Reviewed: March 17, 2011
Released: February 22, 2011
I guess when you canít have an original idea for making a new game itís probably a good policy to borrow from existing ones. It seems thatís what Namco did when they cobbled together Knights Contact from bits and pieces of Devil May Cry, Bulletwitch, and Ico. The game draws you in with an epic trailer, but only if you let the title screen sit there for a few minutes. If you hit the Start button youíll miss it entirely and move ahead to the story intro that introduces us to Heinrich, a warrior of massive proportions who spends his spare time executing suspected witches under the command of the corrupt village elder, Faust. But during one particular execution the witch on the chopping block manages to put a curse on Heinrich Ė a curse of immortality, and apparently living forever isnít what itís all cracked up to be.|
Flash forward in time to find the world in ruins. The witches have resurrected and are looking for a bit of payback. Heinrich wanders the land slaying the zombie-like remains of humanity until he meets up with Gretchen, the witch who cursed him so many years ago. They strike up a ďcontractĒ whereby they will work together to defeat her evil witch sisters and in return, she will remove the curse. It seems like a good deal and a pretty cool gaming concept. Heinrich is an immortal fighter who, personally, cannot die. At worst, he gets chopped into giblets and you have to furiously mash the A button to rejoin his parts. And Gretchen is pretty cool too; able to cast some flashy spells of her own and even enhance Heinrichís combat abilities. Naturally, all of these spells and abilities can be leveled up over time with bigger damage and more satisfying visual rewards.
The only kink in the concept is that Gretchen can (and will) die. She relies on Heinrich to protect her, which wouldnít be a bad thing if the dumb blonde would stay out of the line of fire. Sheíll charge headfirst into a dozen enemies or go face to face with a boss then cry for help. Witches be crazy! The computer AI that controls her is non-existent or at least totally unaware of her health. The first time this really becomes a problem is during the second boss fight where you go up against a giant ice-breathing three-headed snake. I literally had to put her in a corner and do my best to body-block her all the while trying to damage the snake and dodge its icy blasts.
When Gretchenís AI isnít killing herself and my enjoyment of the game I actually did have fun with parts of the game. I really liked the story and the whole concept that witches used to be good until mankind turned them evil, and then you have the whole underlying plot of Faust and his own evil pursuits. There is a unique cooperative element that would have made this a tremendous two-player experience. Instead, we get something more like Ico, but rather than holding her hand, we have to pick up and carry Gretchen around. At least when you do this Heinrichís health bar fills faster, but you still have to set her down before you can attack.
Most of the game has you wandering around cities or outdoor landscapes fighting hordes of magical creatures ranging from undead humans to animated trees, and ghostly apparitions that appear from nowhere and fly around the sky. Itís a pretty cool mix of enemies that vary in size and type and methods for defeating them. Youíll need to mix and match the combat with magic and upgrade those spells often to compete with the increasing difficulty. There is the occasional mid-level boss and eventually, the dreaded end-level boss that will have you wanting to put your own curse on the designers at Namco.
End level bosses are incredibly frustrating on a level I havenít experienced in ages, and Iíve been playing games for 30+ years. Iíd rather play God of War on the hardest difficulty than play Knights Contract on normal. After what seems like hours of wearing down the boss Ė each boss has multiple overlapping health bars Ė you will come to a cinematic and flashy fatality strike invoked by a QTE (button pattern). If you miss just a single button or stick movement you get to start the battle over again. The only good news here is that the QTE sequences do not change, which means that you will eventually learn them through trial and error, or, if youíre like me and donít like to replay lengthy boss fights 3-4 times, find yourself a FAQ and have those QTE buttons memorized before each fight. Thatís what I did after my horrible experience with the Ice Snake.
I really enjoyed the visuals, at least from an artistic and conceptual standpoint. Their technical execution was something Iíd expect from a 360 launch title. Environments, cities, and architecture had all the ambitious qualities of the recently released Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, but lacked the textures and bump-mapping to make it look like anything more than flat paintings. Characters, especially Gretchen, looked like they were taken from a Soul Calibur game. The camera work was effective, both from a gameplay and a cinematic experience and the CG cutscenes integrated well with the game. The story and the movies were actually what kept me playing this game long after I was ready to quit Ė which was during that second boss fight.
The audio package was surprisingly good with medieval music that fueled the fantasy combat and spell casting. Sound effects were excellent, especially the ones that accompany the flashier spell visuals, and the environmental effects were convincing within the Dolby Digital mix. Voice work was really good for the main characters, especially Heinrich, Gretchen and her hunchback servant. Faust and a few of the enemy witches took their parts a bit too far, but it all worked well within the confines of the genre and the story.
Knights Contract is a fairly lengthy experience, even if you donít factor in all the boss battle replays. Each level has a distinct theme like a deserted city, caverns, icy wilderness, a city on fire and flowing with lava, and each level is home to lots of hidden secrets that range in their difficulty to discover. Some are right in your path while other flashing icons require a specific shift of the computer-controlled camera. The pacing is pretty good although some levels drag on a bit too long. I totally despised the final levels where Gretchen and Heinrich split up and have to adventure on their own. Youíve spent all this time learning how to work as an effective team only to have your skills divided, and neither character plays that well alone, especially Gretchen. Expect to spend at least 15-20 hours to finish this game; more if you are going for hidden secrets and some of the harder-to-earn Achievements.
Obviously, I cannot recommend Knights Contract unless you are looking for a game that will punish you non-stop with horrible companion AI and frustrating boss battles. While the game has some ambitious elements in story, gameplay, and visual design, it also suffers from inexplicable bad choices in those same areas and more. I would love to see this game as a two-player co-op because, if Gretchen wasnít dying on me all the time, I would have had an infinitely better experience. Instead, Knights Contract is doomed to immortality in the bargain bin, at which time, and only then, might it be worth checking out.