Knights in the Nightmare
King Wilmgard is dead. The cause was conspiracy, and his castle was rotten with it. It’s kind of ironic, in a way; the most beneficent and beloved ruler in centuries, undone by the corrupt ambitions of his most trusted peers. But the tragedy didn’t just end with him. The country’s demise was almost as brutal and merciless as that of its king. The Knights of St. Celestina – along with anyone else loyal to their murdered leader – have been exterminated, right down to the last squire. They were slaughtered and replaced by the invading armies of the underworld. The kingdom is past the brink of destruction, and hope is just a memory.
But for Maria, it’s not over yet. The game treats you to a rather lengthy intro montage of her hacking, slashing, and frying wave after wave of evil castle guards and sentries. While this scene is supposed to blow your mind with the flashy lighting effects and artistic style (and it ought to, if you compare it to the other SRPGs on the DS), it also kicks things off in media res and immediately gets you into the story. Maria broke into the castle and freed the soul of King Wilmgard, which apparently has the will and power to restore the country to its former glory. The progression of Knights in the Nightmare focuses on the king’s soul making the journey back home, meeting the souls of his dead followers, and exacting vengeance on those who betrayed him. What makes the tale so interesting is that it‘s told in two storylines; while the king is slowly making his return and dealing with his adversaries, the situation leading up to his tragic end is told via flashbacks. You’ll get a glimpse of the Knights before they were all butchered; the chaos, confusion, sorrow, and those last, grim stands against an unstoppable foe.
It’s morbid, isn’t it? All of the good guys have already been killed off. Their souls, on the other hand, haven’t moved from where their bodies were. So when you start a battle, you’ll get to see their wispy outlines standing ready to dish out some punishment from beyond the grave. They can’t do things on their own, though; the king has to possess them and direct their actions. The gameplay basically boils down to using the stylus to choose a weapon for them to wield from a menu, clicking and dragging it onto the right unit, charging an attack, waiting for an enemy to get in range, and dealing out as much damage as possible. It’s not exactly turn-based, either. Rather than forcing you to adhere to the typical SRPG formula, the game puts a time limit on your actions. The more powerful the attack, the more time is counted down. Your turn doesn’t end until your time is up, which means you can potentially end battles in only a few exchanges. It’s an awesome spin on an old and stale concept; it keeps the gameplay moving at a fast, real-time pace and makes you more focused on the battle at hand.
You’ll have to be, too. Even if the king can’t be killed twice, he can be stalled into defeat. Since you’re only given 26 turns to get your business taken care of, you’ll have to keep an eye on how much time you have left. Executing fully-charged special attacks might take up some of your turn, but it’s the enemy attacks you’ll have to watch out for. Rather than trying to carve him up – a sword can’t do anything to a ghost, after all – your foes will spout tons of projectiles across the screen. Fireballs, thunderbolts, stars, glitter, bubbles, water cannons, laser beams, shattered glass, sonic booms, and countless other hazards will force you to keep the king’s soul moving. Getting hit by one of these takes out a considerable chunk out of your time, which means you’ll have to spend as much time dodging as you are creating strategies and mounting attacks. In a game with an already unorthodox approach to combat, the whole “bullet hell” half makes it into a refreshingly original and intense experience. Those who expect this to be another generic strategy game are going to be in for a big surprise if they don’t keep their styluses handy.
That’s assuming that they actually understand what they’re doing. If the complex combat mechanics are any indication, Knights in the Nightmare is not an easy game to get into. Oh, you’ll get a hang of things eventually. But if you don’t bother doing your homework and trying out the tutorial, you’re going to be lost. Period. There’s so much – almost too much – to remember. It’s not just the usual stuff like how classes can carry specific types of weapons, or how you have to pay attention to the range and elemental types of your attacks. It’s how you can switch the battlefield between lawful and chaotic (complete with alternating colors a la Ikaruga), and how that affects what kinds of special attacks your weapons can pull off. Not to mention how said attacks can deal out additional damage if the enemies’ positions and weaknesses are just right. Or how they’re fueled by the crystals you’ll collect from the slain monsters. That’s on top of how foes correspond to a grid at the bottom of the screen, which fills in a space upon their deaths. And how you have to destroy some the scenery to find items that can be used to recruit your otherworldly allies. The gameplay mechanics go on and on and on. Even with the easily accessible tutorial, there’s no way you can keep track of everything at once.
