Zero Lives Left – Black Knight Sword

Game: Black Knight Sword
Released: 2012
Available On: Xbox Live Arcade (Review), Playstation Network
Genre: Platformer

Have you ever seen gameplay footage from a game directed or designed by Suda 51? Some games that come from his wonderfully demented mind are Killer7, No More Heroes, Shadows of the Damned, and Lollipop Chainsaw. All of these games are bizarre in their own way, usually over the top with their violence and perversion.  If you find yourself playing a game and constantly mumbling ‘what the fuck’ to yourself, odds are you’re playing one of Suda 51’s games.

Black Knight Sword is the latest game he’s had his hands in and it released in early December for the Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network. Even though this is a game many people will be overlooking, I wanted to give it a try because I like difficult platformers and I am interested in delving further into the messed up mindset of Suda 51. Also I seem to finally have a review for a game that isn’t months and months old.

Story:
There isn’t much to the story here and a lot of it is vague in its presentation. The game opens with you hanging from your neck in a grungy apartment room. You sway back and forth until you break the rope and fall to the ground. In front of you lies the armour of the black knight and his sword. When you pull the sword free the Hellebore, a floating black head, merges you with the armour. Beyond that point the game begins and you must hack and slash your way through a multitude of disgusting little oddities. By the end of it you have to fight an evil white princess or queen and then… well, the ending leaves a little bit to be desired. Although, this isn’t the true ending, there is an additional ending when you beat the game in New Game+, which is a feature I always enjoy in a game.

Between each level there is a twisted version of a fairytale told to you by the narrator accompanied by crudely drawn drawings. The neat thing about these fairy tales is that they have a direct impact on the next level– well, as direct as Suda 51 is. An example is a fairytale about a spider saving a princess from a tower only to be promptly flattened by the princess’ father. Lo and behold, the next level has you battling a giant spider as you climb up a tall tower trying to kill it.

This was neat, although it had no direct influence to the story it fit very well with the general theme of the game. This is a twisted fairytale told through puppet theatre, so you might as well just embrace it and go with it all the way, right?

Atmosphere/Art Direction:
This was the big hook of the game to me, as you probably have noticed me say in the past– the look is important! I’d play through many uninspired games if it looked damn good in the process. There’s just something that can make a good game great if it has an engaging atmosphere.

The art direction of this game is almost maddeningly wonderful. It is absurd and weird, but that just seems to fit. The game takes place as if it was a theatre show in ‘paper puppet theatre’. You move around but the background and environment changes around you as if you were stationary on the stage with the audience watching. This comes together in a really cool way in the final boss fight where you being on stage is actually used as a device against you. The music is absolutely top notch and there is some creativity in the design. Even if it is absurd at times, that kind of surrealism just works if the whole game is designed as such. The world of the game is weird throughout so when you see a choir of chickens sing your praises it just makes sense and is oddly fulfilling in its grandiose. It works in Black Knight Sword because the game is weird, it wouldn’t work in something straight like Call of Duty.

That’s the key of surrealism.

Another thing to note is how smart things actually are in their design. I mentioned the spider boss above, what’s really peculiar is that he’s wearing a gas mask the entire fight, something that I thought was just pure kookiness. When I looked into it, the whole level before the spider had all to do with radiation, bombs and warfare– the spider wasn’t wearing the gas mask just to be silly, it was wearing it to fit with the theme of the level, paranoia. This worked even better when you looked at the whole fairytale told about the spider before the level began.

Gameplay:
This is the area that Black Knight Sword is the weakest in, which is very unfortunate. This game had the chance to really be a hard hitting hidden gem, but instead it’s just a quirky game with uninspired combat.

The controls are relatively simple: X is attack, Y is magic, A is jump, press it twice to jump higher, and RT throws your Hellebore to do some damage or interact with things. There are quite a few buttons that just serve absolutely no purpose; in some games (LIMBO) this works well, in Black Knight Sword… not so much. The biggest issue is the dodge mechanic (which I promise you will be using); it’s triggered by you pressing down and A, causing the Black Knight to backflip backwards avoiding damage. Although, this is what would happen if it wasn’t so picky about when it decided to work. Often I’d find myself getting hit by an enemy when I was attempting to dodge. This could’ve easily have been saved by making the dodge work with the B button and the direction you wanted to dodge. If I remember correctly, this is how Symphony of the Night did it, and that worked wonderfully.

You get a few abilities to help you kick ass throughout the game. One is a back flip kick, another is a charge slash and another is a super lunge sword attack that is extremely useful in game. They’re pretty standard stuff but none of them are useless. The problem is that it all feels so empty. You’ll pretty much be mashing the X button when you bump into an enemy until they’re dead and then you move on to the next enemy. The platforming controls on the other hand are pure bliss, it controls tightly and wonderfully allowing the harder platforming sections in the end to be almost relaxing. If you fail while jumping from platform to platform that is your fault, not the game’s.

Bonus: 
Two things I want to talk about here. One is brief but I shouldn’t have to say more than this: good boss fights!

The other is the difficulty of this game. It can get really damn tough, I don’t even want to imagine what Hard mode is like. I’d imagine that the old school difficulty is one of the selling points of the game. Expect to spend most, if not all, of your playtime near death. The enemy placement varies on difficulty and they all have an astronomically high amount of health on higher difficulties. This game is unforgiving, so much so that there is an achievement for getting a game over 50 times.

It’s funny that there is an achievement for failure, but I suppose that can work in a game like this.

Story: 0/2
Atmosphere: 
2/2
Gameplay: 2/4
Bonus: 1/2

TLDR: An extremely difficult, often surreal, platform adventure with bland combat and awesome platforming. Creative as all hell, but that isn’t enough to warrant a recommendation.

Black Knight Sword: 5/10

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