When game designer Suda 51 is involved with a new project, I pretty well make it my duty to seek it out. His company, Grasshopper Manufacture, has a tagline: “Punk is not dead.” This sentiment oozes from the seams of each game they’re a part of, festivals of absurdity that resonate with me in ways I can’t fully explain. I was similarly enticed by the evil paper-and-paste art style Grasshopper and Digital Reality were able to craft for this game. The more I stuck with it, though, the more I realized that this is one of more tragic cases of style over substance I’ve seen in a game in some time.
Sadly, this game is quite unlike Sine Mora – the last collaboration between the two companies – in terms of playability. For a game with such a unique and terrific presentation, it’s borderline astounding that playing Black Knight Sword manages to be so boring, so often. The Black Knight can run at a decent clip, jump pretty high, and attack in a bunch of different directions with his cursed sword, but it never gets too far from these skeletal basics. You’ll occasionally need to fling your pal the Sword Fairy – who imbues you with your power – at a switch to make certain platforms appear or disappear, but that’s about the only real wrinkle that you come across, and even then, its barely a factor. The game is a barebones platformer with the simplest of combat mechanics, which could be fine, but none of the basics are executed all that well. No one misstep is more annoying that the game’s annoying control quirk of having you push up and to the left or right to move without crouching, which was awkward throughout.
This game is not afraid to overwhelm you with style and flourish, and that style is so strong that it absolutely succeeds in making the dull gameplay more interesting. The purposely dorky, Times New Roman on leopard-print menus you purchase items from are amazing, and the way its cobbled-together, cut-and-paste backgrounds lift off and slide around to re-arrange as you play really help set the creepy tone just through basic movement. A frantic and scary platforming gauntlet across some small boats in constantly rising rooms of water during the game’s second chapter stands out as a particularly stunning use of its style, and it was a blast to play in no small part to its great looks.
If you’re the completionist type, you’ll be glad to know that you can snoop the far corners of each level in search of…Cat Head Grass. Literally cute, cartoonish cat heads festooned with leaves and stuck in planters for you to discover, and later watch dance from the main menu. OK, I can dig it.
The real reason to play Black Knight Sword is to experience its presentation. The cut-out, amateur playhouse style combines sketches, computer-generated images, photocopies, and real-world photography into something that feels surprisingly whole and incredibly cool. Everything from cityscapes to ordinary trash bins look dark, scribbled on, crumpled, incomplete. And the near constant movement of these background elements does an excellent job of creating an uneasy ambiance. Some neat little playhouse storytelling interludes really leverage the look for all its worth. The 3D characters and hazards look great, too, and their slightly primitive, chunky look sits in the visuals wonderfully. The jagged, bloody, disembodied rabbit jaws that close in on you instantly spring to mind when I think back on the game, as does the profoundly spooky, mesmerizing eye-thing that floats on-screen when you use the shop to heal and beef up your defence. If you do end up with Black Knight Sword one way or another, you’ll at least have a great time watching what’s going on as you play.
The biggest problem is that Black Knight Sword is just not that interesting to play. The basic movement and combat aren’t near precise or satisfying enough to carry the game on its own, and there’s nothing that breaks up or expands upon the same basic attacks and platforming. Upgrades for weapons are scarce and uninteresting, and bosses rarely amount to more than jumping over some attacks and jabbing them in their soft spots until they’re down and out. Even before its brief run time is over, the gameplay deflates from sheer boredom.
Sadly, a number of menacing mechanical and technical issues cut back the fun further. For a two-dimensional game, the camera can get almost shockingly sucky at times. The action is often way too close, leaving you to attack enemies that are just off screen and navigate through platforming labyrinths with little peripheral knowledge. The right stick can be used to scan around your environment a little, but the range of movement is so limited that it rarely helps you along, and it won’t stay where you try to push it. Unless you want to attempt to play this game while wildly manipulating a camera as you go, you’ll just need to get used to some blind, vexing jumps in an effort to move onward.
Most egregiously, though, the game has a really bad way of presenting its most challenging moments. Falling into a pit or other such deadly expanse knocks some precious life off of your health bar and resets you relatively close to where you died, which is tough but fair. But the game eventually puts you in situations where missing your mark sends you sailing down to the very beginning of a section, and never is Black Knight Sword more infuriating than in these moments. A stretch in the game’s third chapter that has you scaling a finicky clockwork of gears is the perfect example. Moving on the gears causes all sorts of unpredictable, stilted reactions, and the unmoving platforms between these gears are littered with enemies. One wrong move or bump from an enemy, and you’re back on the ground to start the entire segment again. During moments like these, the game feels downright awful. You can set the game to Easy to bypass some tough bosses and mitigate the visceral threats around you, but nothing can save you from the hell that is the frequently devious platforming in this game.
And yet, there’s the presentation again with a strong effort to rescue the gameplay. Akira Yamaoka is no stranger to creating immensely beautiful, dread-laced soundscapes, and he knocks it out yet again in Black Knight Sword. I mean, just listen to this! Outstanding! I’m really hoping these tunes end up for sale somewhere, because I would much rather play fifteen bucks for Black Knight Sword: The Soundtrack than Black Knight Sword: The Game.
Black Knight Sword is a textbook example of Suda 51’s proclivity to pair incredible audiovisual trappings with uneven gameplay. The dreary visual style and outstanding soundtrack do a great job of drawing you into its celebration of all things strange, but ultimately, the middling action sucks away a large amount of the fun to be had. I was always interested in what my senses would pick up next, but I often dreaded actually taking those steps forward. It’s not flat-out bad, but it is frustrating, questionably designed, and more than a little boring.