Underdog developer Sting is back with the third game in their “Dept Heaven” series. Even though it’s the third game, Knights in the Nightmare is actually called Episode IV (an MMORPG is rumored as the missing Episode III). The game marks the franchise’s Nintendo DS debut and the developer has made full use of the DS’s touch screen functionality. As a result, this “Strategy RPG” is actually a blend of many elements of other gaming genres, which forces even veteran gamers (a group within which I would count myself) to rethink what it means to “strategize.”
I hated this game so much for the first few hours. I thought it was totally stupid. As it turns out, I was stupid, not the game. I saw an isometric grid and troops at my disposal, so I thought “well, this shouldn’t be too different from other Tactical JRPGs.” Note, at this point, that I was not familiar with Riviera or Yggdra Union, though even had I been, it wouldn’t have helped too much. My only hope was to take on the game’s in-depth, bulky “tutorial” section before attempting to progress any further in the game proper.
Any game with such a steep barrier-of-entry may deserve to be blasted for its esoteric nature; but I would protest that it is just these features that make the game enjoyable. It’s not quantum mechanics, after all. Given some time and practice, the way you play the game adapts to what is expected from the player, and you’re ready to move forward. I’m not going to provide a full tutorial of how the game works, but the following explanation should give you a feel for what exactly is “unique” about the game.
You control “the Wisp,” a glowing ball of light that acts as a glorified mouse arrow tool. In combat, the Wisp can take control of the souls of “Knights” (your troops). Controlling the Knights is done basically through a point/drag/click function: if you want to use a weapon, you pick a weapon from the top-right corner of the screen and drag it onto the appropriate knight. There’s a “charge time” to equip the weapon and fully utilize it, during which time the knight is vulnerable to enemies. But while you’re holding that charge, the enemies are primarily attacking the Wisp by sending crisp, colorful “bullets” after you. These can literally be bullet-sized circles of pixels, or they can be giant swords, tornadoes or colorful dragons. These “ethereal” attacks knock down your time, and if you hit zero, you won’t even get the chance to attack after charging the knight’s weapons. Other factors come into play during combat as well. You need “MP” to attack with a weapon and this is gained only by nabbing crystals released after striking an enemy (with or without a weapon). You can also switch your alignment from “Law” to “Chaos” any time you want by using the Wisp. This changes a number of settings, including which equipped weapons you can use.
Does that give you a good idea of what’s going on? For being a Strategy RPG, Knights in the Nightmare is action-packed. You have to constantly dodge multitudes of colorful images, each with its own movement pattern and speed, while making basic selections and having your troops attack the enemies on a small, customized isometric grid arena. The time limit is the true constraint, not HP/Vitality, so it’s a matter of having good accuracy with your stylus and efficient strategizing/usage of your Knights and their respective weapons. Each of the game’s seven unit types has its own weapons and their limitations are strange. Most classes can only face two of the four directions, and you’d do well to memorize who can do which and then place them on the grid accordingly at the beginning of each turn. Furthermore, most troops are stationary, so if you want to position a Priestess or a Hermit elsewhere on the field, you’ll need a Duelist or Lance Knight to move in a previous turn, and then in the next turn, switch out knights and use the class you want for attacks. It’s techniques like these that will “separate wheat from chaff” among gamers. Do you have what it takes to play such a strange Strategy RPG?
After you’ve overcome the game’s learning curve, the real gaming “experience” begins. I did not enjoy the work of having to learn the game, but once I understood it, much like riding a bike, I was extremely happy; not just of my accomplishment, but of the experiences that I knew lay ahead for myself. Boss battles were especially fun, but the standard “clear rows of enemies” encounters also proved to be quite enjoyable.
For every “chapter” (i.e. “battle”) in the game, you have a couple of people join your party. Some of them are “nameless,” which means they’ll only help for that battle. Others, however, have names, and are usually shown at one point or another in the game’s cut scenes. To convince these Knights to join your party permanently, you have to coax them by giving them a key item during battle. If you have the key item for that character, the item’s description will tell you plainly who it goes to, and the item is highlighted during weapon selection in battle if you can use it. This is the only way to recruit party members and it’s extremely important to do, not just for having a decent party, but also to keep your elite party members alive.
The game’s “transoul” technique functions as a method for merging two knights’ souls into one. Essentially, one knight is “sacrificed” and becomes part of another. When this is done, the other knight’s Vitality (HP) is increased, and his max level may also increase as well, depending on the quality of the sacrificed knight. I never had a party size of more than eight because I needed to continually use “transoul” to keep the rest of my party alive and well. I suppose I shouldn’t say “alive” since these are the souls of slain knights, but I digress.
Finding the key items to recruit other characters (or use to get good weapons from NPCs that appear in battle) is done by destroying objects and opening treasure chests on the field. Some will only break by use of a particular element or job class, whereas others break fairly easily. It’s important to go after these items for reasons I mentioned earlier, but you also have to monitor the time and turn limits of each chapter. If you run out of turns, you “fail” the mission, at which point you can retry, restart, or quit. “Retry” is essentially the easy way out, because it allows you to continue as though you had no time limit and the enemy’s HP is where it was last left off. However, it costs you EXP penalties and more, so sometimes it’s safer to just restart and try to play through the turns more carefully.
