STAFF REVIEW of Black Knight Sword (Xbox 360 Arcade)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012.
by Khari Taylor

Black Knight Sword Box art Imagine if it were physically possible, that Ghouls n' Ghosts, the cartoon cut-outs from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, and Grasshopper Manufacture boss Goichi Suda (Suda 51) made a baby. What you get is a dark and quirky platformer called Black Knight Sword. In an ironic twist, players take on the role of the titular Black Knight who must put an end to the tyrannical reign of the Evil Princess. Aided by his trusted sword and the aptly named "Sword Spirit" that inhabits it, the Black Knight must trudge across the Princess' realm of twisted faery tales to ultimately reach and destroy her, one bloody double-jump slash at a time. Er, yes, this game is an action-platformer. Um, and yes, Suda 51. You heard that correctly.

In presentation, BKS takes the famous Shakespeare phrase "All the world's a stage" quite literally, representing the Black Knight, the domains of the Evil Princess and all her minions as moving backgrounds on a miniature stage. Just like Japanese kamishibai theatre (or if you will, the aforementioned Monty Python skits), all the characters and backgrounds animate like intricate paper puppets, while stage curtains frame the action at all times. Mixing modern, Victorian, and medieval scenery with the stuff of twisted fairy tales (including a throaty yet unseen and sorely underused narrator), the atmosphere of BKS is truly refreshing and beckons the more open minded-player to give the game an honest try. However, anyone who has enjoyed Suda 51's deeper, bigger-production (i.e. non-XBLA) titles in the past such as No More Heroes, Killer 7 and Shadows of the Damned, will find the theme of the game to be largely cosmetic, quickly giving way to relatively uninspired gameplay underneath.

To put it simply, BKS is meant to be intentionally hard, even on normal difficulty, and the Black Knight himself is given very little with which to combat the Evil Princess' forces. He begins the level with two paltry lives, he can sword-slash, double-jump, use the Sword-Spirit to send out a mid-range projectile called the Black Hellbore and cast a limited number of "Shinobi-style" magics that can cause damage to enemies within a certain range. He can also evade backwards by crouching and pressing the jump button, but this will often get you into more trouble than out of it as it's too easy to perform by accident in a moment of panic (e.g. a boss fight or a scrolling platforming sequence where a missed jump results in instant death).

Unfortunately, the game is incredibly poor at teaching you how to properly use these skills. Players will have to figure much of what they can and cannot do as well as how a particular power-up and gameplay device will aid them largely on their own. This wouldn't be such a problem if the platforming and combat in the game was tight enough that it felt as though the player was always in full control, but as it is, jumps feel clumsy, downward stabs (this game's version of the Mario head-stomp) are difficult to time with the game's erratically moving enemies, and boss fights are filled with so many cheap hits you'll be reminded of your Ninja Gaiden days (oh no, not the Xbox Ninja Gaiden, the original Ninja Gaiden on NES. Yes, THOSE days).

Just a tip, make sure to take advantage of the games manual save system (there are no auto-saves, only temporary checkpoint saves) or you can expect to do a lot of retreading of levels from the beginning in addition to getting your teeth kicked in repeatedly by the level boss and mini-bosses, the latter of which are usually the same cheap bosses you lost so much precious health and lives to on the first time round. Ooh! So much fun...NOT. There's even a "faux" returning boss fight early on that's actually a trap. As a gamer who hates spoilers, I won't spoil the when for you, but just don't fall for it, as you're likely to greet the realization less as a clever surprise and more as a dirty trick.

During the game you can unlock stores at which you can use your collected hearts (the game's currency, gained from killing enemies) to purchase temporary power-ups to give you a fighting chance, but resetting a level will remove all the abilities and powers you gained, as well as reset your hearts to zero, so reloading a save is the best way to retain most of your progress. To be fair, the game warns you of this early on, but most players will likely not heed the warning until the second level, which is twice as long and hard as the first; chews them up and spits them out a number of times.

It should be noted that the sound in BKS is excellent however and fits the theme of the game well, combining some nice foley work, appropriately weird and disturbing voice talents for the enemies and narrator, some familiar sound effects from recognizable sources (the sound of collecting hearts sounds a lot like the "presto" sound in Bewitched (or was it I Dream of Jeanie?) when things appear out of nowhere), and a chilling soundtrack composed by Akira Yamaoka.

At 800 MS points, it's hard to recommend Black Knight Sword. While the game's theme and visual style are no doubt refreshing, it lacks the deeper character involvement and entertaining dialogue that Suda 51's signature games usually deliver. More importantly, the gameplay pales by comparison and feels extremely limited when compared to other modern platformers on XBLA which this game will inevitably be compared against. Finally, while there's nothing wrong with a difficult platformer, or a difficult game in general, it goes without saying that a good game should provide the player with the tools and the control fidelity to combat said difficulty, and/or at least have some fun while doing it. The "fun" is probably the one signature Suda 51 element that is lacking here the most, and without that, you have a pretty average and poorly controlling action-platformer.

Tighter controls, a few more abilities, maybe a default shield to go along with the Black Knight's sword?

Less quirk, more Suda 51.

Overall: 6.5 / 10
Gameplay: 6.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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