Only a few months out from the release of Enslaved, a title that took the ever-frustrating escort mission and turned it into a hugely engaging and beautifully produced adventure, it’s difficult to look at lesser attempts at the tag-along genre fairly. Enter Knights Contract, an action-adventure title that does seemingly little to elevate itself beyond a second-tier hack-and-slash, despite a handful of reasonably interesting concepts. It’s later in the game’s development, and things could still change, but we had a chance to go hands-on with a fairly complete build of the game and found ourselves generally underwhelmed.
You play as Heinrich, a former witch hunter under the employ of the corrupt Dr. Faust, who was cursed with immortality by the subsequently slain sorceress Gretchen. However, after years of roaming the land, unable to die despite your longing for death, you encounter the resurrected form of the witch who cursed you and embark on a reluctant adventure to aid her in destroying the blight of Dr. Faust and regain your mortality.
It’s the necessary set-up for a game like this: you play as the brutish, hard-to-kill protagonist who must protect a vulnerable, albeit capable, companion who happens to hold the key to whatever you require. Where Enslaved succeeded was in building a believable, emotional relationship between the two characters – a reluctant friendship that developed over time and continually engaged the player. Knights Contract, however, is far less concerned with character or narrative than with creating a straightforward, beat-‘em-up experience.
VIDEOS: Knights Contract Trailers
In itself, this wouldn’t be such a problem if the core mechanics of the game weren’t so obviously lacking. Knights Contract isn’t a particularly good looking game, although it does sport some especially unique monster design with regard to the boss encounters. And the combination of Heinrich’s might and Gretchen’s magic is functional if not exactly inspired. You’ll wield your hefty blade against the undead and demonic hordes, encountering larger, more imposing enemies that require the liberal use of Gretchen’s magic, which you command by holding down the right trigger and selecting one of four available spells. Both your weapon and the spells can be upgraded as you collect the souls of your vanquished foes – such a tiresome and familiar system by now – and undergo a cool-down period so that you can’t spam them relentlessly. Entirely new spells can be gained by discovering bracelets, usually earned at the end of levels as a performance reward.
While the combat is decidedly routine – dodge, heavy attack, light attack – the spell-design is admittedly inspired. A kind of spiritual bear-trap holds enemies in place as Heinrich wails away with his sword; a tangle of ethereal thorns shreds the undead corpses into ribbons. And each spell, if cast against a near-death enemy, comes with a satisfyingly gory quick-kill if you can time a button press just right. And to the game’s credit, you’ll have to master both the combat and the magic to survive, switching between both modes with a fair amount of strategy. You won’t die – in fact, you can’t – but the criteria for mission failure is ultimately letting Gretchen perish while the enemies rush to kill her. You can, however, be hacked to bits and forded to bash the “A” button repeatedly to reconstitute yourself and rejoin the fight.
PHOTOS: 47 Knights Contract Images
Sadly, there’s a very start/stop quality to the game as you progress a few feet into an enemy arena, battle, defeat, push forward a bit, repeat…The environments don’t flow seamlessly into one another and it felt as if we were stopping far too often for a cut-scene or some unnecessary animation.
That said, measured on a level of mindless button-mashing, the game promises at the very least to keep you staring at your television set and kicking-ass until something better comes along. It’s difficult to say if or how the end result will tighten up the overall experience, but for the moment, Knights Contract is on the road to being a solid action title, but not yet at its final destination.