You are the goodest paladin.
This charming NES-style action game was a complete surprise–my favorite kind. Like so many of its indie brethren these days, Dungeons & Doomknights is the product of a very successful Kickstarter campaign that eventually produced a physical NES cartridge and, thankfully, digital versions on the various console-specific digital shops. In it, you take the role of Atrix, a noble paladin, on a quest to rid the realm of the vicious DoomKnight. This open-world adventure pulls primarily from both NES Zelda games but confidently asserts its own identity through its unique combination of overhead and sidescrolling action. It’s also quite difficult, but rarely punitive, which I appreciated. If you long for the old school sensibilities of NES canon, Dungeons & Doomknights (D&DK) will scratch that itch.
Most of the action in D&DK takes place from an overhead perspective, though the character sprites are quite large, giving these sections of the game a distinctly GBC, rather than NES, feeling. When entering certain areas, like houses or caves, the action suddenly changes to a Zelda II-esque sidescrolling perspective. To make progress in the game, you must guide Atrix across the impressively large overworld to several distinct, color-coded regions, each with its own dungeon. The dungeons are impressively layered for an NES game but navigating some of them is confusing due to the lack of a map. There's also one particular door that I didn't realize was a door until I'd run out of places to go (PROTIP: try to enter any completely black areas).
Atrix will, rather slowly, find new abilities and weapons along the way, and some of the abilities are region-specific, like an ax that destroys “bat” blocks that only seem to appear in the graveyard area. It takes a frustratingly long time to find a projectile attack, although when you do, it very suddenly makes the entire game much easier. Atrix’s normal melee attack has all the range of Link’s wooden sword, so you have to be right next to enemies to hit them. Much of the game’s difficulty stems primarily from Atrix’s inability to take much damage before poofing out of existence, although checkpoints are mercifully frequent. Thankfully, you’ll find both additional heart tanks and skill points throughout the adventure. You use the latter to power most of your spells. Taking damage is not a concern during the unfortunately rare times where you control Atrix’s dog, Daimyo, directly. Usually, using Daimyo sends him out in a straight line, and upon hitting a wall, he’ll turn left, which leads to a few interesting puzzles where Daimyo must be used to hit switches or be directed through a tunnel. Once in a great while, though, you’ll take direct control of the little pooch, who turns out to be a murder machine, killing enemies by touching them.
While D&DK is a fun time, you have to be willing to put some work in. Like most video games from that era, there is absolutely no hand-holding. Villagers and the DoomKnight’s sultry daughter, Gravelyn, might give you some vague hint about where to go next, but you’re pretty much on your own. Aimless wandering is a feature, not a bug, in these old-school games. My bigger issue is Atrix’s meager offensive lineup, which doesn’t really “git gud” until much later in the game. I also initially enjoyed the intentionally broken English, meant to accurately depict the loosey-goosey translation errors in old NES games, but that particular charm wore off pretty quickly. I did enjoy the puns, though. More puns, less intentional grammatical errors, please.
The developer, Atrix Entertainment, does have some interesting resources on their website: a handy instruction booklet and a “strategy guide” that will tickle gamers of a certain age. Both provide a few hints ‘n’ tips, including some intriguing secrets. I appreciate that Atrix Entertainment is committing to the bit in both the game and its supplementary materials. I would love to see J. Scott Campbell or Joseph Michael Linsner take a swing at Gravelyn someday.
D&DK is a fun time if you’re of the right age and in the right mindset. It can be frustrating, but those frustrations are bizarrely part of the charm. And hey, it’s kind of fun to play a “lost” NES game that actually feels like it could’ve come out in 1989.