|Platforms||Xbox 360, PlayStation 3|
|MtAMinutes to Action||9|
|Buy from Amazon|
So, it's been a long time since I wrote about video games. I very much miss it. Not just the playing of video games, which has also been very sparse lately as my wife and I are preparing to welcome baby #3 into the world, but actually writing, even just contemplating gaming, video games and the industry. With run-on sentences like that last one, you can really tell it's been a while.
Well, I had the opportunity to pick up a new game yesterday and even the chance to pop it into my incredibly dusty Xbox 360. The poor thing groaned to life as I realized that it was even louder than I remember. After a litany of updates and dashboard wizardry (the new dashboard is still growing on me), I was able to get my game loaded up and running. It felt good to dim the lights and nestle into my sectional for a gaming session.
Unfortunately, I didn't intend to actually play for a full hour and didn't think I'd care enough about this game to log it. Plus, since game time has been pretty sparse lately, I wanted to play uninterrupted and just enjoy it. For that reason, this first hour will be a little bit vague with regard to the minutes, since I'm writing it from memory, rather than from notes or my usual voice recordings.
So, without further to do, lets take a look at Knights Contract, a button mashing hack-n-slash developed by Game Republic, published by Namco-Bandai and released on February 22 for Xbox 360 and PS3.
00 - Knights Contract opens plain and simple with a choice of difficulty. We can choose between Page, Squire or Knight. The default setting is Squire so I leave it there. I considered Page since I'm not the best with this type of game but finally decided not to be a pansy.
01 - After a bit of loading, the game starts with an intro cutscene. We learn about a group of witches. But these witches sound good, like they had a code and like they helped people. We also learn they are nearly all now gone. But why? Jump to another cutscene, we watch as a young woman, accused of being a witch, takes her place beneath the headsman's......sword? As she is beheaded, her blood flows (not in gruesome way) around the feet of the headsman until it forms what looks like a magical symbol. The camera pulls back and the truth is left unspoken. This woman was clearly magical in some way.
05 - We then get another loading screen and see a panoramic view of a middle-ages era European town. Bodies lay strewn in the streets and rats scurry around corners. The Black Plague I'm guessing. We then see a massive warrior, well-armored and with a scythe slung on his back. The character art-style is big and chunky. Were this game set 2000 years in the future, he would make a perfect space marine. (Blast you Gears of War for destroying the art style of so many heroic games!) He slowly enters the town. His hair is white and he walks slowly, his scarf billowing in the breeze.
As he proceeds through the gates of the town, we see a smallish hooded man with a backpack, wearing a beak-like plague mask hurrying towards the warrior, warning him to stay away, that the town is infected with the plague, yet asking for his help. The warrior tells us his name is Heinrich but that he has no fear because "I don't die". He leaves it at that. The hooded man tells us his name is Minucelsus and then proceeds to mention Paracelsus, who, according to Wikipedia, was a famous Plague Doctor in the early 16th century. As they discuss the plague, we hear moaning and Heinrich exclaims "And now, the dead walk!?".
08 - I now have control, and get a quick splash screen telling me that X is light attack and Y is heavy attack. Ok, pretty simple. As I run around, there is a contextual camera, it moves as I move, to keep me in view and somewhat maintain perspective on the important areas. Based on this, I assume that there is no "look" control but I try the right stick anyway and there is a look function on the right stick afterall. So, the camera will move a bit to avoid view-blocking terrain but otherwise, you can control where you look. It's a bit clunky but works as you'd expect.
09 - As I get my bearings and look down the street, I see some generic looking zombies and some larger flesh monsters reminiscent of the t-virus infected mutants from Resident Evil games. Long arms, skinless, claws and pointy teeth. They're limping towards me. The little man is cowering in the corner, covering his head.
I start swinging my scythe, light attacks, the coverage of the attack is significant. Just mashing X creates a wall around Heinrich that the zombies can't penetrate. I proceed to rip them to shreds using only X. I try the Y button and the attack is big and slow, not so good for lots of wimpy zombies. I clear them out and the little man approaches me again.
11 - This time, the little man realizes I'm a hero, and says that I may be able to help his Grand Master. He had mentioned a doctor he trained with and the assumption is that they are one and the same.
12 - Our conversation is interrupted by another wave of zombies and I finish them off more quickly this time.
13 - The little man continues and then tells me his Grand Master is not actually a doctor, but a witch. He says he'll take me to her and he starts to run through the town.
