[13 March 2011]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
Oh, man. Oh, where to begin.
Knights Contract is Namco-Bandai’s latest foray into their own monopolized subgenre of diminishing returns, the escort adventure. Despite the tantalizing name, these are games where you largely play babysitter to a (usually female) tagalong who needs a bodyguard across some threatening landscape full of glowing items and convenient ledges. Far from the ingenuity and charm of the classic ICO, Namco’s cute but flavorless Majin and the Foresaken Kingdom or the comparatively well-received Enslaved, Knights Contract is about as pleasurable as being drowned in a river and controls about the same.
The game sets itself up as a fantasy adventure with particular reference to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poetic classic, Faust, about a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for youth, power, and beautiful women—you know, something I’m sure all academics can relate to. Traditionally, such as in Christopher Marlow’s Doctor Faustus, this tale of excess ends with Faust being a mess of blood and teeth on the ceiling of his study, but Goethe famously revised the legend with a large helping of creative license.
In Goethe’s version, significantly inspired by Protestantism, Heinrich Faust finds redemption and ascends to Heaven after a long life, foiling his demonic servant Mephistopheles in his Book of Job-type wager with God over the doctor’s soul. And Gretchen? Sadly, she is a disgraced peasant woman that Faust uses and discards in Part 1, only later grieving his actions when he learns he abandoned her to bear their child alone.
Knights Contract, unfortunately, is nothing like that. Not even in the shallowest, most tenuous of fashions. Here, Gretchen is a witch, martyred along with her fellow nature healers by a conniving Doctor Faust who has already lived for centuries. The name “Heinrich”, formerly Faust’s Christian name, is assigned to Gretchen’s bodyguard and our player-character, a former executioner whom Gretchen cursed to immortality to (in a really contrived Xanatos gambit) effortlessly coerce Heinrich into assisting her a hundred years later when she comes back as a Homonculus. Got all that? Oh, and there’s something about Faust being after these magical shards that all witches possess, but it all reads like something out of Inuyasha rather than German literature.
Throw in a bastardization of the Wiccan Three-Fold Law, dialogue that has never known the loving touch of a native English speaker, and character animation that seems almost intentionally bad, and you have the sort of teeteringly awful gameplay experience that even the best mechanics in the world could not redeem.
Alles andere ist Theorie - The Play Mechanics
Which is why it’s especially unfortunate that the game runs like it’s not even been play-tested. Battles are tedious to the point of low-level pain, level designs are nonsensical and prone to bugs, cutscenes subvert all player progress at every turn, and the special “quirks” on which Knights Contract might try to sell itself are so infuriating in the execution that the game would be better off without them.
There are a handful of these that I could direct my ire towards, but chief among them would be the poorly executed Quick Time Events during boss battles and the episode grading system, representing extremes on some incoherent scale of play difficulty. While the level grades given are so overinflated that I started having flashbacks to my public high school, in which any half-hearted effort seemed to land you an A, the boss fight QTEs—on which hangs the fate of the entire battle—are so unforgiving and pointless that to miss one and have to start the whole boss fight over again is the peak of bad design. There are some instances where invoking sympathy for Sisyphius in the player is the right thing to do (Minecraft, I’m looking at you), but suffering through needlessly repetitive and glitch-prone boss battles are not among them.
Perhaps the worst bug among the lot is the fact that your witchcraft spells get reset every time that you load the game, meaning you have to go into your start menu and re-map them each time that you load. Furthermore, autosaves are sporadic, save points near nonexistent, and it took me a few minutes to even figure out how to load a saved game from the start menu. Knights Contract seems to go to extra effort to discourage you from playing it.
“The witch and her knight”
On a more ambivalent note, special attention should also be given to the subverted mortality that Knights Contract plays with. Similar to Majin, it is not your health meter that matters but rather that of your companion’s. When Heinrich dies, players must rapidly tap a button to regenerate his dismembered body before Gretchen is overwhelmed and killed. Gretchen’s death spells death for you both, something which is echoed in the language that the game’s script uses in placing Gretchen first as the character of agency. Those who enjoyed Trip’s primacy in Enslaved will see a very similar thing going on here.
However, unlike Enslaved, Gretchen’s main function is to calmly be carried about in her bodyguard’s arms and act as a powerup in battles. Her agency as a character falls so flat that I’m inclined to say that it loses its third dimension entirely, existing as some two-dimensional plane that I shall call Flatland, where suggestions of the existence of depth are tantamount to heresy (maybe that’s why she was actually beheaded the first time). In short, emphasizing Gretchen as the focal point of the narrative is an interesting device in theory (or at least it was the first few times a developer tried it), but the execution here is so beneath mention that I couldn’t bring myself to care about either of these characters even once in the course of the whole story.
That is the truly embarassing part about Knights Contract. Goethe’s Faust, so pointedly alluded to, follows a specific rhythm and offers up large and transcendental themes in the nature of grand narratives, as do most of its adaptations from Gounod to Murnau. Knights Contract, by contrast, can’t keep a coherent thought going across a single sentence, and the grammar of its gameplay is even worse off. This is like playing Folklore again with even worse mechanics and fewer attractive male characters. Mein Gott, Namco, you should be ashamed.
As For the Rest…
The music is possibly the best part of the game’s aesthetic aspects, playing up some vague resonance of Gounod’s Faust opera and a rich orchestral pit sound that neither offends nor particularly shows off. That being said, it doesn’t give off an exceptionally distinctive vibe either. Moreover, I felt a little bad for the artists involved. There is indeed a great deal of art in this game in the form of secondary character designs and the appreciably good score, but it all gets so buried beneath the heaps and heaps of unsightly foreground elements that none of it gets to shine.
Like Enslaved, Knights Contract has great aspirations for literary relevance. Both games’ developers would not be the first to look to the potentials of the book in foregrounding interactive fictions, but the way that Knights Contract in particular goes about it is so hamfisted, so rudimentary, so unbearably stupid that one really has to question the attempt. Knights Contract makes Enslaved seem like a wholly faithful adaptation by comparison, which is unfortunate, really, as both Faust and Journey to the West are great classics just begging to be remixed and repurposed in the modern age. If we’re going to utilize the precedent set by Dante’s Inferno, however, we might be off to a bad start.