Black Knight Sword is a hard game to describe. Its gameplay is nothing new – it’s essentially a side scrolling action game mixed with a lot of platforming. But in motion, the title paints a completely different picture – this is the stuff of nightmares.
Saying Black Knight Sword is creepy is an understatement. Its house style is frighteningly sinister and its audio is enough to send a chill down your spine. This isn’t because the game is trying to be scary – it just manages to capture the essence of a really menacing dream. Think Terry Gilliam’s illustrations and animations if they were placed inside the mind of Tim Burton, and then imagine Suda 51 – the Japanese developer behind such insanity as Shadows of the Damned and Lollipop Chainsaw – finding a way to make the whole thing violent and unwelcoming. That’s Black Knight Sword.
As it turns out, Black Knight Sword’s style is what sets it apart and makes it unique. The entire game takes place on a stage, in front of a crowd and behind red curtains which open and close as each level starts and ends. Backdrops continuously shift as you progress from one area to the next, and the set design has a very LittleBigPlanet feel to it, primarily because so much of it appears to be made out of cardboard.
The colour palette is broad – most of it is suitably dark, but it also features bright splashes of colour here and there. Neon signs are quite frequent, and there’s a distinct feel to each level. The Black Knight himself is well designed, too. In fact, his design appears relatively Japanese in comparison to the rest of the game, as he dashes from one area to the next dragging a rather large sword behind him
However, it’s the enemy designs that are most memorable. You’ll be fighting endless amounts of strange, potato-faced heads with legs, grotesque mutants clad in armour, menacingly vicious packs of wolves, and even giant chickens. Strangely, no matter which enemy you skewer, they all bleed the same excessive amount of blood. It’s a gory touch to a game that can often look like a pop-up story book, but it’s an effect that reinforces the game’s sinister atmosphere.
Thankfully, Black Knight Sword’s engrossing style proves to be just enough to keep the somewhat standard gameplay afloat. As previously mentioned, most of the game is spent jumping from platform to platform and stabbing anything that gets in your way. The combat is what you’d expect from a side scroller, and it isn’t too dissimilar to the Castlevania franchise’s 2D instalments. Hitting Square makes the Black Knight thrust his sword in whichever direction you’re facing at the time. Despite being simple strikes, the attacks have a deceptively long range – and it’s a good thing that they do. Black Knight Sword can be frustratingly difficult at times, with a couple of levels in particular being unforgivably brutal. The easy difficulty tier can relieve some of the pressure, but you'll still find yourself facing numerous restart screens.
The Black Knight can also learn more advanced attacks as the story progresses, which spice up the action a little bit. However, the majority of these advanced attacks have difficult button inputs, and since life or death so often depends on reaction times, these moves are forgotten all too quickly. The inputs aren’t anywhere near as technical as something you’d find in the likes of Tekken, but they seem out of place in a genre which is usually straight forward and fast paced.
Outside of advanced attacks, the controls are smooth and simple. The Black Knight can hit a brisk pace when running, and jumping is quick and precise – although the game’s jerky camera can sometimes make leaps trickier than they need to be. The constant presence of the stage curtains bordering the edges of the screen also get in the way at times, and it’s annoying when an enemy appears from behind them completely unannounced.
Unsurprisingly, avoiding damage is crucial to success. It’s possible to upgrade the Black Knight’s health through selling collected hearts to a merchant made of eyeballs, or purchase additional temporary armour, but you’ll still end up dying frequently if your jumps and dodges aren’t timed well. Evading, like the advanced attacks, is over complex and can lead to some frustrating encounters. The Black Knight rolls away from danger by crouching and pressing X, but only in the opposite direction he’s facing, which means rolling straight into the enemies you’re trying to avoid becomes common practice.
The game is also home to a variety of bosses, ranging from those with simple, exploitable attack patterns to those who will make you grind your teeth in anger. Thankfully, none of the bosses are particularly cheap, and dying at their hands is usually because of a clumsy mistake on your behalf, or because of the faulty evade mechanic. Either way, taking down these monstrous foes is hugely rewarding.
Whether you’re fighting bosses or hopping across treacherous platforms, Black Knight Sword sustains a tense and pressured atmosphere partly due to an insane soundtrack. Much of it sounds out of tune upon first listen, but it slowly begins to piece itself together. There’s some genuinely eerie music to be found here, and it all goes hand in hand with the game’s style, creating one of the most unique experiences of the year.
There’s a plot buried somewhere beneath Black Knight Sword’s visuals, but it doesn’t really cement itself at any given point. The narrator has a harrowingly grim voice, though, and he alone gives the story an illusion of depth.
Black Knight Sword is a memorable game – but not because of its gameplay. Its art style and incredibly creepy atmosphere elevate it above mediocrity, even though its difficulty and awkward controls are certain to frustrate. Overcoming the title's trials and tribulations makes for a satisfying experience, but don't expect your dreams to ever be the same again.