15 - I follow the man through town. As I do so, more zombies break out of buildings or rise up through the ground. I start to notice that some are dying in one hit and others take a few extra hits. I get a splash screen explaining that LB can be used to target zombies, kind of like Z targeting works in Zelda games. When you hold the LB, you'll stay focused on a single enemy until it drops. Also, you'll see a large flowerlike graphic over the top of them where each petal of the flower represents energy. As the petals empty, you know how close the enemy is to death. It's a nice system but the graphic is so big it obscures the enemy. Kind of lame.
17 - As we continue, we get to a point in the town that no more zombies arrive. I'm introduced to a young blond woman named Gretchen. As she is sizing me up to decide if I can help her, another woman, ghostlike with spikes around her neck and strange wings coming out of an exposed rib cage flies into the scene. She threatens the blond woman and I'm put in a position where it's obvious I have to protect her. I get a splash screen explaining that if I hit RB, Gretchen will come to me and jump in my arms to protect her. When this happens, we will both heal. I'm told that if I die, mashing A will revive me. But if Gretchen dies, "my story will end".
20 - The flying monster lady swoops around the screen spouting nonsense about hating humans and the plague is what they deserve. Gretchen argues and you get the impression they know each other. Gretchen eventually refers to her as Stragelle (pronounced stRAYgle). This name seems to have meaning but I don't know what it is. Stragelle says that the warrior will not kill her "again" and that she will get rid of him now, and Gretchen while she's at it. She flies into the air and casts a spell. Giant black armored knights appear around the area and move in to attack.
22 - The Black Knights are actually really tough. It seems like my attacks don't hurt them as they frequently put up their shield and each time I attack, it is deflected and I get pushed away, interrupting my button mashing combo. I try light and heavy attacks but to no avail. I try using the LB targeting mechanic to move around behind him and still no joy. More blocked shots. As I'm doing this, Gretchen is running around behind me casting cool looking spells that create traps that smash the Knights or push them around. Eventually, one of their shields is destroyed but I can't tell how, must be from one of Gretchens spells. It becomes obvious that my attacks are now damaging him. There is a button map on the bottom of the screen. It looks like it represents some sort of special attacks mapped to the A and Y buttons. It takes me a couple of minutes to realize that while holding RT, I can control which spells Gretchen casts using those buttons. Well, I can choose between two. One of them is a large spike that comes up from the ground and penetrates the enemy (if it hits). The other is like a massive thorn bush that lashes out and whips them. Both are pretty hard to hit with as they just appear in front of Heinrich and don't seem to have any auto-targeting mechanism.
23 - When I unleash the first spell, I get a tip screen that pops up telling me to hit B at the prompt for a finishing move. As I cast the next spell, I see the B prompt but mess up on the timing. It happens fast. As I miss the finisher, a large red X appears over the B button on screen to show me that I suck. Thanks. This will take a little practice. Once I get the timing down (you pretty much have to anticipate the appearance of the prompt) I pull off a few finishers and the Black Knights begin to feel beatable. But there are a lot of them and they gang up on me, beating me down as the cooldown on the spells (which is pretty long) recharges. I die...once.....twice. Each time, I'm told to mash the A button and I pop back up into combat.
25 - As I'm dying and reviving, the Black Knights are attacking Gretchen. She is getting pretty damaged. One of the Knights grabs her and starts to squeeze her. I smash him until he lets go of her and tell her to come to me with RB. She jumps in my arms and I run away as we heal each other. It's a pretty neat mechanic.
26 - Once she feels better, I drop her to start unloading her spells again. We finally finish all the Black Nights. It feels good to work as a team.
27 - She tells me we need to chase down Stragelle and I follow her. We catch up to her in a street a few buildings away and she curses me for not dying. Her and Gretchen argue a bit more about whether or not humans are worth saving. Then she attacks us both and brings in a few more Black Knights for good measure. The combat becomes:
32 - This process takes some time. The Knights are not easy. All the time I spend dispatching them, Stragelle seems to heal herself. I finally get off a couple of finishers and she looks ready to explode.
33 - Nope, no explosion, she just turns into a giant crocodile lizard beast with enormorous human-like appendages (front legs are huge human arms and back legs is a single enormous human foot) and decides to eat us both. Gretchen tells me to run for it and I happily oblige.
34 - A series of chase sequences ensue, where I'm running away from Stragelle but like I'm trying to escape out the TV screen. Stragelle, for her part, is chasing us and smashing every building in her way, occasionally breathing fire or causing collapses that slow us down. All the destruction is pretty cool.
