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Knights in the Nightmare (PSP) artwork

Knights in the Nightmare (PSP) review

"Once Knights starts, itís a non-stop struggle that requires constant action in order to win. You donít simply move your units into range before you can attack. For the most part, your soldiers remain stationary unless their attack leads them forward, while the enemies stalk the battlefield in a regimented pattern. The only freedom in movement youíre allowed is via the wisp, controlled by the analog stick. He can move anywhere on the field, to any corner of the screen, to execute your strategy."

When requested to review Knights In The Nightmare ó a slick, well-designed strategy game by Atlus/Sting ó I was immediately onboard. Strategy is my thing. Of all the adjectives Iíve used to describe the genre, the word ďintenseĒ is not one of them. Now ó after playing Knights ó I can think of no better term to describe it. Knights In The Nightmare is intense.

I go through most strategy titles somewhat idly. Knights doesnít allow that. It demands your focus, in every aspect, from the moment it starts. At the very beginning, the game's story deceptively appears to follow a simple, almost clichť structure. A kingdom that was once powerful and peaceful has fallen victim to an unspeakable and seemingly unstoppable evil. Only the lionhearted king stood in the way, but ó like his empire ó he has fallen, found dead in his chambers. The prince is missing, no other heir is present, and the once docile kingdom is torn asunder as the Cardinal and those still loyal to the king vie for the throne.

Out of desperation, a young, mysterious woman ó known for most of the game simply as "the armored maiden" ó risks her life to escape the castle, clutching a mysterious item. She carries it far from prying eyes to a broken-down church. Inside the abandoned building, she recites a passage, says a prayer, and a tiny, shining wisp rises up from the altar. The king ó humanityís last hope ó has been reborn.

It was an idea that Iíd not seen since Guardian Heroes, but I dare say that Knights has done it better. Here, youíre not simply following a small group's wanderings. Since the wisp was taken far from the actual castle, where the true evil now resides, Knights is about your journey back ó your journey back through treacherous swamps and haunted forests, broken bridges and corrupted chambers. As that journey unfolds, Knights gives you insight into many things and spreads the story out across several characters. Sometimes it depicts loyal knights struggling to reclaim what theyíve lost, trying to find some way to defeat the abominable evil they face. At other times, youíre in the presence of said evil, watching their side of the story unfold.

The tale can be somewhat confusing as you arenít readily aware of who these people are, and the game provides few names; most are simply given a title like "fair-haired knight" or "wounded troop". The game shifts from real-time to flashback without warning, and introduces at least a dozen characters within the first three chapters. But itís intriguing; it's mysterious. So I maintained, locked and focused, as I searched for answers, trying to make sense of the chaos only to have it culminate in one intricately designed tale where every seemingly sporadic piece of information fits into the puzzle.

And Knights never let up. The focus required to enjoy the story seemed almost trivial compared to the attention required during battle. The king, now a wisp, has lost his powerful frame and broad sword, but kept his brilliant mind and flawless strategy. Itís up to you to implement it. Each battle is fought on a tiled frame that can range anywhere from twelve spaces to thirty. Like a typical strategy game, units from both sides are placed in the required area before the fight begins. Any similarities to "typical" strategy games end there.

Once Knights starts, itís a non-stop struggle that requires constant action in order to win. You donít simply move your units into range before you can attack. For the most part, your soldiers remain stationary unless their attack leads them forward, while the enemies stalk the battlefield in a regimented pattern. The only freedom in movement youíre allowed is via the wisp, controlled by the analog stick. He can move anywhere on the field, to any corner of the screen, to execute your strategy. Each unit type has a different range. Warriors are better at melee combat and are the only ones who can open chests upon the field, while archers can typically hit something across the battlefield if timed properly. Wizards can cover most of the field with an attack but arenít very powerful, and knights can move a square or two, allowing you to approach enemies you normally couldnít reach. By highlighting one of these units with your wisp and holding down the X button, you can initialize an attack ó one that wonít occur until youíve let go, allowing you to wait until the enemy is directly in front of it.

Normal attacks actually do very little damage; they usually produce crystals which can be collected by hovering the wisp over them, adding to your MP. Once the MP gauge is full, you can unleash a special attack. This is the only way to kill an enemy, but unlike most games, these arenít based on the character ó they're based on the weapon. Instead of equipping weapons directly, youíre limited to four per turn (placed in empty slots at the four corners of the screen). To use one, you must hover your wisp over it, grab it using X and carry it to your soldier, again charging up the attack and unleashing it at the opportune moment. Each weapon is specific to a class, and since you only have four slots, Knights requires a bit of forethought. Placing a weapon for a warrior is useless if you donít have one on the field, and thereís no going back once youíve started.

Time has been trivial in other strategy games, but thatís not the case here. Each battle consists of twenty-seven turns, all of which are about forty seconds long. Youíre given that time to attack the enemies and clear the field. If youíre unable to do so, it rolls over to the next turn. Excluding boss battles, each turn places new enemies on the field. These enemies donít attack your soldiers; their attacks fill the screen, hitting your wisp directly. If one makes contact, it costs two or three seconds. Take enough hits (and believe me, the enemies are generous with them) and you may find your time is spent without accomplishing anything. Most ó sorry, all ó fights are a matter of racing your wisp around the screen, dodging enemy attacks and traversing through spiraled bullets to latch on to a weapon in the corner of your screen and thrust yourself back through the intensity to place said weapon upon your soldier. Fighting is an ingenious, almost flawless mix of planned tactics and real-time action.

Almost flawless. The one downside is that itís almost too complicated, and for casual players, even the tutorials may seem overwhelming. Throwing yourself straight into the fray is no easier as you may miss out on some items because you failed to place a warrior on the field (or even knew you needed one). Once you have the mechanics down, it becomes second nature, but some may become frustrated and give up entirely.

The game also lacks free roam, or even the ability to go shopping, so if you do miss out on a key item, you may find yourself in a bind. Some warriors on the field actually respond to key items and will join your party if you have it in your possession. If you don't, you may never see them again.

Knights is polished, with unique and creative designs for both monsters and characters, but I wish they had included more cutscenes to show off Yukio Takatsu's art. But those are minor rough edges to be easily smoothed over in a sequel. And there had better be a sequel. Knights In The Nightmare is the type of game strategy fans have waited years for. They didnít pile on one or two useless ideas to an already tired system; they reinvented the concept entirely and it works on every level. Theyíve actually, miraculously, made an intense strategy game ó a feat no one should miss.

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Freelance review by Greg Knoll (November 06, 2010)

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