Thursday, December 13, 2012

Black Knight Sword: First Impressions

at 4:06 PM
What an inconvenient time to release a downloadable game. Two weeks into December, after the holiday AAA rush? I haven't seen one mention of Black Knight Sword in the media this week, despite coming from Grasshopper Manufacture and Digital Reality, the creators of the acclaimed Sine Mora. If anything, it goes to show that Suda 51 gets little respect as an innovator and is only followed by the press when he's up to something controversial like Lollipop Chainsaw. Then again, 2D platformers are now as quickly falling from public favor as they were rising in '08-'09.

Black Knight Sword begs to be remembered, though. The introduction smashes one out of the park with a haunting yet instantly humable tune that could only be composed by Akira Yamaoka, a Trine/Bastion-like narrator who is way too enthusiastic for his poetic script, and, naturally, the protagonist in the midst of a hanging suicide. Yes, the first task Sword assigns the player is to dangle from a noose, struggling back and forth until the rope snaps and releases the limp avatar to crumple on the floor. Since this is the beginning of the game and not the end, he pulls himself to his feet and slouches to the far end of the room. This sets the stage with ambiguity: has this man actually swung himself free from the rope, or is everything we're seeing a fever dream of his final moments? Perhaps he's taking his first steps into some kind of afterlife - we don't know any better than does he, so we put on our video game caps and do what we know best - walk right. Approaching a conspicuous heap of coal-black metal, the player employs a careful press of the X button to summon the spirit of what is revealed to be a suit of armor that seizes the surprised man and transforms him into the eponymous Black Knight. And off we set on our twisted fairy tale journey.

Beyond that opening, I haven't delved deeply enough into Sword to comment much on its thematic aspirations. The game has a very creepy look and sound, from the goofy babbling heads-with-legs that march straight toward you into their bloody demise, to the ghostly Phanto-esque masked female face that serves as your companion and utility ranged attack. By the time the first boss rips off his suit of armor to reveal that his torso is actually a gigantic, skinless mutant face, you really will start to suspect you've gone to hell. This suspicion will ring even truer for those who've played Grasshopper's 2011 Shinji Mikami collaboration, Shadows of the Damned. The gas-lamp streets conjure turn-of-the-century Europe, but the strange denizens could have walked out of Hellraiser or Nightmare Before Christmas. The characters are brought to life with a sort of papercraft style and the environments are composed of flat stage-dressings that are charmingly pulled behind the curtains and reset as you pass from screen to screen, presenting the entire game as a kind of stage-play or puppet show.
Super Mario Bros. 3 by way ofTerry Gilliam.
The idiosyncratic visuals aren't the only thing that evokes mid-'90s 2D, as much as they will remind you of Yoshi's Story and Symphony of the Night. The platforming itself also hearkens back to the 32- and 64-bit era, for reasons I can't quite put my finger on just yet. There are certainly some overt throwbacks, like collectible hearts and cat-head grass (?), one-ups buried off the beaten path, and secret alternate paths. Yet there's something about the whole game that just screams Actraiser 2 or Klonoa. Maybe it's the rigid jumps and patterned enemies, or the fragility of your character. I'll have to think on it more as I play. Until then, I think it's your turn to check it out.

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