35 - Gretchen says to run for a large plaza where we'll have room to fight. I have no choice. I can either run or die. Basically, I hold the stick straight down for about 30 seconds at a time.
36 - We reach a large plaza with a cathedral and some large buildings around it. Just as we enter the plaza, the beast formerly knows as Stragelle charges at us and knocks us over. As we take our feet, Gretchen smartly suggests that if we could only immobilize it or chain it down somehow, that might help. I use the LB targeting mechanic to see where I need to aim my attacks and see the beast can be damaged on each appendage as well as its face. I start wailing on it and it promptly smashes me to goo. Going toe to toe with this monster that is as bid as a house is not a good choice. Gretchen reiterates that maybe we need to immobilize it.
40 - I spend the next few minutes trying out Gretchens spells and finally get one with good placement. The spike that comes up through the floor will hold the monsters foot in place while I smash it with my attacks. I'm still not really using any combos, just mashing. It seems to work. The spike only lasts a few seconds and then the beast leaps up on a rooftop and breathes fire on us before leaping on top of me. Ok, so I'm seeing the system.
The problem with this system is that while I'm trying to avoid attack, sometimes the beast will attack Gretchen. So I have to juggle my safety and hers. Fortunately, when I carry her around I can keep us both safe while we heal. Nice.
45 - Ok, so I've got the system down and after dying a couple of times and even Gretchen dying twice, (when she dies, you can reload the boss battle by spending points you accumulate by killing things, which is new to me) I take the beast down to zero health.
46 - When this happens, it triggers a sequence of.....NOOOOOO! Quick time events. Uggh. I actually don't mind the occasional QTE when implemented properly. Unfortunately, this is the worst implementation of QTEs since Heavenly Sword. If you screw up the QTE, it throws you back into the battle and you have to beat the beast again. Not from the beginning, but almost. It's incredibly deflating.
56 - It takes me about 8 tries and 10 minutes to finally get the QTE sequence right. I kept screwing up at the same point where I thought I was supposed to push the left stick up, but it wanted me to push it up repeatedly. Stupid. The sad part is that the final killing sequence is really cool. You jump on the beasts back. Then Gretchen unleashes a spell that creates an ethereal guillotine. You then grapple the beasts head inside the guillotine and Gretchen releases it chopping its head off. It ruins it when you have to see the same spell cast 8 times before you finish the sequence. Uggg, why do developers do this? At the end of the level, Gretchen asks Heinrich to kneel before her and she recites a ritual that bonds him to her. He is now her Knight Protector in a contract that links their vitality and power. Thus the name of the game.
57 - The level is over and I get a "C" rating for how fast (or slow) I went and how many finishers I deployed. So it's one of those games. Repeat levels for better times and higher scores. Blah. Don't care. Next level please. Thanks.
59 - The next level loads up. It's snowy and Gretchen tells me that we need to find the other witches. They were killed in the witch hunts 100 years ago. Oddly enough they're pissed about it and hate humankind now, when they were originally sent to heal the plague. We learn through a series of flash backs that Heinrich was the headsman for many of them. He's been alive for 100 years trying to break the curse of immortality put on him by the witches.
60 - We run through the snow and the trees come alive to attack. I kill them quickly now that I have the spell usage and finisher timing down much better. After I take out the walking trees, a couple of giant glowy-eyed wolves descend on us and they're hard. I decide they're too hard and it's late so I turn it off. That's the first hour.
Minutes to Action: 9
What I liked: I liked the concept that I'm working with someone, but that our skills are very different. They are different and complimentary. The attacks, while simple on their own, feel good and lend themselves to the teamwork that is the entire underlying design of the gameplay. For best results, you basically want to release a spell with proper placement and timing. Then as the spell does it's thing, you unload with a combo or a finishing move. If you time it just right, the kills are screen-filling spectacles of magic and viscera.
What I didn't like: Holy Cow the QTEs. I'm not a fan of QTEs to begin with but lousy ones are truly the devils work in my book. The worst part about the boss battle QTEs in this game is that they contain some really cool battle sequences. Unfortunately, the coolness wears off quickly when you're forced to repeat the same sequence 5 times. Thankfully, the button sequence is the same every time. Were it different every time I may have never beat the first boss.
