This beautiful and intricate game is only hindered by its high barrier of entry and slow start.
It's hard to even begin discussing Knights in the Nightmare without mentioning the obvious: this game is complicated. It’s so complicated, in fact, that there are around one hundred tutorials to read up on before actually starting the adventure. As a matter of fact, I'm certain it's the most complicated game I've ever played.
I will give fair warning: if you consider yourself a casual player, Knights in the Nightmare is definitely not for you. Even those of you who may consider yourselves more dedicated and educated gamers, Knights in the Nightmare may still not be for you. That being said, Knights in the Nightmare is an interesting and innovative title that is unlike any other game before it.
Knights in the Nightmare's story is also quite complicated. It’s told across two different periods in a forward and reverse fashion. In between each battle, players are given a glimpse of the story through the perspective of the Wisp, an entity of light that the player controls. The wisp can re-animate Knights to battle monsters that have dominated the castle. Players will also catch glimpses of the Valkyrie, whose story is also shrouded in mystery.
Though not the ideal way to describe the battle segments in the game, Knights in the Nightmare is basically a compilation of a number of genres conglomerated into a single experience. At its core, Knights in the Nightmare is a strategy RPG. Players act as a god-like character with full control of each Knight on the friendly team. Additionally, these units earn experience and can be leveled up.
The game is also partly a “bullet hell” top-down shooter. As mentioned earlier, players control the Wisp, and in a departure from most strategy RPGs, this cursor is visible in the battlefield. Commands are given by directly touching the Knights and dragging weapons and items onto them mid-battle, then directing their attacks towards enemies. Things start to get complicated when enemies begin attacking. Attacks don't hurt the Wisp's units as one might assume. Instead, the enemies fire complicated bullet patterns at the Wisp. As players control the Knights, they must also avoid enemy fire by dragging the Wisp out of the way. Whenever the Wisp is hit, the counter for the round is dropped by a certain number of seconds, giving players less time to defeat the foes.
In addition to avoiding enemy fire, players must also use the Wisp to collect gems that are dispensed after enemies are attacked. These gems allow players to use item attacks, which are the main damage dealers in the game. Players will eventually defeat the enemy or break an object on the battle field, which will uncover either a new weapon or a personal effect that players can use to recruit new Knights. Further complicating the top-down shooter aspect of the game is an Ikaruga-like element where players must attack particular enemies with certain weapons depending on whether you are currently in Chaos or Law mode.
As you may have gathered, the game occurs in real-time, twisting the genre further into something that is truly unique. Though real-time, the game does offer multiple rounds in which players must defeat enough enemies, sometimes of a certain type in order to win the battle. In between rounds, players can equip new weapons, ready items, or switch Knights in preparation for the subsequent round. Additionally, there is a roulette that players can halt to determine the next round's foes.
When all of these elements come together, the result is a frantic, action-packed experience that is an absolute blast. However, it isn't without its faults. Learning how to play the game is an ordeal. As explained earlier, the game is quite complicated and before you even start playing, there is at least an hour of tutorials to trudge through in order to have some idea of how to play the game. While players can jump right into the game, it's nearly impossible to figure out the basics without completing at least some of the tutorials. Had Sting incorporated these tutorials incrementally into the first few battles, players would be much better off. As it stands, the bombardment of tutorials at the beginning of the game is information overload. Most of the tutorial lessons are lost in the shuffle, and when players are thrown into the fire, they must figure it all out on their own anyway. As suspected, this makes for a rocky start to the game, raising that barrier of entry even higher.
Aside from starting issues, the game also lacks variety. Similar to many strategy RPGs, there are no distractions from the game's battles other than the story. Players will jump from battle to battle, with little changing over time. There is much to do, all of it available from the start, so as you play further into the game, there is nothing new to look forward to or expect other than developments in the story line. Of course, that too is confusing and complicated, and it takes a number of episodes before making any sense.
These problems are unfortunate given all of the other successes of the game. Both the art style and graphical presentation are top-notch, marking one of the most visually impressive experiences seen on the DS thus far. This standard of quality is carried into the aural arena as well. The music is engaging and impressive, and the sound effects are high fidelity and fitting.
Knights in the Nightmare, while complicated, is an excellent game worthy of players' time and effort. Though the game starts slowly due to excessive tutorials not integrated into the play experience, when players learn the breadth of controls, they will find an engaging, genre-bending combat system, beautiful art, and music that stands apart from anything done on the DS before.