Many fans of RPGs can trace their love of the genre to nights spent sitting around a table with friends, playing a pen & paper role-playing game at the mercy of their friendly neighborhood Dungeon Master (alias “that son of a motherless goat”). Those less fortunate grew up with parents who were convinced that D&D was a sneaky way to convince kids to put on a robe and summon the devil. (Of course, that didn’t necessarily stop us…) But even those of us who missed out on that experience know it’s a critical chapter in the saga of how electronic RPG came to be. And yet, it’s a concept that I’ve never seen translated into a video game. Not until I downloaded Knights of Pen & Paper, that is.
Yes, in this game, you play not as a warrior or a bard, but as a group of friends who are playing a pen & paper RPG in their DM’s basement. The game deals cleverly with the paradoxical nature of this structure, in which you are supposedly guided but in fact have the freedom to roam and take whatever actions you like. The DM often gives a description for what’s happening at the beginning of a quest, after which the dialogue is taken over by NPCs within the game. Should you take a quest that merely requires that you defeat a number of monsters, the DM may say something like “you’ve stumbled across a den of my minions.” And occasionally, the players will break in and ask for a bathroom break or to check for traps. I’m pretty sure that whether they make those rolls is scripted, but it’s easy to appreciate the respect the developers are paying to their material.
The story isn’t extremely deep, but there’s certainly more to it than is initially apparent. Similarly, the main quest wouldn’t be very long all by itself, but there are a plethora of side quests, and if you tried to ignore them, your team members would quickly find themselves severely underleveled for the story quests. It’s nothing mind-blowing; just your standard “save the world” quest, but I appreciated the twists it took even when I saw them coming.
The developers are from Brazil, and much discussion has been had online about whether the game’s frequent, small translation errors are deliberate or just shoddy work. As someone with experience in translation, my vote is for the former. They just don’t feel sloppy to me, and perhaps I’m more willing to give the benefit of the doubt because the errors are charming and funny, but not in a schadenfreude kind of way.
You begin the game with a party of just two players, but you can expand the party to five by using in-game currency to add them to your roster. Every time you add a player, you pick the person who is joining the game and the class they’ll be playing. Each person has bonuses, from the Jock’s +1 to attack to the Hipster’s 50% faster blacksmith crafting. Each class has its own set of skills (both passive and active), as well as a weapon and piece of armor that grant bonuses specific to the class.
As is often the case in RPGs, defeating monsters and completing quests earns you items, money, and experience points. Money can be used to buy more healing items and accessories, to pay the blacksmith to upgrade your weapons and armor, or to upgrade the basement where you’re playing (and true to life, basement upgrades carry over between games). Gain enough experience points, and the characters gain a level. Each level upgrades the character’s stats and earns them a skill point that you can apply to any of their skills. I didn’t run into a cap on skill levels, but once a skill passes level 10, you get less bang for your skill point, so you are encouraged to spread them around. Most of my party was at level 27 when I beat the main story, so I was able to develop my skills nicely without feeling that I had to ration my points carefully or waste unwanted points on things I didn’t care about.
Battles in Knights of Pen & Paper are turn-based, and on their turn, each character has the classic options to attack, cast a spell, use an item, defend, or attempt to flee. Quest battles generally feature a fixed number of enemies, but you can also choose to take on a battle of your own devising in which you can choose the type and number of enemies to fight. If you restrict yourself to a small party and small groups of enemies, battles become formulaic very quickly, but things get much more chaotic if you have five characters and are battling seven enemies. This element of choice is something I really enjoy about the game, and it rings true to the source material. I’ve seen others complain that the game requires too much grinding, but I did not have that issue. Of course, I was having enough fun that I hunted down every side quest available to me, and that may have played into the matter. It could also be the fact that the game is designed so that you can play in short bursts of just a few minutes at a time, and depending on your playstyle, that could either minimize or exacerbate the feeling of having to grind.
Although they are still played today, many people see pen & paper RPGs as a throwback to an earlier time of gaming, and this game’s graphics certainly play to that feeling. They’ve got an intentionally pixelated style that I enjoyed, and most of the backgrounds, characters, and enemies look very good. The players in your game are portrayed as sitting in chairs facing away from you wearing hats representing their classes, and I never had any question which player I was dealing with or which class they were portraying. The only visual problem I can recall is that there are times where a long paragraph from the DM overflows his speech bubble or a long skill description gets partially hidden by the level up button, but it’s never a gamebreaking problem.
The music and sound effects have an 8-bit style in keeping with the retro theme. Different types of enemies make different sounds as they fight and die, which is nice, but the 8-bit galloping horse emulation that you hear as you move from place to place on the map is less nice. It has that static sound that makes me worry for my headphones. There are several different background tunes that vary from place to place, and they are all fine. Not amazing, but certainly not bad.
Unlike the classic graphics and sound, the controls are strictly modern. Knights of Pen & Paper was designed for touchscreens, and it shows. There are a few things I didn’t guess until well into the game, like the fact that I could upgrade both weapons and armor, but most controls were instantly clear. Tapping the DM brings up a set of large icons, and the developers have done a great job of communicating as much as possible without filling the screen with blocks of text. There’s a map icon that lets you travel the world, an anvil that lets you visit the blacksmith… you get the idea. In battle, I like that you can tap an enemy to do a regular attack rather than having to tap the attack button, then the enemy. And if there’s just one enemy, any offensive action you take automatically targets them.
Retro games have been a popular niche market for a while now, and they exist in a whole spectrum from goofy parody to heart-attack serious. And yet Knights of Pen & Paper somehow manages to find a slot in that spectrum that hasn’t been filled yet: the fairly humorous take on tabletop gaming. It does a great job, and as of this writing, it’s just $1.99 for either iOS or Android, so you get a lot of bang for your buck. In-app purchases are available to fill your in-game coffers with more of the standard currency, but they’re not required at all. In addition, a PC version is in beta testing at this point, so if this game sounds interesting to you, but you don’t have a smart phone (or don’t like to play games on your phone), keep your eyes peeled for its release. If it’s as polished as the current version, you’re sure to have a good time with it.