Your Knights wield weapons, but the weapons break (this mechanic of limited weapon durability is shared between each Dept Heaven game). Weapons are easy to come by, but strong weapons that still work within your character’s class, element, and level are rare. You have to use weapons sparingly and effectively so as not to wastefully deplete the weapon’s durability. A strategy of conservation, element-weakness-matching, and a swift stylus are the keys to victory here.
The Wisp is Advancing
So who is “The Wisp?” I’m spoiling the first hour of play by telling you this, but it is the soul of the recently-deceased King of Aventheim Castle. Your name was Wilmgard, but it seems, as a Wisp, you have forgotten yourself. A mysterious armored maiden named Maria helps you get “back on your feet” (so to speak, since you don’t really have feet…). The game’s plot offers minimal exposition and, as the player, you are just as clueless about the events as the Wisp is. You slowly regain your memories and learn more about what has happened since your death as the game progresses.
Indeed, the execution and presentation of the plot is highly formulaic, but this doesn’t necessarily hurt the story itself. If you’re not a huge fan of political intrigue, the plot may not be of any interest to you. After each battle, you’ll witness a scene from the past, then you’ll have some “menu time” to strengthen weapons and characters, and save your game. Then you’re treated to some “in the present” cut scenes, as well as some narration from an unknown, omniscient author before being thrust into battle again. With each of the game’s (approximately) 50 chapters, you gain more and more knowledge about what the heck is going on in the world between Asgard and the Underworld.
A lot of depth and plenty of great writing went into this game’s plot, but it was hard to become attached to any one character, mostly because they died off at such a phenomenal rate. Instead of relating to one specific person, I found that I related better to groups of people, or particular situations that some no-name NPC was confronted with. I believe this is similar to Yggdra Union, but if I had to guess, I would say that Knights in the Nightmare is the least character-driven game in the Dept Heaven series thus far.
One complaint I have is that you are never presented with a “World Map.” From one scene to the next, one location to the next, I had a very hard time orienting myself to the fantasy world. I just wanted to know, was Aventheim Castle located east of the villages during the game’s opening sequence, and if so, how far? It was difficult to judge the size, scale, and shape of the continent(s) upon which you travel. And though this is technically extraneous information for the game, it’s information that I’d want to have. Combine this lack of a map with the generally small-scale battlefields, and it’s enough to give the player a case of claustrophobia. I think this was all designed intentionally so as to make you feel like your sphere of influence and knowledge was extremely limited (this must have been how “the Wisp” felt, after all), but critics might chalk it up to laziness on Sting’s part for not giving us a bigger picture of this world.
After completing the game, you can go through it a second time to witness a slightly altered scenario regarding the armored maiden “Maria.” One might argue that this story has less to do with Wilmgard and his kingdom than it does Maria and the angel Melissa.
I Suppose I Will Continue To Observe…
There exists a sharp contrast between the game’s beautiful, hand-drawn concept art and the utility-driven in-game graphics. In-game, particularly in battle, everything is simple, non-detailed, and pixelated. The most interesting images are the bright, high-frame-rate “bullets” that serve to attack the Wisp. The characters are not interesting in battle or in cut scenes. Visually, it is only the character art that serves to impress. That said, there was a lot of beautiful character art made for this game, and much of it can be found in an artbook that Atlus USA is putting in as a bonus item with first-print shipments of the game.
Another bonus, which should come as no surprise, is the game’s soundtrack. This is a nice bonus for people who want to enjoy the music outside of the game. I personally think this is of extreme importance, because it’s easy to forget Shigeki Hayashi’s compositions. There are five or six musical themes that play at different points of each and every chapter, but the vast majority of the original tracks for the game play only once, during particular chapter battles or cut scenes. It is my opinion that, unfortunately, Hayashi-san’s best compositions are the ones you only hear once per playthrough. Hence, the soundtrack is a worthwhile extra to hold onto.
The game also features voice acting, but only for battle sequences; none of the cut scenes feature VA. The English actors do a decent job, though a few lines are delivered far over-the-top and can detract from the game’s somber tone.
I can’t believe I ended up enjoying this game as thoroughly as I did. It truly came as a shock to me, because my initial impression was that I wouldn’t like this game at all. But it’s worth learning the game’s unique mechanics and trying it out. The game has multiple endings (thanks to the differing scenarios), as well as different difficulty levels, and hundreds of recruitable characters, including some from Riviera and Yggdra Union. If you’re a series fan, there’s no question that you need to play this game. For newcomers, I only offer this one warning: be ready for a challenge. This is a difficult game, and you have to want to learn how the game works to enjoy it. Put in the effort, and you’ll get a lot out of it. It may not be the best handheld strategy RPG on the market, but it’s certainly the one that turned the genre on its head. I will not soon forget it, and if you take on this 20-hour-long DS game, I suspect you’ll remember it fondly as well.