One of the biggest gripes people seem to have with the RPG genre is that they’re not too exciting to actually play. Sure, there’s a strategic element of choosing what to do when, and there’s absolutely a satisfaction that comes from knowing you made the right decisions throughout the battle, but while more recent games have done a good job of making your actions look more cinematic, there isn’t really a lot of "playing" going on. For those people, there are games like Knights in the Nightmare.
You could call it a Strategy RPG, but it does so many interesting things with the genre that it’s almost, almost, a misnomer. For starters, its main hook is that it combines tactical combat with the rapid-fire action of shmups, of all things. The characters on the board can’t take damage from enemies; instead, enemies shoot out fireballs and the like on-screen, and you must dodge them using the wisp (which essentially acts as your cursor), to avoid taking damage. At first this seemed a bit gimmicky, a way to keep you busy between actions, but the second boss proved me wrong by making sure that if I ignored its huge laser and its star-exploding attacks, that I would lose large chunks of damage, and then lose.
And damage, too, is done differently here. For any given scene (mission), you have a set turn limit, and each turn has about 60 seconds of game time, which you use up by commanding your characters (there isn’t a clock ticking down constantly), but you also lose time if you’re struck by bullets, which makes it imperative that you be careful with how you manage your time. Additionally, characters have a vitality gauge that decreases every time they’re used, and when that runs out, they’re gone for good.
But if you do lose a character during battle, it’s usually not that big a deal, since you can recruit about 2 or 3 per scene (of which there are over 40), and really, a lot of the game seems to focus on a theme of impermanence. Getting so many characters means that they’re easily disposable, and you can do so in a number of ways. You can exile them to get items, or you can transoul them to other characters to make them stronger. Items also have a set number of uses, and you also get a lot of those, and you can fuse duplicates to increase their uses, and can also break them down, and then use them to make other items stronger.
And what items and characters you take in battle will affect how you’ll play the game. there are seven classes, and each of them has two different attack ranges, and only two of them can move, so who you place where is important. You can only take four items into battle per turn, and having items that will do that most damage to a given enemy can really help you pull through. Like most RPG’s, both weapons and enemies have elemental attributes, and you’ll do twice as much damage if you match a monster to its weakness. On top of that, there are two "phases", law and chaos, which affect which items you can use, what attack range your characters will use, and how many crystals enemies will drop when hit (which, in turn, lets you use items to attack in the first place).
As you can a imagine, playing this game is pretty hectic. Any given battle is a process of equipping your characters to attack, charging up your attack, waiting until an enemy moves into your attack range to strike, and dodging enemy attacks. On top of that, if you hit enemies you can sometimes commit a follow-up attack, which involves swiping the cursor over them, and you can also stop enemies from attacking by "jamming their gears", which involves spinning the cursor over an enemy a set number of times. It’s a lot to do in battle, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easier done than said.
But as intense as battles can get, Sting (the developer) has really put some thought into making this game portable-friendly. The battles usually won’t give you more than ten turns, so you can usually beat an entire mission during your lunch break. Your setup between scenes usually won’t take too long, either.
The story is also told in short bursts (hence the name "scenes"), and it does a nice job of giving short segments of the story in between rounds. Basically, you are your cursor (the wisp), and you’re heading towards a castle, recruiting and reviving dead knights along the way. After a battle, you’re usually shown what happened leading up to the death of those characters, and then a scene that advances the larger story arc. It’s a pretty standard fantasy setting, but it becomes somewhat more interesting when you’re not always being told the same story over and over, and being kept in the dark about what’s happening, turns out, makes you want to keep playing the game.
That said, there are a few key issues that I’ve had with the game. The biggest problem is that, because of the exclusive use of the touch screen, the interface suffers from some pretty large cluttering issues. In times when I needed to quickly and continuously attack, I’d find my self hovering over a character and having them attack without weapons instead of selecting a weapon, and all because said character and said weapon were too close to each other for me to be able to choose between them effectively.
Additionally, where most games would suffer from some RPG trifles, Sting does a good job of not making the game too hard. You can go back and play any scene you want with stock characters, so you can grind for experience and items. Also, if you lose a mission by running out of turns, you can just keep going by hitting the retry button, which means if you really need to, you can go into as much overtime as you want. These things might break the difficulty for more dedicated players, but it’s always nice to have an easy button at the ready. So in difficulty, too, Knights does some things to make the game more active.
Just like The World Ends With You last year, Knights throws several new concepts at once into a genre, and at first it can seem a bit intimidating to manage everything you’re doing in combat at once. Once you know what you’re doing, though, it’s extremely rewarding to actually play. There’s really a fantastic mental workout to be had here. I’ve actually been going back to scenes not because of any need to grind, but because I have fun just playing the game, which is something that’s rare in the RPG and SRPG genre.
If you’re having a hard time trying to wrap your head around this game, though, here’s a tutorial that shows off some combat:
Lastly, the game, like most of Atlus’ offerings, comes with a soundtrack, if you’re into that sort of thing. Order now?
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