Review: Black Knight Sword

Black Knight Sword comes to us as the second collaborative effort from Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality, the same duo behind the recent release of Sine Mora. While Mora was a far more conventional approach to a niche type of game, Black Knight Sword attempts a unique take on a genre that has recently been re-explored and re-imagined to death. The mere mention of these two titles in the same breath is irrelevant in that they are are as different as they come, however, at the end of the day, a commonality exists: they’re both Suda 51 games. What this means, then, is you can count on three core elements being present throughout the experience: originality, peculiarity and imperfection.

Black Knight Sword is the story of a reanimated corpse who has been given new life in the form of a knight garbed in black, appropriately dubbed — you guessed it — the Black Knight. As such, it is up to him to carry out the quest of defeating the White Princess and reigning victorious over the impediments thrown his way. Much like the monochromatic cast of characters, the narrative in BKS is enticingly bizarre; but amidst the madness, there is charm practically bursting at the proverbial seams. In truth, this is Black Knight’s most striking feature: it exudes appeal at every corner and is all the more enthralling because of it. The tale is short-winded, but present enough to captivate gamers’ attention thanks to some wild ideas and a narrator who unravels the mysteries in an intriguing fashion. The contrived seriousness of the storyteller, which comes off as rather zany at times, and the intermittent tongue-in-cheek humor clearly illustrates that Black Knight Sword knows how to be serious but also have a little bit of fun along its strange journey.

And a journey it is; a journey of sidescrolling, 2.5D goodness that will feel familiar to anyone who’s played a title of this kind in the past two decades. The gameplay itself is given to you in the most simplistic of ways, making for an accessible adventure. With one button press you can swing your sword, jump, double-jump and toss out Black Hellebore, which is your sword’s demonic spirit that allows you to unleash long-ranged attacks and solve puzzles from afar. You’ll use all of these attacks over and over to trounce bad guys, however, just know now that you may find the level of challenge to be off-putting.

Keeping with the classic mentality and resurgent trend, Black Knight Sword can be a very difficult game. Even on normal settings, it will test your patience and wits at any given chance and won’t let up over the course of your adventure. For those who love masochism, then this is the game for you. It’s not Dark Souls hard – you won’t cry after being emotionally and morally beaten – but you will mourn the death of your character frequently. To make matters a teensy bit easier, you can earn upgrades and equipment to help you not reach your demise so quickly, but even still, these enhancements didn’t help significantly. Needless to say, so long as you’re content with having your ass handed to you at the drop of a hat, Black Knight’s insurmountable obstacles will do plenty to keep you entertained.

This all sounds like pretty standard stuff for a sidescroller by today’s criteria, so I’m sure you’re thinking: where’s that distinct, Suda 51 pizzazz? Well, in this outing, it comes in a few forms. The first is how your character navigates the screen. To put it bluntly, Black Knight Sword takes a backwards approach to this by never allowing your character to actually move on the monitor. Instead, what happens is the backgrounds themselves move, painting a picture of an old-timey movie where the star rides a bike or drives a car against a moving set that’s placed behind them. This is an interesting idea in theory, but in execution it’s hardly noticeable. I was initially expecting this to make some kind of poignant impact on my experience, but it didn’t simply because it wasn’t all that pronounced. It is nevertheless just one of those additions you can only find in a Grasshopper game.

What is also exclusive to Black Knight Sword is its imaginative, Kamishibai art style. An understanding of it can best be gained by thinking back to Suda’s previous work on Shadows of the Damned which, at certain points, saw you controlling characters that looked like paper cut-outs. Here, those paper characters are thrown up against colorful backdrops and flanked by theatre curtains, as if watching a play on-stage. There’s a cartoonish, yet gothic, dramatic flair to it all that creates a particular sense of dark humor. Seeing all the parts in-motion is a delight for the eyes due to the use of vibrant colors, fluid animation and heinous monster design. Better yet is the constant changing of the backgrounds, which will roll in and out like that of a stage play. Again, these small features aren’t game-changers, but do make Black Knight stand out from the crowd.

The levels themselves are a thing of beauty as well; simply put, you won’t see many stages like Black Knight’s in other games thanks to some excellent design choices by the development team. Unfortunately, the inventive decisions did not extend into the realm of non-linearity, as this game feels extremely constricting. To be fair, though, this is more of an inherent drawback of the genre, rather than the game itself. Even still, I expected Suda to address this with his usual level of ingenuity, but because this wasn’t the case, I felt disappointed, and perhaps even more than I would have been if Grasshopper didn’t possess the reputation for doing customary in a very non-customary way.

Picking up the slack is Akira Yamaoka, who mans the audio helm for Black Knight Sword‘s soundtrack. Yamaoka is best known for his work with the Silent Hill series, and manages to knock it out of the part yet again by crafting compositions deft at capturing the game’s ambience through genuinely haunting requiems. The music is diverse, but more impressive is Yamaoka’s intuitive understanding of when to pull back and when to blast symphonies into the player’s ears. This mixture of hymns and ballads ultimately casts a harmony of delicate proportions, offering a sound for any and every occasion.

Despite all the good happening within Black Knight Sword’s borders, there are setbacks – many that are seemingly innate to most Suda 51 games. For starters, the game is repetitive. Despite offering a story, arcade and challenge mode, along with online leaderboards, there’s no denying that, regardless of the mode, all you will essentially do is jump and hack away at enemies over and over… and over again. Worse is the fact that your opposition doesn’t require too much thought or clever footwork, so the game boils down to thumb dexterity, as you see just how many times you can mash the button in battle without tiring or causing early onset carpal tunnel. In all the sword-flailing, you’ll do some jumping here and there, but unfortunately, the jumping doesn’t feel all that precise. As you can imagine, this makes platforming portions feel extremely tense, but not for the right reasons. Whenever I came to one of these sections, I would find myself jumping and just hoping for the best. When one of your game’s primary roles is that of a platformer, the platforming needs to feel tight. Of course, it doesn’t help that the controls in general feel a little too stiff for comfort.

Speaking of stiff, the animations, while mostly fluid, do have moments of looking awkward. This can be glanced over often enough, or even thought nothing of due to how bizarre the game is meant to appear, but there are times when it’s recognizably strange looking. To this end, I can’t go any further without briefly addressing the sloppy presentation. Sine Mora’s presentation was crisp and sharp; on the other hand, Black Knight Sword’s menus and interface are slovenly designed.  There are also other minor issues with loading times and infrequent instances of slowdown, but they’re not deal-breakers by any means.

Closing Comments: 

All things considered, Black Knight Sword is truly a one-of-a-kind experience thanks to its imaginative art direction, soundtrack, narrative and overall concept. For $9.99, those qualities might be enough to warrant a purchase. Sadly, the game often feels like a case of style over substance, which is something Suda 51 has struggled with all along. The lack of actual gameplay innovation means all the other interesting, superficial aspects are negligible. The merciless difficulty might pull in some gamers who dig that tough-as-nails design approach, but those who like to just enjoy their experience without being punished at every turn may want to get their fill elsewhere. “Obscure” is one of the most fitting words to sum up Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality’s tag team effort. “Unique” is another one to use. Unfortunately, “flawed” also comes to mind. As it stands, Black Knight Sword is just an average sidescroller with an attractive window dressing.

Version Reviewed: PS3 (PSN)