Every close knit group of childhood friends inevitably spawn their very own local legend. These stories are birthed not only by a child’s unique perspective of the world, but probably a bit too much sugar in their diet as well. For this reviewer, it was an ominous looking house that could just be seen over the treeline on my walk to school. We were convinced the house was haunted, and devoted a significant amount of time one summer to planning how we could get close enough to see the apparitions within. We would have done it, too, but there was a busy road in the way and we were forbidden from crossing it by our parents.
This dewy-eyed diversion is entirely the fault of Knights and Bikes, a co-operative action adventure game from ex-Media Molecule devs, that’ll have you nostalgically reminiscing about bombing around on bikes with your mates looking for adventure, accompanied by the distinctive clatter of spokey-dokeys.
Right from the start the development pedigree is clear, with Knights and Bikes sporting a delightful hand painted art style that at times evokes the papercraft environments in Tearaway. It successfully brings to life the fictional British island of Penfurzy, managing to make the out of season tourist destination on the one hand look like a dreary wind swept place, while still injecting enough colour and life into its world so that you can understand why the Penfurzy Rebel Bicycle Club enjoy exploring it so much.
Similarly well realised are the main club members themselves, Nessa, and Demelza. Their design and animation is so full of character you can’t help but be charmed. The way they run or ride their bikes is full of a childish glee, and when coupled with some rather excellent sound design helps give an honest dimension to their excitement.
The fledgling relationship between Nessa – a fresh arrival on late 1980s Penfurzy – and Demelza is central to the story in Knights and Bikes, as they explore the island looking for the clues that might lead them to a famous local treasure. It feels very much like a homage to The Goonies, with Demelza desperate to use the treasure to save her family's caravan park from closure. It’s a touching tale that has plenty humour, and some really emotional moments, with the girls' more innocent world view causing adult concerns to completely go over their heads, while their sense of adventure helps them spot evil forces at work that the other Penfurzy residents are oblivious to.
The close partnership between Nessa and Demelza is duplicated in the gameplay that has the pair battling evil spirits and solving puzzles on their Penfurzy spanning quest. Each has a unique move set that helps them to those ends, and while they only start with one move – Nessa can throw a Frisbee, and Demelza can kick up dirt or the water from puddles – you’ll slowly unlock more until you have a small but effective arsenal. It’s also worth noting that every ability is wonderfully appropriate for the youngsters in question and they’re also enjoyable to use – in no small part due to the previously mentioned art style and animations.
Certain abilities are more effective – and in many cases required – to beat some puzzles or enemies, and there’s an occasional need to coordinate your actions in order to come out on top. Even with some synchronisation between you and your companion it ultimately isn’t very challenging at all, and you probably won’t have much difficulty hurdling the obstacles thrown in your way.
While the story is certainly the main draw, a bit more challenge would’ve been welcome. In fact, some of the most fun moments come when the girls are actually pitted against each other. Whether recreating a historic battle using action figures or racing each other on their bikes, these competitive moments give brief but enjoyable breaks from the more co-operative aspects.
The hub area linking the various Penfurzy locales is also a little disappointing, and outside of having a large area to exercise the girls' biking abilities, you’ll find very little reason to deviate from the main story path. Sure, there are the wonderfully quirky local residents to talk to, some collectibles to find, and a few puzzles, but it doesn’t take too long to have seen most of what there is to see. Even a shop to upgrade your bikes proves a minor diversion, with any upgrades that affect gameplay unlocking as part of the story, leaving only cosmetic decorations to purchase for your bikes.
Whether you’re flush with friends or not, online and offline co-op options are available, so you can play through the story with that special person in your life. Without any online matchmaking you can’t just hook up with random people, though, and should you be struggling to find someone to fill in as your best friend, the AI in Knights and Bikes in more than capable playing the part.
In fact it’s a little too capable at times, often racing off to solve half a puzzle for you, or show you which moves are most effective against a specific enemy. While it’s certainly nice to be able to rely on the AI for once, you’ll wish they were a little less keen, giving you a bit more time to try and work out what to do for yourself.
Knights and Bikes serves as a powerful nostalgia trip that’ll take you back to your imagination fuelled childhood adventures. With pretty much every aspect tightly crafted to exude a childlike spirit, the art style, animation, soundtrack, and gameplay all help give authenticity to the story of Nessa and Demelza’s burgeoning relationship. While a touch more challenge – especially in the combat – would have been welcome, the breezy pace of the story will help captivate your attention, not only with its themes of friendship and self-discovery, but more importantly through its correct instruction in how to apply jam and cream to a scone.