Gameplay: The mechanics of the game in isolation are nothing particularly interesting. Heinrich swings a scythe instead of a sword but the concept is identical. You have heavy and light attacks and very little combo ability so far. Gretchen casts spells on a cool down timer. We've seen this all before. However as a single player game, getting to control both characters simultaneously, combined with the healing mechanic is actually pretty neat. The points you earn during combat (and spend to revive Gretchen) can be spent between levels to gain more spells and to upgrade those you already possess. This works well, but based on how expensive some of the spells are, I can foresee myself being motivated to grind a few levels over and over (looking for the best time to point ratio of course) to get more points for better spells.
Fun Factor: In my mind, this is always the most important category. Every other weakness a game has can be overcome if it's simply fun to play. If a game puts a smile on my face, I'll keep playing. This one did actually give me a few smiles, but it gave me a greater number of frowns. Mostly, as I beat the first boss for the fifth, sixth and seventh time.
Graphics and Sound: I recall reading reviews of this game saying it looked like an xbox launch title. Having recently played games like King Kong and Perfect Dark Zero, this had me a bit worried. But thinking back fondly on games like Kameo, PGR3 and CoD2, I relaxed a bit. To be honest, the game seems to have two graphical settings. One is for cutscenes and the other is for gameplay. Interestingly, it's the cutscenes that look pretty rough. The color is washed out, animations are sparse and backgrounds are very flat and two dimensional. During gameplay though, I didn't have a problem. The environments were a little cluttered, making it difficult to tell where you could go and where you couldn't. But otherwise I found them acceptable. They certainly do not compare to games like Uncharted or Skyrim but I don't think anyone expects them to. At least, they shouldn't. The sound didn't really stand out to me, but to be fair, I was playing this late at night and didn't have the volume up very high.
Story: The basis of the story is that Heinrich is a former headsman, the man who took the heads of many seemingly innocent witches. He was not their judge, but he was their executioner. For doing so, he is cursed with immortality (strange curse it would seem). He has reunited with one of his victims somehow, Gretchen, who is now hunting for all the other witches he killed, before they can unite to destroy the human race. There is actually quite a bit of cutscene time in the first hour of the game and I actually liked them for the most part. I found the story intriguing if a bit hard to watch due to the poor quality of the cutscene graphics. If you can get over that though, it was enough of a plot to push the game nicely along.
Would I keep playing: The quick answer is a resounding, "no". But a more nuanced answer is based on my odd fetish for crappy games with a nugget of greatness. This may, and I stress "MAY" be one of those games. I really like the way you interact with Gretchen. I get the feeling that there will be a solid variety of enemies throughout the game and I look forward to some big boss battles and seeing more of the story. Although I'm absolutely certain they will be plagued (pun intended) with nightmarish QTE sequences. I also look forward to unlocking more of Gretchens spells. The way I would relate my desire to play this game would be to quote the words I often see on the bottom of the screen during car commercials "Professional driver, Do not attempt". I'm the professional driver when it comes to crappy and frustrating games.
I may keep playing this one, but unless you're weird like me about crappy games, I do not advise you do the same.
Notes from beyond the first hour: Ok, so I kept playing this one. Count me as one of those oddballs who likes a challenge, even if the challenge comes from less-than-stellar game design. I say that because this game has some very swingy difficulty. At times, it's a cakewalk and at times is bonecrushingly difficult. Like, "make Ninja Gaiden feel like the Prince of Persia reboot" difficult. It finds its apex at the level 7 boss. It's one of the hardest and cheapest boss battles I've ever fought (and I killed Crawmerax without glitching). I literally spent two hours fighting the boss over and over. Not only is it cruel and heartless in its difficulty, with cheap insta-death in many cases, but to make matters worse, when you finally defy the odds and kill the beast, you are faced with a 6 move QTE. Screw that up and YOU.....START.....THE......BOSS.....OVER. That's right. The boss is full again. When I run up against this kind of thing, I have a problem. I can't quit. I've literally stayed up all night on games that do this, taking it as a personal attack on my "gamehood" or something. In this case, I stayed up to nearly 2AM. I finally beat it (well I beat it about 10 times, but I finally beat it AND memorized the QTE). I died dozens of times. At the end of the level when you get a grade, I received a "B". It tells you how many restarts you needed to finish the level. I needed 44. That's right. I fought the final boss and died 44 times over 2 hours. And I got a rating of B! This tells me that they PLAN for you to die that much, or I would have gotten the lowest possible score. Insane. Simply Insane. Oh, yeah, and I'm gonna keep playing. I will not rest until this game is under my belt. Do you hear me Knights Contract?