Author’s Note: This review is for the Nintendo DS version.
Sting’s Department of Heaven series is no stranger to the non-traditional. As a result, it’s no surprise that my fellow gamers have a love it or leave it mentality for each entry. It’s rare to find someone who thinks of something like Yggdra Union or Riviera: The Promised Land as simply fine, fair, average, etc. One thing those aforementioned games do is stay within the confines of their genre. In other words, you know you’re playing some sort of RPG even if some of the mechanics are bizarre. With Knights in the Nightmare, you have no idea what the heck you’re playing. The best way it’s been described is as a strategy RPG that is combined with a bullet hell/shmup. This combination is intriguing, but it’s not successful.
Knights in the Nightmare’s story is one of many areas where the developers tried too hard to be different. Most of the story is told with flashbacks and twist on limited omniscience. At the core, Knights in the Nightmare is about a woman named Maria who is guiding the soul of a dead king named Wilmgard. King Wilmgard, also known as the Lion Heart King, ruled with twelve knights on the island of St. Celestina. The players aren’t told what happened to the king at the start, but we’re lead to believe that his trusted advisors and some dark forces conspired to get rid of him. It’s a great story that is told in a backwards, bizarre manner. It’s also heavily padded. For every line that is uttered that actually advances the plot, there are three more lines of fluff that could have been edited out. Knights in the Nightmare’s story could have been told in half the time.
While the story isn’t clearly told, it’s nothing compared to the gameplay. Well, no. That’s not entirely accurate. Knights in the Nightmare is confusing if you don’t take the time to go through the tutorials; reading the instruction manual won’t do much good. When you turn the DS on, you’re given some options: Teachings, Start the Game, Continue, and Leveling. If you do check out Knights in the Nightmare, then always, always, ALWAYS check out Teachings first. This will take you to new options: First Steps, Tutorial, Tips, and Title Screen. The First Steps option is excellent because it teaches you how to play the game better than the instruction manual could try to. But, after you finish the First Steps, you might be inclined to check out Tutorial and Tips. After I went through all Tutorials and all Tips, I was overwhelmed with information. Your mileage might vary, but it’s best to avoid those sections and begin the game in earnest after mastering the First Steps.
That being said, the First Steps don’t give a good impression of how chaotic and cluttered actually playing Knights in the Nightmare can get. The player controls an entity known only as The Wisp. Using nothing but the stylus and touch screen, you will move The Wisp around the battlefield to briefly awaken the souls of fallen knights. There’s a lot to keep track of as you do this. The first is your units and their designated classes. Like most strategy RPGs, you’ll have archers, warriors, magicians, and swordsmen. The major difference? Not all of them can attack in four directions. Indeed, units are limited in their ability to rotate 45 degrees despite Knights in the Nightmare having the look of a typical, isometrically viewed strategy game. The next thing you’ll need to keep track of are the four weapons you bring to a round of combat. Weapons have durability, and each class can equip only one weapon type. The bad news is that units can only equip a weapon if their level matches or is higher than the weapon’s level. So, a level 8 warrior can’t equip that level 20 axe. To have your units attack, you will move The Wisp to a weapon, drag said weapon to the appropriate unit, wait for an enemy to get into range, charge up the attack and then release the stylus. Meanwhile, enemies will be firing projectiles of all shapes and sizes. You need to dodge these – this is where the bullet hell aspect of the game comes into play.
Confused? Of course you are. Trying to describe Knights in the Nightmare’s gameplay succinctly isn’t easy. But, the good news is that you’ll immediately understand the game’s flow after completing the First Steps. When you begin the game in earnest and enter your first fight, you’ll see that things might be more straightforward than expected. After the first turn, you’ll soon realize just how hectic the game will get. I won’t get into the details (Law/Chaos phases, Key Items, MP, Gears, etc.) but one thing that is worth mentioning is the Encounter Reel. After a turn, you’ll be taken to an Encounter Reel. Players will stop the reel to determine which enemies next appear on the battlefield. To achieve a victory, you need to essentially play tic-tac-toe with yet another feature: the Enemy Matrix. Successfully kill the right enemies so the matrix has a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line and then you’ll eke out a victory. Of course, you’re only given a limited number of turns to do so.
You have to keep all of this and more in mind, all while dodging bullets with a fiddly stylus/touch screen. When the battle ends, you’ll be granted experience that can be distributed among your troops. You do this on the Setup screen. This is also where you can strengthen weapons, perform a Transoul, combine your — actually, never mind. I’ll stop while I’m ahead. The more I think about all the gobs of crap you have to keep up with in Knights in the Nightmare, the more of a headache it becomes. If all of it came together in a way that successfully merged strategy RPGs, bullet hells, and a reliable touch screen then taking the time to navigate the crowded menus and put up with the story’s pacing would be worth it. But, it’s not worth it because playing Knights in the Nightmare is so unpleasant.
One area where the game isn’t completely offensive is the presentation. The battlefields are hard to appreciate because of the copious amount of bullets you need to dodge. During the story events, character sprites look great. Fans of previous Sting projects will recognize their style with detailed sprites, colorful effects, and beautiful anime portraits. The music is fine, but it tends to get overshadowed by the overly eager voice acting. Hearing a high pitched actor shout “BREAK OUT!” or “HERE I GO!” gets real old, real quick. Turning the volume all the way down could help but then you couldn’t enjoy some of the better tracks.
Knights in the Nightmare feels like one unique and messy idea piled on top of each other. Sting is a company that takes risk. As evidenced with this title, not all risks pay off. The sad thing is that I didn’t even scratch the surface regarding why the game is such a hassle to play. There’s so many features crammed into Knights in the Nightmare that trying to explain why each one doesn’t do the game any favors would turn this review into a multipage essay. This also means, sadly, that you’ll have to play the game for yourself to see where you fall. If you like strategy games, then you’ll have to deal with the game’s bullet hell action. If you like bullet hells, then you’ll have to go through messy story telling and menus before you can start dodging projectiles. Even if you enjoy the game’s premise, there’s still the matter of the hit-or-miss touchscreen controls. Similar to other projects from Sting, Knights in the Nightmare is a game that will have its diehard fans. I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum; I have nothing nice to say about this game.
Overall, 3/10: Knights in the Nightmare combines two genres that should never be combined. I give Sting props for trying to make something unlike anything we’ve ever seen. But, there’s a reason why we’ve never seen anything like it after it’s 2009 release.