If German literature has taught us anything, it’s that selling your soul to the devil never turns out well (unless of course you are the devil, in which case you probably have more important things to do than read this review, slacker). On the other hand, demonic bargains do make for compelling narratives, and Knights Contract is no exception, spinning the tale of another power-hungry idiot who figures maybe Satan’s not such a bad accomplice.
Unlike the vast majority of “deal with the devil” stories, Knights Contract’s protagonist is not the one entering into the infernal compact. Players assume the role of Heinrich, an executioner turned avenging knight who is cursed to walk the earth for eternity after beheading an innocent witch. The witch in question, a sexy blonde do-gooder by the name of Gretchen, concocts an elaborate scheme to cheat death by way of alchemy. She hooks up with our gravel-voiced knight and promises to end his century-old curse if he’ll do her a solid and see her to the top of a mountain (wading all the while through hordes of demonic homunculi and other nasty beasties). Gretchen’s come back to put an end to the schemes of the appropriately named Dr. Faust, who’s traded in his morality for a shot at eternal youth, just the sort of thing Heinrich is desperately trying to avoid. Oh, the irony.
Though initially the story is borderline fascinating, presenting a complicated anti-hero more interested in ending his curse than redeeming himself, it eventually fades into the role that story serves in most brawlers: a convenient excuse to bash things until they geyser blood.
As in any good brawler, the bashing is the best part, though it will probably seem overly familiar to anyone who’s played a combo-heavy action game in the post-God of War era. You’ll pummel enemies with light and heavy attacks delivered at the end of Heinrich’s mighty scythe, and you’ll occasionally send your foes back to Hell with a variety of gruesome finishers. The controls are tight and responsive, though mastering combos doesn’t yield much more benefit than randomly mashing away.
The more demonic freaks you evaporate into bloody chunks, the more soul power you earn to upgrade Gretchen’s witchcraft, the game’s spell/special attack mechanic. You can equip four of them at any time and unleash them at will (they work on a cool down timer), as long as you’re within range of your lady friend and she’s not too terribly busy being murdered. Though the effects are impressive, unleashing witchcraft often fills the screen with so much magic and gore that it becomes difficult to follow the action. This is especially problematic against the game’s giant bosses (mainly other witches who were once Gretchen’s allies), who also litter the battlefield with explosions and chaos.
The presentation in general feels a bit muddy. Though the graphics are competent, they aren’t likely to blow too many minds. The sound design is underwhelming, and the voice acting ranges from barely believable to hilariously awful. While the level designs vary nicely and provide a measure of spectacle, none of them are extraordinary or immersive enough to truly stand out.
The game is also saddled with an unfortunate handful of other flaws - uneven difficulty amongst them. Playing on normal is rarely challenging except for a handful of encounters and boss battles that will drive you mad with controller-shattering frustration. There’s also the matter of the entire game being essentially an escort quest, where immortal Heinrich is constantly responsible for fragile Gretchen. Feminist diatribe aside, the AI is usually capable, though it has occasional difficulty keeping up. This is aggravated by the fact that whenever Gretchen falls more than a few steps behind the entire screen fades to purple and she starts whining inconsolably. Also, when Heinrich goes down in boss battles, as he inevitably will, you’re forced to hammer the recovery button while you watch the monster in question slowly torture Gretchen to death because she REFUSES TO MOVE.
Knights Contract does very few new things, but it does a handful of old things quite well. The combat, for the most part, is satisfying and visceral, and the story, at times, is genuinely compelling. A mostly entertaining experience, it’s marred by some terrible flaws and a handful of moments of unadulterated rage; much, we’d expect, like actually selling one’s soul.
Feb 22, 2011