step at a time. Even if you're not well versed in the genre of strategy RPGs, I'll be sure to use my critical language to draw connections between KitN features and similar features in other games.
First watch this tutorial to get a basic idea of how Knights in the Nightmare plays.
The basic gameplay of Knights in the Nightmare starts with controlling the wisp, that little white ball. Think of the wisp as your ship in any traditional top down shmup game. Using the touch screen players control the wisp on the top screen with a very high degree of control and sensitivity. Using all of the technique and control one has developed from years of handwriting, players can control the wisp with precision. However, Wisp movement wisp isn't 1 to 1 with the touch screen control. Rather it smoothly moves into position at a brisk speed, but not too fast to make the movement erratic and cluttered.
Surviving as the wisp is simple. All you have to do is dodge any and all brightly colored "bullets" that the enemies shoot. I must say that Knights in the Nightmare has the most unique shmup bullets I've seen since games like PixelJunk Shooter 2, Sin & Punishment 2, and Ikaruga. As you can see in the video, bullets come in all shapes, sizes, and with unique movement behaviors. Bubbles float slowly across the screen. Claws spin around and boomerang back. Magic circles can appear around the Wisp spinning madly trying to restrict your movement. And huge scissor like blades can meet together at the center of the screen leaving only small holes for safety.
The shmup gameplay of KitN is pretty basic so far. More wrinkles are needed to make the gameplay more interesting. Ikaruga features an light/dark ABSORB, light/dark attacks, and a chaining system. Bangai-O Spirits DS features a range of level types (puzzle - action), missile/bullet interplay, and well rounded core mechanics. To make the shmup gameplay of Knights in the Nightmare more interesting, the game does a few unique things. Like Crazy Taxi, the game rewards the player for playing on the edge of danger. When you barely avoid an bullet attack, you get a small EXP bonus. This features makes even the most basic enemy bullets potentially more engaging. Enemy bullets are not scripted in KitN. There are many factors that effect when and where enemies will fire their bullets. So naturally, the gamepaly is left open to allow enemies to layer their bullet attacks in different ways. Sometimes you get relatively easy ways to evade. Sometimes you can get trapped. The best defense is a good offense. One of the most effective ways to avoid enemy bullets to to prevent them from launching attacks in the first place. Now we must look at how the grid based strategy RPG gameplay comes into play.
The Strategy RPG
The wisp movement controls are very effective. They're so good, players can avoid a most individual enemy attacks with ease. While multiple attacks are harder to deal with, enemy bullets don't do enough on their own to significantly influence and challenge the player (at least not me). In general, interplay and gameplay depth begins once the gameplay conditions reach a point where players are committed to their actions so that consequences stick. The main way that players are influenced to commit to specific areas on the screen is through the activation and charging of their allied units or knights. Activating an ally or grabbing an item from the top right of the screen commits players to moving in and out of these points on the screen. Basically, the battlefield has a lot of space to avoid attacks, but this space is then limited because of the specific positions players have to move into to fight back. Setting positional targets in the field is a great design feature that quickly focuses gameplay because players play around absolute positions instead of always moving away relative to the incoming threats. You can see the same effect between Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved's normal gameplay mode and Geometry Wars 2's King of the Hill or Pacifism mode.
There are several features that limit player movement and encourage the player to move around the field in different ways. Sometimes when you do a lot of damage to an enemy target, you get a opportunity to do some bonus damage by moving the Wisp over a small icon that appears. Sometimes enemies cast spells that can be jammed or stopped if the player spins a pop up icon fast enough. Most common of all are the gems and items that rain down on the screen after targets are hit. These items quickly drop off the bottom of the screen so you have to be quick and think fast if you want to grab them all in the heat of battle.
Everything that I described so far is pretty simple and pretty rich in gameplay potential. The real-time shmup gameplay doesn't need to be too complex to be engaging. Real-time gameplay in 2D top down space naturally stresses timing, reflex, and dexterity of various combinations. In other words, just dodging bullets and hitting your marks will take a lot of your attention. Add to this ally/enemy types and attacks to learn, and there's a lot of interesting gameplay to experience. Good game design, as I see it, is largely about designing features and levels that bring out the best in the core gameplay system. After the core gameplay is established, developers balance adding features and designing levels while managing the effect the additions have on the gameplay as a whole. All games don't need to be deep, complex, or a combination. However, whatever a game offers should be meaningful to its design. Knights in the Nightmare is an extremely complex game filled with systems, rules, and features that affect how game is played. And as we'll see soon, much of the offered complexity works against the interactive design of the core gameplay.
In part 2, we'll look at several complexities of KitN and consider what it adds and takes away from the gameplay.