Just when you think you’ve got a handle on everything, a quick glance at the menus will render you slack-jawed all over again. The sheer amount of options involved in building your ghostly army is staggering. Recruited knights don’t just level up; if you use them too much, they’ll lose their vitality and vanish. Instead, all of the experience points get pooled and can be spent strengthening whichever units you want. If one of them becomes obsolete, you can combine them with another knight to make them stronger. That in itself is complicated; loyalty stats, race, and a bunch of other stuff you probably don’t care about all play a factor. The only thing you’ll probably have to worry about is getting your units leveled high enough to use their weapons efficiently; special attacks can only be pulled off if your characters are powerful enough to use them. The item menus are a piece of work, too; everything gets its own durability, attack strengths, elemental attributes, and customization. While the combat is relatively straightforward, prepping your army is what makes up the lion’s share of the game. Considering how fast the battles can go, you’ll probably spend more time tweaking your team into perfection than you will actually fighting.
Overwhelmed yet? Don’t feel bad. It’s as if the designers wanted to test how unnecessarily complicated they could make a game before you keel over from the sheer overload of information. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; depth is what keeps games from being generic. But there’s a point where it just becomes too much to handle. Even if all of the complex systems and mechanics are connected well, actually using them can be a hassle. The problem lies with the layout of the menus and how they work with the stylus controls. Clicking and dragging weapons to your character might seem simple, but the tiny item icons don’t make action very user-friendly. It’s even worse if there’s a unit near the item list; you might accidentally click on your knight and start up an attack, wasting you valuable seconds. Or how you have to draw a circle in a specific place to toggle between lawful and chaotic, which could have been easily remedied by mapping the command to another button. Even the menus themselves can be annoying; the game either displays information or selects something depending on how hard you press with the stylus, but it occasionally misreads the command and leaves you awkwardly trying to correct it. It’s a shame that there wasn’t more consideration put into this; no amount of depth can make up for a needlessly cluttered display.
But it’s the voice acting that really kills it. Having characters speak is a rare and welcome feature for a DS game, but the execution is all wrong. It’s great how the knights spout off lines like “For our country!” or “Fear my blade!”, but they come off as awkward and overemphasized. Even Maria, who is a complete badass in nearly every scene, sounds like a whiny little girl having a temper tantrum. What makes it worse is how they repeat the same lines every single time you attack; even the most spectacular spells aren’t immune to the screechy quotes. It’s an annoyance, especially when you’re trying to enjoy the superb soundtrack. At least they summon some awesome attack animations. You’ll see the ground split open and consume targets in holy light, fiery arrows drizzling the battlefield, and paladins charging forth with enough strength to leave sonic booms in their wake. One of the game’s strongest assets is its stylish presentation; the backgrounds are all drawn with a wide spectrum of colors and detail, offering you a glimpse into the murky, desolate ruins of the dead kingdom. Despite having such a huge cast of characters, each of the knights gets their own profile drawing and inkling of personality. While the majority of them don’t get much time onscreen aside from their deaths, they make an impressive ensemble. The presentation doesn’t make up for the game’s other flaws, but it’s still among the best on the system.
If there‘s one thing worth commending about Knights in the Nightmare, it’s the ambition that went into creating it. Atlus has taken the typical gameplay formula and twisted it into something far, far stranger. That’s not a bad thing; it keeps the game from becoming yet another generic entry in the DS’s ever-growing list of SRPGs. The story is a morbid and tragic tale of a fallen country and the those who lost their lives defending it. The timing and charging mechanics are a refreshing change from the usual turn-based system. The bullet hell aspect is such an unusual addition, but it’s pulled off well. The sheer variety of gameplay elements, customization, and other options make many of the other handheld strategy games a joke. The problem is that there’s too much of a good thing; a lot of interesting ideas that, if only slightly changed, would make the game so much better. The cluttered screens and occasionally unreliable stylus controls don’t break the game, but they do make it annoying. Same goes with the voice acting, despite the spectacular animations that come with them. Knights in the Nightmare is not an easy game to get into, and its complicated mechanics might be too overwhelming for those looking for simpler fun. Regardless, few games can reward your efforts as well as this one can. Pick it up if you want something different. Long live the king.