When the original DS version of Knights in the Nightmare was released in 2009, it was met with generally favourable, if somewhat mixed, reviews. The game was praised for its interesting story, detailed 2D graphics and extremely unique gameplay mechanics. On the flipside, there were complaints about the controls, massive amounts of pre-game tutorials and, quite frankly, how complicated it was. With the new PSP port, not a whole lot has changed. However, there have been a few adjustments that put this new version ahead of its predecessor.
The story retells a specific series of events at Aventheim Castle; mostly politically related. The King has been killed and the twelve orders of knights are in chaos. There is little explanation about the rest of the world, since the game instead focuses on this castle, the people within it, and the surrounding areas. You play as the Wisp: the soul of a recently deceased and important man with extraordinary powers whose identity is revealed later in the story. It’s quickly clear that terrible events have occurred at the castle, but these, along with most of the plot, will not be revealed in detail to you until much later in the game. Dialogue is generally good, but character development is basically non-existent.
The story is divided into individual scenes. Generally you will watch a short cutscene relating to current events, fight a battle, and then watch a cutscene showing events from the past. These flashbacks help flesh out the story and show how the knights who joined you died. Unfortunately, because there are so many knights in the game you will likely not be emotionally attached to any of them. The game generally forgoes inter-character relations, preferring to focus on the bigger picture. At first, the plot is highly confusing and, if you don’t give it a chance, will likely put you off. But as things progress everything will start to make sense and the story becomes a truly interesting plight.
The most confusing, and original, aspect of Knights is the gameplay. It plays out in individual stages on grid-based environments, much like a turn-based strategy title. Killing enemies provides experience and orbs that you can later use to level up your knights and their weapons. To win a stage you must kill enemies matched by colours to a tic-tac-toe-like board on the bottom of the screen. Crossing out a row by killing these enemies wins you the battle. Most of your knights can’t move either. Instead you drag and drop weapons (using the Wisp much like a mouse pointer) with different abilities onto them to provide your army with what they need to reach their foes. You require MP to unleash powerful attacks with these weapons, which can be recharged by attacking enemies with or without a weapon and picking up the gems that drop. Keep in mind that these weapons have limited uses before they break–common and legendary items alike. At any time you can also swap the ‘phase’ between law and chaos by pressing R. This affects the battle in a number of ways, but is mostly used for swapping between a weapon’s different abilities and recharging MP, adding an extra layer of strategy.
As you go about grabbing weapons and hacking away at your enemies, they will be attacking you too. If you are not interacting with a knight, they remain invulnerable. The Wisp, however, is a different story. Each turn has you on a time limit. Any time the Wisp is hit by an attack (and when you use attacks yourself) the timer runs down. Once it hits zero, your turn ends. Each battle has a limited number of turns in which you must emerge victorious. Enemies attack you by shooting various magic effects over the screen. Using the analog stick to control the wisp you must dodge these in a realtime, bullet hell-like, scenario. It keeps the battles fast, action-packed, and fun. Those of you familiar with the Touhou series will be right at home with this mechanic.
One of the biggest issues with such a unique and complicated system is understanding it. As you may expect, there are a plethora of tutorials to view before you will understand the game at all. The PSP version implements a few of these into the story, which was a smart move, but there are still many more you will need to view from the main menu if you actually want to understand the game. This will definitely put some people off as spending a considerable amount of time with these tutorials is pretty much mandatory.
Each level has a number of story-related items on them. These can usually be found by destroying environmental objects. Using these items on knights allows you to permanently recruit them for your team. Working to try and find all these items requires a serious time commitment and lots of ingenuity. Knights also fall into their own classes such as warrior, archer, mage, and duellist, to name a few. Each class can use specific weapons and also face a different direction. Excluding duellists and lance knights, you cannot move your knights at all. Instead you use different weapons to allow them to reach their enemy. Knights can be swapped out between turns to allow for different strategies you might want to try. Whilst it keeps the strategy fresh, it’s quite annoying to move your duellist all the way across the battlefield just to destroy an item just because your warrior can’t face the right direction.
Between battles, you have a number of options available to level up. You can merge identical weapons together to increase their durability or break them down for new items. You can distribute experience earned in battle to power up your knights. The most drastic of measures you can take is to ‘transoul’ a knight. In this process you merge two of your knights together, sacrificing one to make the other more powerful. As you recruit more and more knights you may find this to be a useful option as there is a limit to how many knights you can have in each battle at once. Unfortunately, the game is actually rather easy once you understand the battle mechanics. If you lose a battle, you are given the option to retry. For boss battles (on easy and normal), the boss even stays at the same health as when you were defeated! Even though some later fights can be quite difficult with so much to dodge on the screen, you’ll know an easy retry is just around the corner if you lose.
One of the biggest questions for the PSP port was about the controls. The DS version almost entirely used the touch screen and many people, myself included, were curious as to how it would work on PSP. Surprisingly, it functions even better than on the DS. Though the analog stick may not have the precision of touch screen controls, you no longer have half the screen blocked by your hand. You can even press the Triangle and Circle to adjust the speed of the Wisp if needed. The only minor annoyance is selecting knights on the battle preparation screen. You have to fiddle around a bit to select the unit you want, but this is only a small quirk.
Graphically, the game is stunning in 2D. The sprites are intricately detailed and a real joy to watch as they move. Some variation between knights, rather than everyone of the same class all looking the same, would have been nice, but detailed character portraits mostly make up for it. Special effects are fantastic and there are often huge colour explosions on the screen as you try to dodge the attacks thrown at you. Although all the graphics have been upgraded in some way from the DS version, the backgrounds stand out as the greatest improvement. Making use of the wider screen, the resolution and quality of each environment has been increased. An opening movie to the game has now been included too.
Likewise, the musical score has been modified to make use of the PSPs superior hardware. The music is quite stirring and emotional at times, providing an appropriate feel to the darker portions of the game. The sound effects are also generally good, but nothing about them is truly memorable. Voice acting, just like in the DS version, is absent, but this really isn’t a big deal at all. However voice clips are used in battles when attacking, but they too are decent but nothing special. The downside of these improvements? Increased load times. They’re not horrendous, but they’re long and frequent enough to be annoying.
The game could take you anywhere between ten and twenty hours to beat, depending on how long you spend collecting optional items and upgrading your knights. Luckily, once you’re done, you can start a New Game+ and experience some added content. It is difficult to explain the new game without ruining the story, but on a second play through you can play as a different character with a few plot differences. The PSP version also comes with an extra scenario where you play as Princess Yggdra from a previous Sting game called Yggdra Union. It’s much the same as the previous two stories and doesn’t add much to the game. It simply gives you an excuse to play through again.
Knights in the Nightmare is a hit or miss game, plain and simple. You are either going to love it or hate it–like a couple of our other editors did. If you played the DS version, but didn’t enjoy it, there isn’t anything about this one that will change your mind. If you loved the DS version, then this one may well be worth a look for the added content and technical improvements. If you have yet to experience Knights, then I suggest you give it a go. It may not press everyone’s buttons, but if it turns out you love it then you’re going to really love it.